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"The growing role of women in terrorism"

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The growing role of women in terrorism
By Paula Broadwell
The Boston (MA) Globe

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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