Last week, the Belgian government revoked the right of residence of Malika El Aroud. She is the country’s most notorious female jihadi, with an extremist record stretching all the way back to the turn of the century. Her influence in jihadist circles endures to this day.
In fact, El Aroud is an excellent example of how women easily can be underestimated as catalysts of radicalism.
She is known as the “Black Widow of Jihad” for losing two husbands. Her first, Dahmane Abd al-Sattar, died in a suicide attack against the Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud in 2001.  Her second, Moez Garsallaoui, was killed in a drone strike on al-Qaeda in the Afghan-Pakistan border zone in 2012. 
Her nickname seems to imply that her importance lies in what her husbands did. It is true that her second husband actively tried to downplay her role. “My wife has nothing to do with jihad, except that she is my wife. I’ve never allowed her to participate in actions that could endanger her”, Moez Garsallaoui insisted when we interviewed him by e-mail in 2009. 
But that was probably nothing more than a strategic pose, since El Aroud was awaiting trial in a Belgian jail at that time. According to people with intimate knowledge of her case, it was El Aroud who directed her husbands, rather than the other way around. “She was taking the decisions, while he executed them”, Swiss prosecutor Claude Nicati once said. 
Before she was convicted and sentenced to eight years in jail in May 2010 for incitement to jihad, El Aroud pioneered in online recruitment. She did so through her own internet forum, Minbar.sos, using the alias Oum Obeyda. She also used Ansar al-Haqq, the most successful jihadist forum ever in French, whose well-known administrator Farouk Ben Abbes was sentenced to four years in prison only a few months ago. 
In tandem with her husband Garsallaoui, she managed to convince at least seven men from Belgium and France to leave for the Afghan jihad in 2007. One of them, Hamza El Alami, was killed shortly before her trial began.  El Aroud is also suspected of involvement in the recruitment of Muriel Degauque, the first female European suicide terrorist, who died in 2005 in Iraq, although she was not prosecuted for this. 
During her imprisonment, El Aroud continued to communicate with her followers through Ansar al-Haqq. She had no access to the forum herself, but she wrote letters to her Italian friend Barbara ‘Aisha’ Farina, a convert active in Islamist circles under the aliases Umm Yahya and Umm Usama, who then disseminated them. As the correspondence was monitored, she couldn’t speak freely, and her letters mainly consisted of lamentations about her daily life behind bars.
“Today, a male guard has tried to touch me. But I looked him right in the eyes and said that I would rather die than be touched by another man than mine”, one can read in one of the posts we saved at the time from Ansar al-Haqq. “I have never eaten canned beans before, but here, I do prefer them to the prison cuisine, which is hyper fat and frankly disgusting”, another said. While messages like these are far from an incitement to jihad, they did allow El Aroud to underline her plight as a “prisoner for Islam”.
It is hard to measure how inspiring she was and how long her influence lasted after forums like Ansar al-Haqq disappeared and much of the outside world forgot about her. But a fairly good indication can be found in the many places where copies of her autobiographical book ‘Les soldats de lumière’ (The Soldiers of Light) were found.
She wrote the book in 2004, in order to explain and defend her choice of jihad. When she was free, she used the interest in it for her recruitment efforts. Intercepted conversations show how she approached a man from France who had ordered the book. When he admitted to her that he would like to depart for Iraq, but hesitated about leaving his wife and two children behind, El Aroud pushed him to go.
“In our current situation jihad in the name of Allah does not require the agreement of parents for their sons, nor wives for their husbands”, she stated. “Your family will benefit from your prayers, as well as your intercession on the day of judgment if you have the chance to go to heaven as a martyr.” Soon afterwards, the man told her that he was about to leave. “I can’t tell my wife about my departure”, he wrote. “I don’t like to make her sad. I think the last minute will be best.” 
Ten years later, in December 2014, ‘Les soldats de lumière’ was unearthed when police searched the house of Sébastien Yunes Voyez Zairi, a young Frenchman who just had left for Syria. Zairi made the headlines in July 2015 for being the Islamic State operative who diffused the gruesome image of Hervé Cornara, a man decapitated in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier by his employee Yassin Salhi. Voyez Zairi was a friend of Salhi. 
Another notorious Frenchman who was found to own a copy of ‘Les soldats de lumière’ is Chérif Kouachi, one of the brothers who raided the office of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015. The book was also found at the home of Hayat Boumedienne. She is the wife of Amédy Coulibaly, who shot a police officer and attacked a Jewish grocery store in Paris in co-ordination with the Charlie Hebdo attack. Boumedienne has since fled to Syria. 
It may be coincidental, but Coulibaly and Kouachi were close to Djamel Beghal, a veteran of the French jihadist scene, while El Aroud befriended Beghal’s wife Sylvie when they lived in Afghanistan in 2001.  But there are also proven links between the early entourage of El Aroud and the contemporary jihad in Syria.
El Aroud was first brought to trial after her first husband killed Ahmed Shah Massoud. One of her co-defendants was Abdelhouaid Aberkan. In 2004 he was sentenced to three years in prison for having driven her husband to the airport when he set out on his deadly mission in Afghanistan. However, El Aroud was acquitted for lack of evidence that she too had contributed to the plot.
Three years later, she escaped justice once again when plans to liberate the convicted terrorist Nizar Trabelsi from a Belgian prison couldn’t be proven. The case was dropped before a trial could even start.
She is also a close friend of Fatima Aberkan, a sister of Abdelhouaid Aberkan, who was also arrested on suspicion of the plot to liberate Trabelsi in 2007.
Fatima Aberkan is known as the “Mother of Jihad” for playing a pivotal role in the flow of Belgian fighters to the Syrian war. She belonged to the Brussels-based network of Khalid Zerkani, notorious for its recruitment of terrorists such as Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Apart from overseeing many of the logistics alongside her brother Abdelhouaid, Fatima also dispatched four of her own sons, telling them that they should hurry to become a martyr, which at least one of them has managed to do. 
A final indicator of El Aroud’s enduring influence emerged shortly after the March 2016 Brussels attacks. In a statement distributed by the al-Wafa Media Foundation, a semi-official outlet of Islamic State, ten reasons were listed for the attacks. “For you imprison the virtuous, pure and chaste Muslimas” was one of them. “Or have you forgotten what you have done to our sister Malika?” 
So it is understandable that when the end of El Aroud’s prison term was approaching, Belgian authorities began to worry about her release. In 2014, proceedings were started to strip her of her Belgian citizenship, which is legally possible because she also is a citizen of her native Morocco. The judicial battle lasted longer than foreseen, however, and when the Brussels court of appeal finally ruled to revoke her citizenship late in 2017, she had already been free for almost a year. 
It is by way of that decision, and a recent change in the law, that the Belgian government can order her expulsion now. Until February of last year, foreigners who were born in Belgium or arrived before the age of twelve could never be stripped of their right of residence. That is possible now when they are considered to be a serious threat, in criminal or terrorist terms, even if they are not convicted of any crime. El Aroud can still appeal, and further proceedings will likely take time. But, for now, she has to await the final decision in a closed removal center. 
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 Farouk Ben Abbes condamné à quatre ans de prison pour avoir animé le site djihadiste Ansar Al-Haqq, Le Monde, July 6, 2018.
 Le Favergien Hamza El-Alami est mort en faisant le djihad en Afghanistan, L’Essor Savoyard, March 29, 2012.
 Malika El Aroud impliquée dans l’affaire Degauque, La Libre, October 9, 2007.
 Conversation that took place between late 2004 and early 2005 via private messaging on the Minbar forum, cited in a confidential police report in the possession of the author.
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