Source: The Washington Post
By Sudarsan Raghavan
MORNAG, Tunisia — In a small box in her bedroom, Oulfa Hamrounni keeps the photo she treasures most. It shows one of her daughters, brown hair flowing, a smile on her round face. The photo was taken before the girl and her sister left home to join the Islamic State’s affiliate in Libya.
Today, Hamrounni is struggling to bring her teenage daughters back to Tunisia. She’s also trying to prevent two others from joining them.
“I am afraid for my younger daughters,” she said. “They still have the same ideology of my older daughters.”
The younger ones are 11 and 13.
Hundreds of foreign female Islamist militants, including many Westerners, have journeyed to the battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq to begin new lives under the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Now, there are signs that they are being encouraged to travel to Libya as well, signifying a shift in the strategy of the terrorist network as it faces growing threats and constraints to its operations in the Middle East.
Before she and her sister became radicalized, Rahma played the guitar. She and Ghofran often wore T-shirts and mingled with boys in cafes, and neither wore headscarves, their mother said. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post)
[How a British citizen became one of the most notorious members of ISIS]
Most radicalized women and girls join the Islamic State to marry fighters and bear their children, which helps the group’s arm in Libya build a state, mirroring the strategy in Syria, experts who monitor jihadist activity have said. The creation of family structures deepens the Islamic State’s reach and ideology in its territory, which makes it more difficult for Western and regional governments to eradicate the militants and defuse their threat in North Africa.
“Official propaganda showcases Libya as the new frontier of the self-proclaimed caliphate,” said Melanie Smith, a researcher with the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which focuses on violent extremism. “Hence the encouragement of foreign females signifies a need to consolidate the land they have managed to acquire.”
When he announced the “caliphate” in 2014, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi specifically invited women alongside male engineers, doctors, lawyers and architects, signifying that the women’s “primary responsibility is to physically build and populate territory,” Smith said. As wives, their role is to be dutiful and obedient to their militant husbands. As mothers, they nurture the next generation of fighters. Some women also have combat duties.
Rahma, 17, became the wife of Noureddine Chouchane, a senior Tunisian Islamic State commander thought to have been killed in a U.S. airstrike on the Libyan city of Sabratha on Feb 19. Her 18-year-old sister, Ghofran, was married to an Islamic State militant who was killed after the attack. Six months ago, she gave birth.
Both sisters are now in the custody of an anti-Islamic State militia in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
On a recent day, their mother sat in her small rented house in Mornag, a gritty town 15 miles south of Tunis. In front of her was the photo of Rahma.
“They used to be the opposite of this,” she said in a low, resigned voice.
From T-shirts to niqabs
The sisters loved hard-rock music.
Rahma played the guitar. She and Ghofran often wore T-shirts and mingled with boys in cafes. They eschewed the headscarves favored by many Muslim women, their mother said.
But their family life was troubled. Their father struggled to find work and often came home drunk, Hamrounni said. In 2011, the couple divorced, and he disappeared.
By then, Tunisia was in the midst of its Arab Spring revolution. With the toppling of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the new openness that followed, religious extremists made inroads with disaffected youths frustrated by the lack of jobs and opportunities. One group set up an Islamic education camp across the street from Hamrounni’s home in the central city of Sousse.