The theory and stereotype premised on terrorism as a patriarchal phenomenon must necessarily be contested and challenged. Equally, it is critically important to analyze the involvement of women in terrorist organizations and better understand their assigned responsibilities. Taken together, such a precondition explains how and what women can contribute to counterterrorism efforts.
Within living memory, women have joined and supported violent extremist groups, serving as fighters, recruits, supporters, and fundraisers, while pooling subsidies. Women involved in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) accounted for about 40% across all operational functions, even in commanding combat units, while substantially contributed to raising the FARC military capabilities.
In a similar vein, women co-founded the German Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Japanese Red Army. Even when matriarchal leadership was in eclipse, they provided critically important practical support, including funneling weapons, recruiting fighters, pooling donations and spreading propaganda. For instance, women in Ku Klux Klan attracted more than half a million members between 1921 and 1931.
Over the past few decades, the involvement of women in violent and extremist organizations has snowballed into reality. Although such organizations are traditionally believed to be purely patriarchal, a closer examination reveals that women evinced robust engagement in about 60% of the armed rebel groups. In Sri Lanka, the all-female battalions of the Tamil Tigers in the 1990s gained a reputation for their fierce behavior and brutal battles.
The women involved in terrorist crimes are increasingly growing. For instance, the women arrested in Europe on charges of carrying out terrorist operations in 2016 increased up to 26%. Again, women made up about 13% of the foreign fighters returning from conflict zones. In 2017, the Global Extremism Monitor one hundred suicide attacks, carried out by 181 women, accounting for 11% of the total terrorist operations in 2017.
In a similar vein, Boko Haram involved more than 450 women and girls – about 35% were teenagers – in suicide attacks between 2014 and 2018. Such attacks killed more than 1,200 people. These women now account for about two-thirds of the suicide attackers of Boko Haram.
Suicide attacks by women are more lethal than those carried out by men. As revealed by a research study conducted on five terrorist groups, the average number of victims in attacks carried out by women was 8.4 victims compared to 5.3 victims in attacks by men; attacks by women were less likely to bungle.
Although women’s involvement in terrorism is not in its infancy, the experience of ISIS in recruiting, weaponizing, and instrumentalizing women in terrorist activity remains a major challenge. Research has estimated that the average number of women members of terrorist groups is between 10% and 15%. A research study conducted by the Netherlands International Center for Combating Terrorism in 2016 reveals that the women who joined ISIS from eleven EU countries accounted for 17%. Michèle Coninsx, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the Executive Management of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTED), was quoted as saying that between 10% and 20% of Westerners who joined ISIS are women.
A recent report, based on the most detailed data available, revealed that the highest percentage of women among foreign terrorist fighters was in East Asia, (35%), Eastern Europe (23%), Western Europe (17%). Equally important, about 90% of the women who joined ISIS were motivated by passing passion and enthusiasm, without considering any legitimate grounds, reasoning, and logic.