Cornered and under fire in Saint-Denis apartment on Wednesday, a defiant 26-year-old Hasna Ait Boulahcen screamed back at French police before detonating a suicide vest.
A relative of one of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, Boulahcen’s presence at the time of the police raid has raised questions about her role in the massacre, and the role of women as potential ISIS front line fighters.
In recent months, horrific stories have emerged of the sexual slavery of women and girls by ISIS, some of whom have been bought and sold at slave markets. Could the blast detonated by Boulahcen be a sign that women’s role with ISIS ranks is changing?
“It’s certainly ISIS’ first female suicide bomber,” said Mia Bloom, author of “Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists.”
“Up until now ISIS has been very clear. The role for women is cooking, cleaning and childcare. They do not have women on the front lines,” she said.
Passive agents or frontline jihadis?
A January report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ICSR) said ISIS has been appealing more to women and girls in its propaganda.
“ISIS has increased its female-focused efforts, writing manifestos directly for women, directing sections of its online magazine publications Dabiq to the ‘sisters of the Islamic State’ and allowing women to have a voice within their recruitment strategy — albeit via social media,” the report said.
ISIS sees women as crucial in growing the population of jihadi loyalists, the report said, so that the Islamic State survives and expands beyond this generation.
In many cases, women are also seen as “safe” recruits, especially if they’re related to a male fighter, Bloom said.
“It’s a fantastic vetting mechanism for the terrorist organizations. They are always worried about being infiltrated and so if someone is related to an existing member they feel that they’re most trustworthy. So this is something we see — it’s all in the family,” she said.
Is the blast a game-changer?
Bloom said it’s unclear if the Boulahcen’s death by suicide-blast in Paris will impact ISIS’ use of women in their push to establish an Islamic State.
“Whether it’s a game-changer is really going to depend on what is the reaction — are the ISIS fanboys and the rank and file going to celebrate this woman? Or are they going to say, ‘We really don’t approve. We prefer our women at home, under the veil, cooking, cleaning and giving birth to little mujahideen’?”
Nikita Malik, a senior researcher at the Quilliam Think Tank, told Christiane Amanpour she believes the detonation of Wednesday’s suicide bomb by a woman is more of an exception than the norm.
“It was done more of a defense mechanism rather than as an act of violence. Islamic State has said in its propaganda many times women are to remain in the home and really their participation in jihad is more nurturing role as a mother and a wife,” she said.
Military analyst, Lt. General Mark Hertling told CNN that he’s observed that female suicide bombers in other terrorist organizations often are acting out of last resort, as they have no status in those societies if their husband dies.
“The spiritual advisers in some of these terrorist groups say, ‘Why not take the easy way out and go to heaven and take a few infidels with you? In many of these cases it is an action of last resort for some of these young women.”
More women joining the caliphate
Regardless of their exact role within the group, the threat of western women of becoming radicalized is looming large.
Malik said countering the increasing number of women going to Syria to join ISIS requires not just debunking the romantic myths of finding a strong fighter husband but theological ideas too.
“I know it sounds like a contradiction, because once they get there their lives are limited but somehow they think this is divinely mandated. A response to it would have to deal with the theological inaccuracies in some of the propaganda they’ve revealed as well.”