According to terrorism expert Mia Bloom, female operatives are more common than you think.
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Two weeks ago when the authorities were searching for suspects in the Boston marathon bombing, most Americans assumed the culprit would be a man. But terrorism expert Mia Bloom thought otherwise. Though there have been many female terrorists in the recent past—Patti Hearst comes to mind—since 9-11 the most notorious faces have all been male. But female terrorists, according to Bloom, are actually much more common than you think. And they can be far more dangerous.
Female terrorism is actually growing—between 2007 and 2008, Bloom estimated that female suicide bombers have increased by 800 percent. Between 1985 and 2008, female suicide bombers committed more than 230 attacks—about a quarter of all such acts. Women are utilized as stealth weapons for terrorist groups not only in the Middle East but in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Morocco and the U.S., where Jihad Jane, to name one example, was radicalized by the Internet. She was arrested in 2009 for plotting to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks.
Female terrorists have one major advantage over their male counterparts: they blend in more. Indeed, the “Black Widows” in the 2010 Chechen insurgency were used to bomb subway cars, rock concerts and on flights. Their ability to fit into everyday surroundings without arousing suspicion made them far more lethal and effective.
Bloom has studied terrorism since 1990 when she was a research assistant at Georgetown University. Now Associate Professor of International Studies and a Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, Bloom’s latest book, Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, provides an in-depth look at the myriad reasons women choose terrorism over a normal life.
What’s surprising, Bloom says, is that many women become terrorists for the same reasons as men. “It’s a combination of personal reasons, having to do with family or the perception that they are disadvantaged. It’s in the same way that men are [motivated] for religious reasons, for national reasons, for reasons of what they perceive as patriotism,” she says. “There is a perception that women get involved for emotional reasons and men get involved for political reasons. And in fact that isn’t always the case.”
What’s really interesting, though, is that men’s emotions—or at least their pride—is preyed upon when women are used as terrorists in Islamic societies. “When you use women, it actually embarrasses the men and gets them to be more active,” Bloom says.
Islamic terrorists are fueled by a bitter sense of injustice, but for women, life is even less fair. Sometimes they are just married to a terrorist, and they have no other choice. While many of the male terrorists are much better educated, the women don’t have that luxury and so they feel even more powerless. They have less to lose and more to gain in such an oppressive society.
In some cases, Islamic women turn to terrorism because they’ve been cast out from religious culture. Due to some offense like rape or sex before marriage, they were no longer considered to be marriageable, Bloom says. Men in terrorist organizations have also used rape and shame to instigate women into participating—setting up a vicious trap where terrorism is the only way to earn back their honor.
The logic goes that a woman who has been raped in fundamentalist Islamic cultures is as good as dead, so blowing herself up for the greater good to restore her honor seems like a fair tradeoff. The Al Qaeda propaganda machine has also told women and men to join the Jihad because western soldiers were raping their women, but in reality, says Bloom: “[Al Qaeda] are actually doing the bulk of the raping.”
Bloom says that as Al-Qaeda’s ranks continue to thin, women are being more heavily recruited with top Al-Qaeda operatives (and their wives) calling for their participation. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has taken over Al Qaeda since Bin Laden’s death, “his wife issued a letter to ‘our sisters in Islam’ telling them that they could be suicide bombers,” says Bloom.
One of the most chilling reasons women are so effective as terrorists, and therefore highly sought after, is the surprise factor. Though the ’60s and ’70s were a heyday for high-profile female terrorists, including women like RAF’s Ulrike Meinhof, Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled and Japan’s Red Queen of Terror Fusako Shigenobu, today the mode of operation is to be unknown.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s women really were at the forefront,” says Bloom. “They were involved in the group at all levels including leadership roles. Now we’re seeing a shift. Women are used but sometimes they’re nameless.”
Nameless and faceless, they are even more lethal. No one expects a woman to blow up a supermarket, so she is a perfect vehicle for the delivery of a bomb. While many people might have assumed the Boston bomber would be male, for Bloom, it would have made as much—if not more—sense for the bomber to be a woman.
“This could have fit with female attackers. In fact, the research we did showed that if you were trying to target civilians you most often used an individual that blended in.” For instance, Bloom pointed that “among the Palestinians, women go to the market place or they go to restaurants or discotheques, and they are less likely to be searched invasively because [of] modesty.”
In this twisted new world, it is women, not men, Bloom says, who “make the ideal operative.”
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