Lessons From the Past: From Feminism to Women Joining Terrorist Organizations

Women have always demonstrated capabilities of exerting powerful influence in the world. Undoubtedly, the Nineteenth Century provides a glorious example of what women can do: in this era, feminism gave birth to the Suffragette movement in England and France, gathering a whole gender in a fight against that patriarchal society which was meant to end once and for all.

Despite the examples of courage and devotion left by the Suffragettes, the role of women has somehow taken a step back due to the creation of those stereotypes that gravitate around the idea that they are the weak gender. Meanwhile, with the arrival of the modern era, the world had to face new challenges related to new security issues; among the most remarkable examples, the terrorist threat. In few years, and with greater emphasis after the 9/11 tragic events, terrorism has adopted different facets that required higher attention from the counter-terrorism field. Among these, the role of women. Mindful of the lessons from the past mentioned above, it is necessary to be aware of the strong influence that women may exert not only in relation to morally-respectable causes, but also to all those terrorist organizations that occupy different areas of the world and constitute a serious threat to societies.

Specifically, it is vital to forget the idea that women are merely victims and start considering the numerous and most diverse motivations that they may have when joining a terrorist organization. The reason for posing this question comes from the need for establishing gender perspectives in counter terrorist actions, allowing to cover a broader area of research.

Why do women join terrorist organizations?

The misconception that women are linked to terrorist for their sole role of “brides or wives for fighters” is nothing more than wrong. Surely, love can be a push factor, but it is hard to think that the eight hundred women who are believed to have travelled abroad to join ISIL were only driven by love. Therefore, to what extent are women tied to political matters? How much are they influenced by men?

The second most stereotyped reason to justify women joining terrorist organizations refers to brainwashing. With this regard, it is worth mentioning a recent study that has refuted the hypothesis that radicalization is the result of psychological illnesses and mental disorders. On the contrary, it can be pushed by social conditions, feelings of alienation and loneliness, which are highly common among women, especially in young ages. In fact, there is a surprisingly high number of women who have been raped and/or subject to violence; feelings of hate and grievance, if coupled with wrong contacts made for example on social media, may result in the decision of flying away and radically change one’s life.

Why do terrorist organizations rely on women?

As a matter of fact, once discarded the idea of brainwashing, terrorist organizations may appear attracting to women under different circumstances (e.g. financial benefits, powerful roles, protection). Indeed, there have been numerous cases of women who left countries such as the United Kingdom or Belgium to join ISIL in a fight they thought they belonged to; some of them claimed how easy their life would be under the protection of a man – for example they would not need to stay in the educational system anymore, given that their role would be limited to being housewives. Some others had political reasons and claimed they would be treated differently if ever caught by governments – receiving a less tough penalty and treatment, although there is no evidence this would be true.

Above all, there is still very little evidence on the subject, especially because it is highly underestimated. Nevertheless, research needs to be implemented both on female and male perspectives.

As far as women are concerned, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between women who support terrorism and extremist beliefs and women who join terrorist organizations. The two categories need different levels of analysis and attention: while the former necessitates greater education and support, focused on the risks that the involvement in terrorist activities may cause, the latter needs a proper intervention and eventually forms of rehabilitation into the society as part of de-radicalization missions. Furthermore, it is also necessary to consider that women may also be found in the front line as well as men; Atran (2003) provides an interesting analysis on the role of suicide bombers, considering both men and women and the increasing in the presence of the latter in the past few years.

It is imperative to understand and detect the reasons behind choices of radicalization in order to be able to spot any sign of alarm in our society, always while taking into account that female involvement in terrorist activities is not always driven by ideological concerns.

However, it is not necessarily a matter of punishment, but of providing education and support to vulnerable women that may be targeted and recruited. With this in mind, direct witnesses from women involved in terrorist-related actions should be collected to build up a correct analysis on the motivations behind the choice of joining a terrorist organization and therefore counter the threat from its origins.

Exclusive Interview with Phil Gurski on Female Extremism

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

As a part of The Women in Extremism Program, Rise to Peace’s Simone Matassa had the privilege of interviewing Phil Gurski to talk all matters of female terrorism. Phil Gurski, who is the President/CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, has over 30 years experience as a strategic intelligence analyst specializing in radicalization and homegrown Islamist extremism with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Public Safety Canada, and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). The interview with Phil focused on the gender side of radicalization, female motivations for extremism, and women’s role in counter-terrorism initiatives.

What gender differences are present in radicalization processes and what do you think are the main differences between how women are radicalized compared to men?

Phil Gurski: I think the answer to this question is that there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypical myths that there are significant differences, and hence that women either have to be treated differently or [and this is more important and more dangerous] that somehow women’s roles are minor and not as serious. And, therefore, in instances where women have traveled to join terrorist groups that we tend to think it’s not nearly as serious and tends to treat them with kid gloves.

We certainly saw that especially with Islamic State, where a lot of women played that card and claimed they were coerced by their male companions and actually had no real part in terrorist activity – that they took more of a background-position. I think this myth has had an effect on how people look at female terrorists [female jihadis]. Agency is the key issue here as there has been this unfortunate assumption that women don’t have agency and have somehow been forced or duped.

People often assume that Muslim women don’t have choices, as it’s a male-dominated faith, and that the women actually never agreed to do anything and were actually just following their husbands. The cases I was involved with women were very much as devoted to the cause as their husbands, brothers, boyfriends, etc. so I think we have to be very suspicious when women try to deny they had any role to play and that they were somehow innocent victims of a terrorist movement. From that perspective, the penalties and approaches should be the same – I don’t see a gender distinction.

Do you think gender roles play a big part in how women are viewed in terrorism? Are women just as equally capable of carrying out terrorist attacks compared to men or do gender roles prohibit them? 

Phil Gurski: Historically, women played incredibly important roles in terrorist groups i.e. IRA, Baader–Meinhof in Germany, LTTE in Sri Lanka. So there is no question that women have and are capable of carrying out active roles in terrorist groups up to and including carrying out attacks and killing themselves in suicide attacks. When looking at Jihadis early on, there certainly was a gender division within most groups which saw women as the support role.

Leaders such as Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri would say this. They would say we welcome our female members, but this is very much a man’s job. Then Islamic State came along and really reversed the paradigm. They very much stated that isn’t actually true; women are capable of carrying out activities on our behalf and this is – I think – why you probably saw a larger percentage of women actively going to join Islamic State with or without partners.

We had a famous case in Canada in 2015 where three young women in high school sought to join the Islamic State and got as far as Cairo before they were turned back by authorities. But this was completely on their own accord. I do not think that there is inherently a different role or paradigm for women terrorists. There may be some physical differences in strength etc. but when we try to maintain this while saying women are the weaker sex, we do a disservice to women who are terrorists and I think we also underestimate the role they can play.

What are women’s motivations for joining a terrorist organization- do they differ from that of a man joining a terrorist group?

Phil Gurski: I do believe they are one and the same. Using the Islamic State as an example: the Islamic State was remarkably successful in doing a couple of things. First of all, establishing the Caliphate as the ideal Islamic homeland that had appeal for an awful lot of people.

I know from the investigations we carried out people would talk about this; that they finally have a real Islamic State where Islamic law will be practiced and everything would be great. Secondly, they appealed to people to help build this State. And thirdly, they were very successful in pointing out atrocities that true Muslims have to reverse, whether these were atrocities carried out by the West or carried out by dictatorships.

This appealed to any believing Muslim who wanted to make a difference, so I think the motivation would be the same for both men and women. There is also a sense of adventure and an intense hatred for the societies in which they live. We saw a lot of people turn their backs on Western society saying they can’t live in this apostate regime anymore and that they have to go to where Islam is being practiced. I definitely saw this as much with the women as I did the men, so I would say there is not a major distinction between the motivations as to why either gender would choose to join a terrorist group.

What part can women play in countering terrorism and preventing the processes of radicalization?

Phil Gurski: The fact that more women have joined terrorist groups means you have more women coming back, and women who have abandoned the cause and can talk about the experience in the sense that it wasn’t what they originally thought. A small percentage of those women want to go public, but the vast majority want to leave it behind them due to the repercussions.

I think there is room for women who do come back to say here is what I saw, here is what I believe to be the case, and here is how it proved to be a complete lie. I think they can play the same role as former men could, I don’t see any difference in that respect given the fact we are seeing more of them they could maybe appeal to a different audience then the men could. We are in a time now where we have greater numbers than we have had historically in terms of women who have gone to fight or gone to support Islamic State as members and have got out. But I do think women could have something to say especially to children – kind of like the scared straight programs in prisons where they basically use their own experience to show others that it’s not worth it.

Conclusion

What can be taken from this interview with Phil Gurski is that there is an undeniable relationship between gender and extremism that is largely unexplored. While current societal stereotypes halter women’s roles in terrorism, there is still a need to be vigilant while looking at the female side of extremism.

As Phil alluded, when people underestimate the power and role of women, it becomes dangerous and creates an environment where women can go unnoticed for their violent actions.

More research and demonstratable interest in female extremists is needed to pave the way to preventative measures in helping tackle the gender issues in terrorism and to shaping policy in how female extremists are prosecuted.

View the full interview below:


Simone Matassa, a counter-terrorism writer and Head of the Women in Extremism Program at Rise to Peace.

Women’s Roles in Al-Shabaab: Deeper Understanding and Research Is Needed

The ‘daughters’ of Al-Shabaab, armed with assault rifles. Credit for image and caption: Al Jazeera.

In April 2019, it was reported that recent studies over-emphasise the role of men in terrorism, therefore overlooking and underestimating the influence of women. Accounting for over 15-25% of membership in terrorist organisations, women possess a significant role in the recruitment, operations and delegation of terrorist groups, to name a few.

Data originating from the Western Jihadism Project revealed that the role of women in such organisations take the form of traditional gender roles, where women are less likely to be involved in the planning of attacks, and more likely to support the organisation “behind the scenes”. Given this context, this piece will explore the role of women, specifically within the Al-Shabaab.

A woman in the Al-Shabaab operating in Kenya participated in an interview held in 2015 with an Al-Jazeera reporter. She recounted to have given shelter to Al-Shabaab members, whilst they referred to her by the name “Mother”. This woman also stated that she remembers providing accommodation to a young man named Ikrima. Ikrima would later be identified as one of the planners of Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi that left over 67 people dead.

Consistent with this woman’s account, it is identified that women in the Al-Shabaab play the role as “wives” of fighters, and partake in domestic activities. Women in the Al-Shabaab are reported to also be used as sex slaves, in addition to helping to attract new recruits. These women are often tricked into the Al-Shabaab by being lured with the prospect of employment, counselling or financial support. Some of these women who escaped have shared their stories, though they lived with the lifelong emotional, psychological and even physical scars inflicted upon them by the group.

In 2017, one woman stated that she had fell victim to this luring, and shared her account of the horrors she experienced while she was forced into sexual slavery by the Al-Shabaab. This woman recounts being smuggled from Kenya into Somalia and was brutally beaten and raped by as many as six Al-Shabaab men. One day, when the camp was empty of men, she managed to escape and encountered authorities who helped her to a hospital and eventually back to Kenya. She later learned that she was infected with HIV. The Al-Shabaab are reported to use women in sexual slavery to control the breeding of the next generation.

With consideration to the foregoing, not all women within the Al-Shabaab are tricked or lured into operating with the group. Recent studies have shown that there exists women voluntarily travel to Somalia to support the group’s agenda. A ‘key aspect’ to the Al-Shabaab’s operations is that Somali officials (such as officers or border control agents) do not recognise nor do they perceive women as a threat, allowing women to seamlessly pass through security checks. Therefore, women are often tasked with the transport and smuggling of weapons and go undetected at checkpoints. They are also tasked with gathering intelligence and information for the Al-Shabaab, as their manoeuvres and actions as women often pass without arousing suspicion.

The concern raised here is that the role of women within the Al-Shabaab remains under-reported, overlooked and rather unexplored. Continued research and analysis should be therefore encouraged regarding the significance of the role of women in the Al-Shabaab. Moreover, it must be emphasized that not all women within the Al-Shabaab are working with the group voluntarily, and a greater issue that must be addressed are the women who voluntarily join the group.

It has been reported than many young women specifically from Kenya travel to Somalia to join the group. These women often feel helpless in their former communities, and severe poverty often push them to join the Al-Shabaab. Another motive for women joining the group are their feelings of resentment towards Kenyan authorities who may have mistreated their sons or husbands. Joining the Al-Shabaab is therefore a form of retaliation and revenge, and analysts have even reported that for these women, joining the group is a form of empowerment.

However, as previously mentioned, once these women have experienced the reality of their role within the group (the brutal treatment and being forced into sexual slavery), women are left with two core choices: either remain in the group or attempt to return to Kenya. Those who remain in the group have reported that they stay because of fear or hopelessness. Those who attempt to return to Kenya face difficulty in returning to their former communities, and even face extrajudicial killings by Kenyan authorities if it is discovered that they were in Somalia assisting the Al-Shabaab.

The vulnerability and precarity of women’s roles in the Al-Shabaab necessitates more profound research, and equal recognition when conducting studies related to the group’s operations. Although not all women are tricked into joining the extremist group, resources can be made available to all women to provide education of the realities of the horrors of the Al-Shabaab. It has even been suggested that Somali forces should encourage more female presence of officers within their commands, to empower women and to demonstrate that there are options to empowerment, and that they need not to join the group.

Women of the Irish Republican Army: Powerful or Powerless?

Photographer: Colman Doyle took during the time of the ‘Troubles’ in West Belfast 1970s

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is a paramilitary organization that has operated out of Ireland since 1917. There have been many versions of the IRA throughout time such as the ‘OLD IRA’ and the ‘REAL IRA’ however the focus of the group has mostly remained the same, which is that the whole of Ireland should be an independent republic free from British rule.

The focus of the group has mostly remained the same, which is that the whole of Ireland should be an independent republic free from British rule.

In 1969, the IRA was determined to see the British withdrawal from Northern Ireland but with a differing of opinion, the IRA split into two separate wings: officials and provisionals. Officials used their efforts to gain independence through peaceful action, while the provisionals used violence and extremism to make its agenda known.

This division on part of the provisionals resulted in an estimated 1,800 deaths, which included more than 500 civilians. As the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary organizations continued on what can only be described as a violent path, the British Army in the meantime retaliated which eventually marked the time known as the “Troubles” which affected Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for almost 30 years.

Women have been known to participate in many roles within the IRA. During the 1970s many women were compelled to join in some capacity as the resistance within the community helped to politicize them.

While many of these roles have involved protests and civil rights matters a number of women became known for their roles as combatants during the time of the troubles. This is an interesting development in paramilitary organizations as women were not often included in these physically violent positions.

The IRA stands as a departure in the traditional roles women hold in terrorism and changes the narrative of how they are viewed. This shift in the structure of terrorist groups raises the question of why the change in dynamics and what does it mean for how the group operates.

Does the addition of women to the group make it stronger or vulnerable? There is a tendency in research and in situations where female terrorists are actively observed to view them as victims instead of perpetrators despite overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise.

There is a tendency in research and in situations where female terrorists are actively observed to view them as victims instead of perpetrators despite overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise.

Societal norms and constructs have added to a preconceived notion that women are naturally more peaceful and less violent than men but it is naïve to allow this belief to distort the reality that women are active players in terrorism and are not to be overlooked. In fact, it could be argued that they are more dangerous than men in the sense they can use their femininity and this false image to mislead and conceal their violent agendas from others. A key member of the IRA and a prime example of this shift in gendered terrorism is Dolores Price.

In fact, it could be argued that they [women] are more dangerous than men in the sense they can use their femininity and this false image to mislead and conceal their violent agendas from others.

Dolores Price joined the Provisional IRA in the 1970s along with her sister Marian Price. During her time in the IRA, Price was known for her extreme devotion to the cause and her inherently violent nature.

Price was involved with some of the IRA’s most devastating crimes: In 1973 she participated in a car bombing at the Old Bailey in London injuring over 200 people and killing one.

Price and her sister were arrested shortly after the bombing. Originally the sentence was life imprisonment, however, their sentences were eventually brought down to 20 years. Price only served seven years for her role and participation in the bombing. While in prison Price went on a hunger strike in order to be moved to a different prison in Northern Ireland.

Other members of the IRA imprisoned for the bombing joined the hunger strike and it went on for 208 days due to the prisoners being fed forcefully by prison officers in order to keep them alive. The force-feeding was abruptly brought to an end when another member of the strike died.

Price began to resent and blame Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams for the ordering of the abduction and murder of the most high profile victim of the IRA. Price revealed that she was given the order of taking Jean McConville- a mother to 10 children, across the border where she was heinously murdered and buried by the IRA.

Price also made the accusation that Adams was responsible for the creation of a covert unit in Belfast that was used to push out informants of the IRA who were supplying information to defense agencies. Adams, who helped shape the Northern Ireland peace process, denies any knowledge of such. Price continued to be involved with political issues up until the 1990s.

Price also noted that she and her sister were fearful due to threats from other members of the IRA and the political party Sinn Féin after she made allegations against them publicly. Price died in January 2013 after being found in her home in Dublin from a suspected toxic illness due to mixing the medication.

Dolores Price’s role in the IRA raises the issue that is central to the women in extremism program- what motivates a woman to become involved in a terrorist organization and what it looks like compared to the experience of a man.

There is a certain attractiveness for men to join a terrorist organization in terms of the sexualization and allure of violence but there is little to suggest that women do not join for the same reasons.

In this case, we can only theorize about why Price joined the IRA but a lot can be deduced from her actions and involvement.

In an effort to understand more about the motivations of women in terrorist organizations there is a need to explore the attraction of power and loyalty to men in the community as factors for involvement.

Power and attraction are some of the most common reasons for the justification of violence.

Dolores Prices involvement in the IRA should pose as a reminder that combatant women can have a bigger influence in terrorism than men and should not be expected to be less militant or less dangerous due to their gender.

Women in the Afghan Peace Process

Fawzia Koofi, a women’s rights activist and politician is eating lunch with members of the Taliban delegate at Doha peace conference. July 7, 2019. Image: Rise to Peace

Under Taliban rule (1996-2001), Afghan women were banned from attending schools and working as well. In addition to violating their civil and political rights, the Taliban has threatened women lives. Since the fall of the Taliban, women have feared that negotiating for a peace agreement with the Taliban meant giving up some of their rights in exchange for the chance to end the war.

In 2015, the Afghan government created a National Action Plan (NAP) that was developed to address the challenges women have faced in the areas of participation, protection, prevention, relief, and recovery.

As a result of the NAP, women have the chance to attend school and to participate in political and economic opportunities.

Women want to participate in the Afghanistan peace process.

Of 23 rounds of talks between 2005 and 2014, there were only two occasions where women were present at the table. Moreover, there has only been one minister in the Afghan government that was a woman. Women have gained the right to participate politically, but what good does that do when women’s roles aren’t addressed in the government/local sector?

There are a few ways outside of the government in which Afghan women make contributions to address violence and equality throughout the country.

Female electoral candidates work to provide a voice for uneducated women.

For example, female members of peace councils try to negotiate with insurgent leaders. By doing so, they are working to reassure their support for reintegration of Taliban fighters into the community.

Women also encourage local fighters to participate in talks within the community to address current extremist narratives. 

Involving women in the peace process could only benefit the affair. In the past, the female-led peace councils have gathered with the wives of fighters to facilitate the release of hostages, which has been successful.

Building relationships and trust with allies could lead to a negotiation between the two parties. Given the violent history towards women, it is hard to contribute to the peace movement since it’s predominantly male-led. 

Wazhma Frogh is the Cofounder of the Research Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and is one of the brave women in Afghanistan. She briefed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on various recommendations to improve the involvement of women in the peace process.

Her advocacy included topics such as delegating a specific institution to oversee the NAP to ensure proper inclusion and implementation, allowing more women to participate in peace talks, and encouraging women to participate in the policing and security sector.

Integrating women into the political realm in a country where women have long suffered inequality could take some time to incorporate fully.

Therefore, the Afghan government should consider making small changes that further women’s participation. For instance, the government should consider including a particular amount of females in peace talks. One or two women would be better than none at all.

The government should also include women in law enforcement and security. Since local female political leaders move to represent the underrepresented women, this will provide women with more opportunities for leadership and capacity building in an area that most women fear.

This could give women the confidence they need to understand political matters in a way where they can then network in domains where men cannot. 

Afghani women today are not only moving to become more equal but wanting to partake in a way that allows them to help the entire country to progress from war. Including women in the peace process empowers them to build trust and rapport with both local communities and the government.