RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Haylah Al Qusayir could keep a secret, hated Saudi security forces and ran a lucrative cash flow operation for Al Qaeda, sending it more than $293,000 from women who thought their jewelry and savings were supporting poor Muslim orphans.
So when the 36-year-old widow was arrested in March with 112 other alleged Al Qaeda operatives, it was a big loss for the extremist group. So big, in fact, they threatened to kidnap Saudi princes to swap for Al Qusayir.
“I wasn’t surprised that there is a woman who is an extremist,” said Basmah Al Fadul, a Riyadh housewife and volunteer with a government counterterrorism program. “But I was surprised at how much power she had.”
Al Qusayir’s capture brought to light a renewed concern for the Saudi government: The spread of extremist ideology among females and their potential involvement in violence.
At the time of her arrest, Al Qusayir was harboring two Al Qaeda operatives. And though her exact role is unclear, she also was part of a support network for two suicide bomb teams, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour Al Turki.
Another Saudi woman has called on her female peers to join her in neighboring Yemen, where she is working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose top ranks include several Saudis. Although Al Qaeda’s network in Saudi Arabia is mostly dismantled, remnants are working to rebuild, assisted by AQAP.
“Those of you who are religious should immediately come to Yemen,” wrote Wafa Al Shihri in the May issue of AQAP’s online magazine. “If your men folk are not able to defend you, come here where you will be protected. In Yemen we have found men, among Al Qaeda militants and members of local tribes, who have helped us.”
Al Shihri is married to Saudi-born Said Al Shihri, AQAP’s second-in-command and a former detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. It was he who disclosed Al Quasayir’s arrest when he appealed to Al Qaeda followers in the kingdom to kidnap princes “to exchange them for this Al Qaeda lady who had been assuming the task of recruiting women and collecting funds.”
Addressing Al Qusayir directly, Al Shihri added that “your mujahedeen brothers … were hurt by what has happened to you.”
Saudi female participation in Al Qaeda activities is not new, according to Natana Delong-Bas, author of “Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad,” and part-time faculty member at Boston College.
“In 2004, people were talking openly about the fact that women were fund-raising and acting as go-betweens,” Delong-Bas said in a phone interview.
Even from its early days, she added, Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia made “a concerted effort to encourage women to get involved” helping male operatives. A key theoretician of the movement, the late Yusuf Al Ayiri, devoted a book to women’s roles in jihad, Delong-Bas noted.
Saudi Arabia’s strict gender segregation means that women are inaccessible to the mostly male security and intelligence forces that cannot easily question and keep track of females. As a result, women can be useful logistical links in clandestine networks.
“The gravity of the situation lies in the fact that women are treated in a particular manner in Saudi Arabia … and there is every fear that that could be exploited by the extremists in order to use women in suicide operations,” wrote Tariq Al Alhomayed, editor of the Saudi-owned Asharq al Awsat.
He noted that Al Qaeda members already “have disguised themselves in women’s clothing and ... used women in suicide operations in Iraq and elsewhere.”
Delong-Bas said women assist Al Qaeda for a variety of reasons. Some “feel they have a religious obligation to help the mujahedin,” she said. For others, “it becomes an avenue to power and position,” especially if they feel held back by discrimination or lack of employment.
Al Qusayir’s arrest set off a debate about the current extent of Saudi female participation in Al Qaeda networks and what should be done to prevent women from joining extremist groups.
Religious scholar Ibrahim Al Maiman, who works with a government program to rehabilitate detained extremists, told a Saudi newspaper that a worrying number of women had asked him and other clerics if it is permissible to shelter husbands working with Al Qaeda and to keep silent about sons who visit jihadi websites.
Women “are funding, recruiting, harboring, and hiding, and in some regions the role has turned into actual participation in carrying out acts of terrorism,” Al Maiman, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Al Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University, told the Saudi Gazette.
Saudi columnist Mshari Zaydi added that the Interior Ministry has “numerous names of women active within Al Qaeda” but that “discretion and the local cultural taboo with regards to publicly mentioning women's names ... prevent the Saudi Arabian media and security authorities from confronting Al Qaeda's women.”
Interior Ministry officials, however, downplayed the scope of women’s involvement, stressing that Al Qusayir is the only woman now detained for cooperating with Al Qaeda.
“There are very few cases” of female extremists, said Abdulrahman Al Hadlaq, head of the ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate. Speaking recently with journalists, Al Hadlaq added that in Saudi Arabia, “the situation for females is totally different from Iraq ... here, radicalization among women is not that much.”
Ministry spokesman Al Turki noted that prevailing social customs mean that a woman needs a male “mediator” to communicate with Al Qaeda. Al Qusayir had male relatives in the organization, he added, so she “got her chance to express herself.” She also is the widow of an Al Qaeda member killed in a 2004 shoot-out with police, ministry officials said.
Al Hadlaq, who runs a national awareness-raising program about the dangers of extremism, said the program intends to increase its anti-extremist campaign activities in female schools and “design certain programs for females.”
The government has also set up a team of female researchers at King Saud University to study why women are attracted to extremist groups.
And the Ministry of Islamic Affairs said it intends to tighten oversight of female “preachers” who work informally in their communities to spread a conservative approach to Islam, for example, by urging women in shopping malls to wear a face veil.
Government officials also reiterated pleas for women to monitor family members.
“Women play a big role in contributing along with their brothers, fathers and husbands in preserving the youth from slipping into the dangers in every field, protecting their morals and adhering to their religion," Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Saud told a counterterrorism conference in March.
The flip side to Al Qusayir’s arrest was a spotlight on the need to involve Saudi women in anti-extremist programs, as has been done in other countries plagued by extremism.
“What we have found is that women … still carry a lot of power in the home, especially with sons ... They are listened to,” said Washington-based Miki Jacevic, deputy director of the Institute for Inclusive Security, a non-profit promoting women’s contribution to fighting extremism in conflict areas such as Afghanistan.
“If certain conditions are met,” Jacevic added, women could be a valuable resource in battling extremism. “Women need to be ... seen as political agents” able to act independently rather than just as victims of repression and violence, he said. “The key lesson is to remember you have to consult with them.”
Saudi Arabia has already taken a baby step in that direction by recruiting about a dozen female volunteers in a project to counter extremism on the internet.
Known as Tranquility, the project is run by the Ministries of Interior and Islamic Affairs. Females were solicited to work with the seven-year-old program because of a noticeable “rise in female extremism on the internet,” project spokesman Abdul Mun’im Al Mushawwah told Okaz newspaper.
“A lot of families,” he added, “have voiced fears over extremism exhibited by their women relatives.”
In recent interviews, two female Tranquility volunteers said they regularly visit about 400 Arabic language forums and post comments promoting moderation. If they run across extremist ideas, they send the link to their supervisors, who ask a religious scholar to engage the poster in an online conversation with the aim of moderating his or her views.
The women, both housewives, work from home. Clicking on her Toshiba laptop with a bright red mouse, Tahani Abdulrahman cited figures released by Tranquility showing that of the 3,250 persons, including 300 women, engaged online so far by the program’s volunteers, about half (1,500) ultimately appeared to have rejected their extremist positions.
Abdulrahman said she gets a great deal of satisfaction from her Tranquility work because she believes she is helping steer young people toward moderation.
“You feel like you are making a difference,” said the black-haired mother of three, who sometimes goes online while cooking in the kitchen.
“Whenever I see the comment ‘may Allah bless you,’ I feel really good, that I’ve accomplished something ... that I’m lighting the way for the next generation,” she said.
Bashmah Al Fadhul, the other volunteer, said “I like being productive and I’m online any way, so I might as well do something good with that.”
Al Fadhul insisted that women have a big role to play in dissuading young people from embracing extremism. After all, she added, “we are the mothers!”
Read more about the Houe of Saud's struggle to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda:
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A kingdom divided