Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Natalya Wallin, University of Chicago MPP, DACOR Fellow in Foreign Affairs, and rising policy strategist based in DC.
The untapped potential of political campaign research and voter modeling for exploring women’s persuadability and vulnerability to recruitment for suicide terrorism. Since the rise of violent extremism, policymakers and media have struggled to come to grips with the involvement of women in terrorism. As Jayne Huckerby noted in the New York Times article, “When Women Become Terrorists”, “simplistic” gender-based assumptions often contribute to baffled responses about why women join terrorist organizations and engage in suicide attacks.
Although these acts by women represent a small percentage of the total suicide attacks to date, the fact that they occur at all runs in direct contrast to the focus on women as peacemakers and victims of conflict. The current emphasis on women as peacemakers is heartening, but in this surge of optimism, have the United States and its allies been blindsided and overlooked the darker side of women’s involvement in terror?
Those seeking to counter extremism are overdue for a closer look at women and terrorism and female suicide terrorism specifically. Suicide attacks by women is a persistent reality that can no longer be ignored—the number of these attacks has been steadily increasing. During the 1980s the greatest number of female suicide attacks in any single year was five. By contrast, in 2008 alone there were 35 female suicide attacks and in 2014 there were 15 such attacks according to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) Suicide Attack Database. Although suicide attacks by men are still the overwhelming majority, suicide attacks by women occur and is a phenomenon that should be understood.
As Lindsey O’Rourke noted in a 2009 study, “What’s Special about Female Suicide Terrorism,” female suicide attacks are more effective and result in more deaths on average than attacks carried out by men, making women strategically valuable to terrorist organizations seeking to further their objectives. That same study notes that while secular terrorist organizations have been first-movers in recruiting women for suicide terrorism, religious organizations are increasingly following suit because of the tactical advantages in doing so. In light of these findings, we should anticipate that terrorist organizations of all types will continue to recruit women for suicide terrorism. It is for this very reason that understanding what makes women persuadable and vulnerable to recruitment for suicide terrorism is significant for counterterrorism efforts.
There is also a need for evidence-based policy recommendations related to women, peace, and security. Given concerns about the Islamic State and efforts to counter violent extremism, think tanks and International Organizations like the OSCE are increasingly focusing on the role of women in counterterrorism. While a recent article by UN senior officials argues in favor of women’s role in combatting terrorism, there is incomplete evidence for building sound policy. To effectively incorporate women into counterterrorism efforts, we must also understand what draws some women to terrorist activity.
In previous attempts to understand why women would engage in suicide terrorism, researchers and journalists have explored a long list of potential motivations (including everything from revenge, resenting gender norms, mental illness, group solidarity, desire for equal participation as men, rape, re-embracing gender norms, and commitment to community) pointing out possible different factors for male and female suicide attackers. However, this research is still inconclusive. There remains a lack of consensus on why women participate, and as a result, a lack of consensus on counterterrorism policy implications. While various theories about women’s motivations for engaging in terrorism exist, there is a need for a new way to evaluate them.
One possible new approach is the focus of my full-length working paper on female suicide terrorism at the University of Chicago. Drawing from the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking data analytics techniques as well as existing literature on female suicide terrorism, I propose building an adapted model to identify a combination of possible risk factors—like experiencing death of a family member in conflict and marital status based on profiles of previous female suicide attackers—that may contribute to recruitment susceptibility for suicide terrorism. Specifically, this approach would focus on women’s persuadability (and thus vulnerability to effective terrorist organization recruitment) towards suicide terrorism. Although such a model would not predict recruitment, it would help identify critical trends and potential policy interventions.
Limited data access and small datasets are current obstacles, and the key to employing campaign data analytics techniques will be identifying future partners for collecting and compiling necessary data. Challenges notwithstanding, this interdisciplinary thinking opens the door to innovative possibilities for a range of terrorism research and offers a new way to grapple with the uncomfortable reality of female suicide terrorism.