The radicalisation of Safaa Boular: A teenager's journey to terror

BBC News

By Dominic Casciani

Teenager Safaa Boular has been found guilty of plotting an attack as part of the UK's first all-female terror cell. The case has revealed the workings of a truly dysfunctional family.

April 2017 - five bangs rang out as heavily armed police fired CS gas into a suburban home. As the officers broke into the property in north-west London, a 21-year-old woman was shot.

Screaming in pain and in anger, Rizlaine Boular was dragged to the street to receive first aid.

"Don't touch me, my body, don't touch my dress," witnesses heard her shout, as she wrestled feebly with the officers.

She was one of the targets of a major surveillance operation.

More than 50 miles away, Rizlaine's mother, Mina Dich was arrested outside the Medway Secure Training Centre - a youth prison. There, her daughter Safaa was already awaiting trial, having just turned 17.

Safaa's sister and mother were about to join her in custody, accused of the first all-female terror plot in the UK.

When Safaa Boular, now 18, eventually took to the witness box in her defence, she was every inch the professionally minded student.

She stood there in a smart black mini-skirt, top and cardigan, with highlights in her hair. She was polite but firm - softly spoken, but clear.

A year earlier, on the eve of her arrest, she had been wearing the most conservative of Islamic religious dress. So how did she end up as the youngest woman in the UK to be convicted of a terrorism plot?

Rizlaine and Safaa Boular grew up in a Thames-side flat in Vauxhall - across the road from MI6's imposing headquarters.

Their Moroccan-French parents split up acrimoniously when Safaa was aged six. While she maintained a good relationship with her father, the 18-year-old accused her mother during the trial of being violent and vindictive - the head of a chaotic home where the girls had to fend for themselves.

Mina would throw mugs. She would spit. And the next day she would act as if nothing had happened and say she loved her children deeply.

Mother's lectures

The family had not been remotely religious - but as the children grew up, Mina began to adopt a highly conservative interpretation of Islam, apparently without any proper religious instruction other than what she had found online.

She would lecture her daughters about covering up. When she discovered Rizlaine at the age of 16 talking to a man online, and wearing Western clothes and make-up, Mina was furious.

She assaulted her daughter, and Rizlaine then ran away.

When Safaa spoke to boys from her school on her phone, her mother was appalled. She confiscated the phone and made her wear even more conservative Islamic dress.

And under pressure from her mother, Rizlaine appeared to buckle and began to adopt the same world view.

Safaa's life worsened at 14. She was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, requiring a lifetime of insulin injections.

But, she told her trial, the diagnosis had initially made her happy.

"I got all the attention from my mum that I needed," she said. "She treated me like a little princess.

"After maybe a month or so, my mum got used to it and I had to start managing my diabetes myself.

"She was not looking out for me - and my diabetes was all over the place".

She was repeatedly admitted to hospital - but home had become a place where there were religious lectures but little in the way of parenting. Mina made her daughter fast - even though there was no religious requirement for a diabetic to do so.

And on 29 August 2014, Safaa ran away.

"This home is not the right place for me," she wrote in a note she left behind.

The escape did not last long. She was found in a local park calling ChildLine.

Syria attempt

As chaos reigned in the family during 2014, Safaa's older sister, Rizlaine, tried to run away to Syria. She was stopped after a call to the police from Safaa and her older brother. Rizlaine was found and returned from Istanbul. And police and social services initially investigated until it seemed she had settled down.

But at her trial, Safaa told the jury Rizlaine had been married off by her mother to a man her sister had known for only five days. While they later had a child, the couple soon split.

Safaa appeared to settle down as she gained more control of her diabetes - but it was not a happy existence.

The November 2015 Paris attacks had a big effect on her. She wanted to know what the self-styled Islamic State in Syria meant - and whether she was under a duty as a Muslim to help it, given her mother's lectures about being a good Muslim.

Online, she made contact with a woman recruiter in Raqqa, who was among the first and most prolific English language propagandists for IS. Partly through her, Safaa met hundreds of new people online.

"It was special, it was exciting," she told her trial. "I was not allowed to go out with my friends from school - so to have these friends was exciting."

And one of them was the man who would change her life forever - Naweed Hussain, a Coventry man twice her age, who had left for Syria with a friend in June 2015.

They never met in the flesh but soon enjoyed an online romance with a dark undercurrent.

Hussain would post images of apparently bustling life in Raqqa - no pictures of the war, other than one particular gruesome image he sent to Safaa of himself standing next to a publicly executed prisoner.

He confirmed everything that the recruiter had been saying - that life was good. But he was using these tales to groom young women.

As Safaa's GCSEs approached, she chatted with him for up to 12 hours a day.

"He was very caring, very sweet, very flattering. It was the first time that I had received this kind of attention from a male."

And like many romances, it was sealed by a holiday, although one where Safaa met her lover only electronically.

In August 2016, Safaa was staying at her grandfather's home in Morocco, away from her messy London life. Over a fortnight, she had deep conversations with Hussain about their future.

Hussain wrote: "I love you. I miss you loads uno, just to touch you, to make sure you are real and I ain't dreaming."

"Yeah me too," said Safaa.

And as they blew each other kisses, they promised they would meet in Syria - and blow each other up in the face of the enemy. Naweed Hussain sent Safaa a picture of his bomb belt.

"Belts… are a must even with you… Don't even be hesitant to pull da pin ok. Your honour is worth more than any kaffir's life," he wrote.

"Does the pin make me go [explosion emoji]?" asked Safaa.

"Yes - straight away. My one has a five second timer so they will laugh when I pull it."

Safaa sent emojis indicating she was laughing and then added: "When you're teaching me how to use in, God Willing, don't actually pull the pin - ok?"

During her trial, prosecutors said this discussion had been preparation for an act of terrorism. Safaa Boular said it was a jokey chat about self-defence, were they to be attacked at home.

A marriage

The couple's relationship moved on.

In a secret "ceremony" conducted on a messaging app, Safaa, Hussain, two witnesses, an Islamic State sheikh and a "guardian" hastily came together online.

In a series of text messages, which have not been recovered in the investigation, 16-year-old Safaa Boular "married" Naweed Hussain.

As she prepared to return to the UK, she hurriedly deleted all the posts and promised to keep it a secret.

Safaa told the jury she and her sister had talked about running away to Syria in 2016. By the time she had decided to "marry" Hussain, the sisters were agreed they would leave the UK.

But they were already on the security services' radar - and Safaa was questioned on her arrival home from her holiday in Morocco.

Police confiscated her phone and passport - and while Safaa confessed to talking to Naweed Hussain and her plan to go to Syria, she did not reveal the "marriage". It was time for MI5 to take an increasingly close look at Hussain.

MI5 deployed a team of undercover officers posing online as British extremists.

Their task was to extract as much information as possible out of Hussain.

The officers became characters, known to Hussain as Abu Maryam and Abu Samina, offering to organise an attack in the UK.

The operation's aim was to find out what else Hussain, who was using the name Abu Usama, was doing. Who were his other volunteers?

In social media messages, Hussain gave the MI5 officers some advice:

"Remember brother - war is deception," he said. "Keep your beard - but be like one of those moderate muslims who is happy living there and happy living with kaafirs [disbelievers].

"Cos brother believe me a lot of spies."

Hussain sent a list of possible targets, including the O2 Arena in London and the British Museum. But he also explained that IS commanders in Raqqa could help only if they knew who the volunteers were. At the minimum, that meant pictures of their passports and a pre-recorded "martyrdom" video that would be distributed after an attack.

Unsurprisingly, the MI5 team could not provide either. So, Hussain decided to go freelance.

"Bro, we are alone on our mission. Unfortunately no help from here as The State don't know who you are and can't verify you. So I am your only help, which I will off my own back, by trusting Allah."

He then revealed more help would be on offer if the undercover officers came up with the "hardware" - meaning firearms and bombs in backpacks.

Hussain said there were two more "brothers" who would join the fictional "attackers" on the day. MI5 now desperately needed to know more.

The race was on for MI5 to identify these potential attackers - Brother Three and Four.

British Museum

At the same time, Hussain had realised Safaa no longer had a passport or plan to reach Syria - so he suggested she attack the UK instead.

And, according to her evidence, Hussain made three proposals - the last being on her 17th birthday, in March. It came in a series of messages:

  • "Attack.
  • "British Museum.
  • "Few brothers and sisters.
  • "You're not going to know nothing until the day."

The British Museum had been on the target list he had inadvertently shared with MI5 - and the undercover officers had "agreed" to it five days earlier.

The messages to both Safaa and MI5 referred to grenades as "pineapples".

In evidence, prosecutors showed that Safaa had talked about visiting the British Museum in the days before her April arrest. But she told the jury the idea had come from her social worker.

Hussain appeared to believe the MI5 "brothers" would provide the weapons.

Prosecutors say Safaa Boular agreed to be part of Hussain's plan - the suggestion at her trial being that she was one of the two unidentified third and fourth "brothers".

"Brother 4"

On 2 April, Hussain, under constant pressure from the undercover team, gave away a crucial part of his plans.

"Bro 4 is my family," he said. "They won't know anything except where to go on the day and the parcel to collect - think of Bro 3 and Bro 4 as bonus from Allah."

MI5 knew that Bro 4 could not be Hussain's real brother, Nadeem, because he was already in prison for helping him join Islamic State. The finger was pointing at Safaa Boular.

The next day, as evening approached, Hussain told Safaa he was going to prayers - and he also broke off the conversation with MI5.

Hussain, who would have internet access until 21:00, asked the MI5 officers: "Speak later?"

"Maybe bro," came the response.

Within hours, Hussain was dead in what has been reported - but not officially confirmed - to have been a quickly organised US drone strike based on intelligence provided by the British.

However it happened, security and intelligence chiefs knew Hussain was dead because they obtained a picture of his corpse, shown at Safaa's trial.

And she received her own confirmation from another MI5 undercover officer.

"Salaam Alaykhum my name is Abu Nadeem, brother and emir [leader] to Abu Usama.

"Sister I must give u wonderful news that Abu Usama was made shahid [martyred], may Allah accept him to heaven.

"We celebrate this journey but God willing I have a duty to take care of his work. That includes you and the plans you were working hard on together.

"For now sister you must do nothing… until I contact you again."

MI5 had a bug inside the Boular family home - it picked up Safaa's hysterical reaction.

In the recording, played in court, Safaa broke down, while her mother constantly shouted: "God is great, God is great."

By this time, Safaa had confessed the relationship to her mother - and she had spoken to Naweed Hussain, calling him "Son".

"Listen it's what you wanted," said Rizlaine to her sister.

"Many people envy you. We are a step closer. Imagine if your appointment was first, you'd be happily waiting. He's waiting for you."

Safaa's arrest

The next day, "Abu Nadeem" - the undercover officer - contacted Safaa again and asked her to explain what she and Hussain had planned.

In her encrypted messages she said: "He never told me the ins and outs. He would tell me closer to the time.

"I don't know how but I want to hasten to meet my lord. He showed me a few main things with regards to the Tokarev [a Russian gun] and pineapple.

"He also mentioned a location. The only thing that has delayed this is getting hands on the stuff."

Safaa Boular was arrested and charged with preparing an act of terrorism and remanded in custody. But investigators still needed to establish who else was involved.

Her phone calls home were monitored. In one, she asked her mother whether the police had found a particular pillow. It was where she had hid her secret phone.

"Do you have my pillow, you know the, my smiley face pillow?" Safaa asked her mother. "I have bad memories about it so did you throw my pillow away?"

Mina Dich seemed confused and Safaa began to sob. Two days later she asked again about the pillow and her mother confirmed the police had taken it.

"Oh gosh," said Safaa. "Can I have my teddy bear and the Koran?"

The 'tea party'

Despite her apparent angst at being in prison, prosecutors told the Old Bailey that Safaa had encouraged her sister and mother to complete the mission - and both of them have admitted preparing an act of terrorism. This was done through what the trial heard was a clumsy code - referring to the attack as a "tea party" and "cakes" as the method.

Three days before the police moved in, Rizlaine spoke to her sister, with the recording later played in court.

"Yeah it's going to be like me like, and a few sisters and stuff, and we're just like a tea party," said Rizlaine.

"Sisters?" asked Safaa. "What sisters do you know though, like who's good at preparing cakes?"

"Don't worry - I'll give you feedback after, God willing, it's going to be fun. It's going to be on, er, Thursday. We're going to have this party."

Safaa paused and then asked quietly: "This Thursday? You serious?"

"Yeah," said Rizlaine.

"Mate, you guys are partying without me. "

This conversation was a key part of the evidence against Rizlaine Boular and Mina Dich, leading to their guilty pleas. But Safaa Boular said as far as she knew, all they were talking about was a genuine tea party. There was no mention in the recordings of the British Museum.

Rizlaine and her mother drove around Westminster, researching a target.

They bought new kitchen knives but immediately threw all but the largest one away.

Mina then went to see Safaa in prison in Kent. Rizlaine travelled to north-west London to see her friend Khawla Barghouthi.

A bug recorded her practising an attack and saying: "If I see a group of men together then I won't able to deal with it… If it's two women, I will, I will."

Within hours, the heavily armed arrest team stormed in.

Khawla Barghouthi later pleaded guilty to failing to alert the police to what she had known of Rizlaine's preparations.

No ringleader

Dean Haydon, the senior national co-ordinator for counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, says the investigation into the Boular family has been one of the most unusual his teams have faced.

"They are pretty dysfunctional as a family unit," said Mr Haydon. "There was a major safeguarding issue that we had to manage here."

Police have not identified any "controlling mind" in the family - no ringleader. It's not even clear when Mina became a threat.

At times she presented herself to the authorities as a concerned parent. When she first learned about Safaa's plan to go to Syria, she was furious and assaulted her.

But her daughter also told the court that her mother had delved into IS-related material online and had become friends with a Leicester woman who had attempted to reach Syria herself.

Perhaps just as importantly, Mina prevented Safaa from engaging with the wider world.

Banning her daughter from watching most TV, Mina Dich did however show her 14-year-old daughter a YouTube video called "A message from Satan".

Safaa told her trial that this video had been a key step in her own transformation. "I wanted to be more religious because I was scared of hell," she said.

By the time she appeared at her trial, Safaa Boular was a changed woman. While her mother and sister had appeared fully veiled at earlier hearings, the 18-year-old appeared no different to the average teenager. She told the jury that a year ago she had been isolated.

"Since coming to Medway [prison, while awaiting trial], it has given me a chance to speak to people from different backgrounds - boys, people of different faiths and cultures. I am picking up what I can to be the best person I can be, rather than getting it from a book."

The BBC understands that Safaa Boular has responded positively to de-radicalisation support - and some of her answers at trial suggested so.

But that did not mean she was not guilty of a crime.

Throughout her case, Safaa's defence was simple. She had been manipulated and used by a fighter, abused by her mother and misled by her troubled older sister. Unspoken, but hinted as, was a suggestion that she had been let down by investigators who could have extracted her earlier.

But, that's not what the jury saw. They saw a teenager who actively took steps to go to Syria to support a fighter, who admitted in messages she wanted to attack the UK and, when arrested, encouraged her sister and mother to carry on regardless.

Safaa Boular said it was all make-believe - she had even played "James Bond", taking a selfie of herself outside MI6's headquarters.

"It's online - nothing online is real," she told the jury.

But they thought differently - and now she faces a substantial jail sentence.

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