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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Munoz Burgos

Women in terrorism

Although terrorism is predominantly a male phenomenon, many women join terrorist organizations. At its peak in 2015, 550 women from western countries had traveled to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh. Women serve in many roles in this terrorist organization, from mothers and wives to doctors and teachers. Many women have been forced to be part of the Islamic State; however, there are many who have joined it voluntarily. This is also the case for other terrorist groups. The reasons for women joining terrorist organizations must be understood from a group-based and individual-level analysis as discussed below.

Group-based analysis

Terrorist groups recruit women for many different reasons, including the following:

  • Tactical requirements to penetrate hardened targets.

  • Lack of male resources.

  • Attaining increased media attention.

  • Increasing their support base.

  • Distinguishing themselves from other groups, and showing that their cause has greater appeal within a population.

  • Pressure from women to be incorporated into the fight

Earlier this year, Daesh released a new propaganda video showing at least five women armed with guns and going to battle in a truck. Daesh is clearly doing this as it is desperate to recruit people given that they have practically been defeated in Iraq and Syria. If the group would have released this video during their peak a few years ago, it would have suggested a shift in their strategy. However, given the timing of the release, this video is a clear sign of the group’s weakness. Additionally, historically Daesh’s ideology has been inconsistent with the inclusion of women for tactical or operational roles, so this last video is truly a desperate move to increase their dwindling base.

Individual-level analysis

This level of analysis focuses on why individuals become radicalized. In previous posts, I have discussed how there is not one cause, risk factor, or root cause that makes individuals adopt deviant behaviors or join violent groups. Instead, a combination of risk factors is what usually makes people adopt negative behaviors and join these groups. There are individual factors such as personal grievances, traumatic experiences, and other life events that may make individuals vulnerable to radicalization. There are also external factors such as political or socioeconomic realities that may help underlying individual factors result in radicalization.

The radicalization process is different for every person so it is important to keep in mind that:

  • There is no single path to radicalization, and risk factors vary considerably among individuals and communities (and within communities too).

  • Many different types of individuals become radicalized and engage in terrorism for many different reasons.

  • The radicalization process, from a cognitive and psychological perspective, is complex and does not follow a linear or orderly path.

Radicalization is a highly individualized process, but group dynamics can play a very important role in it. Peer pressure and social networks increase the likelihood of individuals joining a terrorist group. Social relationships, such as friendships, family relationships, common interests, financial exchanges, group affiliations, and others, are central to the radicalization process. Affiliative factors of social networks greatly contribute to individuals joining terrorist groups. In other words, people are more likely to join these groups if their cousin, friend, neighbor, etc. has done it.

There are also psychological characteristics of individuals who engage in violent behavior or become radicalized. The five most common characteristics include having a strong pull to act against injustice, having a strong need for thrill-seeking behavior, engaging in deviant behaviors because they are perceived as “cool,” giving great importance to status and following a code of honor, and being easily affected by peer pressure. These characteristics have been observed in youth who have joined Daesh. Individuals have joined this group because they think it is cool, they find the dangers of the journey to Iraq or Syria exciting, they think the western world is on a quest to destroy Islam, and they feel it is their duty ( based on a code of honor) to support their friends and stick together with them in whatever they do.

Why do women join terrorist groups?

The literature shows that women become involved in terrorism through the same factors and processes as their male counterparts. Radicalization seems to be a gender-neutral process that occurs as a result of a complex combination of factors and processes. However, the literature also suggests that there may be some processes, characteristics, and factors that are more relevant to women than to men in the radicalization process:

  • Social networks allow women to gain access or be introduced to terrorist groups. Some groups are very closed, so having a relationship with a man can allow women to access the group.

  • Rape can play an important factor in the radicalization of women. In many societies, a terrorist act is seen as a way of redeeming something dishonorable that has been done to women. Here, it is important to note that this may aslo be the case for men.

  • Women are less likely than men to join a terrorist group to seek thrill or status.

  • Women are less likely to engage in violence and committing a terrorist act without a group-based structure. There have only been four instances of women engaging in lone-actor terrorism.

  • It appears that women need an individual within a terrorist organization to mobilize to violence.

Analysis: Implications for CVE and CT Strategies

Women have mainly been seen as victims in the realm of terrorism. While it is true that many women are victims of groups such as Daesh and are forced to commit acts of terror, it is also true that many women have voluntarily joined these groups and engaged in violence or committed terrorist acts. CVE and CT strategies need to start focusing on women as possible perpetrators of violence to prevent future attacks. Gendered conceptions that women cannot commit violent acts have allowed women terrorists to pass security checkpoints unnoticed and commit violent acts. A clear example of this was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) female suicide bomber who was involved in the assassination of India’s ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. To have effective strategies, it essential that we start seeing women as an important and permanent feature of today’s terrorism. However, this needs to be done carefully to prevent overgeneralizing and further attributing stereotypes to women that could place them in danger and violate their rights.


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