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Paula Broadwell

The growing role of women in terrorism

By Paula Broadwell
December 12, 2006
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RECENT NEWS of a 70-year old Palestinian woman in Gaza becoming a suicide bomber raises the specter that more women are involved in terror campaigns. Should we be concerned?

In fact, women of all ages and sects are playing an increasing role in several aspects of supporting terrorist behavior. Recent chatter on jihadi web forums alludes to an alleged new Shiite female assassin unit in Iraq formed to target Sunnis. Other areas of involvement include: opening bank accounts under a maiden name to evade suspicion by counter-terrorism financing experts, raising money for terror groups through charity functions, and transporting supplies and information past airport security officers focused on Arab men.

These women, known as mujahidaat, also engage in collective non-violent endeavors. In Syria, they take part in private sisterhood organizations that proselytize and recruit. On "Jerusalem Day" in Lebanon this fall, 1000 women marched in support of Hezbollah. After a fall 2006 Israeli raid into Gaza, in which military forces targeted militants hiding in a mosque, neighborhood women formed a collective resistance, gathering as human shields around the mosque to help the militants escape. A 72-year old woman at the standoff, according to the British newspaper The Guardian, said she felt empowered -- "young, useful, and ready to act."

Organizations have several tactical reasons to use women. Because women are stereotyped as nonviolent, they might elicit less attention and thus execute a stealthier attack; there are also inherent sensitivities in searching or questioning a woman, especially in many conservative Muslim societies; women can increase the number of combatants in groups with depleted "man" power -- whether through joining the ranks themselves or supplying a "jihad womb." Attacks executed by women confuse profilers and raise the fear factor within the target group. Female bombers often bring greater publicity, and that may be a draw for more recruits.

In the Gaza case, the 70-year old Palestinian, Fatma Najar, apparently worked for Hamas to carry food, water, and ammunition to the resistance at the front line. Affected by the ubiquitous stress of military occupation and loss of family members, she blew herself up to kill several Israeli soldiers during an Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip. After Najar's martyrdom, another woman in Gaza, age 65, stated there are "at least 20 of us who want to put on the [suicide] belt . . . Now is the time [for] women. Now the old women have found a use for themselves."

Female suicide terrorism is not new. One-third of the members of the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are women who, in addition to suicide bomb missions, have duties on the battlefield, in the kitchen, and in medical camps. The Chechen Black Widows female suicide bombers led 12 suicide attacks that killed 330 people in two years. An Iraqi woman linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq attempted suicide at a hotel wedding reception in Jordan, and other reports of Zarqawi-linked perpetrators have surfaced in Baghdad and Fallujah. In the Palestinian territories, the groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad witnessed a surge in female bombers during the intifadahs. Syrian nationalists and Kurdish separatists operate in this way, and women in Uzbekistan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt have also joined the terror ranks.

Perhaps the increased role of women in supporting terrorism is a passing phenomenon. But when counterterrorism experts estimate their opponents' capabilities and techniques, it behooves them to think about what is happening in the women's locker room. Equally as important, we should strive to give Muslim women across the globe other outlets for empowerment and the opportunity to contribute to countering terrorism in their societies.

Policymakers should also consider how women from Western societies can play a greater role in counter terrorism. After all, the element of surprise works both ways. We should incorporate more women in our intelligence fields who might more stealthily get behind enemy lines to gather information. A number of scholars, including the women and men who are my colleagues at the Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies, are working hard to understand women's role in terrorism and counter terrorism. We hope that the US government is too.

Paula Broadwell is a PhD student at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the deputy director of the Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

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