by BENEDETTA ARGENTIERI
Maria Giulia Sergio had a dream. The 27-year-old Italian woman wanted to move to Syria and join Islamic State. She believed in the jihad and praised Sharia law. She wanted the Caliphate to expand as far as Rome and wished death to infidels.
But to get there, she first needed a husband.
On Sept. 17, 2014, she met Aldo Kabouzi, a 24-year-old Albanian who was looking for a bride to join him on the jihad. The couple married a few hours after their first encounter in Treviglio, a small town 32 miles north of Milan.
Less than a week later, the couple bought a plane ticket to Turkey and moved to the self-proclaimed Caliphate along with Aldo’s mother. From that moment on she tried to convince her family to join her in Syria.
“Life is wonderful here, everybody is very helpful. You will not have to worry about anything,” she said over Skype to her parents and older sister.
After months of increasing pressure, Maria Giulia — who had changed her name to Fatima Az Zahra — succeeded. Her father, mother and sister bought plane tickets to Turkey from where they would cross the border into Syria.
On July 1, 2015, days before their journey, Italian police arrested Fatima’s family along with several of her husband’s relatives. It was one of the largest and most significant anti-terrorist operations in recent Italian history.
Italian authorities issued arrest warrants for Fatima and her husband —who are both still hiding out in Islamic State territory. “This is the first investigation in Italy concerning ISIS and one of the first in Europe,” prosecutor Maurizio Romanelli told journalists in Milan.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano called the operation a “a strong blow” to terrorists.
The investigation into Fatima’s activities began in November, several weeks after she and her husband moved to Syria. Court documents provide useful insights into how the terrorist organization recruits in Europe, including tips and rules on how those recruits make the journey.
A wannabe jihadi is limited to just one suitcase, according to the court papers. The Caliphate doesn’t allow smartphones or tablets — mainly for security reasons. After arriving in Turkey, the new recruits must immediately buy a new SIM card and call a pre-arranged number.
Using signals intelligence, Italian detectives located a Turkish mobile phone number as the center the recruiting network. Whenever someone called, the new recruit always asked the same thing: “We are in Turkey what shall we do next?”
This number received phone calls from Spain, Kosovo, France, Libya and the United Kingdom.
The phone was usually in the hands of Ahmed Abu Alharith, a high-ranking member of Islamic State. It was his responsibility to sort foreigners according to their nationalities, and that determined which border crossing into Syria they traveled through.
Many recruits were not fluent in Arabic, so “a brother” who spoke their language would accompany them into Islamic State territory. Once there, the terror group would again move the recruits to residences and training camps according to their nationalities.
The point behind splitting up foreigners is to compartmentalize them into a rigid, controlled structure — in which nobody from one group talks to other groups or knows what’s going on. This way, they’re easier to control.
Fatima called Ahmed as soon as she arrived in Turkey. She then met up with her middleman who brought her, Aldo, and her mother-in-law into Syria. As soon as she arrived, Aldo — who changed his name to Said — began military training at an unspecified location in Iraq.
Fatima trained how to use a Kalashnikov rifle and a pistol. “I shot against a tree,” she said, adding that she was ready for martyrdom if asked. She also studied Arabic and the Koran.
The court documents transcribed conversations in which Fatima described her daily life in Tishrin, a town between Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa and the northern city of Manbji. “Unlike other places we have electricity all the times and Internet for several hours per day,” Fatima said.
She told her parents that Said participated in the beheading of two Kosovars and the stoning of a man who cheated on his wife. She was thrilled. “This is what Allah wants,” she kept on saying, justifying atrocious acts with Koranic verses.
“When we cut someone’s head off,” she told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. “We are obeying the Sharia.”
The story of a well-educated Roman Catholic woman becoming a radical Islamist and dragging her family into it shocked the Italian public. The press nicknamed her “Lady Jihad.”
Fatima was born in Torre del Greco, near Naples, on Sept. 23, 1987. She is the youngest of two sisters. Her family moved to Inzago, a town close to Milan during her first year of high school.
It was there she converted to Islam. It’s unclear why she decided to renounce the Roman Catholic faith and embrace a new one, but her family followed her. She enrolled in the University in Milan where she studied biotechnology, but never graduated.
In 2009, she appeared on a TV show wearing a hijab and debated with right-wing politicians about the veil and the role of women in Islam. She married a local pizza-maker of Moroccan origin, but Fatima later rejected him because he drank alcohol and did not observe Ramadan.
The more she radicalized, the more her family distanced themselves from everyone else. Both her mother and sister started wearing a niqab — a veil which covers the face except for the eyes — and her father grew out his beard. They stopped talking to neighbors and never had people over.
At the same time, Fatima was looking for a new husband. At a local mosque she met Gjecaj Lubjana — who Italian police also arrested in the anti-terrorist operation which swept up Fatima’s family. Lubjana introduced her to Aldo and helped organize their marriage.
Authorities now believe Lubjana is an Islamic State recruiter. His job was to maintain an Internet propaganda forum aimed at bringing women into the Caliphate.
Fatima used Skype to talk to her family after she moved to Syria. She told them the authorities could not intercept her communications because she used a specific code to access the Internet. This claim stretched credulity.
From the beginning of her conversations from Syria, she tried to promote life under Islamic State rule. “IS … is a perfect state,” Fatima told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. “We don’t do anything here that conflicts with human rights.”
She wanted to convince her family to come over and start a holy life. Her mother-in-law was doing the same with relatives in Albania. When she spoke to her family, Fatima insisted they reply to her questions with only “yes” or “no.”
“Everybody who is a real Muslim should come and live here,” Fatima said. “I have everything I need. My home has furniture from war booty.”
She told them they wouldn’t have to worry about anything. As the months passed, Fatima pushed her family to make a decision. Her tone flashed from sweet to threatening, but she had the hardest time convincing her parents.
“Is there a washing machine? You know mum will go crazy without it,” Fatima’s sister asked. “Can we bring the cat?”
“What happens if I don’t like it over there, can I come back?” her mother wanted to know.
“What do you mean you don’t like it over here?” Fatima replied. “We will be all together, [so] that is impossible.” At the end of May, her father resigned from his job and received €25,000 in work compensation.
Fatima’s family decided to make the journey, but they had to wait and renew one final passport. Italian police arrested the family as soon as the passport arrived.
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