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A new report from the Women and Foreign Policy program, launched this week, highlights the roles that women play in violent extremism—including as perpetrators, mitigators, and victims—and offers recommendations to better enlist their participation in efforts to combat radicalization.
Extremist groups rely upon women to gain strategic advantage, recruiting them as facilitators and martyrs while also benefiting from their subjugation. Yet U.S. policymakers continue to overlook the ways in which women perpetrate and prevent extremism, putting the United States at a disadvantage in its efforts to prevent terrorism globally and within its borders.
Understanding and addressing women’s paths to radicalization and the roles they play in violent extremism is crucial to disrupting terrorists’ abilities to recruit, deploy, and abuse them. Although women are often ignored in conventional depictions of violent political actors, they have been active participants in 60 percent of armed rebel groups over the past several decades. And the number of women implicated in terrorism-related crimes is growing: In 2017, the Global Extremism Monitor registered 100 distinct suicide attacks conducted by 181 female militants, constituting 11 percent of all incidents that year.
Incorporating women’s distinctive perspectives can lead to better intelligence gathering and more targeted responses to potential security threats. Women-led civil society groups are particularly critical partners in mitigating violence, though counterterrorism efforts too often fail to enlist them.
Many extremist groups promote an ideology that classifies women as second-class citizens and offers strategic and financial benefits through women’s subjugation. Boko Haram, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and other groups use sexual violence to terrorize populations into compliance, displace civilians from strategic areas, enforce unit cohesion among fighters, and even generate revenue through trafficking. Suppressing women’s rights also allows extremists to control reproduction and harness female labor.
The report outlines ways in which the U.S. government can better understand and combat women’s contributions to violence extremism. Recommendations include:
- produce a National Intelligence Estimate and form an operational task force on the relationship between women, violent extremism, and terrorism;
- invest at least $250 million annually to facilitate women’s involvement in terrorism prevention efforts;
- target messages to women at risk of radicalization; and
- improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women across the security sector to bolster the capacity of forces to mitigate potential terrorist threats.
Counterterrorism policies that underestimate or ignore the roles women play jeopardize U.S. security interests and cede a strategic advantage to terrorist organizations. Given the rise in women’s participation in extremist groups, the United States can no longer afford to ignore the ways in which women can strengthen counterterrorism efforts. To safeguard U.S. security interests, the U.S. government should mitigate the danger posed by female extremists while involving women from the outset as partners in the fight against terrorism.