Europe Forced To Consider Female Terrorists Recruited By ISIS

Laura Passoni, a Belgian woman who was recruited by ISIS and eventually escaped Syria, has written a book to discourage young people who may be tempted to follow the same path.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

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Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

Laura Passoni, a Belgian woman who was recruited by ISIS and eventually escaped Syria, has written a book to discourage young people who may be tempted to follow the same path.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

I meet 34-year-old Laura Passoni in a Brussels hotel. The mother of two small boys grew up in a Catholic family in the Belgian town of Charleroi. She converted to Islam at the age of 16 because she says she liked the religion and her best friend was Muslim.

Later, Passoni married a Muslim man and they had a son and everything was fine — until her marriage collapsed. “My husband met another woman and left me and abandoned his little boy, and I went into a deep depression,” she says.

And that’s when Passoni met an ISIS recruiter. She says she was extremely vulnerable and he played on that. “He told me I could be a nurse and help the Syrian people. He told me I could start my life all over again. He made me believe in dreams,” she says.

In June 2014, Passoni went to Syria. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels over the last two years were carried out by male citizens of France and Belgium who had been radicalized by ISIS. In the most recent attempted attack in September, four women tried to blow up a car filled with gas canisters in central Paris. Two of them were teenagers. Europe is now waking up to the prospect of female terrorists.

“Most of the women who radicalize have had some sort of trauma in their lives,” says Faoud Saanani, the imam at a French government supported deradicalization center in the city of Bordeaux. Here, at an unpublished address behind heavy, locked doors, psychologists and counselors try to get through to youths being seduced by ISIS propaganda.

Saanadi says half of the 33 people they are currently counseling are women. “They’ve nearly all been a victim of violence or have been raped, or have been marginalized in some way. This makes them more vulnerable to ISIS’ messages of a utopian society and revenge against the West,” he says.

While the ISIS agent was recruiting Passoni online through the new Facebook profile she had created, she met the new man in her life. Also online. The couple went to Syria along with her four-year-old son. Passoni says while her partner was fighting, she was at first housed with dozens of other women from the West.

“Some had come to try to help, some were there for love because they had followed a fighter, Passoni says. “But there were plenty of women who were full of hatred. All they wanted to do was get a Kalashnikov and launch attacks.”

Passoni says she was shocked that some of the mothers didn’t even try to hide the horrors from their kids, like the crucifixions every Friday in the town square. “Some even let their kids go up and touch the dead bodies,” she says.

Passoni was eventually moved in with a Syrian family where she was confined inside all day to clean house and cook. She got pregnant. Aside from the horrors and the isolation, she now worried about dying in childbirth. After nine months, she and her partner escaped and returned to Belgium.

Last month, following the arrest of four women in connection with the car bomb plot, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said it was clear ISIS intends to turn women into attackers. “The vision of women as simply wives and mothers in the group is simply passé, he said.”

Molins said the female combat unit in Paris had received guidance directly from Syria. Police had bugged one of the women’s cell phones and heard them planning other attacks at Paris train stations before they were caught. Two of the women stabbed police officers as they were being arrested.

French journalist Mattieu Suc, whose written a book about female jihadists, says ISIS has changed the nature of terrorism. “Under al-Qaida, men left their families and went to Afghanistan alone. But in Syria it’s become a sort of family jihad,” he says. “Couples go together, sharing a common project. It’s almost like buying a house together. And the role women play is as strong as that of men.”

Now back in Belgium, Laura Passoni has written a book about her experience. It’s called “In the Heart of ISIS with My Son.” She’s hoping to stop others from making the same mistake she did.

Passoni was given a suspended prison sentence. Her partner is in jail. They are not allowed to communicate and Passoni is also prohibited from going on line.

Still, Passoni considers herself lucky because the judge gave her a second chance. She has custody of her two children. She says her oldest son, now six, is back in school and doesn’t appear to remember much about what happened in Syria.

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