Lt. Col. Kathleen Turner recalls her frustration at watching the coverage of the San Bernardino shootings in December. One newscaster relayed the discovery that the couple was carrying a pipe bomb, and described Tashfeen Malik as the first would-be female suicide bomber.
“No, she isn’t,” Lt. Colonel Turner thought to herself.
She also noticed that the face of Ms. Malik was blacked out, as if she were a victim.
“The narrative has been, ‘These poor women.’ It’s never been the woman as the combatant, or the woman as the perpetrator,” she says.
An Army public affairs officer by training, Turner became intrigued by a question: “Why haven’t we recognized the impact of women – the deadly effectiveness of women – on security and society?”
Turner’s question is one of public misperception, but it’s one that also can have national security implications. Certainly national security experts are well aware that Ms. Malik was neither the first, nor the hundredth, would-be female suicide bomber. But an underestimation of female extremists permeates security in more nuanced ways, such as, for example, deradicalization programs that focus almost exclusively on men.
Women are a crucial part of the terror ecosystem either as jihadis and insurgents or enablers, and efforts at counterterrorism need to take that into account, Turner and other experts argue. Understanding what motivates women to radicalize can not only help the military recognize a threat when they see it, it also can help with prevention, experts say. The tendency of the public to overlook female extremists also appears outmoded to military experts like Turner in an age when, for the first time, all US combat jobs are being opened to women.
The Pentagon would be well-served in paying more attention to female terrorists in order to “better prepare ourselves,” says Turner, an Army War College fellow at the US Institute for Peace in Washington. “We need to make sure we don’t have that gender bias when we look at the threat.”
From Shining Path to the Tamil Tigers
After all, the very first person ever tried for being a terrorist, back in 1882, was a woman, notes Mia Bloom, professor of communication at Georgia State University.
Since then, women have been leaders in a number of violent extremist and revolutionary organizations, including the Baader-Meinhoff Brigade in Germany and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, which is 30 to 40 percent women, as is Peru's Shining Path. The leader of the Basque armed separatist movement in Spain is currently a woman.
The vast majority of terror attacks are carried out by men – one analysis found that women were responsible for 13 of 592 suicide bombings in 2014. But militant and terrorist groups have proven very willing to exploit people’s unconscious bias to think of women as weaker or less inclined to violence. Al Qaeda, the Chechen rebels, and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers all recruited female terrorists – with several hundred female suicide bombing attacks recorded since the first known one in Syria in 1985.
“The direct activity of women in some of these organizations may be surprising, but an analysis of how the role of women in the US military has evolved in the past few years confirms that this is not a unique phenomenon,” Turner says.
It’s important to be clear about who the terrorists are, she argues. “Terrorists know we have these built-in assumptions about the inherent peacefulness of women against us.”
These assumptions can be handy for terrorists, who send, say, armed women through checkpoints. If they aren’t as invasively searched by security forces, that is a victory for the terrorist groups. If they are, it can be a win as well, since it produces local outrage at the way women are treated.
The participation of women in terrorist acts is also more likely to strike fear in populations that expect women to be the peacemakers, rather than the instigators, says Dr. Bloom, author of “Bombshell,” a book about the history of female terrorists. It’s ingrained in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which puts forward the idea that if women are involved in peacekeeping initiatives, the peace is more likely to be sustainable.
“We don’t want to reject this wholeheartedly – women have played a very positive role in peacekeeping,” says Bloom.
Maybe a man didn't 'make her do it'
Yet it’s also important not to make assumptions about women who take part in terrorist acts, she argues, including that they must have been coerced or brainwashed. Women in male-dominated cultures sometimes see extremism as a way of claiming power for themselves in a society that limits their choices.
“At the end of the day, what you end up having is a lot of misconceptions about the role women play,” she says. “By saying that the only women who take part in terrorism have been manipulated into doing it, it allows an abdication of responsibility.”
Analysts often explain away the actions of female suicide bombers as a grief-stricken reaction to, say, the son or husbands they have lost in war, “as if it is based solely on emotion,” Bloom says. Men, on the other hand, are rarely asked what emotions or losses led them to become terrorists.
“The tagline has always been, ‘The woman was coerced, or ‘she’s a victim,’ or ‘How could she leave her family – a man must have made her do it,’ ” Turner adds.
Certainly, some children, women, and men are coerced into taking part in terrorist activities, including 10 year-old girls forced to become suicide bombers for Boko Haram.
“You’re not going to convince me that the eight year-old girl is ideologically radicalized,” Bloom says.
Even when women are being victimized, however, they often still strive to make their own choices – grim as they may be.
Women who have been raped in Muslim society are often blamed, cast out of their homes, and threatened with death, for example. “If you’re going to be killed by members of your own family, at least if you participate in Al Qaeda you’ll be able to reinvent yourself.” Rather than be labeled a rape victim, a woman can redefine herself as a jihadi, Bloom says.
Understanding these dynamics could help play a more effective role in prevention.
The emphasis in de-radicalization programs, for example, has historically been on efforts that have proved effective for men. But countering violent extremism with programs better geared toward bringing women back into the fold could reach a whole new population of people.
“For any 15 year-old girl who wants to leave [a violent extremist group], there’s no mechanism to allow that woman to come back,” particularly when sexual violence or exploitation has been involved, Bloom says.
Understanding the role gender plays in radicalization helps men, too, since terrorists play on traditional gender roles, including using women to goad men to prove their “manliness” by coming to fight for, say, the Islamic State.
It’s the sort of coercion that has long been effective in recruiting. It was rampant during World War I, when women of the ‘White Feather Brigade’ would walk the streets of London, and give feathers to men of military age who were not out fighting.
What happens when the rebellion is over?
In revolutionary groups like Colombia’s FARC, which has been fighting the government for more than 50 years, women also join because they are looking for leadership roles, says Virginia Bouvier, senior adviser for Peace Processes at the US Institute of Peace.
“In talking with FARC commanders, it’s very clear that they’re playing a leadership role, and that they’re valued for that role,” she says.
The question remains what happens to these women when the insurgency is over. The number of women holding local office in Colombia is “abysmal” at around 10 percent, Ms. Bouvier says.
“Imagine what it’s like for women who have been in the jungle their whole lives,” she says. So far, though FARC is in peace talks with the Colombian government, the women have not fared particularly well. “They’ve had an extremely difficult time,” Bouvier adds, noting that their children have occasionally rejected them because their mothers have left them to go off to war.
Their families often reject them, too. The stigma of their imagined behavior has led families “to feel a lot more shame than they did when boys were coming home.” In turn, that put “a lot of emphasis on getting their girls married very quickly,” thus reinforcing the highly traditional roles that many female insurgents were trying to escape in the first place, says Michael Shipler, regional director for Search for Common Ground.
And yet women are 40 percent of the FARC, and 17,500 of them are expected to demobilize as peace talks continue. “How is this population going to be dealt with?”
“FARC preferred women commandos, because they thought they were more vicious, more ruthless,” Turner says. “Respect was a lot of the reason why women join these groups. They want to show they’re just as dedicated to the cause as young men.”