French ‘cowgirl’ turned suspected bomber – ‘Unstable … it’s brainwashing’

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Photo shows Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman believed to have blown herself up during police raid in Paris.
Photo shows Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman believed to have blown herself up during police raid in Paris.

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France, Nov 20, (AFP): Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman believed to have blown herself up during the police raid that killed the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, swapped her party-girl persona for that of an Islamist radical just months before her death.

Boulahcen’s story is that of a young woman from a broken home with an unstable disposition, who was nicknamed “Cowgirl” because of her penchant for cowboy hats before her dramatic conversion to radical Islam.

During Wednesday’s dawn raid in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, she was heard responding to a member of the crack police team that was hunting for her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged brains behind the attacks that killed 129 people last Friday. “Where’s your boyfriend, where is he?” the officer is heard shouting on a clip filmed by local residents. “He’s not my boyfriend!,” a high-pitched voice screams back. Several loud explosions are then heard, with Boulahcen understood to have detonated her explosives vest to become France’s first female suicide bomber. Speaking to AFP on Thursday, both her mother and her brother said they recognised her voice from the recording immediately.

Her brother, who did not want to give his name, said she had suddenly become radicalised about six months ago when she began wearing the niqab. “She was unstable, she created her own bubble. She wasn’t looking to study religion, I have never even seen her open a Holy Quran,” he told AFP. “It’s brainwashing,” added her 58- year-old mother, with whom she had been living in the gritty Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois until a few weeks ago.

For Sofiane, a neighbour in Aulnaysous- Bois, Boulahcen had “the gift of the gab” but was also “a bit crazy”. “She might appear suddenly in front of you and start rapping.” In the eastern town of Creutzwald near the German border, where her 74- year-old father lives, a longtime friend Jerome described her as a bon vivant who often wore a cowboy hat and boots and “smoked occasionally and drank on nights out”. Her father, a devout Muslim who had moved from Paris to work at Peugeot carmaker, is believed to be currently in Morocco.

Born in August 1989, Hasna Ait Boulahcen had a turbulent childhood, part of which she spent in a foster home. Her brother recalls her years in care, from age 8 to 15, as a time when she was “happy and blossomed”. “Initially, everything went well. She was a kid like any other,” albeit markedly unaffectionate, her former foster mother told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But then things took a turn for the worse. The foster mother, who wept when she saw Boulahcen’s picture on television, recalled her young charge “applauding in front of the telly” when the Al-Qaeda terror network attacked the US on September 11, 2001.

As time went on the teen became more difficult, prone to angry outbursts and sneaking out at night before leaving her foster home at 15. Sources close to the inquiry said she had been investigated in the past for drugs offences. More recently, according to her brother, “she spent all her time on her smartphone, on Facebook and Whatsapp”. Three weeks ago, she went to live with a friend in the suburb of Drancy, he said, a town a short drive away from Aulnay-sous-Bois

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