'Jihad Jamie' and the 'black widows': Why women turn to terrorism

Statistically, women are far less violent than men. But the case of Jihad Jane's alleged conspirator, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, and the resurgence of the black widows in Chechnya suggest that when it comes to terrorism, men and women have much in common.

Courtesy of Christine Mott/AP
In this undated photo, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez is shown with her son, Christian Carreon. Ms. Paulin-Ramirez, also known as 'Jihad Jamie', was the second American arrested in a plot to kill the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks over a 2007 sketch depicting the head of the Prophet Muhammad on a dog's body.

Two recent incidents in the United States and Russia are suggesting that, when it comes to terrorism, men and women are perhaps not as different as society might believe.

Jamie Paulin-Ramirez last week became the second American woman to be arraigned on terrorism charges in connection with the attempted assassination of a Swedish cartoonist, following alleged co-conspirator, Colleen LaRose, also known as "Jihad Jane."

Meanwhile, the recent terror bombings in Russia suggest the resurrection of the "black widows" – female suicide bombers that sprang up a decade ago to strike back at the Kremlin's during its war against Chechnya.

IN PICTURES: American Jihadis

In the US, where women commit fewer than 10 percent of murders, the reality of female terrorists can still shock – and even more so when they come from within American borders. But the case of Jihad Jane here and the resurgence of the black widows in Russia in many ways points to the universality of the terrorist message to certain people, be they men or women, poor or middle class, young or middle aged.

"The main motives and circumstances that drive female suicide attackers are quite similar to those that drive men" – a loyalty to cause and compatriots fueled by grievances against a common enemy, researcher Lindsay O'Rourke wrote in The New York Times in 2008. "Investigating the dynamics governing female attackers not only helps to correct common misperceptions but also reveals important characteristics about suicide terrorism in general."

Why women turn to terror

This is particularly evident with the black widows. They are turning to terrorism for the same reason that men do: conditions in the north Caucasus are spiraling out of control during the Kremlin's antiterror campaign, with Russian authorities often punishing families and even whole villages suspected of aiding insurgents, experts say.

By contrast, the arraignment of Ms. Paulin-Ramirez, who has said she will plead not guilty Wednesday, was jarring. She is pregnant, and she has a 6-year-old son. "It's staggering to see society's caretakers turn to violent destruction," writes Salon's Tracy Clark Flory.

This is partly because they so rarely do turn to violence. Men commit more murders than women "in all the countries researchers have examined," according to a recent article in Scientific American. "We often turn our backs to the possibility that women could commit such hideous acts of violence," says Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin. "We don't expect women to open fire ... and statistically they don't."

Under the radar?

Secular terrorist organizations have sought to turn that to their advantage. Nearly all – from Chechen separatists to Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers to the Syrian Socialist National Party – have used women to attack the enemy.

Ms. LaRose told co-conspirators in an e-mail that her appearance – blond hair and green eyes – would allow her to blend in “with many people,” so that she could achieve “what is in my heart.”

LaRose pleaded not guilty to terror conspiracy charges on March 18. Last Friday, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment also naming Ramirez as part of the plot to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. The same day Ramirez arrived in Europe last year, she married an Algerian man whom she had never met, and who, according to the indictment, was a conspirator in the plot, though he was not indicted.

"The issue of US converts [to radical Islam] is not new,” Juan Carlos Zarate, senior adviser in the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Monitor's Peter Grier. “What is new is that in this case, the convert may be a middle-aged female.”

IN PICTURES: American Jihadis

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