Blog Article

From Syria to Sochi: The increasing role of women in terrorism

By Joana Cook


As the opening ceremony to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi quickly approaches, the security of both athletes and attendees remain at the forefront of international scrutiny in the wake of three recent bombings which killed 37 people.

Last weekend in Geneva, peace talks began in an attempt to negotiate an end to the three-year Syrian civil war that has culminated in a humanitarian disaster which has left over 130,000 dead.

What these two seemingly unconnected events have in common is the recent prominence of women, specifically in carrying out or supporting activities, related to terrorism. Examining the roles that women are taking in Syria and Sochi provides two unique and independent case studies that broaden the investigation of the positions that women are taking up in connection to terrorism, and how this is playing out in wider prevention and response.

In Russia, following three separate bombings in the town of Volgograd since October 21, 2013, information has started to surface on those responsible for the attacks and their motivations. The suicide bombers referred to as black widows, or shahidka’s, have seemingly returned. A female was cited as the perpetrator in the October attack on a public bus, and though reports released January 30, 2014 indicated it was two males that carried out the two subsequent  attacks on a public trolley bus and train station, women were initially suspected in these cases. Police are also distributing posters seeking three other women at large in Sochi who were trained to ‘perpetrate acts of terrorism’.

Active in Russia since 2000, these largely Chechan and Dagestani female suicide bombers have been responsible for a significant portion of attacks in the Northern Caucasus since. A 2013 article by The Daily Beast stated that 46 women over the last 12 years have been involved in suicide attacks in the region. While fundamentalist Islamic motivations are often publicly cited, other sources point to independence aspirations, personal traumas, or revenge of the deaths of their sons, brothers or husbands and even romanticising love with ‘Islamic warriors’.

In the British media, over the last week there have been two separate cases involving a total of four female individuals detained en route to Syria. Two women aged 26 and 27 were charged with making funds available to terrorism after being caught with €20,000 cash, trying to leave Heathrow airport travelling to Turkey. Perhaps more shockingly, two girls aged 17 who were allegedly ‘inspired by jihad’ were also intercepted boarding a plane to Syria in a separate case. Recent reports have also indicated that there are growing numbers of women who are seeking al-Qaeda fighter husbands amongst British men in Syria.

While there are distinctly different roles presented here, that of suicide bomber, financier, jihadist fighter and potential wife, what this does point to is increasingly visible and potentially diversifying functions of women in terrorist organisations.

There are three key areas of particular concern when assessing gender in terrorism: actions, motivations and approach. While these areas certainly affect both men and women, it is worthwhile to ask if, and how, they may differ in their responses.

Do the actions of these women differentiate them from their male counterparts in terms of tactics, or ease with which they are able to carry out their activities? For example, are women screened less when travelling abroad and targeted by groups for these actions? What are the motivating factors that drive these women to become supportive of, attracted to, or involved in terrorist activities? How are these factors differentiated by their sex, age, life events or other factors? How do you effectively deter and prevent engagement in these illicit activities when trauma or romanticising of fighters is involved? Do we understand the social constructions and contexts associated with ones gender and how these may cause one individual to act differently than another?

It is far beyond the scope of this article to ‘genderise’ how we approach security, nor is it the intent. It would, however, be apt to note the traditional descriptions of security, and arguably more specifically counterterrorism, are largely dominated by traits often viewed as masculine. Strength, heroism, bravery and protection are words that would comfortably fit into everyday public narratives which surround security. This then begs the question: have traits or actions associated with femininity yet had their due examination in the security sector which these cases have highlighted? This consideration should be used to call attention to gendered aspects of security, rather than challenge how security is structured more broadly.

We should use these two recent examples from Sochi and Syria to examine the robustness and depth of our understanding of, and approach to, security and specifically its impact on preventing terrorism. How and why terrorism appeals to different groups has critical implications to the prevention and deterrence of future participation, as well as extensions to the judicial framework and policy practice in place to manage them. If women are being left out of the wider security scope, this would, I suggest, require us to question just how comprehensive our approach to security is, and who or what else is being overlooked. This may also have critical, wider impacts on how our security approaches discriminate against, alienate or even harm, those it may be seeking to protect.

If we want to ensure that the most pressing security concerns of our day are met with comprehensive, thoughtful and, most importantly, preventative approaches which do not perpetuate situations which may encourage further acts, we need to take a closer look at how terrorism is perceived by and reacted to all groups, including women.

Joana Cook is a PhD student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London  researching the role and agency of women in counter-terrorism in Yemen.  She is also a researcher at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS). You can follow her on Twitter @Joana_Cook


3 thoughts on “From Syria to Sochi: The increasing role of women in terrorism

  1. “If women are being left out of the wider security scope, this would, I suggest, require us to question just how comprehensive our approach to security is, and who or what else is being overlooked. This may also have critical, wider impacts on how our security approaches discriminate against, alienate or even harm, those it may be seeking to protect.”

    The line of the piece. We fear what we can imagine, but what do we miss by failing to imagine widely enough? The too easy dismissal of women in terror will be looked upon in hindsight with regret.

  2. Pingback: Syria, foreign fighters and the Met’s new campaign | Strife

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