Women found on both sides of terrorism fight
April 20th, 2012
02:04 AM ET

Women found on both sides of terrorism fight

By Suzanne Kelly

Women are increasingly being used to carry out terrorist attacks and raise money to support terrorist actions, but on the flip side, more policy makers are waking up to the fact that women can also be an extremely effective tool in combating the spread of terrorism.

Heidi Panetta, a terrorist analyst with the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday that no fewer than 50 suicide attacks have been carried out by women in the past seven years.

While she rarely talks about her work in public, Panetta told a group assembled by the Women in International Security project at CSIS, that while women remain on the fringes of terrorist organizations statistically, the results of their efforts are no less deadly than those of their male counterparts.

Intelligence experts say that women are often more effective suicide bombers because in many parts of the world, they are viewed as being less suspicious.

(This is something I encountered personally a few years ago as I traveled from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. As I waited in a rather unsophisticated security line at the airport, three Afghan men patted down the male passengers in line ahead of me. As I approached, the male security guards looked at each other, smiled, and waved me through. None of them was going to publicly pat down a woman for security or any other reason.)

Intelligence officials say that women who choose to become suicide bombers often do so because they have lost husbands or brothers, although others do it because they have simply bought into the terrorist ideology.

But even within the world of terrorism, there is still something of a glass ceiling, as there are no women calling the shots for al Qaeda or any of its splinter organizations, according to intelligence officials. Today, women are more often behind the scenes of those organizations, effectively taking on the critical roles of fund-raising and recruitment.

But if women are effective at carrying out terrorist attacks and raising money to support terrorist actions, more policy makers are waking up to the fact that women can also be extremely effective in combating the spread of terrorism.

While a woman who tries to counter the terrorist message may attract less attention than a woman willing to strap on a vest, counterterrorism officials are counting on their ability to persuade.

A couple of weeks ago, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism was in Yemen for a flurry of what he described as "exhaustive" meetings. There are lots of things to worry about in Yemen when it comes to terrorism, like finding ways to combat the streams of new recruits flowing into terrorist organizations, but on this trip, Daniel Benjamin said, he also encountered something he found remarkable when it comes to finding ways to counter the terrorist message: a group of women.

One evening, which he later described as the "highlight" of his trip, Benjamin found himself in the company of a half dozen Yemeni women. They were not officials or diplomats or members of the military. They were mothers, daughters, journalists and artists; women, who had dedicated themselves to countering the spread of terrorism in their country.

"Four or five of them were women who were doing the most remarkable things under the most difficult circumstances," Benjamin said. "One of them was a very young woman who was involved in setting up a youth radio station that was carrying an anti-extremist message. Another was a woman working for a newspaper who was involved in a whole range of different activities."

Tapping into the passion of women who want to stop terrorism in their countries is actually an important role of the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism, which the ambassador heads. As the United States looks at the many emerging threats around the world, any solution has to be self-sustaining for obvious reasons, and women are seen as key players in that role.

There are other reasons Benjamin is paying close attention to the roles of women on both sides of the terrorism/counterterrorism debate. One concern of intelligence officials is that more women will turn to terrorism as a way to find a voice when they may otherwise not have one.

And today, there are more extremist materials posted online. Becoming a terrorist comes with a how-to guide, and those who read it, including women, can launch their own attacks, outside of any contact with a larger organization.

This is a great concern for counterterrorism officials.

"I think that this is one area in which we might see more and more women who are interested or who find the extremist message appealing," Benjamin told the Women in International Security group.

Women are being looked at differently on both sides of the terrorist issue, according to Benjamin, who said his bureau is specifically looking to incorporate gender into several of its new policies that will cover projects such as training women in national security measures and building the capacity of women in civil society so their message can be better heard.

"Let me just say that as a nation, as we look abroad, our interests are going to be challenged in the 21st century much as they have been in the past," he said, "but we will do a much better job if we have men and women involved."

soundoff (19 Responses)
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  2. nolimits3333

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:52 am | Reply
  3. lex

    For the most part they are allo moslem. There is something about that religion that encourages a portion of its adherents to do this crazy stuff.

    April 21, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
    • Feltch

      Ever hear of Oklahoma City?

      April 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • Dean Khan

      If the religion is as bad as you claim it is, why is it the fastest growning religion in the world? Why in the U.S., churches are closing and mosques are growing? If the religion is so evil, why are 20,000 white Americans embracing Islam each year? The reality of the fact is that Islam, despite the negative media attention, is a peaceful religion, and as it with all religions have extremist. Hitler was a Catholic, does that mean the Catholic religion is to blame for his actions? Islam is here to stay, accept it. Ever hear of the Unabomber? David Koresh and his whacko Texas branch davidians? the olympic park bomber? etc etc? When your ready to call out "Christian Terrorist", then we can conclude your educated, until then, get a life.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:04 am | Reply
      • Charles B.

        Ever hear of 911. Ever hear of Osama Bin Laden?

        You can try to sell Islam is peaceful and it might be except for the fact that your peaceful faith calls for it's members to kill anyone who isn't a muslum. I am very sorry to break it to you but this is not peaceful in any way shape or form.

        As for all of the converts they will see the light especially if they are women and find out they are considered lower than their masters dogs.brothers are killing women and children and lets not forget the peace loving death threats made if anyone mentions the name Mohammad.

        Are you serious with this crap?

        Your loving brothers just poisoned 130 woman and children because they had the audacity to try to get an education, how dare they.

        April 22, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
      • Feltch

        Sorry Charles B, but Christianity is as bloodthirsty as any other religion. BTW – 15 of the perpetrators of 9/11 were from our 'staunch ally', Saudi Arabia.

        Women are treated like shit here as well. Just ask your wife.

        April 22, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • Linda

      Islam has never encouraged us to do "crazy stuff". My family has been Muslim for a very long time. At no time have I ever hear violence preached. Islam is nothing but a peaceful religion. What people may twist to their own agenda is not the fault of the religion any more than Christianity is responsible for it's crazy people.

      April 22, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Reply
      • Mary

        That's true, Linda, except for one problem: Islam doesn't have much of an official hierarchy, so there hasn't been a mass condemnation or public outrage toward your radicals and their hateful acts. So the radicals continue to preach that they are, in fact, representing Islam. In the Christian world, there are quite a few groups that would communicate the message that hateful murderers are NOT part of Christianity. Islam needs to address this issue and condemn the radicals.

        April 23, 2012 at 7:05 am |
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  5. rika33

    Good grief – thius is news?

    April 21, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  6. Portland tony

    One side's freedom fighter is the other side 's terrorist. Been that way since time began. Remember, history only judges the winners as the good guys.

    April 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • Carl

      No, there are absolute standards of right and wrong, depravity versus morality. Sadly, sometimes the depraved and immoral win, but that does not change their actions one iota. Terrorism is the intentional slaughter of innocents for politcal gain; freedom can be fought forwithout resorting to such practices.

      April 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
      • Portland tony

        History judges all...The Inquisition, the reformation, or perhaps those heroic cowboys and those savage American Indians. The Russian revolution, Hitler 's third Reich, the fire bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima etcetera ...No absolutes

        April 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
      • Feltch

        Such as the fire-bombings of Dresden, Tokyo..........the 'carpet' bombing of Cambodia........the indiscriminate slaughter of Iraqi civilians..........

        April 21, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  7. Carl

    I doubt the misogynistic Islamist terrorists would listen much to a woman's wisdom. Women are extremely marginalized in the countries that breed terror. But I am all in favor of trying any approach.

    April 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • Gulla

      u r an idiot. judeo/chritsians taught islamics how to suppress women. ever opened old testament and talmud?

      April 20, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Reply
    • Feltch

      Yeah, because we all know that men don't treat women like shit in our culture.

      April 21, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Reply
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    April 20, 2012 at 9:43 am | Reply

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