Only a few security patrol units can be found on the long road that goes through the cities of Kebili, Djerba and Tataouine in southern Tunisia, leading to the desert village of Remada on the Libyan border. The checkpoints in these areas rarely stop or intercept passing travellers.

Only a few security patrol units can be found on the long road that goes through the cities of Kebili, Djerba and Tataouine in southern Tunisia, leading to the desert village of Remada on the Libyan border. The checkpoints in these areas rarely stop or intercept passing travellers.

On either side of the road, small gasoline containers and barrels, smuggled from Libya, can be spotted. Smuggled gasoline has flourished in these areas despite the earth wall – completed in February 2016 – separating the two countries. The wall was intended to reduce the quantities of goods smuggled from Libya, as well as the number of migrants waging jihad in Libya, and the terrorists planning attacks in Tunisia.

In July 2015, Remada, located close to the wall, witnessed its largest mass youth migration: 33 people, including five women, managed to cross the border to join ISIS in Libya.

Although youth migration is not new, an increasing number of women have been  crossing the border into territories controlled by extremist groups whether in Libya, Syria or Iraq. Their motives, however, differ from those of their male  counterparts.

In search of a righteous, pure and devout man

In almost all villages in southern Tunisia, one can find religious women wearing niqabs who frequent mosques and have joined prayer groups to attract as many girls and women as they can. There are several dozens of these women  and they openly speak about their zealous adherence to radical Islamic thoughts and support of oppressed Muslims.

In an area called Raqba in Tataouine Governorate, Mariam S. joined one of these religiuos prayer groups at the local mosque, and met a woman named Samira G. The group later expanded in both number and activity to attract other women. The group first met on the premise of religious study but eventually the group focused its attention on finding  radicalized Salafist husbands among jihadists, who, they said, should epitomize “devoutness and righteousness.”

Samira married a Mauritanian sheikh who settled in the Libyan territories controlled by religious extremist groups. Samira’s decision to marry the sheikh was met with stiff opposition by her family, but she insisted on leaving Raqba to marry him in Libya, never to be heard from her family again. In Raqba, Samira organized a series of odd marriages between Tunisian girls and Sharia sheikhs in Libya.

Mariam became acquainted with a Moroccan man over the Internet. She and her family were told that he was banned from entering Tunisia and Morocco, and that he was living in Libya. Mariam too resisted her family’s opposition and decided to join him there.

From social network into sheikhs’ laps

The Internet paved the way for these odd and quick marriages that sweep through Raqba, where a bride will leave her parents’ house, despite their objection, to join her husband, assisted by a network of smugglers near the Tunisian-Libyan border. Should the new bride fail to join her husband through smugglers, she might look for a local Salafist husband planning to travel to Libya.

Hajar is a university graduate from Tatouuine who was unemployed and joined the women in the prayer group, hoping to find a husband. Shortly after concluding the marriage contract – but not the marriage itself – Hajar’s husband asked her family to allow her to travel with him to Libya, but the family refused. In response, he and a number of Salafi friends attacked the family’s house and forced the parents to consummate the wedding and hand over his wife to him.

After some time, Hajar travelled with her extremist husband to Libya where he died and left behind a little child. Hajar is likely to be married off to another Jihadist, a tradition often followed by extremist groups.

Afra S. joined the women in niqab group and was later married to a Salafist. When he wanted her to travel with him to Libya, her family strongly resisted, but she defied her parents’ refusal and travelled with him. Her father boycotted her and requested all family members to do likewise. Later, Afra contacted her mother to inform her that her husband was in jail and that she was living in Libya with her child. She further said she hired a lawyer to defend her husband.

Similarly, the wife of young Tunisian Bashir bin Yahiya from Remada chose to accompany her husband along with the 33 young people.

These are different examples of girls who have defied their fathers’ patriarchal authority rooted in the conservative society of Tataouine not out of ideological or religious beliefs, but out of a desire to get married in a country that has the highest rate of unmarried women in the Arab region – 62 percent of women between 18- 23, according to the National Office of Family and Population.

 “There are three groups of women who join militant groups in Libya,” says Badra Qaaloul, head of the International Center for Strategic, Security and Military Studies. “Some are married women who travel with their husbands and children, some go with their children after the husbands who prepare for their re-settlement, while others surf the internet and jihadist websites and get acquainted with men who promise to marry them. In the latter case, a girl is encouraged to cross into Libya to join other girls there.

Specialized professional networks produce forged travel documents for the would-be wife where she is given a new family name. Upon arrival in Turkey, she is received and then she crosses the border and may wait for one or more months until the marriage formalities have been completed. A few girls however go as volunteers for sexual Jihad.”

Official statistics by the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs reveal that 700 Tunisian women have joined jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, which shows that the trend to employ women in jihadist groups has become a strongly projected option.

The difficult financial situation of many female southerners in Tunisia plays a significant part in their joining extremist groups. “Today, we are experiencing a civil war that has adversely affected the economy and turned our youth into a fuel for an indefinite fire,” says Qaaloul.

Extremist organizations benefit from these numbers of females joining them not only for marrying them to Jihadists but also for using them for other purposes like network communication and logistic support, which has been confirmed in several terrorist operations that took place in Tunisia over the past two years.

Prince and princess

Once a young woman joins an extremist group and gets married, she becomes ideologically charged and is used as a tool to attract more girls and men.

Fatima Elzawaghi who is currently being held at the women’s prison in Manouba, west of Tunis played this role. Elzawaghi – known for her infatuation with Loqman Abu Sakhr, a leader in the Uqba Ibn Nafi brigade who was killed in March 2015 – did many things to please her beloved leader.

She set up a Facebook page entitled ‘Protectors of the Homeland’ and for months incited people to kill soldiers and police officers. Elzawaghi attracted many Tunisian young men for the sake of Abu Sakhr.

Investigations have revealed that such girls become easy and obedient tools in the hands of the group’s leaderships and are ready to do anything to please them and their husbands. This was evident in the investigations made with an ISIS women’s cell – discovered in November 2015 in Le Kram region, north of Tunis – which was linked to terrorist Saifuldin Jamali, aka Abu al-Qaqa, a prominent figure in the media wing of Jund al-Khilafah group that was active at Jebel Mguila in mid-Tunisia.

Tunisians still recall the fierce fighting demonstrated by the Oued Ellil cell, west of Tunis, which was comprised of 10 girls aged 18-21 like Asma Bukhari, Amina Amiri, Eman Amiri, Hind Saidi and Biya bin Rajab, who fought a battle until death with machine guns in October 2014.

Investigations later revealed that Aiman, a terrorist supervising the cell, was married to three girls who fell in love with him and the entire cell allegedly fought for him until the end.

by Mabrouk Khadher