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Care for female jihadists: the French specificity

A comparative study carried out in four European countries shows that France, which had the largest number of female nationals who left for the Syrian-Iraqi zone, is also the strictest in its judicial and prison treatment. Specialists, including the author of the study, analyse this particular case.
Visuel avec titre "Prise en charge des femmes djihadistes : la spécificité française"

Terrorism is an important phenomenon among those the four circles of the national defence perimeter seek to counter. When it comes to jihadist terrorism, those involved are generally analysed from either a global or an individual perspective. This is what makes the study unveiled at the end of January by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), an independent think-tank based in The Hague (Netherlands). Carried out by an international panel of researchers, it compares the judicial response to female jihadism in four countries: Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Of the 5,000 to 6,000 Europeans who arrived in the Syrian-Iraqi zone at the height of Daech (second third of the 2010s), around 1,500 were French. Of these, 500 were women. Overall, and in terms of women alone, these were the largest contingents in Europe.

How can this high proportion of women be explained? "It's a huge question, and the answer is not simple", warns Marc Hecker, the author of the French part of the study. The political scientist, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), can provide "a few elements": firstly, "in Daech's propaganda, France is particularly targeted, designated as a country at war against Islam both outside its borders" and internally, with secularism presented "as institutionalised Islamophobia".

MOST WOMEN, UNLIKE MEN, HAVE NO CRIMINAL RECORD

Secondly, long-established networks in different areas (Toulouse, Paris and Lyon regions, the North, Alsace, etc.) "have concentrated major jihadist networks": "When a few people in a given area start to leave for the Syrian-Iraqi zone, they bring along other people they know".

Matthieu Suc, a journalist at Mediapart and author of numerous books on jihadism (including "Femmes de djihadistes", Fayard, 2016), adds another possible motivation for women: "According to the Islamists, the status of 'shahid' [martyr in Islam] offers 72 virgins, as well as the possibility of interceding for 72 people close to them, and getting them into paradise". He also points out that women involved in Islamist terrorism are generally "more studious than men" and "have a better knowledge of the Koran".

Another difference: according to the ICCT study, 80% of women do not have a criminal record, a trend that is the opposite of that for men: "This is one of the most notable differences" between the two genders, notes Marc Hecker, adding that "the crime-terror nexus "The link between crime and terrorism is "a notion that is very present in studies of jihadism".

In his view, the first explanation lies in the difference between men and women in the general prison population. "There are far fewer women in French prisons", observes the researcher, referring to an order of magnitude of 2,500 women out of around 75,000 inmates.

A SAMPLE OF 91 WOMEN INVOLVED IN 94 CASES

Marc Hecker puts forward another element, a hypothesis that is more specific to this jihadist movement: for the men, Dae was looking for fighters who were prepared to give their lives; for the women, the ideal of the virtuous woman according to the Islamist organisation "fitted better with non-offenders than offenders".

Matthieu Suc agrees, referring to the "rights and duties of wives and widows" of jihadists published in Dar al-Islam, the French-language propaganda magazine of Daech. But not all female jihadists fit this profile. Marc Hecker worked on a sample of 91 women involved in 94 different cases: "In this sample, there were still around twenty women involved in planned attacks".

Among the best-known French jihadists is Hayat Boumeddiene, widow of Amedy Coulibaly, the killer of the Hyper Cacher in Vincennes in January 2015. Sentenced in absentia to 30 years' imprisonment for "association de malfaiteurs terroriste" and terrorist financing, she left France before her companion's attack and has been missing ever since. Breton convert Émilie König, "fairly high up in the Daech hierarchy" according to Matthieu Suc, was arrested in Syria in 2017 and repatriated in 2022. At the beginning of 2024, she was transferred to one of the two radicalisation support quarters (QPR) reserved for women, in Rennes. The second was inaugurated a few weeks ago in Roanne (Loire).

In France, the most emblematic case involving women jihadists remains the "Notre-Dame gas canister affair" in September 2016, when a group of 100% women tried to explode gas canisters not far from the Paris cathedral. "There are other cases, much less well known, of women, sometimes very young, who have planned to carry out attacks in France", explains Marc Hecker.

"PASSING ON VALUES TO THE NEXT GENERATION

The researcher believes that the idea that, with this attempted attack, the French authorities have moved from a conception of the submissive and influenced female jihadist to that of a genuine fighter is "partly erroneous": the French justice system had already evolved before this high-profile attempt. An "extremely important" ruling by the Court of Cassation in July 2016 stipulated that "association de malfaiteurs terroriste" could apply to people who were part of a group even if they were not directly involved in the group's criminal acts. Since then, "a woman who only cooked for her husband" has been considered to be providing logistical support for terrorism.

This is the case for most of the women jihadists convicted in France. "For most of the women who left for the Syrian-Iraqi zone, the ideal they had was the one projected by Daech in its propaganda", explains Marc Hecker. "The ideal of a housewife: the wife of a jihadist and also the mother of children, the so-called "lion cubs of the caliphate" in the West. The ideal Jihadist woman for Daech is not a fighting or violent woman, but a woman who supports her husband and brings up her children. In this case, their role is more that of "passing on values, passing on culture" to the next generation.

This is why these women "returning" from the Syrian-Iraqi zone are imprisoned as soon as they get back to France. And as soon as they arrive at the airport, they are separated from their children, because the latter "are considered to be victims", says the researcher. Their treatment is then modelled on that of men, which has changed considerably since 2015. Firstly, they are assessed in radicalisation assessment units (QER); the first such units for women will be set up in 2021-22. Then, there are three options: for the least radicalised, ordinary detention, which concerns the majority of them; for the most radicalised, the possibility of sending them to solitary confinement (around 10%); finally, between the two, the QPRs, where specific programmes aimed at deradicalising them are applied.

LONGER SENTENCES IN FRANCE THAN IN THE OTHER COUNTRIES STUDIED

There are currently more men than women in QPR, but the proportion of women sent to QPR after their assessment is higher than that of men. According to Marc Hecker, the recent emphasis on women is explained by government decisions to repatriate them between the summers of 2022 and 2023. In February 2023, male jihadists accounted for 0.5% of the male prison population, and female jihadists for 4% of the female prison population. "The peak of terrorist detainees was reached in March 2020 with 540 people", he adds. Since then, this figure has been falling.

Once tried, they receive longer sentences in France than in the other countries studied: a maximum of 30 years for association de malfaiteurs terroriste, compared with "much lower" ceilings in the other three countries, observes the researcher. The same is true of the sentences actually applied: 17 years, 14 years and 12 years for female returnees in France, and an average of 6 years for simple "domestic" activity, i.e. logistical support.

Of the 91 cases of female jihadists he studied for this report, Marc Hecker met six of them face to face. "When it comes to what they had to say, we have to be very careful, especially for those who were not yet on trial: they have a fairly stereotyped discourse, which tends to exonerate them", he says. "Of course, it's impossible to know whether this is true or whether it's a form of manipulation or instrumentalisation.

One case he came across corroborates "something we hear a lot", that of a mother who put ideology above her children. Arrested with three children at Istanbul airport, she chose to abandon one of them so that she could join Daech.

Drawing lessons from the study, he notes that the four countries have both "different perceptions of the threat and different ways of dealing with it". "In reality", he says, "what is at stake is the transmission of values to children. How does a State act on this? It's obviously very complex in a liberal state.

Marc Hecker recommends rehabilitating the notion of deradicalisation: "It has been heavily criticised in France in recent years. But perhaps it should be rehabilitated a little, because what is at stake is that the values passed on by mothers to their children are not radical values. And to do that, we need to change the way these women perceive their environment and their religion.