Sisters of Battle: Analyzing Female Terrorists
By Erik Kleinsmith, American Military University
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, I wrote about the value of intelligence analysts seeking out and identifying brothers within a terror organization. Such familial bonds can provide counterterrorism analysts with potential patterns and trends of individual and group activity.
The attack in San Bernardino, California highlights a parallel set of implications involving the female terrorist. As more and more stories emerge about Tashfeen Malik (age 27) and her husband Syed Farook (age 28), it appears Malik had a key role in their radicalization, had pledged allegiance to ISIS, and was instrumental in the preparation and execution of this heinous crime.
For anyone surprised that a woman would take such a role in the abject horror that a terrorist-style mass murder brings, understand that the presence of women in a terror group is neither a new phenomenon nor limited to any one type of group or role. While terrorism, much like other forms of asymmetric warfare, is a male-dominated calling, history is full of examples of women who been drawn to terrorism—albeit for different reasons than why men are drawn to it.
[Related: 10 Ways to Identify Radical Extremism]
Some of the most notable examples of female terrorists include:
- Sophia Perovskaya: A leading member of the Russian anarchist terror group, Narodnaya Volya, which assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881. She was quickly caught and subsequently became the first female terrorist in Russian history to be executed.
- Leila Khaled: Hijacked TWA Flight 840 in 1969 and attempted to hijack El Al Flight 219 in 1970 as part of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or PFLP. She was captured during the second attempt but exchanged for hostages a few days later. She now lives in Amman, Jordan.
- Ulrike Meinhof, Gundrun Ensslin, and Astrid Proll: Noted members of the Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhof Gang founded in 1970. Played active roles in the various robberies, shoot-outs and assassinations conducted by the group throughout the 1970s.
- Fusako Shigenobu: Founder of the Japanese Red Army, a communist militant group, in 1971. Connected to the Israeli Lod Airport Massacre of 1972. Arrested and currently serving time in a Japanese prison for her various terrorist activities.
- Satsita Dzhebirkhanova and Amanta Nagayeva: Two female Chechen terrorists also known as “Black Widows” who each detonated a suicide bomb on separate Russian flights on August 24, 2004.
Obviously, this list could go on and on to include the many women who have participated in suicide bombings, intifada attacks, and supporting actions through the years. Female terrorists should not be considered an anomaly. They are, in fact, quite common, as are some of the particular trends and patterns that can be associated with their presence.
- Women are more prevalent in leftist/Marxist groups than in radical Islamic Jihadi groups. While many Islamic groups will welcome women into their ranks, they are often there for specific, non-leadership tasks. Contrary to this are the many Leftist/Marxist groups who were either founded by women or had women in leadership positions.
- Women are often used by terrorist groups because they are effective. As terror groups actively seek out soft targets (i.e., non-military), the fact that they are viewed as less threatening and receive different treatment by security personnel can be a great benefit to a group’s operations. For example, getting by security checks was a key element to the success of the Dzhebirkhanova and Nagayeva suicide attacks.
- Women attackers will also typically receive more attention and coverage from the media, making them an even more effective way for terror groups to get out their messages. Showing the world that women are drawn to their cause is an excellent recruiting tool for any extremist group, helping them to appear to be more widely accepted.
- Female terrorists have a better chance of survival and to have a life beyond terrorism. While joining a terror group for a majority of males is a one-way door, women have a greater chance of surviving as a terrorist and in some cases returning to normal society afterwards. This is partly because of the more supporting roles they tend to take, and also because they are more often accepted back into their respective societies after their stint in terror has ended.
Investigation Techniques to find Female Terrorists
For the police investigator or intelligence analyst, finding female terrorists within a group—like finding brothers—often leads to more information. These include, but are not limited to, the following analytical tips for analysts who have identified a woman in a terrorist group:
Look for the male in the group who is attached to her.
If you find a woman, start looking to identify the male counterpart that she is directly linked with in the group. Most often, women are recruited and radicalized by a significant man already in the group such as a lover or family member. It is rare for women to enter into a terror group alone or bonded with other women. If preliminary reports about Tashfeen Malik hold true, we may be looking at a slight deviation. While she was still attached to a man, her husband, it’s looking like she may have been the one who radicalized Syed versus the other way around.
Look at the differences in what motivates the female(s) in your group compared to the males.
Where male terrorists will more often be motivated by comradery, power, or glory for their cause, female terrorists are motivated around the safety and security of their family or community. In the context of Maslov’s hierarchy, a female terrorist’s needs are much more foundational than a male’s. The presence of women in a group will change how you should look at the motivations, goals, and objectives of the rest of the group.
Look for differences in their attitudes toward ruthlessness.
Because of their more fundamental set of motivations, female terrorists’ attitude toward violence will be different than men as well. They will also understand that they, as a female, can be perceived as weak or sympathetic with their victims. Therefore, women are more prone to sacrifice themselves in the form of suicide attacks and bombings and will not shy away from resorting to violence to compensate for any perception of weakness. For example, if a terrorist group that contains a woman are holding hostages, look for the female to demonstrate her ruthlessness in order to establish that she is just as dangerous as her male comrades.
Look at the role of women in a terror group to correspond with their role in their society.
The notion that women will only be found in supporting roles and not “run and gun” with the boys is a myth. Women are just as apt at sharpshooting, bombing, taking hostages, and executing prisoners as men are. What’s important to understand is that a terror group’s social and rank structure will mirror the society it came from and the role of the woman in the group is no exception. For example, in leftist/Marxist groups, look at women as leaders, planners, bomb makers, and even trigger pullers. In radical Islamic groups, women will rarely be accepted in leadership positions. Women are welcome in these groups, but only in certain roles. An exception to this would be in isolated or self-radicalized cells that would then pattern the particular host society, such as one in a more Western country.
Expect publicly known information about terrorist women to be exploited by the group.
Media attention is a critical part of extremist groups in exporting their message of terror. The extra focus media will give to women only helps to get terrorists’ message out. This includes the recruitment message; highlighting women may even shame men into joining.
Look for female presence as a sign of potential weakness or vulnerability in a group.
As written by Mia Bloom in a Washington Post article, Female Suicide Bombers are Not a New Phenomenon, the use of women may signal a difficulty in the group either in being able to attack certain targets or in their inability to recruit enough men to continue operations. There could be several reasons why a group has women. Some may be an indication of a weakness rather than a strength.
Unfortunately, the attack in San Bernardino won’t be the last attack in the latest wave of terror directed at Americans. It also will not be the only time we will see a woman as a major participant. For the intelligence analyst and police investigator, understanding the unique aspects of female terrorists is a critical part of understanding and predicting the future actions of the group.
About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Relationships in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and two children.