When the Sri Lanka attacks occurred in April, numerous articles identified 9 suicide bombers, including a woman. The idea of a woman involved seemed shocking, but the reality is that female terrorists are becoming more common. Last month, a New Jersey woman was sentenced to 48 months in prison after connecting American extremists with ISIS; meanwhile, debates continue over whether Western fighters should be allowed to return home. Articles like these raise questions about the identity and role of female terrorists.
Who Are They?
The notion of a female terrorist is not new: the Tamil Tigers recruited women back in the 1980s and the all-female Chechen terrorist group, Black Widows, has been active since the early 2000s. However, the role of women in terrorist organizations has changed throughout the last decade. ISIS transformed the idea of terrorism into a “family affair” with a purpose for every family member. The primary role for women in the Islamic State is to “serve the state via procreation” and to educate children. As of July 2018, female ISIS members had given birth to 730 children – a new generation of fighters. But as ISIS lost territory, it began to follow other groups and increase its reliance on female recruiters and fighters.
A Look at the Numbers
Recent reports estimate that women comprise 15-25% of terrorist organizations and 20% of Western recruits are female. A 2017 UNDP report estimated 17% of “extremist recruits in Africa” are women. Finally, a 2018 ICSR report suggested that 13% (4,761) of ISIS foreigners are female. Interestingly, only 5% of women who traveled to Syria and Iraq for ISIS after 2013 returned by 2018, compared to the 19% of men who returned home during the same time period.
Terrorist organizations recruit women in various ways. ISIS has largely relied on its message for women to “live as good Muslims,” which has been successful in convincing many to join voluntarily. Al-Shabaab preys upon the insecurities of young Muslim women who are afraid of pursuing higher education in fear that it would delay or ruin their marriage prospects. As such, Al-Shabaab encourages girls to join the organization and marry fighters.
Al-Shabaab also recruits by promising women jobs, financial support, and counseling. It exploits those in poverty, who can be persuaded that joining a terrorist group is a chance to get a job or become more independent. Similarly, women in Colombia’s FARC and Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil join the organizations because they are offered more freedom than found in their societies.
What’s the Appeal of Women?
More terrorist organizations have begun to recruit women because they can act as influential recruiters and they go through less rigorous screenings than men at checkpoints. Women can be successful recruiters because they are good at detecting early signs of radicalization, as extremists often target women’s rights early. They are also particularly good at recruiting other women who feel more comfortable trusting a woman as an initial contact person. Women are less likely to be stopped and searched, and they can hide bombs and other weapons in their clothing. Whereas men may be viewed suspiciously, women can more easily avoid detection.
Women as Fighters
In addition to recruiting new members, some women are fighters. Most often, women are suicide bombers. In 2017, the Global Extremism Monitor found 100 suicide attacks were done by 181 females (11% of all incidents that year).
Boko Haram utilizes female suicide bombers most frequently. Boko Haram actively seeks women as they are “cheap and more expendable than male leaders.” From 2014-2018, 450 women and girls were suicide bombers for the group, resulting in the deaths of over 1,200 people. Presently, two-thirds of Boko Haram’s suicide attackers are women.
What to Do?
Traditional rehabilitation approaches that may be used for men are not conducive for women who deal with problems such as trauma from assault and caring for children whose fathers are often dead or not present. Diverse approaches that address the underlying reasons why women are joining terrorist organizations are necessary.
In recent years, Afghanistan has slowly started to tackle this issue by recruiting and training more female police officers. This helps fill the necessary security gap of searching women and children during raids and at checkpoints, making it more difficult for them to hide bombs and blow themselves up. Although these women still face severe ostracization in Afghanistan, this is a base for future policies that offer women independence, a stable job, and useful skills.
Other countries and organizations are finding additional opportunities to utilize women. For instance, the UN has taken an active stance in programs that counter terrorism through the facilitation of “women’s participation, leadership, and the protection of their rights.” As women often have a strong understanding of local issues, there are ways to promote them within their communities and prevent them from engaging with terrorism. This is a necessary start to approaching the issue of more female terrorists bent on disrupting our world.