Guest Editorial by 2019 ‘ASTORS’ Award Winner Dean C. Alexander and David A. Young*
Women of all ages and marital statuses, including mothers, have taken part in terrorist operations.
Female terrorists have run the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds from poor to the middle class and uneducated to university graduates.
Like men, women terrorists pursue such violence resulting from diverse elements: perceived political and economic marginalization, ideological commitment, avenging victimization of family or friends, financial benefits, a desire to improve their social status, hopelessness, and heavenly benefits arising from martyrdom.
Some women have been coerced into terrorism after they have been accused of bringing dishonor to their kin through some moral infraction.
Female terrorists have inflicted damage on soft and hard targets, usually enjoying laxer attitudes from government, private security, and the public, since women are typically not perceived to be involved with terrorism.
This misconception is a factor in the success of female terrorists in perpetrating many attacks, including suicide bombings.
(French authorities identified the woman who blew herself up with a suicide bomb during a police raid in Paris as Hasna Ait Boulahcen, a cousin of the Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Acquaintances say Boulahcen was very different before she became “radicalized.” Courtesy of ABC News and YouTube. Posted on Nov 20, 2015.)
Including females as terrorists effectively double the number of prospective recruits and contributors to a terrorist cause. Also, women are viewed with less suspicion than men.
Women offer tactical advantages, including less frequent and rigorous searches by government authorities. Law enforcement, security personnel, and the intelligence community at home and abroad have assumed that women will refrain from terrorist activities.
But these attitudes are changing with more frequent investigations and prosecutions of women terrorists in the United States and abroad.
Given the heightened visibility, lethality, and contributions of female terrorists worldwide, this underestimation of women terrorists merits urgent recalibration. The role of women in family terror networks should be considered as well.
Women terrorists have been involved in a range of violent actions on behalf of groups having all ideological perspectives: from religiously motivated to single-issue and hate-based precepts to anti-government perspectives.
However, the focus of this article is on females contributing to violent jihadist causes.
(Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University explores women’s role in perpetrating and preventing terrorism, recognizes the increased media attention that female violent actors receive, and also highlights the important role that women can play in preventing terrorism and countering violent extremism. Courtesy of Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security and YouTube. Posted on Jun 1, 2017)
Women and Jihadist Terrorism
Those seeking a relationship and ultimately marriage can be enticed by a terrorist suitor. This happened with Shannon Conley, a Colorado teenager who was radicalized by jihadist propaganda and longed to travel to join the Islamic State.
Concurrently, while online, Shannon interacted with a Syria-based Tunisian operative thirteen years her senior. He purportedly promised to marry her and help her engage in jihad in Syria.
Shannon joined the US Army Explorers, a career program provided under the umbrella of the Boy Scouts of America.
The program provides training in armed combat, military tactics, and firearms. Shannon planned to exploit these techniques and wage jihad abroad. In case she could not fight, she promised to help the jihadi fighters while serving as a nurse.
(Details emerg about Shannon Conley’s drastic change prior to her arrest by the FBI on charges of aiding a terror group. Courtesy of Denver7 – The Denver Channel and YouTube. Posted on Jul 4, 2014.)
In 2014, Shannon was caught boarding a flight from Denver to Turkey, with eventual plans to join the group in Syria. The following year, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State. She was sentenced to four years in prison.
Those who knew Shannon described her transformation as stemming from being a “bright teenager lost in middle-class suburbia,” searching for meaning and a mate. Following her arrest, authorities claim they found CDs by US-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki among her belongings.
On her Facebook page, Shannon referred to herself as Halima. She described her work as “a slave to Allah.” Shannon told the FBI she was sought to defend Muslims against their oppressors.
The Islamic State actively seeks to radicalize and recruit women and girls online or otherwise by disseminating the following narrative:
Leave the decadence and apostasy of your home country, where you are deemed undesirable.
Join the jihad and be empowered by living in a true Muslim land (the caliphate).
You will contribute to the cause by marrying an ISIS fighter and parenting the next generation of warriors.
Many children of ISIS fighters are in a precarious situation if one or both of their parents have been killed or are missing. Interspersed in the ISIS pitch is the notion that a caliphate-based life will be exciting and meaningful.
An ISIS-based life, the pitch continues, is better than what life in their home country affords. Iraqi soldiers found children, including toddlers, in Mosul and elsewhere who were believed to be orphans.
A policy challenge exists as to how to rehabilitate the thousands of ISIS widows and their children based in Syria and elsewhere.
Determining whether such individuals still hold pro-ISIS views is a daunting challenge.
For some, their allegiance to the movement will not dissipate. Their zeal for jihad continues after resettling in the West or another region. Also, discerning which individuals holding such perspectives would become terrorists is not facile.
The physical and mental harm these children suffered in the caliphate and later war zones could make reintegrating them into civil society difficult. Some youngsters might be “irredeemable” from the throngs of their troubled past.
The roles of widows and other females in the terrorism context merit further scrutiny.
These survivors may undertake terror operations to avenge the deaths of their fallen kin, usually husbands and brothers.
Likewise, widows in this predicament may marry again to individuals with extremist ideologies and follow their paths. Ultimately, the aggrieved spouse can support or engage in operational activities.
As mentioned earlier, terrorists who become martyrs for their cause are sometimes emulated by current and subsequent generations in that same family, such as black widows.
Dozens of Chechen black widows have committed martyr terror attacks to avenge the deaths of their husbands.
(Sky’s Stuart Ramsey explored a peculiar phenomenon in Russia – suicide attacks which are carried out by women. Courtesy of Sky News and YouTube. Posted on Feb 6, 2014.)
Often, Russian (or Russian-aligned) forces killed their husbands during the Russian-Chechen/Dagestan conflicts.
Among such widows was Luiza Gazuyeva. Gazuyeva detonated hand grenades hidden under her clothes in November 2001 in Chechnya.
Her attack killed Russian General Gaidar Gadzhiyev. Gazuyeva claimed the general assassinated her husband and other family members.
Aminat Kurbanova, an ethnic Russian and former actress/ dancer, converted to Islam after her second marriage to a man involved in the Dagestan jihadist insurgency, who was killed by Russian authorities in 2009.
Another of Kurbanova’s late husbands, Magomed Ilyasov, was killed while mishandling a bomb.
Before his death, Ilyasov provided terror training to another couple, Vitaly Razdobudko and his wife, who became suicide bombers.
Kurbanova conducted a suicide bombing at the home of a leading Sufi cleric in Dagestan, Said Afandial-Chirkawi.
Other illustrations of such violence include the suicide bombings at two Moscow metro stations in March 2010 by two widows from Dagestan, resulting in thirty-nine deaths.
The first was Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, who married Dagestani jihadist Umalat Magomedov. In 2009, Russian forces killed him. She hit one of the transportation targets. The second, female perpetrator is unidentified.
(Female suicide bombers attacked two stations at the height of the morning rush in the world’s second busiest subway, killing almost 40 people and wounding 60. Courtesy of CBS News and YouTube. Posted on Mar 29, 2010.)
Besides killing their targets with suicide bomb belts and grenades, black widows have used explosives-laden vehicles.
Such was the case of the first black widows incident in June 2000, when Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova exploded a truck at a building, killing Russian forces in Chechnya.
Barayeva’s uncle was a Chechen militant who was killed by the Russian military in 1999.
Terror group members and their supporters idolize women who have launched “martyr” operations on behalf of their organizations. This is so for children who seek to imitate female terrorists as well.
Hamas member Reem Riyashi, twenty-two-year-old mother of two from Gaza, blew herself up in a joint Israel-Palestinian industrial zone in January 2004, murdering four Israelis. Palestinian Authority–run Al-Aqsa TV showed music videos in which Riyashi’s four-year-old daughter said she craved to follow in her mom’s footsteps.
(Wearing combat fatigues and holding an automatic rifle with a rocket-propelled grenade in the foreground, Reem Riyashi Riyashi said that since age 13 she had dreamed of turning “my body into deadly shrapnel against the Zionists.” “I always wanted to be the first woman to carry out a martyrdom operation, where parts of my body can fly all over … God has given me two children. I love them [with] a kind of love that only God knows, but my love to meet God is stronger still.” Courtesy of AP and YouTube. Posted on Jul 21, 2015.)
In 1996, Wafa Idris carried out the first female Palestinian suicide bombing.
Also, women have conducted suicide attacks to avenge the deaths of their militant family members. In June 2003, Hanadi Jaradat, a twenty-nine-year-old Palestinian lawyer, conducted a suicide bombing at a restaurant in Haifa, Israel.
Jaradat killed more than twenty people and injured over fifty. She carried out the strike on behalf of Palestinian Islamic Jihad to avenge the deaths of her brother (Fadi) and cousin (Salah).
More recently, in May 2022, a former Irish Defense Forces soldier, Lisa Smith, was found guilty of Islamic State membership.
Smith was a member of the group between October 2015 to December 2019. She had traveled to Syria and pledged allegiance to then Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
(A former Irish soldier, who became an IS bride but now lives in a Syria refugee camp with her child, says she wasn’t involved in fighting and did not train girls to become fighters. Courtesy of BBC News and YouTube. Posted on Jul 8, 2019.)
According to the Irish Special Criminal Court’s finding, Smith was well aware of the viciousness of the regime and its goals. Other charges against Smith, including terrorist findings, were not substantiated.
In July 2022, Smith was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Smith is the first person in Ireland to be convicted of membership in a terror group based outside of that country.
Also, in June 2022, Alison Fluke-Ekren pleaded guilty to providing material support to ISIS, while serving as the leader and organizer of the all-female battalion, Khatiba Nusaybah.
Fluke-Ekren trained over 100 young girls and women to use AK-47s and suicide belts. In 2011, Fluke-Ekren traveled to Libya with her second husband, who was aligned with Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist group. In 2014, she and second husband traveled to Turkey, and then Syria.
In 2015, they traveled to Iraq, and in Feb. 2017, she established Khatiba Nusaybah in Syria. She was involved in terrorist activity from Sept. 2011 to May 2019. She is expected to be sentenced in Oct. 2022.
(Kansas woman Allison Fluke-Ekren, 42, who was captured in Syria, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in a Virginia courtroom on Tuesday. Courtesy of Good Morning America and YouTube. Posted on Jun 8, 2022.)
These more recent examples underscore the female terrorist threat aligned with violent jihadism is alive and well.
Better comprehending this risk is important as government authorities continue their efforts undermining terrorism at home and abroad.
Law Enforcement Responses
Law enforcement needs to reassess the significance of women in terrorism.
Historically, women have not been perceived as violent terrorists, and this lax attitude has led to the success of attacks, including suicide bombings.
In counterterrorism, there is a tendency to underestimate threats until they a significant problem. The growing role of women in domestic terrorism, including QAnon, is one of several emerging trends that policymakers, law enforcement and intelligence agencies much watch closely so we are not caught unaware once again.
Though women internationally are estimated to be a third to more than half of all suicide bombers, such as 53% of suicide bombers for Nigeria’s Boko Haram, it is crucial to appreciate that women might be less visible in the U.S. but are nevertheless engaged in terrorism.
(Nigerian radical Islamic sect Boko Haram has now adopted a new method in its operations. The sect is now deploying young girls to carry out suicide attacks on selected targets. Courtesy of CGTN Africa and YouTube. Posted on Aug 3, 2014.)
These roles have often not gotten the attention they deserve, which affects funding for women-focused programs, research, and policy formation to counter violent extremism, and prioritizing women terrorists.
Measures need to be taken to deal with the growing trend of women engaged in violence. We should consider taking a closer look at the psychology of women who fight.
Offering programs for middle school girls recognizing that girls and boys do not mature at the same age or absorb materials the same way. Use of gaming platforms more popular with female players and thus useful in dissuading them from radicalization.
Trying to prevent young women and girls from being recruited means increasing counterterrorism officials’ knowledge about the psychology of belonging. It means having specific programs toward potential women terrorists.
Unfortunately, policymakers are not adapting fast enough. Sadly, they still mostly see radical women as a curiosity and lumping all programs to counter violent extremism together rather than having science-driven solutions that are sensitive to gender.
(Pakistan was rocked by suicide bombing that killed four, including three Chinese teachers. The blast at Karachi University was carried out by a woman suicide bomber. Bombing has sent shockwaves as this was first suicide bombing by woman for BLA. But who is Shari Baloch, the woman who carried out suicide attack at Karachi University? Courtesy of WION and YouTube. Posted on Apr 27, 2022.)
About the Authors
Dean C. Alexander and David A. Young are professor and assistant professor, respectively, at the School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration (LEJA), Western Illinois University.
Dean C. Alexander is also the Director of Homeland Security Research Program, and Professor of Homeland Security LEJA at Western Illinois University.
Professor David Young was a 26-year Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was assigned to the Atlanta and Springfield Divisions of the FBI.
Young investigated numerous matters, including violent crimes, public corruption, civil rights violations, criminal enterprises, bank robbery, kidnapping, white-collar crimes, and drug-trafficking matters.
He served as Acting Chief Division Counsel for Springfield Division, and Professor Young was a member of FBI Evidence Response Team that responded to the Oklahoma City, Centennial Park, and World Trade Center bombings.
Professor Young received his Law Degree and Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Illinois. Professor Young has taught various law enforcement classes at WIU since 2019.
American Security Today’s Annual ‘ASTORS’ Awards is the preeminent U.S. Homeland Security Awards Program, and now entering it’s Seventh Year, continues to recognize industry leaders of Physical and Border Security, Cybersecurity, Emergency Preparedness – Management and Response, Law Enforcement, First Responders, as well as federal, state and municipal government agencies in the acknowledgment of their outstanding efforts to Keep our Nation Secure.
Excellence in Homeland Security
Dean C. Alexander is the Director of Homeland Security Research Program, and Professor of the Homeland Security at the School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University.
Prof. Alexander’s teaching, research, and speaking activities encompass terrorism, security, and legal issues, and he is a regular contributor to American Security Today
He has lectured in ten countries, including to law enforcement and military officials, including at the National Intelligence University, NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism, Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center, Oregon Fusion Center, Michigan State Police, Milwaukee Police Department, McAllen Police Department, and Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, among others.
Prof. Alexander’s professional experience includes executive, business development, and legal positions in the United States and abroad, including Chile, Israel, and the United Kingdom. He worked as a consultant to the World Bank, Organization of American States, homeland security firms, and investment companies.
Since publishing on terrorism in 1991, Prof. Alexander has written several books on the subject, which includes: Family Terror Networks (2019), The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders (2015), Business Confronts Terrorism: Risks and Responses (Wisconsin, 2004) and Terrorism and Business: The Impact of September 11, 2001 (Transnational, 2002).
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