Terror´s ´invisible women´ (LA TIMES OP-ED) By Karla Cunningham 04/04/12)
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Women are increasingly choosing to take violent roles in terrorist
groups. They can be difficult to detect, but authorities must step up
efforts to combat the growing threat.
Women are becoming more
lethal. In jihadist organizations — including
even Al Qaeda, which had long banned females from violent roles —
women are increasingly taking part in terrorist actions.
1985, terrorism´s so-called invisible women have accounted for
a quarter of fatal attacks in Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Chechnya,
Sri Lanka, Morocco and Palestine. My research found that by mid-2008,
women had acted as suicide bombers 21 times in Iraq´s markets and
other civilian venues patronized by Shiites.
Other research has
demonstrated that since 2002 women have carried
out fully 50% of suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, Turkey and
So why do we think of violent jihadists as largely
male? One reason
is that terrorism observers, mostly men who have historically focused
on men at war, tend to view women who participate in acts of
terrorism as exceptions. Given women´s increasingly violent roles in
jihadist organizations, however, researchers overlook females as
effective killers at our peril.
Chechen women have been so
successful as terrorists that Chechen
leadership has now shifted to using them more than men. The Sri
Lankan terrorist organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
managed to killIndia´sprime minister in a one-on-one suicide attack
because a female terrorist was able to get close to him where a male
terrorist might have had more difficulty.
participation in violence by female jihadists
represents, in part, a generational shift in their attitudes toward
violence. In the past, these women seldom went beyond such activities
as gun-running, harboring fugitives, fund-raising and intelligence —
activities that oiled the terrorist machine and enabled it to operate
smoothly but kept women at a remove from violence. Now many are no
longer content to sit on the sidelines.
In 2008, Ayman Zawahiri,
then second in command of Al Qaeda and
perhaps now its leader, allowed no female bombers in Al Qaeda. He
told female supporters their role was to stay home and raise
children. But then the next year his wife, Omaima Hassan, defied him
and went online to encourage women to become more active in
Part of the reason male jihadists have accepted more
participation is that terrorist organizations have lost many men
through counter-terrorism. As women have volunteered to become
suicide bombers, they proved to be highly successful in hiding their
bombs — and their intent to use them — under religious clothing. They
raise fewer suspicions, and male jihadists appreciate that women can
take advantage of the lack of female security personnel and gender-
biased enforcement to get closer to their targets.
part, a younger generation of female jihadists has come to
believe that acts of violence can be just as liberating politically
and spiritually for women as for men. A religious woman can deflect
her parents´ or husband´s objections by invoking the name of
religion, which trumps all.
The new mantra is "even women must
The U.S. has also produced its female terrorists. "Jihad
Colleen R. LaRose, seemed to self-radicalize via the Internet. She
recruited a female Muslim convert, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, who moved
with her 6-year-old son to Europe to take part in jihad. LaRose was
arrested in 2009 and eventually charged with several terrorism-
related crimes. She pleaded guilty to all counts.
indictments of U.S. women have linked them to supporting roles
in terrorist organizations (including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah) in
Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt and Britain.
trend is highly likely to continue. Al Qaeda
recently launched an Arabic-language magazine targeting women — much
as its English-language magazine, Inspire, targets men — and urging
them to take up the jihadist mantle. In their writings for the
magazine, women also attempt to shame men for not being active
As women step up their participation, terrorist-watchers
need to keep
pace. Terrorism´s "invisible women" need to be counted and countered
not only by the U.S., but by all countries that harbor
Karla Cunningham is a political scientist at the Rand
writes regularly on female terrorism. (Copyright © 2012 Los Angeles
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