On April 6 this year, Malika El-Aroud, the notorious Moroccan Belgian jihadist recruiter, died in a Belgian prison with minimal news coverage. The 64-year-old was little-known outside of jihadist circles, although she had been on the radar of Western security agencies for decades. She first gained notoriety as the widow of Abdessattar Dahmane, the al Qaeda assassin who killed Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan leader of the Northern Alliance, two days before 9/11.
Later, Aroud gained notoriety in her own right, becoming in effect the “First Lady of Jihad” and completely rewriting the rule book for jihadist women in Europe. She was one of the earliest keyboard warriors, who harnessed the power of the internet, sending men and women to their deaths in the cause of jihad, shedding much blood both at home and abroad. This was long before the media’s fascination with Jihadi Janes, White Widows, Lady al Qaeda or Bethnal Green girls running off to join the Islamic State group (IS).
From the 1990s onwards, Aroud harnessed her considerable persuasive power to send fighters to conflict zones. What is perhaps more extraordinary is that, unlike many of her male counterparts, who did such things from rugged caves in Afghanistan or Yemen, Aroud did all this from the heart of Europe.
Nor did she only persuade strangers. Swiss intelligence chiefs believed it was Aroud who influenced her second husband, Moez Garsalloui, to orchestrate terrorist attacks in Central Asia as well as the Toulouse attack in 2012. Again and again, as I’ve covered terrorism and jihad in multiple countries, I’ve found the fingerprints of Aroud, a woman who was barely a year into her first marriage when she achieved the jihadist cult status of becoming a “martyr’s widow” — a status gifted her by one of the most audacious attacks in Afghanistan, one which paved the way for an even more consequential strike on the other side of the world.
Aroud arrived in Brussels when she was only 5 years old, in 1964. As an adult, she lived a life of excess, according to Paul Cruickshank, a journalist who interviewed her in 2006. She did “everything that is bad,” Aroud admitted. At the age of 32, in 1991, she was a single mother with a string of broken relationships and was at her most vulnerable and suicidal. That’s when she discovered Islam.
Like many born-again Muslims, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the faith. That’s how she fell under the influence of the radical Syrian Islamist Bassam Ayachi, who ran the Centre Islamique Belgique (CIB) in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek. The Belgian authorities were already wary of Ayachi’s radical activities. Not only was he linked to the siege of Mecca in 1979, when zealots had taken over Islam’s holiest of holy sites, but he was also linked to European jihadist networks that were active in the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the First Chechen War (1994-96).
It was Ayachi who inadvertently set Aroud on the path of becoming the First Lady of Jihad. He introduced her to her first husband, Abdessattar Dahmane, in 1999. Dahmane, a Tunisian who had come to Brussels on a student visa in 1987, was Ayachi’s protege. When they met in the late 1990s, Dahmane was already a person of interest to the Belgian security services. By the time of the Bosnian conflict, he was plugged into the network of Belgian and French jihadists, with contacts all over Europe. Dahmane had studied with jihadist scholars such as Abu Qatadah. He had tried and failed to enter Kosovo, where Serbs were threatening Muslim Kosovars in 1996; such was the transnational nature of his network and activities. By the time Ayachi married the couple in 2000, Aroud was already immersed in jihadism and was a devotee of Osama bin Laden.
Shortly after the wedding, Dahmane left for the al Qaeda training camps of Afghanistan. In 2001, Aroud followed him. She was a housewife in Jalalabad, a town that had endured decades of war, first the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-89 and then a bloody civil war in which the Mujahideen factions fought each other for power. The Taliban, members of a fanatical, austere religious movement, had swept in to put an end to the fighting in 1996 and Jalalabad was under their control. The town was also an al Qaeda stronghold. Bin Laden, the al Qaeda chief, had backed the Taliban financially and was close to the movement’s leader, Mullah Omar. What Aroud didn’t know was that her husband was on a secret mission to assassinate the last man who stood against the Taliban: Ahmad Shah Massoud. If Dahmane succeeded, the Taliban hoped to gain total mastery over the country.
According to Anand Gopal in “No Good Men Among The Living,” Dahmane became “the first suicide bomber in Afghan history.” Drawing on Dahmane’s jihadist networks in Europe, he and his accomplice Bouraoui el-Ouaer were supplied with fake passports, fake journalist IDs, visas and a letter of recommendation from a prominent London Islamist. Masquerading as the journalists Karim Toussani and Hassim Bakkali, the assassins secured an interview with Massoud two days before 9/11. As Dahmane interviewed Massoud, el-Ouaer detonated the explosives hidden in the camera, killing the commander. As Jalalabad celebrated the news with gunfire, Aroud accepted the $500 Bin Laden gave her to clear her husband’s debts, not fully realizing that her own stock had also risen with his passing. She was now a martyr’s widow, which is a lofty status among jihadists.
But she didn’t have time to grieve for her husband. The Americans and the Northern Alliance were in an unforgiving mood; the former had just seen the Twin Towers collapse and the latter had lost a key figure. They sought to root out the Taliban and al Qaeda once and for all. Aroud fled. The Northern Alliance caught her. Had it not been for a daring attack by some al Qaeda fighters, perhaps they would have locked her up inside a giant container and suffocated her or, as often happened, gang-raped her. She made it across the Pakistani border and presented herself to the Belgian Embassy in Islamabad. Her government duly repatriated her, expecting her to reciprocate this goodwill. If she had done so, or just returned to a quiet life in Brussels, perhaps her recent death would not even warrant a mention in the papers; there are many jihadist wives who live out their lives in domestic quietude, including the wives of Bin Laden.
But Aroud did not repay the Belgian authorities by supplying them with information on the terrorist organization. Instead, she became a fully fledged devotee of Bin Laden, leveraging her new status and her jihadist contacts from the 1990s. And, as if anticipating the age of the influencer by a decade, she became a keyboard warrior, a propagandist par excellence, which secured her jihadist legacy for posterity. It was this step that made Claude Moniquet, the president of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, say that she was “a source of inspiration” and “extremely dangerous.” It was her ability to evade the law and spread her message in the heart of Europe that made the press dub her “Mama Jihad.” Arguably, she caused more damage from her tiny flat in Belgium than most jihadist ideologues working from remote hideouts.
After her return to Belgium, she spent nearly 10 years recruiting and proselytizing. After beating the Belgian prosecution’s allegation that she, alongside 22 others, was an accomplice to Massoud’s murder, she married again in 2003. Her second husband, Moez Garsallaoui, was several years younger than she was and, like Dahmane, was a Tunisian radical who had sought exile in Switzerland. Fortunately for Aroud, among his many interests was a nerdy enthusiasm for computers. The newlyweds moved to a small village in Switzerland. Instead of enjoying a healthy outdoor life in a picturesque Alpine village, Aroud set about calling for jihad to her dedicated subscribers under the pen name Oum Oubeyda, and running Minbar SOS and other websites and forums. It was online that she exerted her influence. It was behind the screen that she acted as a bridge with the 1990s jihadist networks and grafted them onto the age of the internet.
Aroud had realized the power of words. “It’s not my role to set off bombs,” she said. “I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. … Writing is also a bomb.” Behind a screensaver photo of her first husband, she contributed regularly to online Francophone jihadist platforms like Ansar al-Haqq and became an effective propagandist and recruiter. Harnessing the power of guilt, she played her ace card deftly, guilt-tripping Muslim men for their seeming lack of concern for the “ummah,” the global Muslim community. (She was so successful, in fact, that her second husband, perhaps sick of that screensaver, abandoned his keyboard and state benefits for the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan in 2007.)
Perhaps more powerful than guilt was her primary message: glory. That word had a special pull for some Muslims, particularly those who lived humdrum, unassuming lives in Europe, dreaming of a time in the past when their Muslim predecessors ruled in Spain and Sicily and Vienna. “Glory,” to those who have nothing, is a powerful force. Aroud, as she herself admitted, had detested the timidity and acceptance of the banal in her own family, and couldn’t stand the feeling of marginalization. She offered people who were living dissipated lives a shortcut to the path of repentance — martyrdom. By joining the jihad, her recruits were promised they could, somehow, join a pantheon of heroes. Perhaps, in some small way, Aroud offered a way out of a certain existential angst.
But Aroud did more than just offer words. In 2005, Swiss authorities arrested her for online incitement because she posted “manuals for the manufacture of bombs” as well as “images of murder,” and for letting groups linked to al Qaeda post information on her websites. Aroud got off lightly with a mere slap on the wrist, an 18-month suspended sentence, although her husband was sentenced to six months in prison. According to an expert on Belgian jihadists, Guy Van Vlierden, by 2007, Aroud had managed to send “at least seven men” off to Afghanistan, as well as, allegedly, the first European female suicide bomber, Muriel Degauque, who carried out a suicide attack on American troops in Iraq in 2005.
Still, despite these activities, most of the charges that the Belgian authorities threw at Aroud didn’t stick. In 2003, she was arrested and released over the Tunisian professional footballer Nizar Trabelsi’s conspiracy to attack a NATO air base near the Belgian-Dutch border. Trabelsi admitted to meeting Bin Laden and dreaming of being a suicide bomber. In 2007, Aroud was arrested for her involvement in a conspiracy to spring Trabelsi from prison before his extradition to the U.S. — but the case didn’t make it to court. The following year, Aroud was arrested again, on yet another terrorism charge — this time for being part of an imminent suicide attack on European summit leaders in Brussels. All the participants had received training in Afghanistan and used her website, Minbar SOS, to communicate. By 2007 she was, according to Swiss prosecutors, directing her second husband Moez Garsalloui’s terror activities. Garsalloui had fled to Afghanistan in late 2007 and had become the leader of Jund al-Khilafah, or the “soldiers of the caliphate.” He was responsible for several attacks in Central Asia and, in 2012, claimed responsibility for training Mohammed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, who murdered several women and children in a Jewish school in Toulouse. Garsalloui was eventually killed in a drone strike in the same year in Miranshah, Pakistan.
Aroud was able to stay largely out of jail, perhaps partly because the authorities were wholly unprepared to deal with jihadists and radicals like her and partly because she trod the fine line between the legal and the illegal. The law found it hard to pin anything explicit on her, because the effect her words had was intangible. Bernard Bertossa, the Swiss judge at her trial in 2007, said that she exploited the right to freedom of expression and peddled propaganda. It seems that these were tactics she used with great skill. Her words had a way of finding themselves on the bookshelves of radical jihadis all over the Francophone world, in the same way Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” might find its way onto the bookshelves of the far right.
In 2010, the Belgian authorities finally convicted Aroud for jihadist recruitment and jailed her. Despite her incarceration, however, her status as the “First Lady of Jihad” was ascendant, and she continued to wield influence. Now, she was able to leverage a well-worn Islamic trope — that of being a prisoner for Islam. She wasn’t just a martyr’s widow, nor merely a self-styled caller to the “truth,” who was trying to awaken the Muslim world from its torpor. She was also someone who the infidel powers were trying to shut down. Through her friends, Aroud was still able to communicate and post about her “suffering” to Francophone jihadist websites.
This influence became even more pronounced as IS made its appearance in Syria in 2012-13, and fighters began to make their way to the Syrian battlefield from France and Belgium. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, France became the biggest exporter of jihadists in Europe, while Belgium had the highest number of fighters per capita of any Western nation.
While researching my book on the Afghanistan War, having covered many of the terrorist attacks of the last decade, including in Paris and Brussels, I noticed that Aroud’s subtle but lethal influence became increasingly apparent through the wreckage. According to Vlierden, when French prosecutors accused Yassin Salhi of beheading his employer and ramming a truck into a U.S.-owned chemical factory in 2015, they traced the ringleader to a French IS operative in Syria — Sebastien Yunes Voyez Zairi. When they raided Zairi’s home, they found Aroud’s 2004 autobiography, “Les Soldats de Lumiere” (The Soldiers of Light) in his home. “Les Soldats” turned up in the belongings of the Charlie Hebdo attacker, Cherif Kouachi, as well. French police also found the book in the home of Hayat Boumeddiene, whose husband Amedy Coulibaly went on a murderous spree at the same time as a manhunt for the Kouachi brothers was underway in January 2015. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, Boumeddiene escaped to Syria and joined IS. She was later sentenced to life in a French court in absentia.
Aroud’s associates also cropped up regularly in Europe and Syria. Leonard Lopez, the administrator of the jihadist website Ansar al-Haqq, “helpers of the truth,” to which Aroud was a regular contributor in the 2000s, took his whole family to the IS “caliphate.” He was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court in 2019. Another associate, Amor Sliti, convicted for his involvement in the assassination of Massoud, joined IS and died in Syria. His daughter, Hafsa, was repatriated from a camp in northern Syria and sentenced to five years in prison in Belgium. Aroud’s loyal friend Fatima Aberkan, wife of Trabelsi, went to the Turkish-Syrian border to help fighters cross over into Syria. Several of Aberkan’s sons fought and died with IS and earned Aberkan the nickname “The Mother of Jihad” from the Francophone press.
Another close associate of Aberkan was the notorious recruiter Khalid Zerkani. The Zerkani network was “by far the most dangerous,” says Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a researcher of Belgian jihadist networks. Belgian prosecutors say Zerkani perverted a whole generation of Belgian youth. I obtained some of the material that Zerkani fed his recruits; they were texts published on Lopez’s jihadist website, the same website to which Aroud contributed. It was those recruits who laid Syrian villages to waste because the villagers wanted democracy. It was his recruits who killed innocent people in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016. And just to make the connection and influence of Aroud explicit, it was Al-Wafa Media, a pro-IS channel, that justified the terror attacks by citing the imprisonment of “our sister Malika.” Aroud’s influence, though hard to pinpoint, was undeniable.
But it was Aroud’s work in redefining the role of women and jihad that arguably made her the “First Lady of Jihad.” Traditionally, with a few notable exceptions, Islam discouraged women from taking part in the battlefield. A woman’s role was usually considered auxiliary, such as tending to the wounded or looking after the warrior’s family from afar, in a place of safety. The fact that Aroud had gone to Afghanistan to support her husband broke that convention. Here was a novel way to support the jihad, she seemed to say. Moreover, her example was counter to scholars who argued that women needed permission from their parents to embark on such jihadist adventures. She offered a model to radical women through her lived experience. A woman’s role was to stand beside her man and give him steely resolve, to make sure he kept his commitment, to call others to jihad and raise the next generation. This is why Aberkan said that Aroud was an “inspiration for women because she is telling women to stop sleeping and open their eyes.”
Many of the Francophone women who joined IS came of age in a world that Aroud helped create, most notably Boumeddiene. In many ways, these French and Belgian “jihadi brides” (as they became known) emulated Aroud. Just like her, they recruited, albeit on social media. They celebrated when their husbands were martyred and posed with Kalashnikovs, taunting the men into action. Furthermore, following the defeat of IS in 2019, when they were corralled into al-Hol and Roj, all-women camps the size of small towns in northern Syria, they became prisoners “for” Islam who asked the ummah to save them from the rapacious hands of the “infidel” powers, in this case the Kurdish militias.
In 2018, the Belgian authorities, fed up, stripped Aroud of her citizenship and tried to deport her to Morocco, her country of birth. Aroud appealed, claiming that she would be subjected to torture. Rabat, understandably, didn’t want her back either, and so she remained incarcerated while her case ping-ponged between Brussels and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, until her death in April 2023.
Even beyond the grave, however, her troubling legacy remains. For policymakers currently wrestling with the repatriation of jihadist women, Aroud’s life and death are a constant reminder of the powerful role these “jihadi brides” played in the Syrian conflict and the chaos they could cause at home. Arguably, her ghost goes a small way to explaining why human rights organizations accuse the French government of willfully slowing down the process of repatriation. Given the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, it is understandable that these governments take the view that the women, though they are French or Belgian citizens, are not simply groomed victims or mere housewives but potential criminal accomplices and extremely dangerous.
Aroud’s case demonstrated how hard it was to convict radicals like her. It becomes even harder to establish guilt in a fluid conflict zone, where evidence and testimonies are difficult to collect and collate. The undertaking, in terms of cost, is huge. To take them at their word, that they were just housewives busy with home and hearth, would have been easier to swallow had their husbands not been busy committing mass murder outside. What if they were like the German IS bride Jennifer Wenisch — a mistress who abused her Yezidi slave and the woman’s 5-year-old daughter? She left the poor child chained to the bed, dying in agony, as the daytime heat reached 50 degrees Celsius. Moreover, reports from al-Hol and Roj suggest that the women’s extremist ideas have not abated but are very much alive. In the minds of policymakers, then, there is always fear that these repatriated IS wives will radicalize others. After all, both France and Belgium have large Muslim populations. What if these returnees hatched new plots or turned out to be like Aroud?
One can see the political logic behind the French and Belgian governments’ decisions that the fate of their citizens in Iraq must follow local jurisdiction. This will not only prevent their own judicial and penitentiary systems from being overwhelmed, but also save them from making politically unpalatable decisions. It seems far easier for the Iraqi justice system to deliver dubious but swift “justice.” Somehow, the Iraqi judiciary has figured out a way of passing life and death sentences in less than 10 minutes. Iraqis are in no mood to show clemency, since it was their country that suffered the consequences. Many believe that these young women jihadis must own their actions.
Nevertheless, for European policymakers, the “First Lady of Jihad” should serve as a stark reminder that it will do them no good to abandon their citizens who are now in northern Syria. Without a systematic policy of repatriation with security, fairness and justice at its core, European governments’ actions may breed many more like Aroud, more “prisoners for Islam,” in the future — not to mention what the governments’ decisions will mean for the multitudes of innocent children who had no part to play in the actions of their parents. After all, Aroud’s legacy may yet produce a new batch of radical jihadists.
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