The young Spanish woman who went from ‘fallera’ to jihadist

Cristina B., whose social media pictures show her at Valencia’s Las Fallas festival or at sports competitions, was arrested last week for belonging to a terrorist organization after she tried to cross into the conflict zone in Syria to join ISIS forces, according to police sources

Cristina B following the arrest by the police.
Cristina B following the arrest by the police.EL PAÍS
Patricia Ortega Dolz

Up until January 2017, Cristina B. was like any other young woman in Cullera, a small town in the Spanish region of Valencia. On social media, the 24-year-old was seen dressed as a fallera, wearing an elaborate traditional dress used during Valencia’s famous Las Fallas festival. There are also pictures of her in sports competitions, going out with friends and sharing romantic moments with someone who appeared to be her partner at the time.

But for the past 11 months, she had been known in her town as “the woman in black.” She had swapped the colorful trims, ribbons and petticoats of the fallera dress for a niqab, which only allowed her almond-shaped eyes to be seen. It was a change that did not go unnoticed by her family, or her friends or even the rest of the town, which is home to 22,000 people. It was someone from Cullera who alerted the police: “She is the only person who dresses like that.”

For more than a decade Cristina had belonged to the Raval de Sant Agustí Falla, a group that helped organize the annual fiestas. She left the group two years ago, but recently returned with one of her best friends.

After the recent attacks in France, she also began to write things in an apocalyptic tone, showing certain suicidal thoughts and her willingness to be a martyr
Police investigator

A food enthusiast, Cristina had completed a cooking training course at the Joan Llopis Marí School, and in recent years she had been making a living by making cakes and working in the hostelry industry. That’s according to sources of a year-long investigation that led to Cristina’s arrest last Wednesday on charges of belonging to and financing a terrorist organization. The alleged jihadist, who officers say sent “at least €5,000” to Islamic State (ISIS) forces in Syria, was remanded in custody on Friday by orders of a judge at Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional.

Officers surprised Cristina at the home of her parents, whom she was living with despite getting married in Morocco in December 2019. Following the Muslim rite, Cristina married a young Moroccan surfer, but the relationship ended after her husband refused to cross with her from Turkey into Syria last January. After this “failed” trip, divorce proceedings began and Cristina started to research how she might join ISIS by herself. She became increasingly radical. “He deserved it,” she wrote on social media after learning of the beheading of the French teacher Samuel Paty, who was killed on October 16 in Paris during a class on freedom of speech.

La presunta yihadista detenida en Cullera (Valencia) vestida de fallera en 2014.
La presunta yihadista detenida en Cullera (Valencia) vestida de fallera en 2014.EL PAÍS

“She had bought her tickets and had the contact details of the person who was going to help her cross into Syrian territory,” say sources close to the investigation, who watched incredulously as Cristina’s views grew exponentially radical from January onward.

Cristina converted to Islam in the spring of 2017, according to sources from the case, and began to call herself “Fátima” in Muslim settings. In August of that same year, coinciding with the terrorist attacks on Barcelona, she began to obsessively search for increasingly more radical material. “The search history of seven devices that were seized from her home show the compulsiveness of her searches,” say sources close to the investigation. She collected manuals about the use of firearms and on how to make explosives, some of which she even shared with her friends, who thought of her transformation as “strange” but never turned their back on her. Indeed, sources say that Cristina skillfully used her friends, asking them to do things for her (“buying, selling, looking for information on the internet”) in an attempt to hide her preparations to join ISIS.

“After the recent attacks in France, she also began to write things in an apocalyptic tone, showing certain suicidal thoughts and her willingness to be a martyr,” say sources close to the investigation. “Her parents, knowing the path that their daughter was heading down, felt a degree of relief after her arrest,” the same sources say.

“In a bid to get married to one of the jihadists that she met via social media, the accused left her job last September to focus solely on collecting money, which she obtained by criminal acts, to pay for her journey to the ‘conflict zone,’” explained the police press release sent last Friday.

Eight women arrested since 2014

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, women have played an important role among European ISIS fighters. They have moved to the frontline, acting as caregivers, the mothers of future jihadists and as mere sex objects. But according to sources close to the investigation, in the case of Cristina, her goal was to “join the combat,” which is why she “vigorously studied manuals on the use of weapons.” “These terrorist groups have focused part of their work on recruiting women, mainly via social media, with the aim of marrying them to a Mujahideen [soldier who forms part of an Islamist movement] or waging violent jihad, and even integrating them in the so-called Women’s Brigades,” according to the press release.

Since 2014, the National Police have arrested a total of eight women who planned on traveling to the “conflict zones.” The last woman was arrested in February 2017. She was the wife of an ISIS leader stationed in Syria in 2014. According to police information, her journey to the Syria-Iraqi zone – which she had already begun with her four children – was frustrated when she learned of her husband’s death in combat. She was sentenced by the High Court to five years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organization.

At least two Spanish jihadist women, Luna Fernández and Yolanda Martínez, also joined ISIS with their husbands. After the fall of ISIS, the two women and their 13 children were sent to the Al Roj refugee camp where they remain as they await for Spanish and European authorities to decide whether or not they should be repatriated.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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