Exclusive Interview with Phil Gurski on Female Extremism

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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.

Extremism Assessment Series: Antifascist Action (ANTIFA)

Image: The most identifiable form of the Antifa logo used by the group and found in public sources.

  • ANTIFA represents a semi-disorganized collection of extremists on the far-left, sometimes considered the alt-left
  • ANTIFA is more accurately described as a brand, as opposed to a formal group, however, for ease of understanding it may be referred to as such throughout this assessment
  • With the upcoming presidential election, ANTIFA violence should be expected to rise alongside increasing political turmoil

Summary of Extremist Narrative

 ANTIFA’s self-described purpose is to counter fascism and prevent fascism from taking root in society. The ‘enemy’ of ANTIFA does not stop solely with fascists, however. Individuals believed to be far-right, conservative, and even individuals considered center-left on the political spectrum may be identified as an enemy of ANTIFA. Within the often militant organization, tactics for accomplishing objectives can vary from acts of violence, vandalism, criminal damage to property, or spreading of propaganda in interest of their ideology.

Within the social and political roots of ANTIFA, free speech is targeted as believers in the underlying ideology of ANTIFA believe that select speech is violent and must be suppressed for the betterment of overall society. This is a key justification for believers to resort to violence. As such, law enforcement has been deemed as an accessory to the enemy by ANTIFA as law enforcement seeks to separate clashing political protestors, hence preventing ANTIFA from attacking those they deem the enemy.

History of the group

 The majority of individuals who identify as ANTIFA come from Marxist political backgrounds, including communists and socialists. It is important to understand that ANTIFA does not represent a single organization or network. Numerous groups or individuals may consider themselves ANTIFA members, leading to the group being highly disorganized in terms of the overall structure.

The history of the ideology that brought about ANTIFA can be found in both the history books as well as in the writings of various political theorists. Communism, socialism, and far-left anarchism have had a small following within the US for well over a century. Such Marxist political leanings often call for a societal revolution to rise up through militant activities to support their political agendas.

Political theorists have argued that the spread of extremist political leanings begets the rise of the opposite form of extremism along the linear political spectrum. Regardless of which form of extremism first came about, ANTIFA believes that ‘fascist creeping’ has begun to attempt to take hold within the United States. This partially is cited as justification for violent acts against those considered supporters of fascism. While various international groups have used a varying version of ‘anti-fascist action’, the current American use began in the mid-2000s.

In the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections, ANTIFA surged in activity and membership with followers engaging in acts of violence across the nation. Protests and counter-protests sparked civil unrest unlike anything observed in decades in the United States with groups like ANTIFA at the forefront of the violence.

 Current state of the movement

 ANTIFA is very much active as an extremist ideology and brand. With the modern version of the group having become increasingly active and violent since its inception just over a decade ago, ANTIFA will be a source of far-left extremism for the foreseeable future. The ability for ANTIFA to inspire and recruit people into its brand of thinking is highly dependent on a politically volatile United States, which most would agree is the current operating environment. With the looming 2020 presidential election approaching, look for ANTIFA or ANTIFA inspired violence to increase.

 Where is ANTIFA operating?

As has been widely observed, ANTIFA is often found participating in political protests across the nation. Primarily located in major US cities or on college campuses nationwide, ANTIFA often has a presence amongst more volatile far-left protests.

 What are the primary recruitment methods into the movement?

ANTIFA messaging can be found easily on the internet. The spread of Mark Bray’s 2017 writing, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is a ready source of information for the brand and helps to spread its ideology. The spread of this and related writings on the internet has been fostered by various online communication platforms that also serve as communications centers for the coordination of physical militant activities and the organization of protests and counter-protests.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Image Credit: Luba Lukova

“People, not Pawns”: Female Extremists Beneath the Sensation

Image Credit: Luba Lukova

Image Credit: Luba Lukova

 

 

The majority of violent extremists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and around the world are males. However, women also participate in the violence perpetrated by extremist groups and promote radical ideologies. While there may be statistically fewer women in these roles, their participation is still serious and should not be overlooked.

This article aims to highlight the important research findings published by Laura Sjoberg, a respected feminist scholar, in a USAID brief from 2015. This brief was published at a time when many women and girls, a significant number from Western countries, were traveling to territory controlled by ISIS in order to pledge themselves as foreign fighters.

Sjoberg’s (2015) work illustrates the specificities of how women are radicalized, why they are radicalized, and their gender-specific roles within these groups. She advocates for further work being done on counter-violent extremism (CVE) programs that are supported by the knowledge of why/how women participate in extremism. This article will be the first publication of our women and extremism project – intended to further knowledge in this field to create meaningful policies.

Stories in the news about female extremists in recent years have sensationalized the role women have within these networks.

Shamima Begum and Lisa Smith are examples of women whose identities as female extremists have garnered them much public attention. These women are labeled as ‘jihadi brides’ in order to explain the phenomenon of women in the role of what is stereotypically portrayed as a male one.

This label highlights gender stereotypes assigned to women by citing things like emotions or sexuality to explain the participation of these women in extremist activity – accentuating their supposedly helpless nature. Locating women to a position of victimhood marginalizes them and warrants the necessity of their being saved – likely by men. This de-politicizes their actions and strips agency from the motives and agendas with which they seek to further by way of their participation.

In contrast to the assumption that women are ‘lured’ into extremism against their better judgment, research demonstrates that male and female extremists “have more in common than not,” when it comes to the drivers for their radicalization and participation in extremist groups (Sjoberg 2015, p. 2).

In interviews, women also cite things like ideology or desire for political change as reasons for their mobilization, rather than the desire for ‘romantic adventure’ (Sjoberg 2015, p. 2). The positioning of female extremists as victims does not account for their personal agendas for joining these groups that are often rooted in political or religious motivations. Interestingly, when women become radicalized they are titled female extremists, unlike their male counterparts who are just ‘extremists,’ rather than underscoring their gender.

Female extremists can contribute to violent agendas in a variety of ways. Their roles can range from support roles in the organization as well as being on the ‘front lines’. Further, women bring an added value in their role within extremist agendas because they are less likely to bring attention from authorities or be searched in public spaces (Sjoberg 2015, p. 3). This unique and distinct utility that women bring emphasizes the seriousness that should be paid to women who are being radicalized – particularly as their involvement is being made light of.

Sjoberg (2015) asserts that the oversight of women’s participation in extremism results in most counter violent extremism programs being targeted at males (p. 2). A first step is to recognize that women of varying identities and cultures participate and provide real assistance to violent groups.

This positioning of women extremists as victims is detrimental to effective policy on countering radicalization because it ignores their reasons for joining and credits their radicalization to gender stereotypes.

By drawing attention to women extremists, this team of researchers aims to expand discourse and scholarship to research female extremists with the gravity they should be regarded. This does not mean to disregard that some women are in fact victims and have been unknowingly enticed into extremist groups.

However, by sensationalizing women extremists in the news and using terminology like ‘jihadi bride’ all women are often essentialized into a category that is devoid of potential political agenda and well-calculated motives. Sjoberg’s (2015) work specifically addresses extremism in the MENA, but our work intends to address women across the globe supporting groups like the IRA in Ireland, FARC in Columbia, or others.

A Profile of John Walker Lindh — The American Taliban

John Walker Lindh in January 2002. Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.

On February 9, 1981, the man who would become known as “The American Taliban” was born in Washington, D.C. John Phillip Walker Lindh is a former foreign fighter for the Taliban, often known for his involvement in the Battle of Qula–i-Jangi; a Taliban uprising which resulted in the death of CIA Officer Johnny “Mike” Span. After serving 17 years of his 20-year sentence, Lindh was released from prison under supervisory conditions on May 23, 2019.

Lindh was raised Catholic in Marino County, California, just outside of San Francisco. He is described as a bookish teenager who began studying Islam and the Middle East through his high schools’ alternative and self-directed study programs. Lindh’s initial interest in Islam has been linked to watching the Spike Lee film, “Malcolm X”, when he was 12.

However, his earnest interest in the faith and such related topics of study could have been marred by the extracurricular research Lindh engaged in as an active user of Internet Relay Chat rooms (IRC). Using the alternate identity “Mujahid”, Lindh communicated with others online largely about hip-hop music and racial topics. However, it is known that there are IRCs dedicated to the Taliban and Jihad, which indicates such online activity could have exposed Lindh to radical ideas.

Lindh officially converted to Islam at the age of 16, around the same time he dropped out of high school and was reported as participating in the IRCs. He also began attending mosques in Mill Valley and San Francisco. He reportedly became involved with Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni missionary group, at this time. This group had not previously been associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but has recently been investigated for links to radicalized militants. While the group was not tied to radicalization at the time of Lindh’s capture, the fact that it has been investigated in more recent years suggests Lindh may have been influenced by this group’s radical ideas.

Throughout his adolescence, Lindh’s parents experienced conflict within their marriage eventually leading to their divorce in 1999. His family instability could be noted as another influence in Lindh’s turn to Islam. His participation in the online chat rooms containing extremist messaging could also have infiltrated his ideology and affected his scholarly interest in the Middle East.

At the age of 17, Lindh decided to leave the U.S. for Yemen, with hopes to study Arabic so that he could read the Qur’an in its original language. He then traveled to Pakistan in 2000, where it is said he encountered extremist groups and training that ultimately influenced his decision to move to Afghanistan and join the Taliban.

However, Lindh claims his original motivation for joining the Taliban came from a desire to fight the mistreatment of civilians by the Northern Alliance. He reported hearing about this mistreatment through various stories; While it is not clear which outlets or messages Lindh received such information, this case illuminates the importance of eliminating misinformation and propaganda from public discourse. This can be achieved through means such as media literacy programs or more robust online security and privacy measures. Since 75% of domestic jihadists knew or were in contact with another jihadist prior to becoming radicalized, it is likely that Lindh was influenced by the information shared with other users of his IRCs or people he met while traveling and studying in Yemen and Pakistan. Whether it be through online forums or verbal conversations with other extremists, misinformation is a dangerous contributor to radicalization and should continue to be a priority in counter-terrorism work.

Since Lindh’s capture, contradictory reports have emerged as to his motivations for joining the Taliban as well as his understanding of the consequences of his involvement. During his trial, Lindh condemned terrorism and indicated he never held the desire to fight against Americans. Other reports, such as one from the National Counterterrorism Center, claim that Lindh would continue to advocate for jihad and violent extremism. The confusion and lack of clarity around the context and details of such reports must be resolved quickly in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the belief system Lindh currently holds after having spent 17 years in prison. This case exposes a large question the U.S. will face in the coming years, as more extremists and convicted terrorists are released back into society without certainty of the continued existence of dangerous ideology that could pose security risks in the future.

While there are no formal procedures for re-entry of convicted terrorists and sympathizers within the U.S. Justice system at this point, there are some recommendations and best practices set in place to deal with this increasingly prevalent situation. First, counseling focused on mental health and identification of the initial causes of radicalization can be recommended; This will not only aid the individual, such as Lindh, but also provide scholars and practitioners with a broader understanding of the life circumstances that can lead individuals vulnerable  to extremist messaging.

In addition, existing re-entry programs for former prisoners involved with gangs could be modified in order to apply to violent extremists, with similar encouragement of study, job training, and programming elements. These programs could provide alternative life paths, sense of belonging, and new sources of information to help eliminate dependence and association with extremist narratives. Monitoring of compliance with such programs is necessary not only during their sentence but also upon release, ideally from mentors who have experienced a similar situation but have emerged de-radicalized.

The way in which the media and public reacted to Lindh’s initial case as well as his release should be used as an example when addressing the situation of Americans linked to terrorism reentering society. In both instances, headlines and sound bites were quick to villainize him and draw attention to his case. The recent terrorist attack in New Zealand comes to mind as an alternative example, when the Prime Minister, in an effort to reduce copycats and the fetishization of terrorism, refused to address the terrorist responsible and would not play the video of the attack. The narratives perpetuated by the media and popular discussion seem relevant to Lindh’s, and others who had become radicalized, return to society.

Since radicalization can stem from feelings of being an outsider or from being bullied, the mass public villainization of Lindh and other Americans linked to terrorist organizations seems to be counterproductive in achieving the type of reintegration that would be necessary to avoid a former prisoner’s retreat into extremist ideology. Not only will the systems and programs in place matter in how we handle re-entry, but the influence of the media and public discourse will matter as well, if not more.

Overall, the case of John Walker Lindh reminds America and the world not only of the spread of extremism but also the complex ways in which the world deals with extremism and terror. Through comprehensive research on an extremist’s path to radicalization, formalized mentorship and re-entry procedures, and an evaluation of the media’s influence on the re-entry process, the U.S. will have a chance to effectively manage the reintegration of former extremists back into society.

Nikki Hinshaw is a Counter-terrorism Research Fellow at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a current undergraduate student at Arizona State University. She has multiple years of experience in managing communications and marketing for organizations in all sectors, as well as in conducting research on topics relating to a variety of global social issues and public diplomacy policy and practice.

Special Report: Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information

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In the report Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information, Director of the Domestic Counter-Terrorism Program John Patrick Wilson and Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow Caitlyn Ryan offer in-depth analysis of the neo-Nazi movement. This broad endeavor covers many important topics required to understand neo-Nazism in the US and methods to offset it going forward. Please click the above link to view the publication in its entirety.