Women's Roles in Terrorist Groups in the Middle East and North Africa
Contribution for NSD-S Hub
A few months ago I wrote a contribution for NATO’s southern hub’s research on women in terrorist groups. The publication is available here, but I also thought I’d share my contribution here, in its entirety.
Over the last five decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of women involved in terrorist activity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Women have participated in groups such as the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, Hizballah, Hamas, Fatah, Al Qaeda, and ISIL.1 Women have participated in terrorist events in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen, although they have likely been involved in terrorist activity in many other countries in the region as well. While some countries have seen limited female terrorist activity (such as Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen), others have seen more expansive use of women to conduct attacks, such as Iraq,2 Lebanon, and Syria. Women’s terrorist activity, and roles within terrorist groups, is expanding, but counter-terrorism policies and practices remain stagnant with regards to understanding and countering women’s involvement, possibly hindered by a lack of research and knowledge on the issue.
Over time, women’s participation in terrorist activity in the MENA region appears to be increasing, illustrated in Figure 1. This data, drawn from the author’s database of female terrorist activity,3 is a compilation of terrorist incidents involving women such as attacks, disrupted plots, and arrests for terrorist activity. This data represents a snapshot of women’s involvement in terrorism – and while not exhaustive, it demonstrates an increasing trend of women’s involvement in terrorist activity.
At the same time, women have been involved in far more terrorist activity than this data suggests. For instance, many Tunisian women travelled to join the Islamic State, both in Iraq/Syria, as well as in Libya, activity that is not captured in this data. The founder of ISIL’s notorious al-Khansaa brigade was also Tunisian woman, and Tunisian women have taken on leadership roles in the Al-Hawl camp, creating “a gang-like atmosphere.”4While the increase in women’s involvement over time is clear, it likely underestimates the scope of their involvement.
Historically, women involved in terrorist activity in the region were deployed as suicide bombers. For instance, during the conflict in Iraq (2003-2009) women committed approximately 48% of all suicide attacks.5 In later years, women have been involved in terrorist activity using a greater range of tactics, including stabbing attacks and vehicle ramming attacks, particularly in Israel.6 These attacks represent a deviation for the region, as they appear to be lone-actor attacks, or at least unaffiliated or undirected by a terrorist group.
Women have also been arrested for other terrorist activity like financing and logistical support.7 In other cases, women have taken on the roles of recruiters and propagandists.8 This evolution of the role of women in terrorist groups demonstrates both a shift in how groups see women, but also likely a shift in how women themselves want to be employed with the groups they join. While available evidence suggests a fairly limited role for women (either as supporters or as attackers), their likely roles within terrorist groups are probably evolving, and likely span the range of terrorist activity.
There are a number of theories about why male-dominated terrorist groups that are common in the region choose to employ women, but very little empirical evidence to support those theories. It may be a strategic choice, a reaction to a lack of other resources (specifically male fighters), or a response to hardened targets.9 While we lack compelling explanations about why groups choose to use women in terrorist attacks, we do know that women are often deployed against both soft and hardened targets, and that female suicide bombings are particularly deadly.10 However, in other cases, women are incorporated into groups for their ability to provide logistical and financial support, such as in the case of Al Qaeda and Hizballah,11 and to facilitate state-building programs, like in ISIL in Syria and Iraq.12 In fact, while many terrorist groups, particularly in the MENA region, resist the idea of women being involved in terrorist activity, in practice, terrorist groups usually deploy women to meet their strategic and tactical needs. Terrorist propaganda regularly emphasizes a limited role for women, but when pressed, terrorist groups will do what is expedient, not what is prescribed in doctrine.13
For their part, women choose to join terrorist organizations in the MENA region for a variety of reasons; however, the majority of their motivations appear to be similar to men, despite the highly gendered media reporting on the topic. These are complex individual processes that often involve personal relationships with other individuals (often family members or spouses) who are radicalized and are involved in terrorist and extremist activity. Indeed, the main difference between male and female radicalization and engagement with terrorist activity as we currently understand it is that women are much more likely to have a direct introduction (through a friend or family member) to the terrorist milieu.14 Women are also coerced or forced into joining terrorist groups. Consequently, when considering their roles, it is important to keep in mind the nuances of agency and coercion, and how this is a spectrum rather than a black or white distinction.15
Counter-terrorism initiatives often fail to consider how terrorist groups might recruit and deploy women, and the motivating factors that might lead women to join terrorist groups. Part of the issue is the gendered reporting on women in political violence. Their roles within these groups are erroneously reported solely as “wife”, “bride”, “widow”, and “mother”. This type of reporting downplays the roles of women in perpetrating or supporting violence in terrorist groups and over-emphasizes their marital or familial status. Conversely, women are sometimes reported as more extreme than their male counterparts.16
Regardless, both approaches tend to over or under-emphasize the role of gender in the threat that women involved in terrorist groups in the region can pose, and substitute these assumptions for accurate threat assessments.17 For instance, initial research has found that women receive shorter prison sentences for terrorism offences than men do,18 and women may be more likely to receive exceptional treatment due to family status.19 Much of this treatment is based exclusively on factors such as gender and family status, rather than a robust threat assessment of the risks that a terrorist convict’s early release could pose.20 While many of the women who end up convicted of terrorist offences may choose to disengage from terrorist activity, and in some cases abandon their extremist ideas, the majority of threat assessments to date lack a robust framework for evaluating the threat female terrorists might pose, and whether they merit early release.
Over the last thirty years, women have increasingly become involved in terrorist groups in the MENA region. Terrorist groups have recruited women into their ranks to fill a variety of roles and have employed women as tactical operatives in attacks. Women have joined groups for many of the same reasons as men, but have also been likely motivated by familial or friendship ties to individuals already embedded within the group. As a result, countering the recruitment of women into terrorist groups needs to consider both the push and pull factors for each group and the specific circumstances that may encourage women to join these groups. In some cases, women are also engaging in lone-actor acts of terrorist violence, which may be violence in support of a terrorist group or ideology, but without the direction or logistical support of a group. Current estimates of women’s participation in terrorism in the MENA region almost certainly underestimates their involvement.
While we know a great deal about the roles and activities of women in some groups (specifically ISIL and in Palestinian terrorist organizations), there is far more information about the roles of women involved in terrorism in other countries and with other groups. In fact, outside of those two subject areas, the majority of countries and groups in the region are understudied.21 As a result, more research is needed to understand the dynamics leading to women’s increasing involvement in terrorist activity, specifically a group’s motivations in recruiting and employing women, women’s motivations for joining terrorist groups, and the effectiveness of counter-terrorism responses, including differential and biased effects based on gender.
Jessica Davis, Women in Modern Terrorism: From Liberation Wars to Global Jihad and the Islamic State (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 50.
Jessica Davis, “Evolution of the Global Jihad: Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36, no. 4 (April 1, 2013): 279–91, https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2013.763598.
Davis, Women in Modern Terrorism.
Aaron Y. Zelin, Your Sons Are at Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad (Columbia University Press, 2020), 265.
Davis, Women in Modern Terrorism, 121.
David Rosenberg, “Terrorist Stabbing Attack Reported in Jerusalem - Defense/Security,” Israel National News, February 21, 2020, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/276313; David Rosenberg, “Female Terrorist Brandishing a Knife Nabbed in Hevron,” Israel National News, accessed June 15, 2021, https://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/260485; “Palestinian Woman ‘with Knife’ Killed by Israeli Forces,” France 24, June 12, 2021, 24, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210612-palestinian-woman-with-knife-killed-by-israeli-forces.
Khaled Abu Toameh, “Palestinian Authorities Thwarted an ISIS Terror Attack in Israel,” Jerusalem Post, May 26, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Palestinian-authorities-thwarted-an-ISIS-terror-attack-in-Israel-report-590669.
Alexandra Sims, “Sally Jones: Isis Recruiter ‘issues Series of Terror Threats against UK Cities’ over Twitter | The Independent,” The Independent, May 25, 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/sally-jones-isis-recruiter-issues-series-of-terror-threats-to-uk-cities-over-twitter-a7049066.html.
Martha Crenshaw, “Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches,” Journal of Strategic Studies 10, no. 4 (December 1987): 27, https://doi.org/10.1080/01402398708437313.
Burcu Pinar Alakoc, “Femme Fatale: The Lethality of Female Suicide Bombers,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 43, no. 9 (September 1, 2020): 796–814, https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1505685.
Davis, Women in Modern Terrorism, 83.
Ruth Gan et al., “Change Is the Only Constant: The Evolving Role of Women in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS),” Women & Criminal Justice 29, no. 4–5 (September 3, 2019): 204–20, https://doi.org/10.1080/08974454.2018.1547674.
Davis, Women in Modern Terrorism.
Jessica Davis, “The Future of the Islamic State’s Women: Assessing Their Potential Threat,” ICCT Policy Brief, June 2020, 16.
Eileen MacDonald, Shoot the Women First, 1992.
Davis, “The Future of the Islamic State’s Women: Assessing Their Potential Threat.”
Audrey Alexander and Rebecca Turkington, “Treatment of Terrorists: How Does Gender Affect Justice,” Combating Terrorism Center 11, no. 8 (2018): 24–29
Suzanne Dredge and Dylan Welch, “Notorious IS Bride Living Free in Turkey despite 7-Year Prison Sentence,” ABC News, June 10, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-11/zehra-duman-freed-from-prison-in-turkey/100066322.
Davis, “The Future of the Islamic State’s Women: Assessing Their Potential Threat.”
Jessica Davis, Leah West, and Amarnath Amarasingam, “Measuring Impact, Uncovering Bias? Citation Analysis of Literature on Women in Terrorism,” Perspectives on Terrorism 15, no. 2 (April 2021), https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/binaries/content/assets/customsites/perspectives-on-terrorism/2021/issue-2/davis-et-al.pdf.