What attracts women to terrorism?

BBC's diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall asks why women are happy to kill and die for their cause

“I had a pistol in my belt, a grenade in my pocket and TNT in my bag. I was a woman dressed in a fashionable way. I opened my bag for security, but the man just saw my make- up and waved me through.” Leila Khaled was probably the most famous female hijacker in the world in the late 1960s; beautiful, dangerous and politically committed to doing whatever might further the Palestinian cause. She posed for an iconic photo – sultry-eyed, a Kalashnikov at her side, headscarf carefully draped over her head. She even subsequently resorted to painful plastic surgery to hide her famous face so she could carry on participating in hijack operations without being recognised.

But she was by no means the first woman to hit the headlines for using violence for political aims. One of her role models was Zohra Drif, a female bomber during Algeria’s war of independence from France in the 1950s. In September 1956 Drif planted a bomb in the Milk Bar café in Algiers. Among the victims was an elderly woman, who died, and her five-year-old granddaughter, who lost a leg.

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The history of women and terror goes back further still. Women played leading roles in the 19th-century Russian revolutionary movement, which marked the start of modern terrorism. More recently, women were prominent in Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigade, and in the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland. They also swelled the ranks of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, where it is thought that they accounted for a third of all fighters, and a third of their suicide-bombing squads.

So what drives women to terrorism? According to their own testimonies, like their male colleagues they often turn to violence out of a passionate political commitment. Today Leila Khaled and Zohra Drif (below) remember what they did with pride. They refuse to describe themselves as terrorists and still consider their actions justified.

“My role was to hold arms and to fight like my people,” says Khaled.

When challenged about the killing of civilians, Drif asks, “What is innocent in war? European civilians were occupying our country and we were fighting them. We were at war.”

Khaled also insists she was under instructions not to hurt anyone, though she was certainly prepared to go to the brink. When she hijacked an American Trans World Airlines jet in 1969, she threatened to detonate her grenade unless the pilot changed course for Damascus. “I had to keep my grip on the grenade for six hours because I had taken the pin out,” she says.

Getting involved in terrorism was empowering for many women. Mairead Farrell was one of the most high-profile women in the Irish Republican movement until her death in Gibraltar in 1988, at the hands of the SAS. She once recalled the women’s “dirty protest” she led while in Armagh jail for her part in an IRA bomb plot. She said that while the initial aim was to support male prisoners, the protest also made the women more aware of their right to be activists as well as wives and mothers.

“It became our joke, the mother image,” she said. “Our joke was ‘Mother Ireland – get off our back!’ because it didn’t reflect what we believed in… we’d moved on from that.”

In Sri Lanka, Mia Bloom, author of a study of women terrorists called Bombshell, says she was struck by the level of dedication in female Tamil Tiger fighters. She says that though they often joined in the wake of a personal tragedy, they grew more political as they studied the roots of the conflict, and would compete with men – and each other – to become suicide bombers.

There is no doubt that women terrorists have been highly effective – slipping through checkpoints more easily, getting closer to their targets, and able to hide weapons or suicide belts under their clothing. But that may be changing. Some African countries, including Chad, Gabon and parts of Cameroon, have banned full-face veils in public, following a spate of suicide bombings by women in burqas. Female bombers also tend to draw more publicity. Experts note that a decision to put women on the front line is often a sign a terrorist movement is in trouble, running out of male fighters or otherwise under pressure.

In Russia, after President Putin launched a campaign against Chechen terrorists in 1999, female suicide bombers became so prevalent they were known as “black widows” because of their black clothing, and because they sought revenge for lost husbands, sons and brothers. But the Chechen example also highlights a paradox. How far were these women driven not just by revenge, but also despair that they had nothing else to live for? And if so, how many were coerced into taking such drastic action?

In Sri Lanka, there is evidence that some women turned to suicide bombing after they had been raped, and wanted to end the shame it brought to themselves and to their families.

So what about the women travelling to Syria to become “jihadi brides” to Islamic State fighters? There is no sign yet that they are carrying out attacks. But some of the online postings under their names seem to revel in the terrorist acts of others. Erin Marie Saltman, of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, has been tracking some of these women online, and says there are several reasons for being attracted to IS: sisterhood, belonging, romance and utopia-building, and the possibility of empowerment from a community that promises not to sexualise them – even though the reality may turn out to be very different once they arrive in Syria or Iraq.

But the main lesson those who study this phenomenon seem to draw is don’t oversimplify. As with male terrorists, the reasons women join up are multiple and complex, and they are often not innocent or passive participants – however uncomfortable that may be to acknowledge.

Women of Terror was broadcast on Radio 4 and is available on iPlayer