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."