Women as a weapon in terrorism

Shift: In recent years, females have begun playing a much more prominent role in attacks and suicide bombings.

September 12, 2004|By Alexis B. Delaney and Peter R. Neumann | Alexis B. Delaney and Peter R. Neumann,INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE

The recent wave of terrorist attacks in Russia has been remarkably brutal, aimed even at children. There was, however, another detail regularly picked up by commentators and analysts: the prominent role played by women.

When two commercial aircraft were brought down over central Russia on Aug. 24, female terrorists carried the bombs. When a blast destroyed a Moscow railway station Aug. 30, a woman emerged as the main suspect. And in the hostage crisis in the province of North Ossetia, it was - again - women who were found among the kidnappers wearing suicide bomb belts.

Networks such as al-Qaida have always used women to carry out auxiliary tasks, but their systematic involvement as high-profile operatives emerged only in recent years. In 2002, when Chechen terrorists took 700 hostages in a Moscow theater, 18 of the kidnappers were women.

In Israel, the first female suicide bombers appeared in the same year, and groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas have since "liberalized" their recruitment policies to allow females to join their ranks.

Indeed, it was only in January that a British Airways flight from London had to be canceled because a female operative planned to blow up the plane over Washington.

All this amounts to a major shift in the operational modus operandi of Islamic terrorists. The events in Russia suggest that women are now the preferred tool with which to carry out "martyrdom operations." If sustained, this would be a truly remarkable development.

After all, Islamic terrorists propagate a vision of society in which women are consistently portrayed as weak, inferior and sinful. Women, they believe, have no role to play in public life, never mind that of "heroic martyr." The question, therefore, is obvious: Why have Islamic extremists suddenly embraced the use of women as high-level operatives?

Symbolically, their participation sends a powerful message, blurring the distinction between perpetrator and victim. Even among progressive Westerners, the notion that women are inclined to create and protect life rather than destroy it remains widespread.

If women decide to violate all established norms about the sanctity of human life, they do so only as a last resort. The scholar Clara Beyler, who analyzed public reactions to suicide bombings, found that "female kamikazes" tended to be portrayed as "the symbols of utter despair rather than the cold-blooded murderers of civilians."

If a woman was involved, the media focused on "what made her do it," not on the carnage that she had created. In other words, if the attacker was a woman, it was the bomber who became the victim and whose grievances needed to be addressed.

The second reason for the spectacular rise of female operatives is practical. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the security measures introduced at airports, train stations and other public places were geared toward the perpetrators of the hijackings.

As all the members of the group around Mohammed Atta were young, male and of Middle Eastern origin (as well as appearance), it was little surprise that this became the prototype at which law enforcement agencies around the world were looking most closely.

Terror networks such as al-Qaida were quick to see this vulnerability and consequently set out to recruit operatives who did not fit the standard description. As Harvard lecturer Jessica Stern noted, the perception that women are less prone to violence, the Islamic dress code and the reluctance to carry out body searches on Muslim women made them the "perfect demographic."

The relevance of this development extends far beyond the crisis in Russia.

In fact, our astonishment at the use of female operatives by Islamic terrorists might be yet another "failure of imagination" with potentially catastrophic consequences.

As early as 2002, writer Patricia Pearson warned: "Yes, it may be hard to imagine a woman flying into the twin towers. But we have to be careful about our presumptions. Our imagination failed us before Sept. 11, and we paid a steep price."

Alexis B. Delaney is a defense analyst based in Washington. Peter R. Neumann is a research fellow in international terrorism at the Department of War Studies, King's College London.

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