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Women Are Key to Counterterrorism

Authors: Jamille Bigio, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, and Rachel B. Vogelstein, Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
February 8, 2017


President Donald Trump's decision to suspend refugee admissions to the United States and block the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries has been criticized as a violation of longstanding U.S. law and an abdication of fundamental American values. Although administration officials argue that the policy will help further American security interests, many experts believe it will do the opposite – handing extremists a powerful recruitment tool and alienating allies in the fight against terrorism.

The new refugee policy aligns with Trump's promise to make U.S. national security and foreign policy more unpredictable. But as the president develops a new strategy to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, he should not introduce unconventional approaches that betray bedrock American principles and bolster our enemies. Instead, if Trump wants to shake things up in his effort to safeguard American citizens against terrorism, he should rely upon the inclusion of a group that is often overlooked but is of substantial strategic value: women.

According to our recent Council on Foreign Relations report, research shows that women are well-positioned to detect early signs of radicalization because their rights and physical integrity are often the first targets of fundamentalists. A qualitative analysis of 30 countries across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia found that women were substantially more likely than men to be early victims of extremism. Indeed, restrictions on women's rights have accompanied the rise of extremist groups – particularly those with fundamentalist religious ideologies – across the globe, as has been documented with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the self-proclaimed Islamic State group.

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