How a London teenager plotted attacks with an all-female terrorist cell
Safaa Boular, 18, is found guilty by a jury in London, making her Britain’s youngest convicted female Islamic State terrorist
Safaa Boular claimed she led an unhappy teenage life. Teased by strangers for looking like a “ninja, umbrella and postbox” because of her Islamic dress, and starved of attention by an increasingly religious mother, she sought acceptance elsewhere.
She developed an interest in terrorism after the 2015 Paris attacks after becoming “curious” to find out “why people do the things they do”. It was on Twitter that she came across a woman in Syria called Umm Isa Al-Amriki – “mother of American” – who painted the caliphate as a world where “everyone was equal”. In no time, Safaa accumulated hundreds of Isis contacts and through them met Naweed Hussain, a British-born Islamic State militant in Raqqa.
A lengthy trial focused on how the teenager went on to become one of the youngest females to be charged with terrorism offences in Britain, and the driving force behind what officers called a “dysfunctional family unit” and Britain’s first all-female terror cell linked to Isis.
Detectives said the guilty verdict on Monday suggested a pattern at odds with the usual understanding of the role young women within radicalised networks occupy: not as passengers or victims, but as determined perpetrators of violence in their own right.
Safaa, 18, had consistently denied two charges of planning to travel to Syria for Isis activity and engaging in preparations for terror attacks on iconic landmarks in London including, most notably, the British Museum. But the jury found her guilty of both charges, making her Britain’s youngest convicted female Islamic State terrorist.
Her older sister Rizlaine Boular, 22, her mother, Mina Dich, 44, and their family friend Khawla Barghouthi, 21, have pleaded guilty to terrorism charges after a covert operation by counterterrorism police and MI5. They will be sentenced later this year.
Over a period of several months, MI5 agents searched and bugged the family home, situated in a grand block of flats directly opposite the MI6 building in Vauxhall. The women were arrested in separate armed raids in one night, during which Rizlaine Boular was shot after failing to comply with police orders. She made a full recovery.
Safaa was the last to stand trial, and the defence’s case hinged on the so-called grooming influences of both Hussain and her family. Her lawyer, Joel Bennathan, urged the jury to look beyond the confident and assertive young woman they saw in the witness box and imagine an insecure, far less articulate teenager who struck up an online relationship with a much older man.
“At the time I was reading a lot of romantic stories. For me, I wanted to be married and have a romantic relationship,” Safaa told jurors.
The court heard how the 30-year-old Hussain messaged Safaa, then 16, on Instagram. The pair bonded over a shared enthusiasm for British television shows like Deal or No Deal and The Chase, before having what the teenager considered an online Islamic marriage in 2016. Hussain, a prolific Isis recruiter from Coventry with ambitions to be the next “Jihadi John”, was reportedly killed in a targeted drone strike in 2017.
During the course of their relationship, Safaa and Hussain talked of his-and-hers suicide belts and fantasised about killing then-US president Barack Obama. He also sent money to Rizlaine Boular that the sisters were to use to travel to Turkey and on to Syria. After this plan was thwarted by police officers when they stopped Safaa at a port when she was returning from a holiday in Morocco with her mother, Hussain repeatedly encouraged her to stage an attack in Britain instead.
“Around November  he proposed to me about an attack at Christmas,” Safaa told the court. “He asked me if I was scared of being in an attack and I told him, ‘Yes, I am’. Then he went back to the same usual lovey-dovey topics.”
Hussain raised the prospect again in early 2017, suggesting she launch an attack on Valentine’s Day, and finally on her birthday in March, when he talked about “tokarev” and “pineapples” – guns and grenades – in relation to a proposed British Museum attack.
But Safaa insisted she never agreed to any attack.
But the prosecution spoke of Safaa’s “determined efforts” to engage in acts of terrorism, first in Syria and then in Britain. They said that the idea of a child being groomed was not supported by the evidence and that the underlying intention was always hers.
“If someone develops an interest in Islamic State [and] forms an intention to go to that part of Syria, does common sense not tell you it is the fight that is drawing her, rather than the coffee shops and restaurants?” said prosecutor Duncan Atkinson. Hussain, Atkinson added, was Safaa’s “ticket to Syria, not her reason for going there”. This is why she took selfies outside the MI6 building with a clenched fist, and visited the British Museum after his death in April 2017.
By then, both Safaa and Hussain had been in contact with undercover operatives from the British security services. When one took on the role of Hussain’s commanding officer in Syria and informed her of his killing, Safaa relayed his plan to attack the British Museum. “Akhi”, she said, “my heart has been set on this for months. Only Allah can guide me but your assistance is needed desperately.”
In recorded phone conversations, the sisters discussed an attack in coded terms about an Alice in Wonderland-themed Mad Hatter’s tea party, with cucumber sandwiches. Simultaneously, Rizlaine and her mother travelled to various landmarks in London, believed to be a reconnaissance on potential targets. The following day, they went to a supermarket on Wandsworth Road and purchased a packet of kitchen knives and a rucksack. On their journey home Mina Dich stopped the car and threw away the smallest of the knives. The next day, Rizlaine was recorded discussing the planned knife attack and practising at Barghouthi’s home.
This accelerated the police’s arrest plans, and that evening, armed raids took place. Rizlaine and Barghouthi were arrested at the latter’s home in Harlesden and Dich was arrested visiting Safaa at the Medway Secure Training Centre.
Dean Haydon, Britain’s top counterterrorism officer, said, “All three women were filled with hate and toxic ideology and were determined to carry out a terrorist attack.”
While she was portrayed as a victim by her defence, the jury concluded that she was a knowing, if not the key, participant in this saga.
“We can’t say who the ringleader is in the family, there are lots of different strands to this,” Haydon said, though he described Safaa as a “calculated” and “devious” teenager who was committed to her cause, emphasising that Safaa had reached out to individuals in Syria and that Hussain encouraged or inspired her thereafter.
“If we hadn’t arrested her and intervened when we did, I’m without a doubt she would have carried out an attack here in London, causing injury and death,” he said.