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Exploding Terrorist Myths

​IT IS GENERALLY AGREED that to defeat terrorism in the long run, it helps to understand why individuals commit terrorist acts. Divining human motivation is never easy, however, and it appears to be doubly difficult when gender bias gets in the way, say those who have studied what motivates female terrorists.

One of the most common myths regarding gendered terrorist motivation is that men are motivated predominately by political reasons, and women are motivated mostly by emotion, says Mia Bloom, a professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Schools of International Studies and Women’s Studies and the author of Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists.

Bloom lists among the various motivations for joining terror groups: revenge, redemption, respect, and relationship, along with rape. She notes that some sort of relationship with and connection to others already involved in terror groups is a strong indicator of whether someone will join. But that’s true of both men and women.

Caron Gentry, associate professor of political science at Abilene Christian University in Texas, agrees that what motivates male terrorists probably motivates female terrorists. Gentry, who has done extensive research on terrorist motivations and gender, says that both men and women resort to terrorism because they see violence as the next logical step in response to political or social frustration.

Bloom says that both men and women begin with emotional reasons for becoming terrorists but in some cultures, somewhere along the line, there is a shift in the way men deal with terrorism, because of how they are allowed to socialize in their culture.

“You’ve got the boys and the girls. And they go out together and they’re throwing stones, whether this is Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, wherever. And then at a certain point, the women can’t go to the meetings anymore. They are sequestered off to the home. And the boys continue to be socialized,” so they get into the political justifications, she says.

The women in those societies don’t get that until they commit some act that lands them in jail, where they are then exposed to that same political discussion. Bloom says that this accounts for the fact that women may speak emotionally about terror when they are first imprisoned but sometimes start to speak more politically later when they become socialized. Because the women do not use the political terms at first, people don’t believe they are truly politically motivated.

“When I’ve talked to different women, the women who don’t get sequestered use the exact same political language throughout. It’s only the women in the Islamic movements [who get sequestered and don’t use political speech]…. And I think what happened is we’ve taken a few of the Islamic cases and said, ‘okay, well, the women are not politically as involved as men; they don’t understand what they’re doing. They’re duped or coerced.’”

Gentry points out that the media will often portray female terrorists as acting on emotion or revenge even when the women have actually left behind martyrdom videos that are full of political language.

“It is somewhat a legacy of maybe a sexist attitude that women would only be involved in an organization if a man made her do it,” says Bloom.

Coercion does happen in some cases, though the coercer may not be male. For example, Bloom writes about a woman in Iraq who targeted young women, had them raped, and then convinced them their only option was to become a terrorist. But Bloom points out that men can be coerced too.

Terror organizations differ in their use of women. While women have held leadership positions in various terror organizations, they have had limited use by al Qaeda due to the group’s conservative nature, say Gentry and Bloom. Bloom speculates that this may change with the death of Osama bin Laden as various members vie for the leadership of the organization.

Women can provide certain advantages to terror organizations as operatives. They are more likely to be successful operatives, according to Bloom, because they are less often viewed as fitting the terrorist profile.

“You also have this win/win strategy,” says Bloom. On the one hand, if the women are invasively searched, “the terrorist movement is going to be able to say, ‘look what they’re doing to the women.’ And if you don’t search the women, because again you’re concerned about inflaming the local populations, they’re the perfect stealth weapon.”