Brandee Leon is a freelance analyst of counter-terrorism and international relations, focusing on terror in Europe. She frequently covers women in terrorism. She has been published in Business Insider, The Strategy Bridge, and The Eastern Project. She can be found on Twitter at @misscherryjones. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: An Historic Assessment of the Role and Participation of Women as Active Agents in Violent Extremist Organizations
Date Originally Written: December 4, 2017.
Date Originally Published: January 22, 2018.
Summary: Despite their continual portrayal as being exploited by violent extremist organizations, women have actually been active agents for decades. From purveyors of propaganda and operational support, to participating in combat and suicide missions, women have been involved in the anarchist campaigns of the turn of the century, the anti-colonial fights in the mid-century, and the current wave of religious-based terrorism.
Text: “Women as victim” is a common narrative, told for ages. Its current form is manifested in stories of “jihad brides,” those women and girls supposedly lured to Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State. That narrative fails to capture the reality of the role of women in the Islamic State, or any other terrorist or violent extremist group. The real story is that women have been playing an active role in these groups for over a century.
In the late 1800s, an anarchist group founded in Russia, Narodnaya Volya, planned assassinations of state officials and other political persons. One of the group’s leaders was a woman named Vera Figner. Figner helped organize the underground, as well as help plan attacks. Several other women were involved in the group’s activities. A member named Anna Yakimova helped construct bombs, and Figner’s own home was used as a workshop. Several other women played active roles in Narodnaya Volya’s plots. Narodnaya Volya’s influence lived on, most notably in the Paris terror campaign in the 1880s. That campaign included the participation of many women.
Throughout the Twentieth Century, women would play prominent roles in violent extremist groups all over the world. During the Algerian War, women featured prominently, planting bombs for the National Liberation Front (FLN) during the Battle of Algiers. Djamila Bouhired planted a bomb in a café which killed 11 people in 1957. Hassiba Ben Bouali was killed alongside other FLN militants during a French bombing raid. Perhaps the most well-known female militant in Algeria was Zohra Drif. Drif was very active in the anti-colonial independence movement, gathering support, running the underground, and planting bombs.
Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, was co-founded in 1970 by a woman named Ulrike Meinhof. During the group’s first two years, Meinhof participated in numerous robberies and bombings. Although Meinhof was captured in 1972, she was not the only woman active in RAF’s twenty-plus yearlong campaign. Verena Becker was imprisoned in 1977 for criminal involvement, but later released. She was also convicted in 2012 for a murder committed during her time with RAF.
Women’s roles in violent extremist groups took a new direction when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began using women as suicide bombers in their bid for independence. In Sri Lanka, women were second-class citizens, but LTTE women were viewed as equals, having roles in military leadership, and even having their own divisions. Women were trained and participated in all areas of combat, and like their male counterparts, were given the title of martyr.
In the late 1990s, Germany saw another terror campaign in which a woman played a role. Between 1998 and 2011, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi group, was responsible for ten murders, three bombings, and 15 bank robberies. Though the German prosecutors say the group only comprised of three members – Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt, and a woman, Beate Zschäpe – others say they have ties to neo-Nazi groups all over Germany. Zschäpe, the only surviving member of NSU, has admitted to arson, but is accused of aiding in the robberies and murders. Before turning herself in, she set fire to an apartment in order to destroy evidence.
The insurgency in Chechnya during the First and Second wars produced some of the most well-known women as active agents. Women from the North Caucasus were responsible for over 30 suicide bombings in Russia between 2000 and 2010. Women were also participants in the Dubrovka Theater and Beslan School sieges. Their actions have not been limited to Chechnya; a Dagestani woman is thought to have blown herself up in Istanbul in 2015.
Since al-Qaeda’s inception, women have played an active role. Many women in al-Qaeda have conducted surveillance, run propaganda accounts in order to recruit, and some have even conducted operations themselves. On November 6, 2005, a Belgian woman named Murielle Degauque strapped on a suicide belt and detonated herself near a U.S. Army patrol in Baquba, Iraq. Sajida al Rishawi attempted to detonate a suicide belt in Amman, Jordan. Sajida was the first woman of al-Qaeda arrested. And in December 2015, Tashfeen Malik, along with her husband, committed an act of terror in San Bernardino, California. Malik was inspired by both al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
As the Islamic State faces military defeat in Iraq and Syria, the roles the women are playing as supporters are evolving. Previously, women had participated in online propaganda campaigns, and in policing other women as part of the Al-Khansaa and Umm Al-Rayan brigades. But in September 2016, a group of French women guided by the Islamic State were intercepted before they could carry out a bombing plot in Paris. There have even been reports of Islamic State women as suicide bombers, but as of this writing, nothing has been confirmed.
Throughout the decades, women have played an active role in violent extremist organizations. Their roles have varied from organization to organization, and the ideology spans the spectrum. One thing is certain, women as violent extremists does not seem to be a phenomenon that will disappear any time soon.
 John Simkin, “Vera Figner,” http://spartacus-educational.com/RUSfigner.htm, (accessed November 2017)
 John Merriman, The Dynamite Club (Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)
 Ali Adeeb Alnaemi (translator), “Djamila Bouhired: A Profile From the Archives,” http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/27072/Djamila-Bouhired-A-Profile-From-the-Archives
 Mia Bloom, Bombshell (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)
 Antonia von der Behrens, “The NSU Case in Germany,” https://www.nsu-watch.info/2017/03/the-nsu-case-in-germany/, (accessed November 2017)
 Brandee Leon, “The Curious Case of Russia: History and Russia’s Female Suicide Bombers,” https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2014/4/16/the-curious-phenomenon-of-russia-history-russias-female-suicide-bombers, (accessed November 2017)
 Brandee Leon, “The Roles Women Play: al Qaeda and Islamic State,” https://misscherryjones.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/the-roles-women-play-al-qaeda-and-islamic-state/, (accessed November 2017)
 Brandee Leon, “Women and the Islamic State,” https://wordpress.com/posts/misscherryjones.wordpress.com, (accessed December 2017)
 Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick, “The jihadist plan to use women to launch the next incarnation of ISIS,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/the-jihadist-plan-to-use-women-to-launch-the-next-incarnation-of-isis/2017/11/26/e81435b4-ca29-11e7-8321-481fd63f174d_story.html, (accessed November 2017)