, Volume 28, Issue 1-2, pp 1-21
Date: 06 May 2011

Bombshells: Women and Terror

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Terrorism is considered the ultimate “weapon of the weak”. Groups that could not possibly succeed using conventional tactics on the battlefield employ unconventional means to strike terror behind the battle lines. Increasingly, however, the “weakest” members of society, notably women and children, have been drawn into the fray as operatives. Once an occasional occurrence, the use of women is growing at an alarming rate. Using female recruits provides the terrorist organizations with a comparative advantage, particularly the element of surprise. At the same time, this strategy damages the psychological well being and morale of the soldiers opposing them. Soldiers have been trained to protect the civilian population. US Army doctrine specifies that, “preserving noncombatant lives and dignity is central to mission accomplishment in counterinsurgency” (Lt. Col. Perez in The embedded morality in FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, Military Review, 32) The requirement to shoot people that soldiers are ordinarily trained to protect can have deep psychological impact disproportionate to killing adult men. This often results in higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and battle fatigue. The upsurge in female suicide bombers has occurred across a variety of nationalistic and secular groups but has also spread to the conservative religious terror networks. This article assesses the growing phenomenon of female terrorists and looks at the different roles that women play in terrorist organizations. It also analyzes the different mechanisms for women’s mobilization and briefly discusses whether women are coerced or are willing participants in terrorist violence.

Portions of this article are taken from an earlier draft of Bombshell: the Many Faces of Women Terrorists. Toronto: Penguin (Viking) 2011. I would like to thank John Horgan and Paul Gill for their comments on earlier drafts and Shireen Judeh and Yael Miller for their research assistance.
This paper represents the views of the authors alone and do not represent the Navy or the Department of Defense. All errors or omissions are the fault of the authors alone.