Women’s participation in extremist groups is a fact that rarely attracts attention. Yet according to the new report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations, terrorists often rely upon women to “gain strategic advantage, recruiting them as facilitators and martyrs while also benefiting from their subjugation.” In fact, women have played an active role in majority of the most significant contemporary extremist organizations. Women’s involvement ranges from taking instrumental positions in forming militant groups and fundraising to conducting independent attacks and suicide missions.
Despite the rise in women-led violence, many security officials and policymakers fail to recognize the critical roles women play on both sides of the battle against violent extremism. On the one hand, women are key participants in recruitment, indoctrination, and fundraising due their higher network connectivity and family influence. Furthermore, women’s involvement often serves as a sign of violence normalization, which in turn helps to increase membership numbers. In addition, the recent attempts in state-building by groups such as the Islamic State rely heavily on women to carry out essential tasks in supporting combatants.
On the other hand, women’s participation is critical in counterterrorism efforts as women tend recognize early signs of systematic radicalization. Similarly, by serving as security actors women can provide insight and access to areas that are prohibited for men. As such, women security leaders are better equipped in conducting searches and gathering intelligence, thus boosting deterrence and preventing further attacks. Most importantly, women are instrumental in challenging extremist narratives in their communities and re-shaping social environments around them.
At the moment, the lack of focus on women’s participation as mitigators of extremist violence leaves many countries, including the US, at a great disadvantage. Limited funding for women-led civil society organizations dramatically reduces their capability to contribute to counterterrorism efforts. Similarly, the stigma associated with sexual violence and subjugation perpetuated by extremists further isolates women to marginal groups with no opportunities to break the cycle.
In response to these limitations, the authors of this report provide a list of policy recommendations that identify ways to increase women’s involvement in counterterrorism efforts. Among the key initiatives are the proposals to conduct further analysis of women’s roles in terrorism, to identify and analyze recruitment in high-risk groups, to increase partnerships across security sectors, and to address gaps in the criminal justice system.
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