August 6th, 2012
01:00 AM ET

Analysis: Women and children constitute the new faces of terror

Editor’s note: Mia Bloom is an associate professor of international studies at Penn State University and author of "Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists (2011)" and "Dying to Kill: the Allure of Suicide Terror (2005)."

By Mia Bloom, Special to CNN

Before his death during an American raid in 2011, Osama bin Laden's public statements often called on the young people of Muslim countries to rise up against their rulers.

In the documents released in May that were taken from his Abbottabad compound, bin Laden admits that "most of the work in Afghanistan [has] turned to the goal of luring and preparing the youth."

Terrorists do not fit a particular profile. No longer can we expect them to look a certain way, be of a certain age or indeed even that they be men.

For example, at least a dozen women in the Sunni triangle of Iraq targeted American military personnel and Iraqi civilians in "martyrdom operations" - especially from 2006 to 2008. In May 2008, a woman feigning pregnancy killed 36 people during a wedding reception in Balad.

And in Sri Lanka, a woman suicide bomber assumed to be a member of the Tamil Tigers tried to assassinate a Sri Lankan general in 2006.

Now even children are sometimes duped into becoming suicide bombers.

In 2007, the Taliban is alleged to have tricked a 6-year-old Afghan boy to carry out a suicide attack against the National Army. The Taliban denied it was involved. The attack failed, and the boy survived. Other children were not so fortunate. Coercion, drugs and even alcohol are used to manipulate young operatives and stiffen resolve, much like the abuse of child soldiers in Africa.

Across the world, bombers have ranged in age from teenaged boys and girls to a grandmother, from women of Middle Eastern descent to blond, blue-eyed European and American converts to Islam. These individuals are recruited or exploited partly for practical reasons (they would be less likely to arouse suspicion) and partly because their involvement in terrorism challenges our assumption that women and children do not engage in such political violence.

Some terror groups have realized that an attractive woman can also be an excellent distraction - and in recent years, we have seen these groups select volunteers based on their appearance.

In the Middle East and South Asia, women dressed in traditional clothing can hide an improvised explosive device and might, for example, give the impression of late-term pregnancy. U.S. security officials have even alerted to the possibility that female airline passengers might have explosive devices in breast implants.

There is also a cultural taboo against searching women in Muslim countries, one that al Qaeda in Iraq exploited repeatedly. Iraqi security forces included few women, so for several years, would-be female suicide bombers were often allowed through checkpoints or into buildings without being searched.

Such calculations have influenced terror groups in their use of women and children as front-line operatives.

Terrorist organizations know that children are the least likely suspects and take advantage of their youthful appearance and innocence to maximize shock. They also surmise that security forces will be more hesitant to shoot at children suspected as bombers.

One former lieutenant in the U.S. military told me that even when his unit in Iraq knew that children were planting IEDs, standard operating procedures were unclear about whether they should shoot. Frequently they did not, worried that the backlash from the community would outstrip any tactical benefits.

Like many of the children engaged in militant activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, the majority of the female suicide bombers in Iraq's Diyala province were coerced in some way. Ansar al Sunna, an al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate, is alleged to have ordered the rape of dozens of women to drive them toward being suicide bombers.

Because of the honor code in many Muslim societies, a woman who is raped has brought shame to her family and must be killed. In Iraq, Sunni terror groups such as al Qaeda offered women an alternative: die, but in the process take the Americans (or Shiites) along with you.

The full extent to which Jihadist organizations have coerced women has been largely concealed. They prefer to cast women - 'sisters in Islam' - as needing protection from sexual attack. In June, the Taliban declared that fighters must defend women's honor during this "dark period of American occupation."

Not all women are coerced into becoming terrorists.

Some Chechen female suicide bombers, for example, have carried out attacks avenging their husbands' deaths or for other political motives. And for terrorist organizations, female recruits can quickly increase their recruitment pool - as well as shame some men into participating.

Jihadi forums have long debated whether a woman's obligation of jihad is equal to that of a man.

Several militant clerics, such as Yusuf al-Ayiri, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Yunis al-Astal, have asserted that men and women are equal in this obligation. In 2008, Sheikh Mustafa Abu Yazid, al Qaeda's leader in Afghanistan before he was killed in 2010, posted an appeal on the website al-Ekhlaas, calling on women to join the holy war.

Bin Laden argued against women's direct participation in violence. But the wife of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over al Qaeda after bin Laden's death, has issued an open letter to her "sisters in Islam," stating that women could participate in jihad - and be suicide bombers. Strangely, Umayma al-Zawahiri's statement followed one from her husband that there were no women in al Qaeda, although there is ample evidence to the contrary.

Since Umayma al-Zawahiri's 2009 letter went public, a number of websites and online publications have emerged that encourage more women to take an activist role in jihad.

Al Shamikha, dubbed the jihadi Cosmo, was issued in March of 2011 and provided women guidance on how to marry a mujahedeen (fighter) and on beauty tips consistent with their jihadist duties.

A trend has emerged among radical clerics that also encourages children to participate in Jihad. Sheikh Muhamed Nassar extolled the virtues of child martyrs in an interview on Al-Nas television.

Scholars have insisted that children, like women, have a responsibility to participate in jihad, even as suicide bombers.

The terrorist organizations construct "cultures of martyrdom" that target children from a young age through a combination of religious teachings, exposure to the mass media (including programs aimed specifically at children), education (text books that influence ideology), community pressure and charismatic entrepreneurs who shift social norms making martyrdom the ultimate goal for youth.

Terror groups are also adept at exploiting the abuse by "infidel" forces of women and children, whether alleged or proven.

The trial and conviction in a U.S. court of Pfc. Steven Dale Green of the 502nd Infantry Regiment for raping and killing a 14-year old girl on March 12, 2006, in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, led to the creation of an all-female suicide bomber unit in Diyala province, and a rocket used to attack coalition forces was named Abeer (the girl's name.)

In response, it is crucial that we demystify involvement in terrorism and show potential recruits what the organizations are really doing to women and children in their own communities.

Since the majority of terrorists who leave an organization do so when the reality of their involvement does not match their expectations, showing them what terrorists actually do (coerce, rape and even drug women and children) helps to create powerful counternarratives.

Creating escape routes for women and children recruited by terror groups is also important.

At present, even if a female suicide bomber changes her mind and refuses to detonate her device, she is still tried as if she had been caught in the act, whether this occurs in Russia, Iraq or Israel.

In recent years, at least three would-be female suicide bombers - Arin Ahmed and Tauriya Hamamra in Israel and Zarema Muzhikhoyeva in Russia - changed their minds at the last minute but were refused still leniency by courts.

The next generation of terrorists will not grow up to take up arms but will do so while still children.

Schools specifically dedicated to churning out young bombers already exist in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Pakistani Taliban have both targeted very young children as operatives. Human rights organizations in the Swat valley, for example, Sabaoon (New Dawn) have emerged to deradicalize the children and bring them back into society. This is done both by providing a safe home and education.

The terrorist organizations understand that the children are their future and have established youth wings, social media aimed at teens and even television shows aimed at young children. YouTube is replete with a variety of videos extolling the virtues of martyrdom and recruiting young people.

The assault on the bin Laden compound last year extinguished one face of terrorism.

But as the documents recovered at Abbottabad showed, women and children are the new faces emerging to take his place and continue his legacy.

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Filed under: Terrorism
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