Violent Extremism in Female Suicide Bombers and How to Fight It

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Table of Contents

  • IS’ Promises Made to Women
  • Women Critical to Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism
  • NATO’s Role in Tackling Radicalization and Building Social Resilience
  • Conclusion

According to a research conducted by Mia Bloom, the author of “Bombshell: Women and Terrorism” , female suicide bombers, including the Chechen Black Widows, and members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), carried out more than 230 deadly attacks between 1985 and 2008 and were responsible for about a quarter of all terrorist attacks in the mentioned period. In recent news published by the Atlantic Council on 9 July, 2018, it was noted that in spite of having such an overwhelming presence in carrying out terror activities across the globe, women have been largely ignored while addressing the challenge of terrorism.

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This concern comes about when the world’s oldest military alliance (NATO) assembles in Brussels to reaffirm its unity, strength, and tends to resolve the threats arising from the south by its strategic approach while investing in building the capacity of women in counterterrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE). It has been noted that the standardized assumption that, women have no role to play in warfare, has mostly limited women participation in security operations and diminished their role from the political discourse on terrorism. The non-existence of a gender perspective in peace and security studies around the world also has forced women to be a subsidiary of the global stabilization and conflict resolution efforts.

Presently, even the most conservative terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or simply the ISIS, as a part of their propaganda, are increasingly targeting and inspiring women to join them. In exchange of their involvement they will be rewarded with potentially never to be fulfilled promises of the paradise to have a central role in the state-building process of the caliphate. Even the release of their magazines such as the Al Shamikha, Al-Khansa, and Dabiq, are the ones that are carefully packaged to allure women as a part of conveying to them a message of hope, opportunities, and rewards, on behalf of the extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the ISIS. According to the 2017 EUROPOL Terrorism Situation & Trend Report (TE-SAT), the increasing involvement of women in terrorist activities has become an unparalleled phenomenon as it is perceived that female militant jihadists in the West face much fewer obstacles and are most of the time more successful than men while playing an operative role in a terrorist attack. This observed phenomenon also inspires other women to join such militant groups in large numbers.

As per the reports of the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) , Hague, amongst the 30,000 individuals who have travelled to the area of the Levant with the purpose of joining the so-called Islamic State (IS), more than 5000 were foreign fighters who had originated from Europe, where welfare nations such as Belgium, France, Sweden and the UK are the ones that provide comparatively large numbers of fighters to the terrorist organisation. Amongst the 5000 foreign fighters from Europe, who joined the ISIS, 20 percent, that is approximately 1000; of such fighters who were women. These women fighters along with their children had chosen to migrate to areas controlled by ISIS in search of a new and very different life.

In spite of the above mentioned facts very few studies have tried to analyse the reason behind why so many women have chosen to join the IS. The existing research mostly consists of the phenomenon of withdrawal from the social media of those Western women living within the caliphate, their daily lives as migrants and their role as women under the ISIS. But, such pioneering pieces of research, have to a great extent failed to explain how IS, as an organisation, views women, though an exception can be found in Kiriloi M. Ingram’s brief but interesting review of the female archetypes found in IS magazine Dabiq, published by ICCT.

As one digs deeper into the pages of their glossy magazines such as Dabiq, it’s easy to come across almost 900 pages of the official IS propaganda entitled Promises of Paradise, which contains eleven official statements made by the self-appointed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the now late spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani., that appears to be a dream-like picture of a future country filled with full of possibilities for young women. Nevertheless, a deepening analysis of this propaganda might help to understand the incentives that motivate women to migrate and the important reasons behind their radicalisation.

IS’ Promises Made to Women

The Official propaganda promises women that the fulfilment of the religious duty would take them to paradise in this life as well as during their life after death. They are also promised a life full of opportunities after they have performed ‘Hijra’, that is migration to the ISIS. Apart from this, women have been also promised a central role in state building within the caliphate, where they will fundamentally be assigned to three vital roles; first, in becoming esteemed wives of brave and righteous warriors whom only they can support, secondly, being mothers of IS’ next generation, and lastly, become state officials, by being exceptionally good in education, that is provided free of cost. Further, by joining IS women also get to experience a deep and meaningful sense of belonging, and treated as equals regardless of skin colour, nationality or ethnicity. Their religious affiliation shall make them equals in the land of Islam, and IS portrayed as a utopian society free from any discrimination.

Women are also allured to live under the IS, to experience a sense of sisterhood framed as a deep and genuine friendship that by far exceeds bloodlines, this is exemplified in the IS propaganda by promoting polygamy where four women might share the same husband in a sisterly spirit. They are also promised deep and passionate romance by righteous good looking men in the IS, who are supposed to be true believers. Women joining the terrorist organisation can look forward to meeting these righteous men. Finally, women who join IS are promised increased influence in the internal politics of IS, as well as in international politics. These promises not only paint a picture of a young nation-state resembling a paradise on earth, but also send a message of hope, opportunity and empowerment to women making it all the more difficult to devise measures in countering radicalisation of women to IS.

Women Critical to Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism

Though there has been umpteen numbers of attractions for the radicalisation of women, from the violent extremist groups, yet it is observed that there was an escalation in women participation in peace-building, peacekeeping, and international development programs during the past decade, and women’s participation was noticed in cultural mediation, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Although Countering terrorism and Countering Violent Extremism are important fields for women, it is becoming evident that women play different, but equally important, roles: in families, communities, and public spaces as mothers, community/religious leaders (female imams), activists, political actors, and leaders. In Pakistan, the activist named MossaratQadeem had been deradicalizing extremism for the past decade by working with legislators, religious leaders, and schools to talk young men out of committing suicide attacks. Her organization Paiman Alumni Trust has till date trained more than 655 mothers to de-radicalize 1,024 young men and boys, rehabilitating them and reintegrating them into society.

During March 2015 as well, in Morocco, there had been nationwide program to train female imams, the Morchidates , to counter the extremist interpretations of Islam. Again in the Horn of Africa, Fauziya Ali, a female political leader, president of Women in International Security (Horn of Africa), and chair of Women without Borders, leads successful programs to upgrade African women’s socioeconomic and promote political empowerment, which are the essential preconditions for preventing violent extremism in the region. Again in Belgium, Saliha Ben Ali, mother of an ISIS militant, implemented de-radicalization programs targeting disenfranchised youth.

NATO’s Role in Tackling Radicalization and Building Social Resilience

To effectively tackle radicalization and counter terrorism, it is very important to include women as agents of countering terrorism and violent extremism to alter the employment pull from these extremist groups. Based on its experience of capacity building, NATO might have the potential to be a pioneer in this area. A successful approach towards countering Global terrorism and violent extremism shall hence not be complete and effective without linking counterterrorism programs to the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. From the recently established Hub for the South at the Joint Force Command in Naples and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Centre in Kuwait, it comes to light that NATO’s desires to enhance and boost situational awareness capacity building in the Middle East and North Africa, where the threat of terrorism and extremism are the strongest. But however, this endeavour of NATO in countering and defeating global terrorism can be successful only if the international community effectively uses the fundamental role women play in countering this global menace.


“If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation).” This very well-known saying by the Ghanaian scholar Dr James Emmanuel Kwegyir-Aggrey, gives us an understanding that how women are a potential bearer of education, awareness, love and peace through generations across the world. They are mothers, educators and connectors to societies, communities and families. They are the units of social institutions and human existence. Hence to achieve something significant for the society it is very important to include women with their influence from the smallest unit within the family to larger decision making processes politically, because once women, have found their voice they will be committed to the cause, and the change shall thus occur.

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