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Illustration by Sara Gironi Carnevale​​

Women's War

In high conflict areas around the world, more and more women have been joining and supporting radical militant groups and taking part in terrorism-related attacks.

Research by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an independent think tank with a program aimed at reducing extremist recruitment and radicalization in the Horn of Africa, estimates that 17 percent of extremist recruits in Africa are women. 

Another research report, issued by The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), states that 13 percent of ISIS foreign recruits in Iraq and Syria are female. “Women and minors are poised to play a significant role in carrying forward the ideology and legacy of ISIS,” write the authors of the report, From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State. “Much attention has rightfully focused on Iraq and Syria, but Libya, Afghanistan, and the Philippines have also proven notable countries for women and minors in ISIS and remain under-examined.” 

According to the Global Extremism Monitor, an analysis of violent extremist incidents sponsored by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, there were at least 100 distinct suicide attacks in 2016 (the last year statistics were available) conducted by 181 female militants. Those 100 attacks represented about 11 percent of all terrorist attacks that year. In the same year, women constituted 26 percent of those arrested on terrorism charges in Europe, up from 18 percent in 2015, the Monitor found.

Although participation levels are higher than ever, female involvement in militant groups is not a new occurrence, but one that stretches back decades.

In Sri Lanka, women have been active in militant Tamil nationalist organizations since the 1970s, according to “Sri Lanka’s Women Terrorists, Then and Now,” an article authored by Jessica Trisko Darden and published by the American Enterprise Institute. By the 1980s, Tamil armed groups such as the Tamil Tigers were calling for women to join their struggle for autonomy from the central government in Colombo. Beginning in 1989, the Tamil Tigers established an all-female Women’s Military Wing.

In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) group, founded in the mid-1960s, initially mobilized women to become wives of fighters. In later years, women were permitted to take up arms, and they eventually constituted a sizable portion of the FARC fighting force. FARC also regulated women’s fertility and sexual relations; forced abortions and abandoned children were accepted as a cost of fighting.

Going further back, women were involved in militant groups in early 20th century Ireland, says Deena Disraelly, a researcher with the Institute for Defense Analyses and member of the ASIS Global Terrorism, Political Instability, and International Crime Council. Disraelly points to historical figures like Constance Georgine Markievicz, a founding member of a republican women’s paramilitary organization who fought in the famous Easter Rising insurrection of 1916.

In the current era, there are a number of factors driving women's recruitment into radical militant groups, argue two RUSI experts, Martine Zeuthen and Gayatri Sahgal, in a recent paper published by the BBC. 

First, some factors—such as financial compensation and service to an ideological cause they agree with—motivate recruits of both sexes. But recruiters also use tactics aimed specifically at women. For example, some al-Shabaab recruiters have tried to prey on the insecurities of young Muslim women who fear that spending their time obtaining a college degree would hurt their marriage prospects.

Then, recruiters advocate for the return of older gender roles; women in al-Shabaab have often held more traditional positions as wives of fighters and domestic workers—although they are sometimes made to work as sex slaves, Zeuthen and Sahgal say. Women can also work as recruiters; a study in Kenya found that some women were lured to join by other women who promised them jobs and financial support.

In contrast, ISIS has had success recruiting women for less traditional positions. Women in ISIS may serve as doctors or healthcare workers, and the group has an all-female morality police force. After the group lost territory in Iraq and Syria, it began calling more women to jihad and placing them in fighting roles.  

However, as more women become involved with militant groups and terror missions, they also become ever more valuable as mitigators of extremism and in deradicalization efforts, according to a recent report, Women and Terrorism: Hidden Threats, Forgotten Partners, issued by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The authors of the report, Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein, argue that women are well positioned to detect early signs of radicalization because militant groups often target women’s rights first. And if so inclined, women can often be effective in countering the advocacy of fundamentalists.  “Because of their distinctive access and influence, women are crucial antiterrorism messengers in schools, religious institutions, social environments, and local government,” Bigio and Vogelstein write. 

 As security officials, women can provide insights and information that can be mission critical in keeping the peace, the authors write. But the authors also argue that women are currently underused in terrorism prevention efforts, and that U.S. counterterrorism officials often fail to understand the role that women are now playing in some terrorism operations. 

“U.S. policymakers overlook the roles that women play in violent extremism—including as perpetrators, mitigators, and victims—and rarely enlist their participation in efforts to combat radicalization,” the authors write. 

 “The failure of counterterrorist efforts to understand the ways in which women radicalize, support, and perpetrate violence cedes the benefit of their involvement to extremist groups,” they continue. “Omitting women from terrorism prevention efforts also forfeits their potential contributions as mitigators of extremism.”

The authors recommend that, to improve U.S. counterterrorism strategy, the Trump administration should involve more women in anti-radicalization and recruitment efforts and increase women’s participation in the security sector.

“Given the rise in women’s participation in extremist groups, the United States can no longer afford to ignore the ways in which women can strengthen counterterrorism efforts,” the authors write.

Disraelly also supports increasing female involvement in anti-radicalization and counterterrorism efforts. "I absolutely think it’s a good idea,” she says. 

What often helps in these efforts is if women being recruited for anti-radicalization work can see themselves in the agencies they work with, in both supervisory and policymaking roles, she adds. This sends a message that the anti-radicalization work includes career advancement opportunities.  

The report authors also argue that U.S. policymakers need a better strategy for fighting radicalization at home. “Women are present in nearly half of all violent political organizations in the United States, ranging from white nationalist militias to environmental extremist groups. Yet law enforcement and the criminal justice system often replicate the same blind spots when working to combat radicalization in the United States,” they write.  

To address this blind spot, the authors recommend that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security invest $50 million at the state and local government levels to prevent women’s radicalization. “Domestic communication efforts should target messages to reach women, both those at risk of radicalization and those poised to mitigate it,” they wrote.