Even in the twenty-first century, many of us retain the sense that women are the gentler sex, the nurturers, and the protectors.1 But modern militancy is dangerously misunderstood unless the counterterrorism and intelligence communities confront the fact that females have been and are fighting in the ranks, and are even taking a leadership role in some groups. Today's insurgencies and small terrorist groups include numerous women; they may command, execute, plan, handle logistics, write or translate publications, prepare false travel documents, manage safe houses, reconnoiter in advance of attacks, or do the shooting or bomb placement. Women are full participants in contemporary terrorism, yet this is not adequately recognized in the analytic community, in part because al Qaeda Central has been an all-male cohort. But this general misapprehension must not persist. What we don't know can kill us.
Does anyone remember Kim Hyun Hee? She is a former child model who appeared in North Korean propaganda films and a terrorist who later declared that she was acting under orders from Kim Jong-Il, the son of North Korea's long-time dictator, when she helped place a bomb on a South Korean airliner in 1987. All 115 people aboard died in this act, which was aimed to discourage attendance at Seoul's 1988 Summer Olympics. Kim's role in this drama was to play "granddaughter" to a much older man, a professional North Korean spy. Their pairing removed suspicion. So, perhaps, did the beauty of this former actress, since many people believe that a beautiful woman is unlikely to be violent, let alone a terrorist. Unlike the older agent, Kim could not swallow her cyanide tablet as captors closed in. She lived, found herself showered with marriage proposals, wrote an autobiography, and still lives in celebrity in South Korea.2 "The only thing I can say is that I am sorry," she confesses in frequent media appearances.
North Korea had selected a female agent who could deploy beauty and acting ability to "disarm" security personnel. Modern insurgent and terrorist undergrounds well understand the potential of female operatives and fighters to effectively carry out their cause. In some environments—such as Latin America insurgencies or the Nepalese Maoist uprising of the late 1990s—girls and women have become common in varied fighting roles. And they are effective. Several female members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) helped sink over half a dozen Sri Lankan naval vessels in LTTE's long separatist campaign. "We find that they are more fierce than the men," reflected a two-star general of Sri Lanka's army as he looked back on personal experiences against women in the LTTE ground combat forces.3
In this article, we explore cases from across the globe that illustrate the many roles that women have played within terrorist groups, as well as their motivations for participation. Our goal is not to review, or debate with, the contemporary academic literature on female terrorism, but to expand general understanding of the phenomenon by examining cases of terrorists often forgotten by this same contemporary literature. Our cases are drawn from a worldwide survey of newspaper reports, court documents, memoirs by terrorists, public interviews, and biographical accounts of female terrorists since 1900. Playing on social stereotypes of women as passive, nurturing, and nonviolent, the women in these organizations often use their traditional roles to avoid detection. Terrorist crime annals have logged the pregnant suicide bomber, the motherly safe house manager, the secretive cyber-propagandist whose postings emerge from the anonymity of the World Wide Web, the skillful but silent translator of explosive "jihadist" screeds, and the "helpless" widow who runs money as an international terrorist financier.
The motives of such women are also in contrast to popular beliefs. Many voluntarily join terrorist groups. Very often, their motivations are similar to those of the men: politics, psychology, power, religion, glamour, adventure. Terrorism also appears to offer women opportunities to break out of the limitations of their gender roles in society. Familial and romantic ties may also play roles, as illustrated in certain cases examined in the following sections.
Lolita Lebrón was a flamboyant woman whose action helped set the tone for a violent Puerto Rican separatist campaign in the United States. In 1950, President Truman's temporary residence in Washington, DC, was attacked by two male gunmen from Puerto Rico.4 On 1 March 1954, Lebrón assembled her team of four, took a train south from New York City to Washington, DC, and entered the Capitol and the visitor's gallery overlooking the floor of the House of Representatives. Suddenly, the activists unfurled a banner calling for independence of the Commonwealth from the United States, shouted "Puerto Rico libre!" and began sustained firing with pistols they had smuggled past guards. By the time the foursome were wrestled to the floor, five congressmen were wounded (one nearly died).
Lebrón's dramatic image probably redoubled whatever publicity the Puerto Rican separatist movement might have garnered from the attack. The Washington Post, still fascinated by her a half-century later, ran a magazine cover story on her life titled "When Terror Wore Lipstick."5 Prison did not dim Lebrón's aspirations for the independence movement. She never apologized for attempted murder but instead "celebrated" each anniversary of the armed action until her death on 1 August 2010. Some saw her as a hero of political nationalism. Her fan club must have included later generations of Puerto Rican terrorists, such as the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional and Los Macheteros, organizations that deployed many women in varied roles, including as shooters and bomb carriers.
Bernardine Dohrn set a similar tone on US campuses in 1969 and 1970. The organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was losing influence to extremists ready to use terror, especially the SDS faction called the Weathermen, to which Dohrn belonged. Robberies and the bombing of prominent buildings were hallmarks of this group of several hundred members, about half of whom were women. In 1970 the group, forced into hiding, renamed itself the Weather Underground. Dohrn's flaming rhetoric and flaunted sensuality made her a spectacle on a stage with a microphone; her political intelligence and cool head made her an adept leader. She shared leadership duties with another prominent Weatherman, Billy Ayers, whom she would later marry. Many other women in the Weather Underground fought in the open or worked at length below the surface. Second-tier leader Diana Oughton died in a basement along with two others when her group made a misstep while building dynamite bombs.6
Gudrun Ensslin was one of the troika leading the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany at about the same time that the Weather Underground was operating. She was also the intimate partner of co-leader Andreas Baader; to his recklessness and love of action, she added calculation and ideological seriousness. Both were aggressive and domineering types. They mistreated the third, more introverted leader, a woman named Ulrike Meinhof, who was a well-known journalist before turning terrorist. Meinhof was the last to join the threesome and the first to commit suicide in jail; Ensslin and Baader later followed her example. While alive, Meinhof added incomparably to the leaders' joint labors at public image-making, an activity that lies at the very heart of terrorism. Her impressive work gave the "Baader-Meinhof Gang" its informal label. Since he had so few ideas of value, Baader is today of little interest to scholars, while Meinhof is the subject of new studies.7
Another female terrorist leader was Fusako Shigenobu, who emerged in the top spot of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and served there from the 1970s until 2000. The JRA included a number of women who participated in its activities alongside the men.8 The group's ideology was Marxist-Leninist, and its members' passion for "communist internationalism" prompted the group to liaise with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The JRA's attacks included the May 1972 massacre of travelers at Lod Airport, Israel, where, ironically, the dead included many Puerto Rican Christians deplaning for tourism and worship in the Holy Land. Shigenobu worked from Beirut at times, and her cadre often enjoyed safe haven in North Korea. Shigenobu's long run from the law ended with her arrest in Osaka, and she has spent the last decade and a half in Japanese custody.9
No current international terrorist group is known to be directed by a woman, but at least two women have served as effective leaders in recent years. The Uganda-based Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is not fully the creation of the infamous Joseph Kony; it grew from an armed spiritual movement founded in the 1980s by Alice Lakwena, thought to be Kony's aunt.10 She developed the perverse ideas of the organization by twisting together the biblical Ten Commandments with certain indigenous spiritual concepts and personal embellishments. The result was a cult that grew by way of guerrilla war, mass theft, terror attacks on villages, and the kidnaping and forcible enlistment of child soldiers. A number of women have held positions of authority in the LRA, although because these terrorists are being hunted by a multinational force of soldiers, the group's current disposition is unclear.
The fascinating second case of a woman in a leadership role is Maryam Rajavi, a metallurgical engineer–turned–terror boss. In the early 1970s, Rajavi joined the People's Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, a largely secular group of Iranian dissidents led by her husband Massoud Rajavi. Maryam was Massoud's second wife. They developed capacities at guerrilla war and terrorism originally in support of, and then in opposition to, the regime of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini; the Iraqi state later donated tanks and other conventional arms to the group. When Massoud disappeared after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Maryam carried on their enterprise. Presumably directed from the dual headquarters in the Seine valley of France and Camp Ashraf in Iraq, this disciplined and mysterious group continued its violent attacks, aimed especially at Iran's civilian and military leaders and the Iranian public.11 In 2004, after the MEK faction in Iraq disarmed and was confined to Camp Ashraf, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld designated the group "protected persons," a status they kept until Iraq regained sovereignty in 2009.12 Maryam grew into an adept politician, cultivating European parliamentarians, noted barristers, and the global media. When her travel was blocked by anti-terror sanctions, she made political broadcasts by satellite. In recent years, oversized ads seeking the removal of MEK from the US Department of State's foreign terrorist group list appeared in various US media. Several public figures, including some who had held important counterterrorism roles, signed these ads in support. The publicity campaign succeeded: in late September 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton removed Maryam Rajavi and her "People's Mujahedin" from the US terrorism list.
There are a number of instances of women acting both alongside men and in specialized roles in insurgencies and terrorist organizations throughout the twentieth century. This section details a few of the noteworthy occurrences.
The Battle of Algiers (1956–1957)
A French intelligence officer who took a direct and reprehensible role in the Battle of Algiers published his memoir and some remarkable photos before he died in 2013.13 One picture in this collection shows four Algerian girls—Zohra Drif, Hassiba Ben Bouali, Djamila Bouhired, and Samia Lakhdari—who had been recruited by Fronte de Libération Nationale (FLN) terrorist Yacef Saadi to plant bombs in public places in Algiers, Algeria's capital. Saadi and his female team blew apart fellow Algerians; colones (French nationals) who had settled in the country decades earlier; security forces from France; and others unlucky enough to go near popular expatriate nightclubs, dance halls, and cafes such as the Milk-Bar. Drif (who, after the revolution, would open a perfume shop), Bouali, Bouhired, and Lakhdari were selected by Saadi for calculated reasons: he knew their European appearance (light skin or hair, fashionable dress) and their prettiness would allow them easy passage through security cordons in the capital. The four enjoyed their roles in the FLN's nationalist revolution—one memorable photo of them posturing with guns is full of grins. But playfulness was half the package, and part of the disguise: the women were supremely effective as bomb couriers.
During the war, Dr. Frantz Fanon, a gifted foreigner who served the FLN as a propagandist and medical doctor, wrote with admiration of the spirit, cleverness, and resilience of women in the underground. He declared that, as Algerians found themselves in a state of "total war" with France, leaders of the FLN could "no longer exclude certain forms of combat" and "had no choice but to adopt forms of terror which until then it had rejected." 14 This meant the mass murder of civilians, Algerian as well as European. It also meant recruiting women as operatives. Female insurgents smuggled hand grenades or plastique bombs in their handbags; they carried messages and battle plans within their clothes; they stood outside safe houses, managing to be inconspicuous while watching for signs that the leaders huddled within could be under French surveillance. All of this female engagement gripped the psychoanalyst and student of human nature within Fanon, who wrote a number of books and essays detailing his ideas and observations. In one movement, he imagined the liberation of Algerian women from social confines, the personal growth of women matured by fighting for political freedom, and the satisfaction one might take in fooling an occupier or killing a tyrant.
Ireland's Troubles (1968–1998)
Western European terrorist organizations saw these qualities in women as well. In the Irish Republican Army (IRA), armed women were a minority, but a long-standing and active minority. In 1988, when a British Special Air Service team secretly deployed to Gibraltar and shot a three-person IRA team connected with a car bomb plot intended for a British target, one of those they killed was a woman, Mairead Farrell. The young Farrell had participated in a hotel bombing near Belfast in 1976. She served 10 years in jail but emerged no less revolutionary and continued to operate until she and her two cadres died on the British "Rock" guarding the gateway to the Mediterranean.15 She was neither the first Irish woman nor the last to wield a bomb. Two sisters were jailed for the IRA bombing of the Old Bailey courthouse in London in 1973: Dolours Price, who died in January 2013, said she and her sister were under orders from Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams (now a member of Parliament in the Republic of Ireland, or Eire). Two unrelated IRA women, Donna McGuire and Maria McGuire, spent years in confinement because of their participation in bomb plots at British bases on the European continent.16
During interviews with Irish militants in Belfast in 1972, reporter Martin Dillon met a woman known by the alias Eileen, who was a long-time director of armed street fights against British soldiers. Dillon reported one street fight with awe: First he was impressed by watching an IRA man with a Thompson submachine gun angling for fighting positions. Then he found out that this fellow was just one member of a group of men under the tactical command of Eileen, who also served her fighters tea and sandwiches from her home. Many a terrorist safe house has been managed by a clever woman, but here was a fighters' command post, based in a family home and run by the woman of the house. Years later, while still reporting, Dillon met Eileen's daughter, who had also joined the IRA women's section.17 An early twentieth-century publication by a "women's wing" of the IRA called Cumann na mBan (Irish Gaelic for "Republican flag") reveals photos of uniformed and armed women, some of whom participated in shootouts. It appears that Cumann na mBan later lost its official character and was folded into the larger Provisional IRA organization. At present, one almost never hears the name.
The Palestinian Cause (1948–present)
Women have also played prominent roles in the classic, high-profile terrorist act of airline hijacking. The first known female hijacker was Leila Khaled, who was the perfect icon of Palestinian oppression after the creation of Israel in 1948: as a child, her family had lost its possessions in a Palestinian area appropriated by the nascent state of Israel. Khaled was so devoted to the Palestinian cause that when her face, noted for its beauty, became too famous after she participated in the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 840 in 1969, she had it altered in secret by a plastic surgeon so that she could qualify for a second hijacking mission.
Carlos the Jackal worked for the Palestinian cause with women on his operation teams. In December 1975, he employed Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann of the West German anarchist organization 2 June Movement. She had served jail time for terrorism, was freed in a deal that involved the release of kidnap victims, and
The PFLP often used a woman on its teams. One woman—her identity is still unclear—was on the team that, in 1976, seized a passenger airliner flying out of Athens and directed it to Entebbe, Uganda; Israeli commandos soon arrived to shoot all the terrorists and save the hostages. That same year, Fighters for Free Croatia included a woman among the hijackers who grabbed an airliner in US skies. Notably, hostages in these hijackings offered testimonials about the special venom of the females on the hijacking teams vis-à-vis the male hijackers. The women's behavior may have been calculated to further the hostages' disorientation, but it certainly also worked to heighten the general terror.
Leftists in the United States and Europe (1965–1985)
Women have proven themselves ready to kill in terrorist situations, not just to add to the political theater. Kathy Boudin, the daughter of a lawyer famed for his leftist activism, was an integral part of the Weather Underground. After that group declined, she and certain other members—mostly women—created the May 19th Communist Organization and briefly conducted joint operations with the Black Liberation Army in the northeastern United States.21 May 19th was involved in bank robberies and several gun battles with police, and Boudin was eventually convicted of a role in a multiple shooting. Fierce in her politics, like Chinese Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, she acted in the conviction that power flows from the barrel of a gun.
In Germany, too, the violent left included women who were well prepared for shoot-outs with authorities—enough so that one German official offered the famous advice to police forces that, if confronted in the moment by multiple armed terrorists, they should "shoot the women terrorists first." 22 The RAF's plan to free their leader Andreas Baader from prison was conceived and directed by female RAF members. RAF leader Ulrike Meinhof, still an active journalist at the time, posed as a social scientist and won a supervised interview with Baader in a light-security room. Several RAF women along with one man were the shooters that day. The operation succeeded and led to the RAF's most active and violent period in its life span.
Latin American Terrorists (1964–2012)
Many women form the ranks of combat infantry in the modern insurgencies that regularly use terrorism. Such all-purpose cadres are especially innumerable in Latin American insurgencies, such as Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the Columbian National Liberation Army. As many as 10 women took part in the 19th of April Movement (M-19)
Teenage girls with automatic rifles were part of the team that the Peruvian Túpac Amaru (MRTA) terrorist group used in the five-month-long hostage-taking of Lima's Japanese diplomatic residence between December 1996 and April 1997. The teenagers died along with the rest of the dozen-man team when commandos eventually retook the building.
Asia's Insurgencies (1965–present)
Several violent movements based on the Maoist model, such as the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, included girls and women alongside males in their fighting organizations. In Nepal's recent civil war (1996–2008), the Nepalese Maoist insurgents included women in their ranks. One muscular account of female revolutionaries, Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers, was written by Adele Ann Balasingham.23 She was the Australian wife of British citizen Anton Balasingham, LTTE's best-known diplomat, who ran an office in London that collected funds and publicized the cause of Tamil separatism from Sri Lanka. The 40-page booklet provides historical background for the female formations, narrative about their introduction into combat in 1986, and accounts of infantry fighting, survival, and heroism. The opening page promises that Tigresses have "earned an international reputation as the most fierce, highly disciplined and courageous" of female combatants. Note is made of the special units for anti-tank and antiaircraft operations, and war with heavy weapons, as well as the more obvious roles in which females have served guerrilla forces in so many countries: "In the field of medics, communication, intelligence work, etc.," there had been "constant expansion and growth." This development of women under arms would surely continue, declared Balasingham, because LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran "views the successful induction of women into the armed struggle as one of his major achievements," and he promoted "the holistic development of the women fighters, as a part of his vision of women's path to liberation." 24
Myriad Roles for Women in Terrorist Organizations
In recent years it has become less unusual for women to strap themselves with explosives and blow themselves up in public places. While there is a long tradition of lethal actors among women, however, women are more often used for, and have proven adept at, the many kinds of nonlethal duties that define the success or failure of long-term underground organizational life.
Suicide for the Cause
Although the female hijackers of older decades broke new ground in the area of women's participation in terrorism, what captures contemporary imaginations is the phenomenon of suicide terrorism. It appears that the first female suicide terrorists of the modern era were in Lebanon.25 From 1982 through 1985, Lebanese, French, and US interests were repeatedly ravaged by suicide bombings—the most deadly being vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, most often driven by men. Soon enough, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants in Turkey—male and female—were using the suicide bomb tactic, which also continued in the Middle East. Now it is well-established that female suicide bombers may "perform" for, horrify, and, to their way of thinking, instruct varied and global audiences.
Written in the late 1980s, the Charter of Hamas bore no suggestion that Muslim women should be killers at all, let alone suicide bombers. But Palestinian organizations debated about the use of women in terrorism, and some of these groups eventually abandoned their religious and normative reservations. Hamas and its rival organization Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade have each used women. Reem Riyashi of Gaza City, the first female suicide attacker for Hamas, will be long remembered for her propaganda poster: she stands with a rifle under one arm and a small child in the other arm, both wearing the classic green-and-white Hamas headband.26
Chechen insurgent factions have often deployed female suicide bombers, known as "black widows," in their attacks. At the infamous takeover of a Moscow theater in October 2002, 19 members of the 40-plus–person Chechen terrorist team, most of whom were strapped with explosives, were women. Almost miraculously, none of these human bombs self-detonated before they were all overcome by gas pumped into the building by the Russian authorities.27 There were so many terrorists with bombs, and they were so well-provided with explosives, that sympathetic detonations might have killed all of the approximately one thousand people in the building.
Covert Operations, Intelligence, and Reconnaissance
Intelligence work often begins with being unsuspicious and coolly capable in public. Related to personal relations skills, it may include a capacity for getting to know people while simultaneously protecting one's true identity and real motives. Women who have excelled at this are celebrated by nearly every country's formal intelligence service, and so it is no surprise that many a non-state actress has been adept in this way. In the Algerian FLN's fight with France, the most skilled of recruits included Fatima Benosmane, described as "very cultured and perfectly trilingual" in Kabyle, Arabic, and French. She was both a professional radio announcer and a communist, but she turned toward the FLN nationalists while keeping up her reporting—a perfect profession for a covert asset because it places one closest to fresh open-source information and the resources to assess its veracity. Benosmane was eventually arrested and tortured; when released, she returned to the militant underground. More recent examples of female intelligence assets can be found in Sendero Luminoso, a Maoist guerrilla insurgent organization in Peru, which used women working as housecleaners to discover the inner secrets of important people who were potential targets.
Individuals who serve as couriers are often chosen because they do not look like the more "typical" actors in a militant organization. This fact should affect our convictions about airport and other security (e.g., "30-ish Arab-looking men must be searched," or "It is outrageous to bother a grandmother with a search."). No one is looked upon more generously, by women and men alike, as the pregnant woman—which is why gravid women (and imitators with appropriately shaped disguises) have been used by terrorist gangs. This matter of appearances also helps explain the use of women as "drug mules." A law enforcement officer told one of the co-authors about the interrogation of a prominent figure in a successful interstate drug-running gang composed of African-Americans. The trafficker disclosed to police that "types" like him did not move the drugs; the organization selected white, well-dressed "businesswomen" to be couriers.28
Decades ago, Doris Katz, amateur diplomat and smuggler, "placed her ‘Aryan' features and British passport at the disposal of the Irgun Zvai Leumi," the Zionist terror and resistance organization led by Menachem Begin. Her role was to help move large sums of its money between Geneva, Stockholm, Paris, London, and Palestine, and she told her life story in her 1953 memoir, The Lady Was a Terrorist.29 Her testament lends credence to a recent French film, Outside the Law, a rare depiction of FLN overseas operations during the Algerian war from 1954 to 1962. The Paris-based FLN support unit is depicted as collecting masses of money and using it to buy European arms for use back in Algeria. In the film's story, the FLN operator is careful to choose a classy blonde society woman of sympathetic views to do the courier work of running his cash to Switzerland.
Finding and running safe houses for a clandestine movement or group is one of the more technical, essential, and unrewarded of terrorist tasks, and it has often fallen to women. In some cultures, at least, mature women appear very natural in the role of running a large "family" home. They shop and prepare meals for varying numbers of operatives in hiding, or even for those in the field. These women naturally control the ingress and egress of visitors from the house, and can meet or confront authorities or unexpected visitors at the door. When a clandestine guest requires health care, a woman well known in the community can bring in a sympathetic, discreet doctor. An Algerian mother of five named Oukhiti became famous for the skills she showed in hiding senior FLN decision makers in her home. More recently, in the 1980s, New Yorker Lori Berenson, a passionate radical—perhaps a fanatic, if her courtroom performance is any indicator—went to Peru on a journalist's credentials and became enmeshed with the MRTA, a radical leftist terrorist organization with a strong presence in Lima. She opened her house to the MRTA unit planning a major operation in the capital building. Berenson was eventually arrested, served years in jail, and remains in Peru on probation.
Financial support is a key logistical asset to a terrorist organization, and some women have excelled in such roles. In the RAF in Germany, Gudrun Ensslin often handled the group's money, while Ulrike Meinhof would choose the safe houses. While many terrorist gangs may live hand-to-mouth, or depend on the latest bank robbery or foreign state donation, Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult deserves notice for the orderly and successful ways it pursued business. Aum companies created and sold computers and software, and also operated noodle shops. Recruits entering the cult had to hand over their personal assets. Shoko Asahara, the man who set himself up as a mystic and the group's tyrannical spiritual leader, was a yoga teacher who made money from his many yoga studios and wrote his own line of books and magazines. Some investigators believe that Aum's land and other assets were worth as much as one billion US dollars by the time of Aum Shinrikyo's collapse in 1995 after the cult's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
Many women, including Hisako Ishii, joined Aum Shinrikyo, a hierarchical organization in which some women had considerable authority. Ishii had been an office worker in the insurance field prior to joining the group and helped Asahara manage the group's money and possessions. Those included everything from a one-time conference hall rental inside the Kremlin, to a ranch in Australia, to a Russian military helicopter. When Asahara grew ambitious enough to imagine taking over the governing of Japan (after destroying its liberal republic), he told Ishii she would be the minister of finance, a dream that ended with the mass arrests that broke up Aum in 1995.30
Weapons development is another role that some women have embraced, despite the field's domination by males. When an IRA cell called the Boston Three was arrested in the United States while developing a shoulder-fired missile, analysts paid little attention to the fact that one of the underground engineers was Christine Reid of California. Her contribution is briefly noted in a few IRA memoirs and obscure newspaper stories.31
Al Qaeda leaders tried for years to buy a nuclear weapon, failing at all turns. The group had voluntary support from Aafia Saddiqui, a woman who held a scientific degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University. She served as a courier and financier for al Qaeda. When she was arrested, it became evident that she was engaged in professional investigations into weapons of mass destruction. During her arrest in Afghanistan, she leapt to seize a soldier's loaded weapon and fired on Americans in the room. She was wounded and subdued while screaming, "Allahu Akbar!"
Bioweapons research is enticing to global terrorists who want to inflict mass casualties. While the handling and weaponizing of these living media are difficult—and dangerous—the Rajneesh cult demonstrated that it can be done.
Motivations for Terrorism
In 2004, a militant Islamist cell called the Hofstad group murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whom the group considered to be a political enemy. After Dutch police and intelligence services arrested the Hofstad group, investigations uncovered the presence and involvement of a large circle of women who were the siblings, wives, daughters, friends, or lovers of the male defendants. Journalists Janny Groen and Annieke Kranenberg, who interviewed the circle of women around Hofstad for months, found that although the women apparently did not do the actual killing, they were deeply involved in the group for reasons that were similar to those of the men. These Dutch women, who wore veils when attending the trials of their male counterparts, talked voluminously with the two journalists, saying they did so as a form of outreach, of religious "struggle."
Showing "extreme dedication" to religious study, the women were also followers and propagators of violent jihadist literature. They carried and reproduced pamphlets, and sometimes served as translators because they knew Arabic, English, and/or Dutch. They listened avidly to extremist audiotapes and read long, violent tracts that circulated as e-mail attachments. They expressed their passion, and desire for justice and revenge, freely in chat rooms and on websites where their sex was no obstacle. The then-director of Holland's General Intelligence and Security Service called the internet the "turbo engine of the jihad movement," and it became clear that these Dutch women—more than Dutch men—were its cyber-accelerators.33
Generally, the evidence indicates that women join terrorist movements and insurgencies for many of the same reasons that men do. There is, above all, the sense of new prospects in a future one has helped to shape—a vision that combines idealism, hope, and the rebelliousness that many young people feel and vent in either political or nonpolitical ways.34 In 1959, Dr. Frantz Fanon wrote an essay called "Algeria Unveiled" about the women in the FLN, whom he portrayed as being moved, like the men, by revolutionary spirit. These women rebels displayed special fervor because the rebellion opened up access to social and political roles that Algeria's traditional Muslim and Arab culture had denied them. A world away and a generation later, journalist Eileen MacDonald interviewed many female revolutionaries from conflict zones around the world and reached a similar conclusion.35
The standard explanations for why people become terrorists start with the essentials of terrorism: politics, psychology, religion, power, the lust for glamour and adventure, and even sadism. First is the attraction to politics: from late nineteenth-century anarchist groups in Russia and Europe to the members of the European undergrounds of the 1960s and 1970s, both men and women members shared similar political outlooks. Individual psychology is a second underlying factor in terrorism: rebelliousness and lust for action doubtless move young women into terrorism. In groups such as the Weather Underground in the United States, many of the female members demonstrated a drive for action.
Religion is yet another motivation for terrorist activities. Since the early 1990s, a majority of new international terrorist groups have been founded on religious grounds.36 Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious cult, and the Rajneesh spiritual community had large numbers of female cadre, some of whom were at senior management levels. And despite stereotypes of Muslim women as sequestered non-activists, Muslim women are increasingly joining the ranks of terrorist groups.37 British citizen Samantha Lewthwaite married a London-based Muslim terrorist named Habib Saleh Ghani and has written about her desire to raise all her children to be mujahedeen. In early 2013, she was living under a false name in Mombasa, Kenya, possibly as a sort of den mother to a terrorist cell: Interpol's arrest warrant includes charges for possession of explosives and terror conspiracies dating to late 2011. Police recovered her personal papers, among which were the beginnings of a draft booklet in her handwriting showing her struggles with the right way for a woman to conduct jihad.38
We cannot overlook the drive for power that motives some women: Bernardine Dohrn and many of the female leaders of the Peruvian group Sendero Luminoso shared this drive. Sendero leader Abimael Guzmán surrounded himself with female subordinate officers, whose orders could mean life and death to the less powerful. The promise of glamour and adventure also lures men and women alike to conduct internationally sensational acts of terrorism. When Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader of the Baader-Meinhof group torched a department store or roared through city streets in a stolen car firing guns, it was the wild-eyed rebel in them, rather than Leninist theory, that drove their behavior.
Finally, it must be added that some of the uglier sides of terrorism have to do with another motive, evident in terrorists such as Abu Nidal: sadism and rank evil.39 Inside Aum Shinrikyo, where ferocious discipline and corporal punishment were common, women officials were reportedly as cruel as men, and actively helped produce the weaponized sarin. Ma Anand Puja, the nurse and bioweapons designer for the Rajneesh cult, is a further example. Just as the crime world has female sadists, so too does the politicized environment of modern terrorism.
Some Unique Motives for Women
Are there also special motivations for female terrorists? As FLN proponent Dr. Frantz Fanon suggested, women may move toward violence when living within a closed or sexist society that denies them full civil rights and economic opportunities. Algerian women of the 1950s viewed themselves as breaking out of traditional Islamic roles: at the same time that they were freeing themselves from male expectations, they were freeing their fellow Algerians from French political subjugation. Sadly, after the victory of the FLN in 1962, although Algeria did receive independence from France, Algerian women did not achieve the same freedom or independence for their own sex. Their testaments have echoes now, in the dashed hopes of Muslim women after the 2011 and 2012 revolutions in Egypt. The aspirations for equality that women saw coming to fulfillment recently through the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square have been all but reversed by a reactionary crackdown.
The desire to break out of traditional female roles may also come from a more secular politico-cultural context, as it did for Leila Khaled, the icon of the PFLP. According to her memoir My People Shall Live, although Khaled had significantly higher grades and success in school than her brother, she was forced to withdraw from the American University of Beirut after only a year so that her parents could afford to pay for her brother's university education. Immediately after her withdrawal from school, Khaled shifted her energies to training as a guerrilla with the PFLP.
The chance to rise swiftly in the political realm was also important to nascent terrorists in Latin America in the 1960s. Young women of the secular political left flooded into violent undergrounds and were in fact often treated equally, or better, vis-à-vis male cadres. Violent politics thus became a kind of social equalizer for women and men.
Secondly, romantic ties can draw women into terrorism. Former CIA profiler Jerrold M. Post emphasizes this reason in his book The Mind of the Terrorist.40 Our research indicates that such cases are a small but meaningful minority. Some women and girls enter a group when their boyfriend does; or if he is already a member, over time she too is drawn in. A number of terrorist groups include women who are, or become, leaders' lovers: Gudrun Ensslin was the lover of Andreas Baader in the Red Army Faction; Magdalena Kopp married Carlos the Jackal. The cases of "terror for love" are markedly separable from a much larger group, in which girls are forcibly recruited into guerrilla undergrounds and then expected to cook and nurse and be sexual partners to the male officers. In our era, this has befallen thousands of girls in the rural areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America—there is nothing unique about the practices of the LRA.
Family ties can also draw women willingly or unwillingly into terrorist groups. Women who are wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters of terrorists may end up advocating for their male family members when the men are arrested or jailed. Irish Republican women who backed the IRA Provos (Provisional Irish Republican Army) would make an excellent subject for the study of this phenomenon. Partisan newspapers, such as those published in New York City, and of course the IRA paper An Phoblacht ("Republican News"), printed a steady supply of sympathetic stories that played up the families of the men. Publicity campaigners spoke and wrote of each convict as a man who had babies at home whom he had not seen, or an unemployed sister, or an elderly mother who desperately needed the jailed man's aid. Doubtless many such stories were true. Doubtless they made for good press, with their attractive personal testimonies and sad photographs. Women such as Rita O'Hare of the Irish Northern Aid Committee made a career out of political work of this kind. She felt deeply for those in jail and had herself been jailed for IRA activity. She was a Sinn Féin representative and also worked for years at The Irish People, a political newspaper whose every issue offered fresh news and commentary in support of prisoners by name.
Finally, the quest for redemption and honor following a disgrace or marginalization motivates some women to conduct terrorist acts—a pattern that has attracted great attention with the increase of female suicide terrorism.41 Studies of surviving female suicide bombers, as well as the biographies of those who died in the act, suggest that a significant percentage had been raped, divorced, or socially humiliated and marginalized through physical disfigurement, in some cases deliberately by men in the terrorist organization.42 If life brought disgrace, these women hoped that death would bring honor. For some it did. Posthumous iconic status and material benefits to the bomber's family are central reasons for these women to willingly self-destroy. Revenge can be another strong motive, as it is for many of the Chechen "Black Widows" whose husbands, sons, and brothers died fighting for independence from Russia.43
Special Roles for Women in Terrorism
Counterterrorism professionals must recognize what many violent covert organizations already know: female actors can turn traditional stereotypes about women's roles to their tactical and operational advantage. Guerrilla war strategist Che Guevara wrote, "Women can be assigned a considerable number of specific occupations. …Perhaps the most important is communication between different combatant forces, above all, between those that are in enemy territory." 44 Although men and women can equally fill most of the roles in terrorist organizations, there are a few special roles that women can play to great advantage. If al Qaeda has only rarely deployed women to date, we should expect that it will deploy more of them in the future, for some of the following reasons.
First, because women are traditionally seen as unthreatening, they are well suited to roles as couriers and messengers, as Guevara noted in the preceding quotation. The general profile of the terrorist is a young male, which makes it relatively easier for a girl or woman to avoid close examination. Gender expectations and custom make them less likely to be physically searched, especially by men. This was the premise of the FLN men who selected willing young ladies to be bomb couriers in Algiers in 1956 and 1957. PFLP hijacker Khaled, a smooth professional and a self-assured beauty at the same time, was able to smuggle a bomb onto an El Al airplane even though she ostensibly was searched before boarding. Among Muslims, both women and men have used the customary long veils and robes of female attire to smuggle weapons of war and terror. Suicide bombers have not only moved plastique and other explosives with ease, but some women have also played explicitly on the shape of their body by molding the pliable explosive material around breast or hip areas to better disguise their payload. Nor can a woman's "baby bump" always be trusted. In one case that took place in Cologne in 1977, a baby stroller concealing submachine guns was used by German militants to stop a kidnapping victim's car.45
Second, pairing a woman with a man so that they appear to be lovers or family can reduce suspicion toward the man as well as the woman. In the South Korean airliner bombing in 1987, airline security failed to suspect that the sweet "granddaughter" Kim Hyun Hee and her "grandfather" were actually deadly terrorists. IRA Provo member Maria McGuire played a similar role when she was assigned to accompany a more seasoned male IRA operative on a 1971 arms-buying expedition to the European continent. Hoteliers and other observers took them for a couple—and in fact, they fell in love and were thus convincing, for a while. Their ambitious and complex mission was to buy a large stockpile of weapons from a Communist Czech supplier; they succeeded in getting the arms as far as a warehouse in Holland before they were exposed. McGuire's memoir records her relish of the enterprise.46
A third role, familiar in crime and political subterfuge, is the use of sex appeal and beauty to glamorize terrorism. Any media expert recognizes what many terrorist organizers recognize: if there is anything more attention-grabbing than terrorism, it is a beautiful female terrorist. Such women offer the greatest shock value and public profile for their violent actions, both of which are essential to the calculated process of attracting public attention through violence. The youth and calculated charms of Kim added significantly to the media drama after the bombing of the South Korean airliner. Lolita Lebrón's dramatic, glamorous, and photogenic image was used for years after the attack on the US House of Representatives to garner sympathy for the Puerto Rican independence movement. Photos of Leila Khaled became so popular after her first hijacking escapade that she elected to have plastic surgery to avoid detection on her second attempt. Although not all female terrorists are beautiful or have a dramatic flair that appeals to the public, those who do have been very successful in gaining needed media attention for terrorist causes.
Fourth is the similar and related role of tactical "lure." In several cases, women have used their beauty not merely to evade detection or jail but to deliberately lure a lustful victim to his death. The Sandinistas, a revolutionary guerrilla movement in Nicaragua that came to power in 1979, were led by men. But the upper echelons of leadership, as well as the lower ones, included many women, including the respected, smart, multilingual, and attractive Nora Astorga. Early in the Sandinistas' insurgent campaign to oust Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, Astorga was assigned to seduce the general who was second in command of the state armed forces; instead of a tryst, however, he was knifed by assassins hidden in the room. Astorga later took command of a Sandinista military squad, and eventually became a high-profile political figure and diplomat in the Sandinista government.47
Another famed terrorist who served as a lure is Idoia Lopez-Riano of the Basque separatist organization ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna). A somewhat lurid 2011 account in the British Daily Telegraph newspaper informed readers that this "green-eyed femme fatale" was nicknamed "La Tigresa" for her success in seducing Spanish security officers.48 Twenty-three people died thanks to her. While some terrorist organizations might avoid such a scheme out of religious scruple, other groups have found the operational advantages of deploying a seductive woman irresistible. Even a zealously religious organization might accept foreign women or converts who volunteer for these specialized covert operations.
Fifth and finally, it must be noted that not all female terrorists assume their roles by choice. Some are victims pulled, in effect, into underground organizations by gun-wielding kidnapers. Prominent newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was dragged from her Berkeley, California, residence and subjected to appalling treatment by her male and female "comrades" in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) before becoming an apparently willing participant in armed robbery. Hundreds of village girls have been treated similarly in Africa by the male members of the LRA, Boko Haram, and other insurgencies. In a half-dozen Asian insurgencies, such forced mobilization of girls and women has occurred with some frequency. Even in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tiger insurgency included self-identified and proud all-female fighting units, some women began by being "drafted" by Tamil Tigers with guns. Yet even conscripted women can provide an operational advantage to terrorist groups that exploit natural concern for the "helpless female victim" to make security forces back down or negotiate. Thus the SLA sought, unsuccessfully, to use Hearst to gain money and concessions from the government, including the release of two members of their terrorist organization. The use of conscripted women and girls in units of the Tamil Tigers' combat forces posed serious ethical problems for the Sri Lankan security forces, who were loath to shoot those they took to be innocent victims.
While some still believe the female terrorist to be a rare bird, in fact what is rare is finding a proficient terrorist organization that does not include female cadre, support staff, or volunteers. It is true that most fighting units of al Qaeda have no women. Yet there was a highly active female circle around the males in the Sunni extremist Hofstad group in Holland a decade ago.49 Furthermore, it is notable that recent issues of Inspire—a jihadist magazine that al Qaeda created initially with men in mind—have departed from traditional norms. The magazine now has a "Sister's Corner," and at least three recent stories have been devoted to the desire of the "good" Muslim woman to join the fight.50 The World Wide Web has also seen the publication of "zines" aimed directly at radical Muslim women.
Women who belong to neo-Nazi groups in Europe, Russia, and the United States are rarely tracked by authorities—for many of the misguided reasons mentioned earlier—but rightist parties and groups often do have female members who "are anti-feminist, aware of tradition and devoted to their nation," according to one such proud nationalist.51
According to a 2010 estimate by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, there are 25,000 far-right extremists inside the country, but only 11 percent were believed to be women. Although they account for a relatively small number, roughly half of the women who are involved in the scene were recorded as holding leadership positions within nationalist political organizations.52
US neofascist propaganda often plays to female readers in obvious ways. In killings carried out by the far right in Germany between 2000 and 2007, one of the three individuals leading the so-called National Socialist Underground was a woman named Beate Zschape. While a German security official's famous warning to "shoot the women terrorists first" may be somewhat exaggerated, there are cases in postwar Germany to substantiate his point. The remark deserves at least passing mention as a corrective for our current prejudices. What is apparent is that women are deeply involved in contemporary terrorism of all kinds at many levels, including as top leaders and more frequently as second-tier leaders. Many women perform in such vital roles as logistics and even weapons development or procurement. Tens of thousands of women have been cadre in terrorist undergrounds and insurgencies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, everywhere in the world.
Due to the gap between the current assumptions and global realities about women as terrorists, the presence of women in violent sub-state groups presents a real danger, along with important kinds of challenges. The counterterrorism community needs first of all to reevaluate its intelligence processes and assumptions. Recent counterinsurgency operations have improved the intelligence assessment process and led to the development of female engagement teams of various kinds. But it is still easy to underestimate the many ways in which women routinely play vital roles in terrorist organizations, especially in nursing, finance, management of safe houses, reconnaissance, courier activities, and more recently, suicide bombings. The more pressure that armed forces place on men in asymmetric warfare, the more important such women become, and the more likely they are to be armed. The proliferation of small arms and the relative lightness of new semiautomatic weapons such as the Kalashnikov mean that mature girls must also be considered as possible tactical threats in a conflict environment, as weapons couriers, bomb setters, or even infantry in rural guerrilla wars. As for smaller terrorist gangs, the ways we write about and understand them indicate that we still do not expect to see women in combat roles.
It is apparent that terrorist profiling in airline and public transit security should be reevaluated. Even if most shooters are males, that need not be true of the people and organizations that supply and pay them, carry their intelligence packets and false documents, or do reconnaissance. Limited but specialized training of new security personnel is essential to the proper understanding of how terrorism works. At transit portals, female security teams are needed to search American women as well as passengers from other countries, as is already the norm in many airports and train stations around the world. In common crime, women are less active and less lethal. But in political terrorism, that is not at all true. Women can kill, and often have, for a number of reasons—in this they are not so different from their male cohorts.
Bibliography: Eight Personal Accounts of Women in Terrorism
Amrane-Minne, Daniele Djamila. Des Femmes dans la Guerre d'Algerie: Entretiens. Paris: Karthala, 1994.
De Soyza, Niromi. Tamil Tigress: My Story as a Child Soldier in Sri Lanka's Bloody Civil War. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012.
Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1965. (See especially chapter 1, "Algeria Unveiled.")
Hyun Hee, Kim. The Tears of My Soul. New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., 1993.
Katz, Doris. The Lady Was a Terrorist—During Israel's War of Liberation. New York: Shiloni Publishers, 1953.
Khaled, Leila. My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973.
MacDonald, Eileen. Shoot the Women First. New York: Random House, 1992.
McGuire, Maria. To Take Arms: My Year with the IRA Provisionals. New York: Viking Press, 1973.