Governments Still Ignore Female Terrorists at Their Own Peril


A new report seeks to elucidate what we're risking when we treat terrorism as a men-only institution and ignore the threat that women can pose. So, what are we risking? Death, basically.

The report, compiled by Ken Sofer and Jennifer Addison at the Center for American Progress, examines the reasons women become involved in terrorist organizations in the first place, what drives them to embark on suicide missions for those organizations, and what governments can do to stop them. The entire report is well-worth a read, but the most interesting part, for me, was the bit about how female terrorists are often driven to terrorist groups by a strong motivation to restore their honor as women.

If a woman's honor is compromised through a violation of this purity, such as sex out of wedlock or being a rape victim, the shame is not only placed on her but also extended to her family. Suicide terrorism, frequently viewed by radicals as a form of martyrdom, is seen as a way to gain redemption and restore that honor.

In addition to restoring sexual purity, some female suicide bombers have lost family members or husbands, and attempt to restore honor to themselves or their families. As Jezebel alumna Irin Carmon noted, this principle is what drove the Chechan Black Widows to attack the Moscow transit system. With 86,000 war widows in Iraq, we'd best pay attention to conditions that could be ripe for a new crop of female terrorists.

Terrorists aren't forced to become suicide terrorists, though, explained Sofer, although they may be coerced. He clarified, via email,

The women who become female suicide terrorists are aware of their actions, they are not innocent bystanders, and they by and large believe in the cause. Women can be radicals, terrorists, and violent creatures just like men, unfortunately. But I do believe women can be coerced and pressured to become suicide terrorists. Terrorist recruiters and operational leaders will try and convince women that this is their only option, that this is the only way to give their lives meaning and redeem themselves for their past transgressions. Recruiters will exploit female motivations, such as family shame due to a loss of sexual purity, to pressure women into becoming suicide bombers, but the average woman is not going to become a suicide bomber without an initial radicalization and commitment to the cause.

Female terrorists are appealing for organizations seeking to inflict maximum damage from suicide missions because women are much deadlier than their male counterparts; one expert estimates that women make up only 15% of suicide bombers but are responsible for 65% of the damage caused by suicide attacks. That's because women are often seen as less conspicuous or threatening than men, and are subsequently able to escape suspicion or scrutiny; one suicide attack was carried out by a woman who was carrying a bomb as though it were a baby. Additionally, social mores in many countries prohibit searching of women entering public events. In many countries were terrorism is a pervasive daily threat, women are either required by religion to or expected by custom to wear modest, loose clothing— which is excellent for concealing weapons.

But suicide weapons of the future may not need to be concealed under baggy clothing. British intelligence from 2010 revealed that some organizations were looking into outfitting their female suicide bombers with nearly-impossible-to-detect exploding breast implants, but since the Mi5 documents around that chatter are classified, there's no way to know how serious the chatter was. Unless you're James Bond, I suppose.

What I find most interesting about the entire discussion is that it seems that the conditions that radicalize women— alienation and marginalization— occur more readily in countries that place emphasis on what a woman's proper role must be. And countries insistant on that role are more susceptible to attacks from female suicide bombers. They never see it coming, but they should.

The unaddressed threat of female suicide bombers [Center for American Progress]