Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad.” Emily Schneider is a research associate at New America.
Peter Bergen: Search for Hayat Boumedienne highlights issue of female jihadists
European women have also played an operational role in jihadist terrorism, he says
With so many hundreds of French Islamist fighters traveling to the Middle East, hopefully, these kinds of measures will help to counter the kind of violence that took place in Paris over the course of this week.
Boumeddiene is believed to have left France for Turkey around January 2 with the final destination of Syria, according to French and Turkish sources.
Regardless, photographs of Boumeddiene published by Le Monde show her shooting what appears to be a crossbow in an all-enveloping black niqab. At first glance, this might appear puzzling. After all, jihadist militant organizations support Taliban-style rule, which allows women only a role at home.
However, we have seen a number of women from the West, including American citizens, taking an operational role in jihadist terrorist plots, including Colleen LaRose, a Caucasian-American 46-year-old from Pennsylvania, known as “Jihad Jane,” who traveled to Europe in 2009 to scope out an attack on Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who had drawn a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed’s head on the body of a dog.
European women have also played an operational role in jihadist terrorism. Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian woman, died when she committed a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2005. And on May 14, 2010, Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old British woman, stabbed Stephen Timms, her local member of Parliament, for his vote in support of the Iraq War. Timms survived the attack.
And there is also 31-year-old British citizen Samantha Lewthwaite, who is, according to Interpol, “wanted by Kenya on charges of being in possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony dating back to December 2011.” The Kenyans believe she was part of a terrorist cell that was planning to carry out an attack in Kenya. Lewthwaite is the widow of one of the suicide attackers who set off bombs on London’s transportation system on July 7, 2005, killing 52 commuters.
All this underscores that the phenomenon of females joining the jihad has become far more common in the past four years, fueled by the Syrian war, which is drawing an unprecedented number of foreign militants from around the globe, including from the West.
According to data collected by New America, based on media reports and court documents, of the 455 individuals who have been publicly identified from around the world who have traveled or were arrested while attempting to travel to Syria to fight with a terrorist organization, 36 were women from the West. That’s 8%. And their average age is, astonishingly, only 18 years.
They hail from countries from around the West: Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain and the United States. And in many cases, these Western women are often going to Syria with the fantasy that there they will be able to marry the jihadist militant of their dreams.
Several of these aspiring jihadist brides are Americans. In October, three teenage girls from Colorado were intercepted at Frankfurt Airport in Germany as they were trying to make their way to Syria to join ISIS. Their parents tipped off the FBI when they went missing.
Another Colorado resident, 19-year-old Shannon Maureen Conley, was arrested at Denver International Airport before she departed on her journey to join an ISIS camp near the Turkish-Syrian border. She planned to marry a member of ISIS whom she had met online. She pleaded guilty in September.
Another girl, the 17-year-old sister of Chicago-based Mohammed Hamzah Khan, was allegedly planning to travel with her brother to Turkey and from there to join ISIS. She and her brother were arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in October. Khan faces up to 15 years in prison for trying to provide “material support” in the shape of his own services to ISIS, while his sister, who is not being named by the government, is a minor and likely won’t be charged.
Finally, there’s Nicole Mansfield, a Michigan resident who left her 18-year-old daughter behind to join rebel forces in Syria. She died in May 2013 fighting, reportedly, with one of the many jihadist militant groups fighting there.
It’s a strange kind of jihadist female equal opportunity: You too can be part of the holy war that seeks to install a Taliban-style utopia that will ensure you can never have a job or get an education.