Interview: How women engaged in political terrorism throughout history

December 21, 2015

Tashfeen Malik’s involvement in the mass shooting that killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California surprised many, but female terrorists are not a new phenomenon. Karla Cunningham explains the role women have played in terrorism throughout history, how Malik compares to her predecessors, and what we can expect in the future.


ResearchGate: Are terrorist attacks carried out by women a relatively recent phenomenon? What are some of the earliest known instances?

Karla Cunningham: Women have been politically violent actors throughout history. If we expand our cases to include insurgency and rebellion – which makes sense given similarities in tactics and goals – the examples grow even further. Joan of Arc and Boudica, who revolted against Roman occupation, immediately come to mind, but many cultures have examples of warrior females who rose up violently against some opponent. In the twentieth century, women were involved in the Russian revolution, as well as Algerian, Israeli, and Indian anticolonial resistance.

As for terrorism in the modern sense, we see women in leftist and nationalist organizations across the globe by the 1960s and 1970s in Italy, Germany, Japan, the United States, Ireland, Palestine, Colombia, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Women have been actively recruited by right-wing groups in Europe and the United States including the Ku Klux Klan. KKK leadership welcomed women, because their presence helped keep men inside the organization and even reinforced their militancy.

By the 1990s, and certainly since 2000, women have been increasingly involved with Islamist and jihadi terrorist organizations throughout the world, as well as right-wing and left-wing (e.g., environmental, animal rights) terror in the United States and Europe. In short, women are typically involved in terrorist and politically violent organizations; we’re limited only by our willingness to look.

“The Idris case set the stage”

RG: What historical examples of female terrorism most stand out to you?

Cunningham: “The” case for me occurred in 2002. I’d just finished writing “Cross-Regional Trends in Female Terrorism.” I’d been prompted to write it because I’d given a talk to law enforcement intelligence, and they’d laughed out loud at my female terrorism slide. I was a pretty newly minted PhD then, so I went searching for some sources to lend my slide gravitas. Instead, I found a terribly ethnocentric and sensationalist literature, which was tenure-track gold. After researching for more than a year, I’d written my article and had it in an envelope to go out to the post office that day. Imagine my surprise when I turned on the news and it was focused on the first female suicide bomber in the Palestinian setting, Wafa Idris. Needless to say, I didn’t send my article off that morning.

I see a lot of parallels to the Wafa Idris case right now, both with Tashfeen Malik here in the United States and Hasna Aït Boulahcen from last month’s Paris attack. The Israeli public reacted with disbelief, Israeli officials had a hard time admitting a female suicide attack, and the Arab public went wild heralding this new type of martyr. Quickly thereafter the media and Israeli officials made every effort to dismiss her as mentally ill or hopeless – a now common trope of “death is the only option for a divorcee” or similarly “fallen” woman.

Personally, I don’t find the evidence compelling that Wafa Idris was a suicide attacker. However, her propaganda value cemented the power of the female terrorist for many observers, and she was followed for three successive months with other Palestinian female suicide bombers. The Idris case set the stage for much of the female involvement we see right now in terms of operational utility and propaganda value – and how both the public and security officials react to female terrorists.

RG: Are there major differences in significant female terrorist activity across history and cultures?

Cunningham: What’s noticeable is that women’s terrorism activity has evolved, much as men’s has. The types of violence depend upon the context, often becoming more violent and pernicious as the conflict intensifies or counter-terrorism measures necessitate innovation.

Certain groups have been more likely to engage in suicide attacks. We’ve seen this especially in settings like Sri Lanka and Palestine; however, over time women then trickle in as suicide attackers after the practice becomes useful in that context. Indeed, in both Sri Lanka and Chechnya women were such successful suicide attackers that the majority of these types of attacks eventually were carried out by women.

“I’ve heard more than once that women aren’t ‘real’ terrorists.”

RG: Do female terrorists operate differently than male terrorists?

Cunningham: It has been striking that, regardless of the ideological or religious grounding of the organization, women have pushed for full roles up to and including committing acts of violence. Now that’s not saying some women aren’t willing to act in support and intelligence roles. But the limits on women haven’t been their idea and when the roles open up they’ve walked into them quite effectively.

RG: And does their gender affect how they’re perceived by the public?

Cunningham: Public perception is a fundamental reason that – particularly in the case of conservative organizations –terrorist leaders have relented and allowed women to engage in various types of attacks. The presence of a woman in an attack is guaranteed to elicit larger press coverage amongst both supporting and targeting populations. Thus, it’s PR platinum. Terrorist organizations can also hold up a female attacker to shame men into becoming more militant.

Of course, violent women also fundamentally challenge gender norms and deeply held biases, including amongst security officials. This challenge is a reason why there is such an effort by the media and officials to paint these women as “differently violent” than their male counterparts. I’ve heard more than once that women aren’t “real” terrorists. Their motives are viewed as personal, and thus their personal lives are intensely investigated after an attack. The goal of that investigation isn’t to understand the woman – at least in the sense that we wish to understand her male counterpart. The goal is, instead, to find reasons to explain away that woman’s violence. This effort is undertaken to make her less of an existential and normative threat. It allows security personnel to ignore the wider security implications of militant women and it allows the targeted society to dismiss the woman as aberrant and not a “real” threat. Unfortunately, the factors that allow women to be successful terrorists are usually not addressed.

Violent women make us uncomfortable, because women are usually crime victims, not perpetrators. Similarly, women are viewed as nurturers, not destroyers. Thus, when women are violent their violence must be understood as somehow different – less instrumental and more emotional. But this approach has little to do with the terrorists. Terrorists – whether male or female – ultimately engage in their violence for personal reasons. Certainly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS videos bear witness to his personal desire for revenge inspired by his incarceration at Camp Bucca.

“Terrorists want to be successful, and women have operational advantages”

RG: Female participation in Islamic terrorism seems contrary to broadly held views about gender roles in Muslim cultures. How does this dynamic play out in practice?

Cunningham: It does, and I recall a conversation years ago with a counterterrorism official who fully dismissed the use of women by Al-Qaeda because “they hate women.” My reply then was as apropos then as it is today – terrorists want to be successful, and women have operational advantages; if Al-Qaeda rejects them then they’d be an utterly new breed of terrorist. Of course, we’ve seen Islamist and jihadi organizations wrestle with operationalizing women, but the propaganda value of female attackers coupled with their capacity to often get closer to targets and evade counter-terrorism measures has softened this opposition.

On another level though it’s not surprising that women are attracted to these groups and want to be fully active members. Conservative groups and practices like veiling offer women a unique opportunity to be politically active in socially acceptable ways. Even in very conservative societies, perceptions of being under threat or in a state of “total war” also loosen societal norms enough to enable women to participate in a range of political behaviors they’ve usually been excluded from. For example, Palestinian women have been willing to fight in virtually every conflict against Israel; similarly, we’ve seen a willingness to engage in combat and insurgency in Muslim-majority areas including Algeria, the Kurds, and Chechnya. In an ironic twist, conservatism can act as a mobilizer for politically violent women.

“This isn’t the first time that a young mother has carried out a terrorist attack.”

RG: How does the recent attack in San Bernardino compare to past instances of female terrorist activity?

Cunningham: The San Bernardino case is interesting for a few reasons. With the caveat that the situation remains fluid and information is still forthcoming, there are a few notable features of the attack that are worth discussing.

Firstly, I do not believe that the facility was the intended primary target for the couple but rather became a target of opportunity. This attack potentially represents an instance of workplace violence that happened to be carried out by highly radicalized individuals. That may sound like quibbling, but I don’t believe it is. The preparation of these individuals and the presence of numerous pipe bombs suggests they had another target – or targets – in mind. It’s important that investigators don’t lose sight of that fact and pursue that targeting to better clarify the nature and scope of the broader threat posed by this couple.

Secondly, Ms. Malik’s role in this attack both conforms to – and diverges from – her counterparts in other settings.  For example, this isn’t the first time that a young mother has carried out a terrorist attack. Reem Riyashi was the young mother of two children, ages 3 and 1 ½, who carried out a 2004 suicide attack against an Israeli target in a joint operation claimed by Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Ms. Malik also appeared to be highly radicalized, which has been seen in both militant jihadi settings (for example, Hayat Boumeddiene’s still uncertain role in the 2015 attack against Charlie Hebdo), as well as in right-wing terrorism in the United States.

On the other hand, Ms. Malik appears to have been operationalized in a very different and – from an analytical perspective, intriguing – way. She didn’t just pose with high capacity weapons – she trained to use them and did so. She potentially was involved in bomb-making which has historically been an area reserved for men, but there’s been evidence of female bomb makers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was also an arrest in Queens, NY earlier this year involving two women accused of building bombs.

Thus, I see Ms. Malik as the embodiment of some of the mobilization and radicalization trends that have been emerging globally, especially over the past few years. She was a full and active partner, and prepared to be instrumentally violent. She certainly isn’t the first, woman to operationalize in this way inside or outside of the United States, and she won’t be the last.

“It is imperative that Western observers understand that the militancy and ideology inspired by groups like ISIS has tremendous diversity.”

RG: What do you expect to see in the future in terms of female terrorism and Western response to it?

Cunningham: I remain hopeful albeit not optimistic that security officials appreciate the operational capacity and potential of female terrorists, especially in Western settings. To date, their roles have been limited largely by organizational opposition rather than women’s willingness to be violent. It is imperative that Western observers understand that the militancy and ideology inspired by groups like ISIS has tremendous diversity. Additionally, there is no value aside from salaciousness to the bikini to burqa nonsense so often trotted out by the media.

While women who head to ISIS controlled territories may be limited to support roles, women who are attracted to groups like ISIS are often interested in, and capable of, full operational support. Women in the West are especially likely to merge their socio-political independence with ideological fervor that could lead to direct violence. Not using this capacity would make ISIS, and groups like them, very different terrorists. To date, I’ve seen no evidence that ISIS is a new kind of terrorist animal. Indeed, its progenitor - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq – used women in suicide attacks despite initial reluctance. We should expect groups like ISIS to either directly or indirectly incite, inspire, or direct women to participate in terrorist attacks against targets throughout the world.

Read more stories