Rise of the 'revolutionary womb': Behind the sinister cult of female extremists recruiting British jihadis

Mina Dich, left, and her daughters Safaa (centre) and Rizlaine Boular 
Mina Dich, left, and her daughters Safaa (centre) and Rizlaine Boular 

A year ago this week, Britain was in shock and mourning, in the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack, which left eight dead and 48 injured when three men drove into pedestrians and stabbed people in Borough Market.

Twelve months later, one of Britain’s youngest female terror plotters has just been found guilty of planning another attack on the capital, with the first all-female Islamic State cell including her sister and mother.

Safaa Boular, 18, prepared an assault on the British Museum using guns and grenades, after she was stopped from joining her husband - a member of Isil - in Syria. When she was arrested for attempting to travel to the war zone, her sister took over and plotted a knife attack on Westminster.

Counter-terrorism officers have, said the case demonstrated a worrying rise in youngsters being arrested for terrorism - and questioned whether we might see a rise in women-led terrorist plots.

"Arrests of youngsters have increased over the last 12 months and clearly that is a concern for us,” said Counter-terrorism chief Dean Haydon.

In my role as an expert on women and terrorist plots, I have come to the conclusion that women in the global jihad are the ultimate transgressive figures - a deviant among deviants, violating both the norms of patriarchal jihadi culture and Western expectations of women.

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While there are few women on the frontlines in Iraq or Syria (perhaps 50 or so in the al Khansa brigade that patrolled the streets of Raqqa) they play a significant role in jihadi recruitment. Women’s participation in violent extremism has been less on the ground and more online, as they disseminate radical ideologies and act as recruiters, fund-raisers, and propagandists.

They try to lure British women to join the Islamic State as jihadi brides. Terrorist organisations are constantly seeking to foster the ‘revolutionary womb’. They want to recruit jihadi brides to mother ‘cubs of the caliphate’ - children sent to training camps to learn how to be the next generation of Isil fighters.

Men don’t escape their tactics either, as these online operators shame them into enlisting by demanding that they step-up and protect their sisters in Islam. Failure to do so, they suggest, leaves women open to being taken sexual advantage of - particularly by male non-believers.

There are, however, some women on the front line. Debate continues as to how far Isil has gone in allowing women to commit jihad, but certainly its affiliates in Libya and Nigeria (Boko Haram) have enthusiastically weaponised women of all ages, from very young girls of seven to older grandmothers.

Boular was wooed online by Coventry-born Isil fighter Naweed Hussain, 32, who she ‘married’ in an online ceremony and plotted a his-and-hers suicide mission with, to achieve martyrdom together.

Safaa Boular (left) was convicted at the Old Bailey in London where she denied two charges of preparing acts of terrorism Credit: Elizabeth Cook /PA

In past years, Al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East, Caucasus, and South Asia used women as human bombs. Indeed, by 2005 a new generation of jihadi leaders looked to women to ensure the survival of the organisation and devised religious justifications to permit women to participate in terrorist activities.

While Isil currently appears to be waffling over women’s participation, their supporters grow anxious on the encrypted platforms that Isil uses for recruitment and propaganda. In the virtual world, female jihadis can (and do) engage in radicalisation without admitting their gender or using their real names. They can assume a masculine voice if they choose.

However, in the past year, many Isil chat rooms have become segregated and gender restrictive - forbidding women from participating. These men’s only groups exclude women for a variety of reasons, often because they contain graphic images of violence or pornography.

In reaction, a host of ‘sisters only’ groups have emerged that seek a more proactive role in waging global jihad (although women in these chat rooms are equally as likely to seek marriage advice, as disseminate bomb-making instructions).

There has now emerged a seeming disconnect between how radicalised women think they might contribute to the jihad and how Isil is actually prepared to engage them.

Naweed Hussain Credit: Metropolitan Police 

Journalist Jaime Dettmer diagnosed their mental condition accurately when he wrote about the women of Isil’s “morbid obsession” with martyrdom.

“Allahu Akbar, there’s no way to describe the feeling of sitting with the Akhawat [sisters] waiting on news of whose husband has attained Shahadah [martyrdom],” wrote Umm Layth (real name Aqsa Mahmood, the 21-year-old who travelled from her home in Glasgow in 2013 to marry an Isil fighter and became known for spreading propaganda online).

Yet it remains a persistent source of discontent among some British jihadi brides, who have lamented on social media that they sought martyrdom but - having travelled to Syria or Iraq - were then not allowed to follow in the footsteps of their husbands or brothers.

Over the course of my research inside Isil’s social media and encrypted platforms - in conversations between recruiters and would-be supporters - Isil concedes that travel for new recruits to the region has become too difficult. Instead of encouraging them to join the group in Raqqa, they advocate instead that supporters conduct attacks locally. To accomplish this task, the encrypted communications online disseminate manuals, six minute video clips how to build a bomb, and blue prints for how to make a bomb, ram a truck into a crowd of civilians, or stab someone to cause maximum damage. This advice is given to both men and women.

But while Isil leaders dither over more activist roles for women, their supporters in the West - like Boular and her family - appear to be taking up the call, regardless of whether it has been “sanctioned” or not. We will likely see more arrests and more plots. As Isil loses ground in Syria and Iraq, it has seemingly gained ground in the darkest corners of the internet, where channels and chat rooms increasingly draws in Western women.