Whether out of desperation or by design, the so-called Islamic State has turned to women and children to try to carry out a new wave of attacks in France, and possibly elsewhere.
The first disturbing hint of the conspiracy came Sunday a week ago, when a car was found abandoned early in the morning near Notre Dame Cathedral, a prime tourist destination at the historical and religious heart of Paris. In the trunk were five large canisters of cooking gas, and three bottles of diesel fuel.
From the beginning, it looked like the kind of low-grade soft-target terror plot that the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate has made a key part of its strategy to demoralize the West, and especially France.
But there was this critical difference: Investigators found that almost all the alleged conspirators were women, and that a male French jihadist known as Rachid Kassim had run them “by remote control” from his base in ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria.
“In the last few days and hours, a terrorist cell was dismantled, composed of young women totally receptive to the deadly Daesh ideology,” Paris prosecutor François Molins told the press on Friday, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“The terrorist organization uses not only women, but young women, who get to know each other and develop their plot from a distance,” said Molins.
Fortunately, they proved to be inept bombers. They tried to light a fuel-soaked rag with a half-smoked cigarette, hoping the flame would catch and detonate the gas canisters. It didn’t.
But as police tracked them down in the days that followed, some proved to be ferocious.
The alleged central figure in the cell has been identified in the French press as 19-year-old Inès Madani, who had taken her father’s car to use as an IED near Notre Dame. When police went to arrest her and her alleged accomplices in the town of Boussy-Saint-Antoine on Thursday night, one reportedly stabbed a cop in the stomach. Madani was was shot and wounded in the thigh and ankle.
She and the others were planning to attack Paris train stations, possibly as suicide bombers, according to investigators.
To date, five women have been detained. On Saturday a 15-year-old boy was picked up as well. He reportedly had been in touch with Kassim and was about to carry out a knife attack, according to police.
As details continue to emerge, it appears there are close links among some of the women and men who previously carried out terrorist acts in France.
One of those arrested, according to Molins, had been engaged to two murderers:
One fiancé was Larossi Abballa, who stabbed to death two police officials in June in front of their 3-year-old son, and bragged about the carnage on Facebook Live before more cops appeared on the scene and killed him.
The other fiancé was Adel Kermiche, one of the fanatics who cut the throat of an aged priest in Normandy in July. (The woman’s current fiancé, who also has jihadist connections, was arrested on Thursday.)
According to an article published by the French news magazine L’Express in August, the 29-year-old French Svengali of ISIS, Rachid Kassim, had been using encrypted communications on the Telegram app to direct the deadly knife attacks carried out by Abballa, Kermiche, and Kermiche’s accomplice Abdel Malik Petitjean.
Kassim, according to press reports, had also directed the women terrorists by telegram to use gas canisters and diesel in their makeshift car bomb.
This is a significant shift for ISIS.
In many cases, women extremists are thought to have encouraged or incited their spouses to seek “martyrdom,” and several Islamist terror organizations have used women to stage attacks in the past. The “black widows” of Chechnya were infamous during the wars there; women suicide bombers were active in Lebanon from the mid-1980s; and several Palestinian women bombers attacked Israelis in the last decade. ISIS affiliate Boko Haram in Nigeria uses women, and even little girls, in suicide attacks.
But ISIS in Syria and Iraq, even though it has mounted a concerted campaign to recruit women, always made it clear their role would be to serve the male jihadis as wives and mothers.
Now, they’re nothing but more fodder for its war.