European Women Join Ranks of Jihadis

Authorities confront an unsettling new trend: militants' wives who are suspected of plotting suicide attacks, with their mates or alone.

By Sebastian Rotella

Los Angeles Times

January 10, 2006

AMSTERDAM — The women of the Dutch extremist network were a new breed of holy warriors on the front lines where Islam and the West collide.

In the male-dominated world of Islamic extremism, they saw themselves as full-fledged partners in jihad. Wives watched videos about female suicide bombers, posed for photos holding guns and fired automatic weapons during clandestine target practice.

The militants swore publicly that one of them would kill Dutch legislator Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken feminist. Last summer, police captured a 23-year-old leader of the group and his wife at a subway station here as they were allegedly on their way to assassinate the legislator.

The story of the Dutch network, 14 members of which are now on trial, reveals the increasing aggressiveness and prominence of female extremists in Europe. In a chilling trend in the Netherlands and Belgium, police are investigating militants' wives suspected of plotting suicide attacks with their husbands, or on their own.

"I think it's a very dangerous trend," said Ali, the lawmaker targeted for assassination. "Women all over the world are seen as vulnerable, as less violent. And that can make anti-terror authorities less vigilant when it comes to women."

In November, a Belgian named Muriel Degauque rammed an explosives-filled vehicle into a U.S. convoy in Iraq, becoming the first Western female convert to Islam to carry out a suicide bombing for the networks affiliated with Al Qaeda. U.S. commandos killed her husband a day later as he was reportedly preparing a suicide attack wearing an explosives vest near Fallouja, Iraq.

Dismantling the network in Belgium that sent them to their deaths, police arrested another couple allegedly preparing to go to Iraq to become "martyrs." The Belgian case has links to the youthful Dutch group, a unique mix of extremist ferocity and modern European attitudes.

"They are clever girls," said Digna van Boetzelaer, a chief anti-terrorism prosecutor here. "The girls were all born here, raised here, went to school here. So maybe some of that Dutch mentality came in through their pores."

For years, women have committed suicide attacks in places such as Chechnya and the Palestinian territories. At least one female suicide bomber had struck in Iraq before Degauque, and in November a would-be female suicide bomber was implicated in Iraqi operatives' bombing of three hotels in the Jordanian capital.

But Europe's Al Qaeda-aligned networks have been shaped by fundamentalism and strict separation of the sexes.

Mohamed Atta, the lead Sept. 11 hijacker, was a classically misogynistic example.

Malika Aroud, a Belgian, was an early exception to the rule.

When her husband traveled to an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, Aroud joined him. Two days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, her husband carried out the suicide bombing that killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, an anti-Taliban guerrilla leader.

Acquitted in the plot against Massoud, Aroud moved to Switzerland, where she has been charged with operating a website that incited terrorism. Newer female recruits include daughters of immigrant families who rediscover their Muslim roots as well as native Europeans such as Degauque. They are gaining more acceptance because of a perception among male leaders that all Muslims must defend the faith against attack, analysts say.

Western investigators are somewhat relieved that Degauque wasn't used for a more audacious attack in the West.

"It would have been valuable operationally to have a Belgian blond" for plots in Europe, said a senior French anti-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But I wonder if these networks are more erratic, more dispersed than that, leaving a lot to spontaneous individual initiative. Also, the Iraqi insurgency needs cannon fodder for suicide attacks."

Another case raised fears closer to home. In November, Moroccan police arrested Belgian-born Mohammed Reha, allegedly a top operative with myriad international connections.

Reha told interrogators that he had met in Brussels with the wife of an extremist on trial in Belgium, investigators say. During the meeting at a train station last summer, the woman reportedly told Reha that she and other wives of imprisoned extremists were ready to become suicide bombers in Europe. She asked for help to get training and explosives, according to his account, which was first reported by Agence France-Presse news service.

Belgian police questioned the woman, who has not been arrested or publicly identified. She denied Reha's account, an investigator said.

Police, however, have confirmed that Reha met with a top suspect in the Dutch network, Samir Azzouz, who was allegedly planning an attack in the Netherlands. Belgian and Dutch authorities are investigating his claim that he offered to provide him with the aspiring female bombers from Belgium.

"It's very interesting to us," said Van Boetzelaer, the prosecutor. "Supposedly Azzouz says, 'I want to do an attack, do you have somebody for me?' Then Reha volunteers the 'sisters.' That's the version we have. But we have a lot to do to confirm this."

Azzouz, 19, was a central figure in the Dutch network whose members, mostly in their teens or 20s, were raised in a society proud of its progressive attitudes about equality of the sexes. That, investigators believe, helps explain the ferocity of half a dozen female militants in the group.

"Western Muslims, whether they like it or not, have grown up with the idea of women being equal," lawmaker Ali said. "So in some ways that may still affect the women in the networks, especially the converts."

Azzouz's wife, Abida, 25, came to Islam through her mother, a Dutch convert. His defense lawyer has alleged that Abida was the driving force behind Azzouz's radicalism, but authorities say they do not have enough evidence to charge her.

Azzouz, who was arrested in October, is considered a top figure in the Dutch network, along with Nourredine Fatmi, a diminutive, Moroccan-born militant with a reputation as a hot-headed charmer.

Fatmi "married" a 16-year-old girl in a secret and unofficial ceremony presided over by another militant, Mohammed Bouyeri. The newlyweds spent the wedding night watching videos of suicide bombers, according to testimony.

"Once, when she was with Fatmi in a car, he said to her that she had to die as a martyr," said Wim de Bruin, a spokesman for Dutch prosecutors. "He talked about filling a car with explosives and driving it into a shopping center. He said they would do it together."

In November 2004, Bouyeri assassinated filmmaker Theo van Gogh. After his arrest, police rounded up Bouyeri's associates for allegedly plotting follow-up attacks.

Fatmi left his "wife" and went underground. Last spring he met and quickly "married" another woman, Soumaya Sahla, a 21-year-old nursing student and ardent fundamentalist. They floated among hide-outs in the Netherlands and Belgium. He took her to Morocco to meet his parents; he also took her to a forest outside Amsterdam to practice shooting with an Agram 2000 machine gun, according to testimony.

Sahla allegedly gathered intelligence on potential targets. In a wiretapped phone call June 20, she tried to persuade her sister, an employee of a pharmacy frequented by politicians, to give her the home address of legislator Ali, whose crusade against fundamentalism has made her a target.

During the couple's final days on the run, they hid at the home of Martine van der Oeven, an accused accomplice in The Hague. She drove them to Amsterdam on June 22.

Fatmi has admitted that he was on his way to assassinate Ali, according to recent testimony. Police swarmed the couple on the platform of a subway station. The officers overpowered them as Fatmi reached into his backpack for the Agram machine gun and Sahla shouted, "Allah is great!"

Sahla is now serving a prison sentence for weapons possession. Fatmi is on trial.

Minutes after they were captured, police outside the station arrested Van der Oeven, the driver. Her profile sums up the worst fears of investigators. She is a convert with cherubic Dutch looks.

Her former profession: policewoman.