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Increasing Number Of Western Women Flee To Syria


The hunt for others involved in last week's attacks in Paris includes the search for one young woman whose face has been all over the news. She's Hayat Boumediene, the partner of Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people at a kosher supermarket. Boumediene is now believed to be in Syria in territory controlled by the Islamic State, or ISIS. It's a road traveled by hundreds of women from Europe along with a few from the United States. In Paris, we reached Time magazine correspondent Vivienne Walt, who's been reporting on this trend. Good morning.

VIVIENNE WALT: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So now, I understand you've been talking to families of other young women from the West who have joined ISIS in Syria. Is there a common thread to their stories?

WALT: You know, they begin to all sound extremely familiar. If one had to generalize, these are not women who've grown up in heavily religious families. For example, I got to know one family whose 17-year-old daughter just vanished. And a few days later, she called from Syria to say that she was marrying one of the Tunisian jihadist fighters with ISIS there. This is a really common story. These are often lower middle-class kids. They have been born and raised around Paris. So these are girls that have been radicalized at a fairly young age and fairly rapidly.

MONTAGNE: Well, since many of them are going there to marry jihadists, is there something romantic about this? Is there that element as well?

WALT: Absolutely. There is a romance, a kind of danger, in the case of the family that I knew, perhaps a tinge of teenage rebellion.

MONTAGNE: Now, how does Hayat Boumediene fit into this?

WALT: Well, Hayat is a lot older. She's 26 years old. But nonetheless, there are commonalities. The photographs of her from just a few years ago show her in a bikini. She was one of seven children who'd lost her mother as a child. Her father had struggled to raise the family alone. She then met Coulibaly in 2009. And when she became his partner with a conservative Islamic ceremony the following year, that is the point at which it appears she began wearing the niqab, the full coverall that highly conservative Muslim women wear in some traditions. And he also introduced her to a key figure called Djamel Beghal, who is a radical preacher being jailed in France. And right after that, she began shooting crossbows and essentially preparing for a life of jihad.

MONTAGNE: You've reported that at least 300 women from the West have joined ISIS. Once they reach this Islamic State, what happens to them?

WALT: Well, it seems that by and large they are married off to fighters. And it's really unclear how much fighting themselves they do. If you read the websites of ISIS and sympathizers that are geared to women, a lot of it is about having women prepare for cooking. One website tells women that before they leave for Syria, they should learn how to sew so that they can mend the fighters' uniforms. I mean, these very much sound like, you know, women from the 1950s. They're not, by any means, being trained to, you know, smash the glass ceiling on the war front.

MONTAGNE: Vivienne Walt joined us from Paris where she reports for Time magazine. Thanks very much.

WALT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.