ISIS flag flying in Ramadi Iraq.
(photo credit: AAMAQ NEWS VIA YOUTUBE / AFP)
The revelation that the terrorists in the San Bernardino attack included a woman (Tashfeen Malik) – let alone a wife and mother – raises again the issue of female contributions to terrorist activity. Since 2014, various US-based women have faced criminal charges arising from Islamic State (IS)-aligned or inspired activities, ranging from plans to travel abroad to join the group to undertake attacks in the United States.
In 2014, female, US-based IS adherents included:
• Two Colorado teenage sisters and their female schoolmate were intercepted at Frankfurt Airport en route to Turkey while intending to reach IS.
• Shannon Conley pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to IS, after she was caught boarding a flight from Denver to Turkey, with ultimate plans to join the group in Syria.
This year US-linked women aligned with the Islamic State comprised: • Pennsylvania-based Keonna Thomas was charged with attempting to provide material support to IS as she tried to board a plane from Philadelphia to Barcelona, with subsequent plans to reach Syria by bus.
• Two New York-based roommates, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, were arrested on conspiracy to use explosives in an IS-inspired terrorist attack. Siddiqui purchased propane gas tanks for use in the attacks, and had a stepby- step guide to use them.
• Mississippi-based Jaelyn Delshaun Young and her husband, Muhammad Oda Dakhlalla, were charged with conspiracy and attempting to provide material support to IS.
• Three women based in Midwest – Sedina Unkic Hodzi, Mediha Medy Salkicevic and Jasminka Ramic – were arrested as part of larger cabal that conspired and provided material support to IS-aligned terrorists.
• Heather Coffman pleaded guilty to lying to authorities in relation to assisting a foreign national to join IS.
Other US women were successful in reaching the so-called caliphate, such as Hoda Muthana, formerly from Alabama. More broadly, by early 2015, over 550 women from Western countries were believed to have traveled to join IS.
Internationally, IS actively radicalizes and recruits women and girls online or otherwise by disseminating the following narrative: leave the decadence and apostasy of your home country, where you are unwelcome; join the jihad and be empowered by living in a true Muslim land (the caliphate); you will contribute to the cause by marrying an IS fighter, and parent the next generation of warriors.
Interspersed in the IS pitch is the notion that a caliphate-based life will be exciting, meaningful, and better than what their life abroad provides or can attain.
Like men, women terrorists pursue such violence due to various causes: perceived political and economic marginalization, ideological commitment, to avenge victimization of family or friends, financial benefits, a desire to improve their social status, hopelessness, and heavenly benefits arising from martyrdom. Some women have been coerced into terrorism after they have been accused of bringing dishonor to their families through some moral transgression.
Women terrorists have been involved in a breadth of violent acts on behalf of groups embracing all ideological perspectives.
Female terrorists have inflicted damage on soft and hard targets, often benefiting from laxer attitudes of government, private security and the public, since women are typically not perceived as being involved to terrorism. This misconception is a factor in the success of women terrorists in perpetrating all types of attacks, including suicide bombings.
The inclusion of females as terrorists essentially doubles the number of prospective recruits and contributors to a terrorist cause. Also, women are viewed with less suspicion than men.
Thus they offer tactical advantages, including less frequent and rigorous searches by government authorities.
Law enforcement, security personnel and the intelligence community at home and abroad have largely assumed that women will refrain from terrorist activities.
Given the increased visibility, lethality and contributions of female terrorists worldwide, this underestimation of women terrorists urgently merits a recalibration.
Sadly, Tashfeen Malik is the latest – but not the last – proof of this reality.
The author is professor/director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University. He co-authored The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders (Lexington Books, 2015).