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SPECIAL: Sisters of Battle: Understanding the Role of Female Terrorists

SPECIAL: Sisters of Battle: Understanding the Role of Female Terrorists Homeland Security TodayFollowing the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, I wrote about the value of intelligence analysts in seeking out and identifying brothers within a terror organization. These familial bonds can provide information about the patterns and activities of terrorist organizations.

The attack in San Bernardino, California highlighted a parallel set of implications involving the female terrorist. As more and more stories emerge about 27-year old Tashfeen Malik and her 28-year old husband Syed Farook, it appears Malik had a key role in their radicalization, had pledged allegiance to ISIS, and was instrumental in the preparation and execution of this heinous crime.

For anyone surprised that a woman would take such a role in the abject horror that a terrorist-style mass murder brings, understand that the presence of women in a terror group is neither a new phenomenon nor limited to any one type of group or role. While terrorism, much like other forms of asymmetric warfare, is a male-dominated calling, history is full of examples of women who been drawn to terrorism — albeit for different reasons than why men are drawn to it.

Female terrorists should not be considered an anomaly. They are, in fact, quite common, as are some of the particular trends and patterns that can be associated with their presence.

Women are more prevalent in leftist/Marxist groups than in radical Islamic jihadi groups. While many Islamic groups welcome women into their ranks, they are often there for specific, non-leadership tasks. Contrary to this are the many leftist/Marxist groups which were either founded by women or had women in leadership positions.

Women are often used by terrorist groups because they are effective. As terror groups actively seek out soft targets (i.e., non-military), the fact that they are viewed as less threatening and receive different treatment by security personnel can be a great benefit to a group’s operations. For example, getting by security checks was a key element to the success of the August 2004 suicide bombings of Russian passenger aircraft by two Chechen women, Amanta Nagayeva (30) and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova.

Women attackers will also typically receive more attention and coverage from the media, making them an even more effective way for terror groups to get out their messages. Showing the world women are drawn to their cause is an excellent recruiting tool for any extremist group, helping them to appear to be more widely accepted.

Female terrorists also have a better chance of survival and to have a life beyond terrorism. While joining a terror group for a majority of males is a one-way door, women have a greater chance of surviving as a terrorist and in some cases returning to normal society afterwards. This is partly because of the more supporting roles they tend to take, and also because they are more often accepted back into their respective societies after their stint in terror has ended.

Finding a woman within a terror group — like finding brothers –often leads to more information about the group’s activities and intentions.

Here are some of the commonalities of women within terrorist groups:

  • Women are almost always directly linked to a male counterpart. Most often, women are recruited and radicalized by a significant man already in the group such as a loveror family member. It is rare for women to enter into a terror group alone or bonded with other women. If preliminary reports about Tashfeen Malik hold true, we may be looking at a slight deviation. While she was still attached to a man, her husband, initial reports demonstrate that she may have been the one who radicalized Syed versus the other way around.
  • Women have different motivations than men. Where male terrorists will more often be motivated by comradery, power, or glory for their cause, female motivations will tend to be centered around the safety and security of their family or community. In the context of Maslov’s hierarchy,a female terrorist’s needs are much more foundational than a male’s. The presence of women in a group will change how you should look at the motivations, goals, and objectives of the rest of the group.
  • Women have different attitudes toward ruthlessness. Because of their more fundamental set of motivations, female terrorists’ attitude toward violence will be different than men. They will also understand that they, as a female, can be perceived as weak or sympathetic with their victims. Therefore, women are more prone to sacrifice themselves in the form of suicide attacks and bombings and will not shy away from resorting to violence to compensate for any perception of weakness. For example, if a terrorist group that contains a woman are holding hostages, look for the female to demonstrate her ruthlessness in order to establish that she is just as dangerous as her male comrades.
  • The woman’s role in a terror group corresponds to her role in society. The notion that women will only be found in supporting roles and not “run and gun” with the boys is a myth. Women are just as apt at sharpshooting, bombing, taking hostages, and executing prisoners as men. What’s important to understand is that a terror group’s social and rank structure will mirror the society it came from and the role of the woman in the group is no exception. For example, in leftist/Marxist groups, look at women as leaders, planners, bomb makers, and even trigger pullers. In radical Islamic groups, women will rarely be accepted in leadership positions. Women are welcome in these groups, but only in certain roles. An exception to this would be in isolated or self-radicalized cells that would then pattern the particular host society, such as one in a more Western country.
  • Terrorist groups will exploit women to gain more publicity about their cause. Media attention is a critical part of extremist groups in exporting their message of terror. The extra focus media will give to women only helps to get terrorists’ message out. This includes the recruitment message; highlighting women may even shame men into joining.

The presence of females may be a sign of potential weakness or vulnerability in a group. Mia Bloom in the Washington Post article, Female Suicide Bombers are Not a New Phenomenon, that the use of women may signal a difficulty in the group either in being able to attack certain targets or in their inability to recruit enough men to continue operations.

There could be several reasons why a group has women. Some may be an indication of a weakness rather than strength.

Unfortunately, the attack in San Bernardino won’t be the last attack in the latest wave of terror directed at Americans. It also will not be the only time we will see a woman as a major participant. Understanding the unique aspects of female terrorists is a critical part of understanding and predicting the future actions of such terrorist groups.

Erik Kleinsmith is the associate vice president for strategic relationships in intelligence, national and homeland security and cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army intelligence officer and former portfolio manager for intelligence and security training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of the book, The Watchers, by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al Qaeda prior to 9/11.

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