Veiled Threat

Abu Dhabi Stabbing: Why Law Enforcement Hates The Niqab & Burqa

Witnesses say the attacker who stabbed an American schoolteacher was obscured by a full-body veil—presenting a nightmare for investigators.

Franck Prevel/Getty Images

An anonymous message on a jihadist website calls on Islam’s true believers to attack American schoolteachers in the Muslim world. The United States embassy in the United Arab Emirates issues a warning to U.S. citizens, especially teachers at international schools, telling them to be careful. Weeks pass. An American woman, a divorced mother who reportedly is a kindergarten teacher, is stabbed to death after a gruesome struggle in the women’s room at a glitzy upscale shopping mall in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.

Seems like once again jihadists are on a rampage. But, in fact, the only conclusion that can be drawn clearly from the incident on Monday, on the basis of what’s known publicly so far, is that—because the killer was wearing a full-face veil called a niqab, sometimes called a burqa—we don’t really know much at all.

The uniform, adopted by some women out of devotion to a fundamentalist reading of Islam, and by others out of convention or coercion in conservative Muslim countries and communities, simply does not allow you to identify who is underneath. Abu Dhabi police have said they are not certain of the killer’s age, physical description, or even gender, despite some claims by eyewitnesses that the killer’s voice sounded like a woman’s.

The niqab obscures everything. The vaguely ninja-like outfit drapes the body in loose-fitting cloth, gloves the hands, and obscures the entire face, sometimes allowing the eyes to be seen, sometimes not. (One occasionally spies women wearing the niqab with designer sunglasses over their eyes, especially in the blingy Emirates.)

This problem of anonymity is one of the prime reasons the niqab was banned in France and some other European countries.

To be sure, the whole debate about veils there has been tied up in wrangling over freedom of worship, freedom of speech and Islamophobia. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy used it to cultivate right-wing anti-immigrant voters. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, specifically called on French Muslims to defy the ban. And occasionally it’s raised by terrorists holding European hostages.

Often lost in the debate is the fact that very, very few Muslim women wear niqab in France, while there are a great many French Muslim women who wear bikinis.

The core reason for banning full-face coverings is one of common sense: people who move around with their identities entirely obscured present an obvious problem for law enforcement, whether they are suicide bombers or shoplifters.

The attack in Abu Dhabi, in jihadist terms, is anomalous. It is rare for these would-be holy warriors who like to see themselves as “knights under the Prophet Mohamed’s banner” to single women out for attack as symbolic targets. There’s no honor in it, by their standards.

Sell women unbelievers into slavery, rape them under the guise of "temporary marriage," stone them to death for adultery—yes, all those things. But to murder a kindergarten teacher in a bathroom stall after a protracted argument and a struggle? Don’t think so.

There must certainly be male teachers at the same school who could have been targeted. And if we admit the possibility that this was not a jihad-inspired attack, given that we have for the moment no clue who was under that veil, then it could have been an ex-lover, a flunked student, a psychotic parent, a pathological killer, a jealous wife, an angry house servant, and so on and on.

Indeed, it’s possible (and common) for a murderer with personal motives to try to disguise the act as the work of a stranger or even a terrorist, and it’s probably worth remembering that the original post that provoked the embassy warning to teachers on October 29 was anonymous, not endorsed by ISIS or al Qaeda or any other group, and could have been put there by anyone.

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Bottom line: We really don’t know much of anything about this specific case, but we do know the niqab/burqa is a real problem for law enforcement. The French are right about that. “Banning the burqa” is really just a matter of public security and common sense.