An apartment building in the Paris suburb of St.-Denis a day after a raid by the French police. Credit Christophe Petit Tesson/European Pressphoto Agency
LONDON â?? When about 100 heavily armed police officers and soldiers took position shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday outside the building in the Paris suburb of St.-Denis where the presumed ringleader of the Paris attacks was holed up, a young woman appeared in a window.
â??Help!â? she shouted, according to the reports of witnesses. â??Help me!â?
But Hasna Aitboulahcen, a cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Islamic State jihadist believed to have orchestrated Franceâ??s deadliest terrorist attacks to date, did not fool the officers, who suspected a trap. Two hours and 5,000 rounds of ammunition later, this 26-year-old daughter of a Moroccan immigrant was dead, either by becoming the first woman to blow herself up in a suicide vest on Western soil or simply killed by the police â?? French officials were still not sure which.
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Ms. Aitboulahcen has been widely portrayed in the news media as a onetime wild child, at least by fundamentalist Muslim standards: smoking, drinking, staying out late, wearing cowboy hats, having lots of boyfriends and rarely going to the mosque. A widely circulated photograph shows her lying in a bubble bath, smiling coquettishly at the camera. In short, she seemed to be the thoroughly secular antithesis of how the pious Islamic State expects its women to behave.
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As many as six of the assailants in the coordinated Islamic State terrorist assault in Paris were Europeans who had traveled to Syria.
â??She drank alcohol and went to nightclubs,â? said the son of one neighbor, who said he had not seen her in a while.
But others, interviewed Friday in her old neighborhood, say that image was seriously out of date. Neighbors in the building where her mother lived and Ms. Aitboulahcen spent time intermittently, in the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, said the daughter had recently been wearing a face-covering veil outside the house. â??She was very respectful,â? said one woman, who recalled first seeing Ms. Aitboulahcen last summer. â??May God have mercy on her, whatever she did.â? The woman declined to give her name for reasons of privacy.
On a now-defunct social media account, Ms. Aitboulahcen apparently posted a photo of herself in full Muslim garb in June, French and Belgian news organizations reported, and wrote, â??Soon I will go to Syria, God willing.â?
She never made it there. But in the Wednesday morning raid in which Mr. Abaaoud and one other person also died and five others were captured, Ms. Aitboulahcen was said to have been the first one to open fire, with a Kalashnikov rifle. The authorities in Paris still have not confirmed that she was the one who donned a suicide belt in the face of the onslaught, but she was described as having been clearly combative.
A tense exchange, captured on a neighborâ??s video around 5 a.m., preceded a battle of uninterrupted gunfire that would last for almost an hour.
â??Where is your boyfriend?â? an officer shouted.
â??Heâ??s not my boyfriend,â? Ms. Aitboulahcen shouted back.
Seconds later the crack of an explosion rocked the building. Part of the third floor collapsed.
A childhood friend who gave her name as Khemissa told a newspaper, Le Parisien, that she was shaken and saddened by the transformation of someone she had gone to school with and described as close.
â??She was not the kind of girl who blows herself up,â? said Khemissa, who declined to give her last name. â??She was a little crazy and loved life, made the most of life. She went through a bad patch and was influenced by these murderers.â?
Ms. Aitboulahcenâ??s brother, who withheld his first name, said his sister radically changed over the past six months, though he questioned the sincerity of her religiosity. â??She was unstable,â? he told RTL radio. â??She fabricated her own bubble. In no way did she want to study her religion. I never saw her open a Quran.â? Her mother said she had been â??brainwashed.â?
It is still not clear what role Ms. Aitboulahcen played in Mr. Abbaoudâ??s Islamic State cell. Was she a part of a fourth suicide team, aimed at the moneyed towers of La DÃ©fense, the business district on the western edge of Paris, or Charles DeGaulle Airport, as the French police have hinted?
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Investigators are ruling nothing out. But it would have been a striking departure from Islamic State strategy and ideology so far if she were a commando.
ISIS actively courts women as wives, mothers, recruiters and sometimes online cheerleaders of violence. Those who make it to Syria sometimes receive military training for defensive purposes. But they are barred from combat. Unlike other Islamist groups from Chechnya to Nigeria, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State has not used women as suicide bombers (the closest they got was a man dressed in womenâ??s garb).
Instead, officials and terrorism experts say, Ms. Aitboulahcen was more likely to have been in charge of logistical support, organizing the safe house where she died and, by her mere presence, making the men look less suspicious.
Whether Ms. Aitboulahcen was a suicide bomber or not may prove irrelevant in the long run, experts say.
â??She is not a suicide bomber as such because she did not die in an attack,â? said Katherine Brown, a lecturer in the Defense Studies department of Kingâ??s College London who specializes in violence by Muslim women. But ISIS is unlikely to pass up this opportunity to exploit her dramatic death, she said: â??She is a martyr in their eyes.â?
It would not be the first time. Before a Jordanian pilot was filmed being burned alive in January this year, ISIS was demanding the release of the prisoner Sajida al-Rishawi, a Palestinian woman whose suicide bomb failed to go off during a 2005 attack in Amman. The group called her a â??sister,â? said Sasha Havlicek, co-founder and chief executive of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counterterrorism policy group that monitors female ISIS-affiliated social media accounts.
And when Hayat Boumeddiene, the girlfriend of Amedy Coulibaly, an accomplice of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, managed to escape to Syria, the Islamic Stateâ??s in-house magazine Dabiq praised her in a lengthy interview.
Ms. Aitboulahcen was a fan. On Aug. 3, she posted a new profile picture on her Facebook page featuring Ms. Boumeddienne with a crossbow.
In many ways, Ms. Aitboulahcenâ??s life story mirrors that of the male members of her terrorist cell. She had a modest upbringing as the child of immigrants in a sometimes hostile society and fell into petty crime. The local police had a file on her for drug peddling.
One of four children, she was born in the northern Paris suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne, a heavily immigrant neighborhood. Her upbringing appears to have been troubled. The parents split up early and all four siblings are believed to have spent some time in foster care. Her father moved to Creutzwald, the mayor of the town, Jean-Luc Wozniak, said, but Ms. Aitboulahcen appears to have lived mostly with her mother in the Paris suburbs. She was 16 when immigrant neighborhoods across the country erupted in a monthlong outburst of rioting in 2005.
Neighbors told the mayor that she had spent the summer of 2011 in Creutzwald but had not been seen there recently. The father, who was born in Marrakesh and came to France in 1973 to work at a car factory, left for Morocco in July.
It is unclear what triggered Ms. Aitboulahcenâ??s radicalization. She was close in age to Mr. Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian-Moroccan whose mother is the sister of Ms. Aitboulahcenâ??s mother, officials confirmed. Investigators presume that Mr. Abaaoud, who is believed to have risen through the ranks of the Islamic State in part because he proved his aptitude in recruiting volunteer fighters in Europe, lured his cousin into the ISIS orbit, just as he had drawn in his younger brother Younes last year.
If Ms. Aitboulahcenâ??s role in the Paris attacks was to help keep the ringleader and a possible fourth attack team safe, it did not work out that way. In the end, it was her cellphone â?? traced to the safe house â?? along with a sighting of Mr. Abaaoud that helped lead investigators to the third-floor apartment in the suburb of St.-Denis, officials said.
â??She was the weak link,â? said one official close to the investigation.