Does the image of a female terrorist leave you glued to the TV?  Don’t let it—that’s what they want.

Terrorist organizations often use the shock value of a female violent extremist to capture the attention of the international media, tactfully playing upon the public’s bias that those with two-X chromosomes are unwilling or unable to commit an act of terrorism.

Yet, women have a long history of taking hostages, hijacking aircrafts, planting bombs, conducting assassinations, driving explosive-laden vehicles, and committing suicide attacks, not to mention performing the endless back-office tasks required to maintain an extremist organization.

In an evolving security environment, where responding to the latest threat can lead to short-term memory loss, many have forgotten the female-perpetrated, high-profile attacks that have stolen the lives of senior government officials and countless civilians.  To provide a statistical snapshot, women perpetrated an estimated 15% of total suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003 and, in certain organizations, like the PKK and Chechen Separatists, were responsible for the majority.  Given the numbers, why do we continue to be surprised each time a Jihad Jane ends up on the evening news?

Two assumptions likely contribute to our reluctance to acknowledge the dark side of women’s power.

One explanation is the belief that those who would advocate for restrictive roles for women in society would forbid them from carrying out terrorist activities that require both operational and intellectual facility.  These very organizations exploit our assumption, however, and look at women as a tactical advantage.  To the delight of violent extremists, security officers often perceive females as less suspicious and allow them to evade male-dominated checkpoints, particularly in conservative environments. When wearing an abaya, women are able to hide bulky explosives from the eyes of the public, presenting a unique security threat to even the most observant.  Terrorist organizations also strategically leverage women to recruit other men, arguing that if a woman is willing to sacrifice her life or time for the cause, so, too, should a man.

Special efforts are often made to recruit female participants.  Al-Qaida has produced a glossy magazine, Al-Shamikha, specifically designed for women, while others, like Al-Shabaab, purportedly use abduction to bolster enlistment.  Despite this, the vast majority of these women are knowingly volunteering their services.

This dynamic contradicts a second pervasive notion—that women are inherently more peaceful and therefore less likely to choose violence to achieve political ends.  The relative peacefulness of women versus men is not an unfounded argument, but tends to evolve into the mistaken belief that no women are violent.  An honest assessment suggests a more complex reality, in which some women actively lobby against violence; some remain silent on the issue; and others actively propagate its use.

The wife of Al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, for example, famously called on women to “to raise [their] children in the cult of jihad and martyrdom and to instill in them a love for religion and death”. Open source intelligence also reflects instances of mothers pressuring their husbands and sons to take up arms for the honor of their family, nation, or religion, or to enact revenge on warring tribes.

Given the not uncommon practice of women selling their daughters into prostitution, promoting child marriage, or even running brothels staffed by trafficked girls (a topic for a future blog post), we would be naive to presume that women lack the agency to use their brains and brawn for the advancement of malevolent causes.

Perhaps we are so busy advocating for the involvement of women in productive security processes that we have discounted when they are destructive.  While the vast majority of women (like men) are constructive citizens, ignoring the bad actors, regardless of their gender, creates very real and dangerous security consequences.  Downplaying the dark side of women’s power has perceptional consequences, as well, as it distracts from the facts that women do impact peace and security, both for good and for bad.  Until we can accept both sides of the coin, our stereotypical responses will continue to endanger the lives of our military, government, and civilian populations.

By Jane Mosbacher Morris, September 2012

Source: Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of SuicideTerrorism, Random House, 2005. P. 208-209.