Changing the Game: The Evolving Threat of Female Terror Cells

This article was written by Olivia Adams. Olivia is a recent graduate in the International Relations BA programme at King’s College London. Her research interests include Islamist extremism, counter-terrorism, and female terrorism.

The threat of female terrorism is not new. In recent years, women have been amongst those caught planning bold attacks across Europe and spotted fighting for Daesh. Yet the tendency of security services to view women as victims, rather than as perpetrators, continues to hinder counterterrorism efforts, particularly in Britain. Britain’s current Prevent strategy aims to stop people becoming or supporting terrorists, but the strategy is ill-equipped to tackle the threat of female terror cells. With the fall of Daesh, the prospect of returning female radicals armed with the knowledge and ideological motivation to attack seems increasingly likely. This reality demands an urgent reassessment of the way we understand and combat female terror cells.

In June 2018, Britain convicted members of its first all-female terror cell. Safaa Boular, the supposed ringleader, conspired along with her sister, Rizlaine Boular, 22, and mother, Mina Dich, 44, to commit an ‘ISIS-inspired’ plot against London landmarks, including the British Museum. At just 18 years old, Boular became the youngest women to be convicted of planning a terrorist attack in Britain when she was sentenced to 13 years in jail.

Both Boular and her sister Rizlaine were exposed to extremist views from an early age. Their mother provided ‘frequent religious lectures’ guided by her own online research and the two girls worked to understand what she meant about being a ‘good Muslim’. This led to several unsuccessful attempts by both Boular and Rizlaine to reach Syria. After Boular’s failed attempts resulted in the confiscation of her passport, she drew inspiration from the 2015 Paris attacks and moved online where she connected with like-minded recruits on social media and internet forums. On Twitter, she met Umm Isa Al-Amriki, an female recruiter based in Raqqa; on Instagram, she met Naweed Hussain, who would later become her online ‘husband’.

When M15 learned of Boular’s association with Hussain, surveillance of Boular intensified, but the investigation focused primarily on tracing Hussain’s links to Daesh rather than investigating Boular herself. Investigators saw Hussain as the larger threat; Boular, like most other female terrorists, was seen as being coerced by her male handler. While this is true for some female radicals, Boular’s commitment to perpetrating an attack on home soil was notably independent of Hussain; even after her arrest, when contact with Hussain became impossible, Boular continued to plan her attack through coded messages in phone calls with her mother and sister. 

Boular and her family were not the first would-be female terrorists in Europe. In France, an all-female terror cell plotted several attacks in September 2016, including a gas attack near Notre Dame Cathedral. A further 33 plots, all led by women, were thwarted across Belgium, Denmark, and Germany from January 2014 to April 2018. Boular and her family were only the latest examples of an emerging phenomenon in the West wherein women – most of whom have tried and failed to travel to the caliphate – pursue links with like-minded individuals and turn their focus to domestic attacks. 

As Daesh has suffered consistent territorial reverses, its definition of jihad has transformed from ‘offensive jihad’ to defensive, in a shift that potentially opens the door for more female operatives. A recent video by Daesh, showing images of women fighting in Baghuz, confirmed a long-held suspicion that the group would accept and even encourage female jihadists where certain conditions were met. In the post-caliphate era, Daesh is likely to turn to its global network, particularly its female recruits in the West, to continue its campaign of terror across Europe.

In order to counter the threat of female terrorism in Britain, lawmakers must reassess current Prevent strategy. Prevent overwhelmingly targets men and boys as most vulnerable to radicalisation and perceives men as most influential in the radicalisation process. As Boular’s case has shown, women are motivated to join terrorist organisations for a manner of reasons, not just emotional reasons normally ascribed to female radicals. Since women are rarely valued as independent actors, little has been done to counter the ideological threat they pose.

Prevent fails to effectively realize the role played by social media. In many cases, Daesh’s online community has provided a way for female radicals to advance their existing extremist views. Though intelligence services often view this activity through a lens of gendered innocence. As with many male radicals, the act of engagement by female terrorists with external actors should be treated as a deliberate step in executing terrorist plans, not just a means to develop extremist views.

Prevent also assumes that females maintain more ‘mainstream’ religious views, and generally hold ‘educative and supportive roles’ within the family unit[i]. The case of the Boular family proves otherwise. Prevent’s network-based approach – focused primarily on external male recruiters, like Naweed Hussain – does not address generational influence, where a ‘dysfunctional family unit’ acts as a driver of radicalisation and grievances are passed down through generations. A case-by-case approach that focuses on discouraging radicalisation via familial links is necessary to avoid intergenerational spread of extreme ideology.

Whilst female terror cells pose a similar threat to male cells, the method of dissemination differs: often, female cells make use of female to female links and familial ties. Acknowledging the role of generational influence in the radicalisation process is key. A greater understanding of the key features that make such cells less detectable would place more focus on the individual’s path to extremism than on external influences. As the case of Safaa Boular has shown, male involvement is not a prerequisite for women to form terror cells or plan attacks.

Yet while policymakers are already beginning to see parity in the threat posed by both male and female terrorists, it is not enough just to recognize the potential for female radicals. Intelligence services must comprehend the different ways in which this threat manifests itself. The emergence of the first all-female terror cell in Britain reveals a new means by which the global threat of Daesh has adapted. Whilst an all-female cell is still a rarity, their presence indicates a paradigm shift that authorities in Britain would be wise to take note of. 


[i] Cook, Joana. Avoiding the Pitfalls of Prevent. Report. Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Georgetown University. 2017, 7.

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