There are more women now involved in terrorism, but none are in any kind of leadership role, said Mia Bloom, Professor of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, in this interview with the Global Observatory. “While the women may be used, in essence, as the shells for bombs, they’re not making the decisions, they’re not writing the ideologies, and they’re not performing a leadership role that they did in previous generations when women held positions of power and influence,” she said.
“It is interesting that, two days ago, the head of Hezbollah, [Hasan] Nasrallah, came out with a statement that women can participate as suicide bombers but they can’t run for election.”
Women become terrorists for many reasons: respect, relationships, rape, and also to change their reputations in cultures where women are marginalized, judged, and punished harshly. “What we’re seeing in certain conflicts is that when women become suicide bombers, they become more famous than they could’ve ever been in their lives. Young girls are looking towards them as a source of emulation and want to follow in their footsteps. So, having positive role models would be very important in terms of the next generation.”
Ms. Bloom said children are coerced into terrorism without full knowledge of what they are doing, and are drawn in for lack of other options. “If you have environments where there is rampant hopelessness, a lack of education and no resources, the terrorist groups are offering something that may seem very positive to a child: food, shelter, protection for their family. If there are other opportunities, it’s likely the children will choose the other opportunities, but in an environment in which there is nothing except the terrorist organization, it makes it especially difficult.”
“One of the reasons that I talk about this is to show that the terrorist groups, especially transnational groups, really do not care about the civilians in the conflict. They are using the civilians for their own purposes,” she said. “This is very different from ethno-nationalist conflicts, where the groups represent a minority population. Transnational groups are basically using the local population as cannon fodder, and if we can make that known, that will lessen their attractiveness to the locals and maybe inoculate the locals to have terrorist groups operate from within their midst.”
“It’s important that we demobilize and demystify what involvement in terrorism actually entails,” she said. “I think the problem is, in many instances, both children and youth look at involvement in terrorism as something that’s exciting, something positive, and if they actually knew what an involvement really entailed, they’d probably be less enthusiastic.”
The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, a Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I’m here today with Mia Bloom, Professor of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Mia’s research focuses on women in terrorism, rape in war, the exploitation of children in conflict, and suicide terrorism. She has written two influential books, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror and Bombshell: Women and Terrorism. Mia, thank you for speaking with me today in the Global Observatory.
As your research shows, women carrying out acts of terrorism is not a new phenomenon—they have done so for decades. But their role is increasing, and more women are drawn to terrorism than ever before. Why is this?
Mia Bloom: Well, you’re right, women have been involved in terrorism since the 1960s and 70s, especially in the secular groups in Europe, many of which were left-wing groups. And they provided both ideological leadership as well as leadership to the groups; so for instance, in Germany the Baader Meinhof group was in part led by Ulrike Meinhof.
What we have now is larger numbers of women who are involved, but not in any kind of leadership role. Instead, we see women on the front lines that are largely used because it’s expedient, because they can get through security checkpoints, because they are not expected, but they are not necessarily making decisions about operations. One example I made in my book, Bombshell, is how in the 2002 Dubrovka Theater siege, there were several Chechen black widows wearing suicide belts, but they were not in control of the mechanism that detonated those suicide belts. So, while the women may be used, in essence, as the shells for bombs, they’re not making the decisions, they’re not writing the ideologies, and they’re not performing a leadership role that they did in previous generations when women held positions of power and influence.
AOS: You’ve researched and interviewed women in terrorism in dozens of countries, from women in the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland to female Tigers in Sri Lanka and female suicide bombers in Iraq. Are there common motivators and mobilizers across regions, religions, and cultures that push women to getting involved in terrorism?
MB: One of the things that I found looking at very different kinds of cases of women’s involvement is that there wasn’t one single thing that motivated all women, but there were several things that linked women across the Middle East, Europe, South Asia. The best predictor of a woman’s involvement in any kind of terrorist organization is the involvement of a male family member. This is done not only because women might experience some sort of family or social pressure to get involved, but it’s also an excellent vetting mechanism for the organization to ensure that the person who’s being recruited isn’t going to be an informant or work for the government or provide information and spy on them.
One of the things that I started to see in Northern Ireland and Chechnya and in other cases was that terrorism was part of the family business. If one member of the family got involved, the sisters and the cousins and the female members of the family would also get involved. Of course, this varied in terms of the levels of coercion. So, in some cases, the women would be married off to well-known Jihadis, knowing full well they probably wouldn’t survive more than two years in the marriage. In other cases, the women motivated themselves to participate but not necessarily as suicide bombers; so women’s involvement varied significantly.
Another theme that linked women’s involvement was sexual violence perpetrated against the women; victimization was one way in which women were mobilized into terrorism as a kind of “take back the night.”At checkpoints in Sri Lanka if the Sinhalese army sexually abused Tamil women, the Tamil Tigers made it clear that those women were welcome to join the LTTE, and their reputations would be completely absolved. We also see this in places like Iraq where Samira Ahmed Jassim oversaw the rape of eighty women and of whom thirty-two were already successful suicide bombers by the time she was captured.
We see sexual violence against women as a motivator, but also as a way of mobilizing men by making the claim that if the men do not go to the region on jihad to help their sisters in Islam, women will be raped and they didn’t step up.
One of the things that I said in the book is that there are a few things: respect, relationship, rape, as well as women wanting to rehabilitate their reputations. And this is in a few other instances where their reputations might’ve been placed into question. The first five Palestinian suicide bombers, extensively written about by Barbara Victor, were trying to basically reinvent themselves by becoming suicide bombers: one woman had been accused of having a sexual relationship outside of marriage; in one instance, a woman’s father had been accused of being a collaborator; in another case, a woman was incapable of having a child, and her husband left her, so this was a source of great shame in the community. By becoming a member of a terrorist organization and then becoming a Shahida or a martyr, the women completely reinvent themselves and no one thinks of them in a negative way; now they’re only seen in the positive.
The same thing in Northern Ireland—women were able to gain a lot of respect by becoming members of the provisional IRA, to a point. One of the things that I wrote about in the book that most people don’t realize is that while Bobby Sands and nine other of his colleagues went on hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, women also went on hunger strikes.
AOS: To follow up on that idea of women in terrorism as redeeming their reputation and establishing themselves as important in the community, do you think that empowering women in positive leadership roles—such as political and peace processes or conflict mediation—could also counter participation in terrorism, by modeling an alternative path for a strong identity and social change?
MB: Having women in leadership positions is definitely a way of incentivizing and motivating young women to follow suit, and one of the things that we’re seeing in certain conflicts is that when women become suicide bombers, they become more famous than they could’ve ever been in their lives. Young girls are looking towards them as a source of emulation and want to follow in their footsteps. So, having positive role models would be very important in terms of the next generation. I don’t know if having women in positions of leadership where this is not the norm is necessarily going to be helpful in certain cultures in which this will be seen as Western involvement through women.
It’s important that if women have these positions of leadership then there’s no footprint of Western countries, especially the United States. That it becomes part of civil society, a bottom-up approach, where women’s involvement isn’t seen as a negative or that they’re puppets of the West. It is interesting that two days ago the head of Hezbollah, [Hasan] Nasrallah, came out with a statement that women can participate as suicide bombers but they can’t run for election. So here you have an instance where women’s participation is permitted in one capacity but is not a political role.
AOS: As more women engage in violence, there are also children fighting, in Somalia, Syria, Mali, and many other current conflicts, not only as soldiers but as child terrorists and even suicide bombers. Based on your current research, how and why is this happening?
MB: A lot of the groups turn to women when it becomes very difficult for men to infiltrate a target. As targets are hardened and it becomes increasingly difficult for men to cross borders or checkpoints, a lot of the groups become very flexible and start to look towards women as a wonderful source of recruitment.
The same thing has been true of children. Where it becomes more difficult in the conflict either to recruit men or to get men through hardened targets, children become a natural operative. We have started a study to look at the effect of having to face children who are militarized or armed: what effect does that have on soldiers? Does it increase the levels of PTSD? The preliminary study has shown that it becomes much more difficult over the long-term. If American or British or NATO soldiers are facing children, of course there’s the hesitance to shoot because these are children, but at the same time, there isn’t an existing standard operating procedure for how you engage children. So it’s really a murky area, it’s on a case-by-case basis.
It’s been very difficult to fight children’s involvement in any kind of violent extremist organizations. I’m hesitant to use terms common in the media, like “child terrorist” or “baby bomber” or “baby Jihadi,” in part because many of these children don’t completely understand what they’re getting involved in, and they really can’t make the kinds of choices to become members of a terrorist organization that adults can make. So, we have to understand the roles of the community; whether there are cultures of martyrdom that are either gently or not so gently pushing the children in that direction; whether the terrorist organizations have youth movements in order to funnel children into the terrorist groups; or whether there are cultures of martyrdom that actually promote involvement in terrorism or in jihadi operations.
All of these will have an influence on children to participate. And it’s one of the things that is very worrying because we’re seeing increasing numbers of children, we’re seeing children in Somalia being used in al-Shabaab recruitment videos, we see children increasingly in militant groups; and then also television programming and books and media directed at children in order to get them involved at an early age. And as we see this, we need to figure out ways to combat it.
AOS: To end on a positive note, how can women and children be demotivated and demobilized? Have you encountered effective strategies and programs in the field for prevention and rehabilitation?
MB: Perhaps one of the most effective programs I’ve encountered is in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, an organization called Sabaoon, which is translated as “the first rays of dawn’s light.” It’s a rehabilitation facility for children who have been caught by the military and the police involved in terrorism. In most cases, over 56% of the time, the children were coerced or kidnapped by the terrorist group or handed over by the families—also under duress—to the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban. And it’s important that this organization has training that provides the children with education and skill sets. It also provides the children with religious studies to undermine the existing stereotypes and falsehoods that the children have been taught by the terrorist group about the Islamic faith.
That is one of the better ones. I think what makes it so excellent is that it’s a multipronged approach. The program is run by psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers. It’s funded by the [Pakistani] military, and the military has a presence there, but it’s really run by people who are interested in the children. But it also has a lot of aftercare—follow-up visits, visits with the families and the communities to help with reintegration—that makes it unique.
In terms of being hopeful, I think it’s important to demotivate the children by providing them other opportunities and other pathways. If you have environments where there is rampant hopelessness, a lack of education and no resources, the terrorist groups are offering something that may seem very positive to a child: food, shelter, protection for their family. If there are other opportunities, it’s likely the children will choose the other opportunities, but in an environment in which there is nothing except the terrorist organization, it makes it especially difficult.
It’s important that we demobilize and demystify what involvement in terrorism actually entails. I think the problem is, in many instances, both children and youth look at involvement in terrorism as something that’s exciting, something positive, and if they actually knew what an involvement really entailed, they’d probably be less enthusiastic.
One of the reasons that I talk about this is to show that the terrorist groups, especially transnational groups, really do not care about the civilians in the conflict. They are using the civilians for their own purposes. This is very different from ethno-nationalist conflicts, where the groups represent a minority population. Transnational groups are basically using the local population as cannon fodder, and if we can make that known, that will lessen their attractiveness to the locals and maybe inoculate the locals to have terrorist groups operate from within their midst.
AOS: Mia Bloom, thank you sharing your interesting work with us in the Global Observatory today.
About the photo: Mia Bloom presents during TEDxPSU 2011 on Sunday, November 13, 2011. (Andy Colwell/Flickr)