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U.S. Counterterrorism’s Big Blindspot: Women

The United States doesn't think of women as active participants in terrorist groups. It also doesn't think of women as potential counterterrorist allies.

The aftermath of a truck bomb in Mogadishu (Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Trump administration, in late February, decided to block Hoda Muthana’s return to the United States, many saw it as an unfair and questionably legal denial of citizenship: Muthana, who traveled to Syria in 2014 to join the Islamic State, was born in the United States and previously possessed a U.S. passport. But in the midst of the furor over the particulars of the case, the announcement also signaled a growing recognition that women in violent extremist movements are not merely naïve “jihadi brides.” It’s one of a string of incidents in recent months that suggest the U.S. may finally be ready to address a longstanding blindspot when it comes to gender and security.

U.S. policymakers have long overlooked women’s involvement in terrorism—and, relatedly, have rarely enlisted their participation in efforts to combat radicalization. Earlier this month on International Women’s Day, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives—Lois Frankel (D-FL), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Joe Wilson (R-SC), Bill Keating (D-MA), Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA)—introduced a bill that would require U.S. counterterrorism policy to address the roles that women play as “victims, perpetrators, and preventers” of terrorism. Specifically, it would authorize assistance to women-focused civil society organizations working to counter violent extremism, require State and Defense Department officials to train for incorporating women in counterterrorism initiatives, and require the State Department to double the number of female security officials from around the world receiving U.S. counterterrorism training. It could go further still.

When counterterrorism efforts overlook women, terrorist groups can use gender roles to their advantage. Around the world, women represent just 15 percent of police forces; in South Asia, women serve as less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s police and less than 7 percent of Bangladesh’s. The dearth of female officers has been readily exploited by female extremists throughout history, from Algeria in the 1950s, when female National Liberation Front fighters posed as young women out for a day of shopping to evade checkpoints and attack a strategic target, to a paramilitary member in Turkey who disguised a bomb as a late-term pregnancy in an attack on Turkish military officers in 1996. Female fighters can conceal suicide devices knowing that there is a good chance they will not encounter a female security official and therefore will not be searched. Eleven percent of all suicide attacks in 2017 were conducted by female militants—and closer to half in Nigeria, where using female attackers has become the Islamist group Boko Haram’s calling card.

Women can play other roles in radicalization and support as well. Women have provided the Islamic State a strategic advantage since its start, acting as recruiters, and fundraisers. Most recently, women have also served in military roles as a loss of territory prompted the group to shift from its strict enforcement of a gender hierarchy. In Europe, women constituted 26 percent of those arrested on terrorism charges in 2016, up from 18 percent the previous year. And while the Islamic State has lost its territorial stronghold, a study of over 40,000 ISIS-affiliates warned that women are well-placed to continue to advance the group’s ideology. Despite these figures, law enforcement across Europe and the United States tend to view women as casualties, resulting in fewer arrests for terrorism-related crimes and shorter-than-average sentences.

While extremist groups use women to their strategic advantage, governments fail to enlist women in counterterrorism efforts, even though women are already on the front lines of reducing extremist violence. When it comes to early warning, for example, women have unique vantage points to detect early signs of radicalization. Women notice rising extremism: Their rights are often the first targets of fundamentalists, from harassment in public spaces to dress requirements or attacks on girls’ schooling. Women can also access spaces and conversations that may not be monitored by security officials, like Afghan women who noticed young men in their communities were being recruited at weddings. Too often, governments disregard their warnings. In Afghanistan, recruits the women had reported went on to kill thirty-two civilians on a bus after the women’s warnings were ignored. In Libya too, there were signs that radicalism was on the rise, from an increased flow of Western female recruits, signaling a greater need for wives as the Islamic State expanded its stronghold, to a growing number of attacks on the rights of local women. As in Afghanistan, these warnings went unheeded, providing the Islamic State time to establish a headquarters before counterterrorism efforts ramped up.

As security officials, too, women bring strategic advantages, able to interact with other women and children sometimes inaccessible to all-male teams, as former U.S. Special Operations Commander Admiral William McRaven observed in 2015. Women’s participation also tends to improve how a local community perceives law enforcement—a crucial component in law enforcement’s ability to provide security, since local buy-in means, for example, better crime reporting and tips. 

The Women and Countering Violent Extremism Act now before Congress would help with all this. With the U.S. government paying too little attention to women’s roles—notably, the Trump Administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism only mentions women once—the bill would ensure that the United States better addresses the ways that women contribute to both executing and preventing terrorist activity. 

Among its more important points, the bill would require the U.S. government to increase the number of female security officials it trains and help close the loophole created by their absence. Take the State Department’s anti-terrorism training program: in 2016, only five percent of participants were women. The bill calls on the State Department to double this number within three years.

The bill would also authorize the United States to invest directly in women’s civil society groups in order to scale successful counter-extremism pilot programs. And to better understand the ways that women either perpetrate or prevent terrorism, the bill would require the State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism to analyze how gender intersects with violent extremism.

As a further step, the bill should also insist intelligence and law enforcement communities deepen the U.S. government’s understanding of the relationship between women, violent extremism, and terrorism; for example, by requiring the Director of National Intelligence to produce a National Intelligence Estimate and form an operational task force on women and terrorism.   

The bill, disappointingly, shies away from domestic terrorism in the United States, despite similar blindspots regarding women’s roles in extremist violence persisting at home. Female extremists have perpetrated deadly attacks, notably Islamist Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, California in 2015. In fact, radicalized U.S. women tend to commit the same types of crimes and have about the same success rate as radicalized men, yet they are less likely to be arrested and convicted. And while American women lead efforts to combat radicalization—like Angela King, a former far-right extremist leader who now helps others exit white nationalist movements—the U.S. government provides too little support to women-led organizations involved in terrorism prevention.

The United States should have started addressing the role women play as perpetrators, mitigators, and victims of terrorism decades ago. But as former Islamic State-affiliates return home, and the United States grapples with rising domestic extremism, there’s a particularly pressing need to close the gap now. Failing to do so will jeopardize U.S. security interests and cede a strategic advantage to terrorists—whether at home or abroad, and whether radical Islamist or white nationalist.