From bikini-clad beachgoer to veiled jihadist fugitive, the partner of Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly underwent a startling metamorphosis that illuminates the dangerous potential behind militant groups’ efforts to increase their recruiting of female terrorists.
Although French police initially questioned Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, five years ago, they acknowledge that she was subsequently able to make hundreds of phone calls and arrange meetings for Coulibaly through the wives of fellow assailants. She is then believed to have fled to Turkey just before the rash of killings in Paris this month, and is believed to have crossed into Syria.
“Hayat’s case is just the latest example of how governments overlook and understate women’s involvement in terrorist groups,” said Jayne Huckerby, an associate professor at Duke University law school who studies the groups and advises governments in counter-terrorism strategies.
Female terrorists have a long history of exploiting gender stereotypes to avoid detection, and though counter-terrorism measures have become more effective, experts said the Paris attacks show that more needs to be done to curb the growing number of women like Boumeddiene joining militants in Syria.
Women account for about 10% of those joining Islamic State from Europe and about 20% of those joining from France, Huckerby said.
“What’s very striking is that she’s not an exception; she’s an example of a trend,” Huckerby said of Boumeddiene. “There tends to be an assumption with women that they’re doing it under influence, they’re being forced or tricked. But I think there’s a more complicated story here, feelings of alienation.”
A childhood friend of Boumeddiene, speaking on condition of anonymity to the newspaper Le Parisien, described her as “impulsive,” emotionally fragile, childlike, quick to cry, with little self-confidence, prone to sending religious text messages and venting about her growing sense of alienation as a Muslim.
Like Cherif and Said Kouachi, the brothers who carried out the attack against the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, Boumeddiene spent formative years as a ward of the state. One of seven children born in Paris to Algerian parents, she was placed in foster care at 12 after her mother died and her father remarried.
Expelled from foster homes for assaulting social workers, she moved in with a friend in the suburbs, the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche reported, but failed to finish high school.
She met Coulibaly in 2007, soon after he finished serving time for armed robbery at Fleury-Merogis Prison, a breeding ground for extremists, where he converted to Islam and met Cherif Kouachi.
Police monitoring Coulibaly may have assumed that Boumeddiene would have a “taming effect” on him, but more often such couples do the opposite, radicalizing each other, said Erin Marie Saltman, an expert on the role of women in extremism at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
The couple did not initially act like extremists, vacationing in Malaysia and the Dominican Republic, where Boumeddiene wore a bikini and posed for photos in the arms of her shirtless boyfriend.
They married in 2009 in a religious ceremony not recognized by the French government, French police union spokesman Christophe Crepin said. Boumeddiene worked as a cashier at a butcher shop but was fired when she started wearing a veil, according to Le Journal du Dimanche.
She and Coulibaly began visiting a Muslim extremist in central France, according to Le Parisien. While there in 2010, she posed for photos that were a far cry from her glamour shots on the beach. Wearing a veil, she aimed a crossbow at the camera in a menacing pose.
When counter-terrorism investigators brought her in for questioning later that year, Boumeddiene spoke of “innocents killed by the Americans,” but insisted that Coulibaly was not a fanatic, telling police, “Amedy isn’t really very religious. He likes having fun,” according to the French newspaper Le Monde.
Crepin said investigators didn’t have enough to charge or monitor Boumeddiene, since she denied having knowledge of criminal activity.
“Until we had proof to the contrary, we had to accept that she felt that way,” he said.
Three years later, Coulibaly was convicted of aiding a terrorist’s foiled prison break and sentenced to five years in prison. No charges were filed against Boumeddiene, who became friends with Cherif Kouachi’s wife, trading more than 500 cellphone calls with her last year, said Crepin.
“They used the women, it’s clear,” Crepin said of the attackers.
At the same time, he said, it’s hard to believe that Kouachi’s wife and Boumeddiene were unaware of the men’s plans.
“When there’s 500 calls going back and forth, they clearly had an idea of what was going on,” Crepin said. “We were dealing with people who knew they were being watched and knew how to avoid it. The women were not ignorant.”
Still, there may be a difference between Boumeddiene and the other attackers’ wives who were probably “being used to keep the veil of a normal life” so their husbands could avoid detection, Saltman said.
“Boumeddiene was obviously very active, wanting to train, wanting to be a part of the violent nature of the jihadist ideology,” she said.
It’s not clear whether Coulibaly coordinated his attack on a kosher market, where he killed four shoppers and took others hostage, with the Kouachis’ assault on Charlie Hebdo. The three men died within minutes of one another in simultaneous raids on the market and on a printing plant where the Kouachis were hiding.
It also appears that they may have had different loyalties: Coulibaly appeared in a video swearing allegiance to Islamic State, while Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the Kouachis’ attack. Both groups have carved out roles for women, in subordinate, rather than leadership, positions.
“There is hardly any terrorist group at the moment that does not include women in some capacity,” said Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Women in Al Qaeda have historically played a supportive role, but they have also increasingly become suicide bombers in the Middle East for Al Qaeda affiliates, Bloom said.
In online posts, some female Islamic State volunteers have expressed a willingness to fight, Saltman said. “Many of them would be willing to participate in violence. But once they reach Islamic State territory, they take on a much more passive role” as wives, mothers and recruiters.
Samia Maktouf, a Paris lawyer who represents the worried families of other female Muslim extremists in France, faulted the government for not tracking and arresting Boumeddiene.
“They were aware of the dangerousness of this girl. She was in the hands of the police in 2010. Why didn’t they stop her or put her under surveillance? My answer is they were not aware of her Muslim fundamentalism,” Maktouf said.
French legislators are considering whether to change laws that may have prevented police from monitoring Boumeddiene and other members of the suspects’ entourage.
“It was too difficult to monitor the women before. Now, maybe we will be able,” Crepin said.
But it will take more than stepped-up surveillance to stop women like Boumeddiene, experts said.
One Tunisian Muslim mother who asked not to be identified told Maktouf that her daughter became engaged to an extremist in Syria over the Internet.
The mother did the only thing she could think of: She took two days off work to try to reason with her daughter, who has two master’s degrees, arguing that she would be unable to use her education. The daughter initially agreed to call off the engagement, but the following day she disappeared.
She sent a text message. “I have to go. I’m sorry. Be happy for me.”
Before passing new laws to stop women like her and Boumeddiene, police should cultivate ties to French Muslim families, Maktouf said.
“We should use what we have,” she said. “The best tool is human.”
Special correspondent Aviva Cashmira in Paris contributed to this report.