A Feminist Approach to Counterterrorism

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In late November, The Washington Post released an article regarding the female takeover within the Islamic State. While an onslaught of women have led the caliphate in search of refuge, many have come to accept and reinforce the jihadist ideology which has so often oppressed them.

The article cites the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, Anne Speckhard, noting, “There were definitely cases of women being dragged off to ISIS, but there are others who have been radicalized, including some who went on to assume important roles.” This newfound relationship between male and female, and woman and child, could reinvigorate Islamic State efforts and expand the reaches of their extremist initiatives. Gendering Jihad and weaponizing womanhood; what does this mean for the future of international security and counterterrorism?

A 2003 study from Eric M. Blanchard determined that it is necessary to reconsider who exactly is being secured by security policies in an order to implement effective counterterrorism measures. Since the current model of security procedure and discourse is heavily rooted in gendered hierarchies, it may be ill-equipped to combat the changing demography of radicalism and extremism in a post-9/11 world.

In contrast, feminist methodological approaches to security studies serve to illuminate the present shift toward gender inclusive terror cells, therefore contributing to a reconceptualization of what it means to prevent and respond to violent extremism. If the international system seeks to appropriately manage the War on Terror, state actors must consider the reasons in which women are the primary targets and occasional agents of terror.

To account for the seemingly sudden surge of female participation in non-domestic sectors of the Islamic State, it is necessary to analyze the personal motivations of female recruits.

In a recent study from ETH Zurich’s Center for Security Studies, Hamoon Khelghat-Doost decried present conceptions of female jihad. Traditional examinations of women’s roles in jihad assumed that collective agency of the female community is usurped by Islamic State leaders and the gendered structure of the caliphate.

In fact, the effect is quite the opposite. As jihadi organizations, such as the IS,
continue recruiting more women to fill larger roles, their level of agency also rises
subsequently. It’s an oversight for national security organizations and military operations to conceive women as mere victims or instruments of male leadership.

By viewing female IS recruits as pawns of the caliphate or slaves to the jihadist cause, state actors render themselves against female-driven attacks. While the blurring of lines between female and male roles within the Islamic State signifies a shift from traditional caliphate construction, the Islamic State is far from becoming an egalitarian entity.

In a 2016 study from The George Washington University Program on Extremism, Audrey Alexander found that female jihadists operate within several realms to provide radicalization, recruitment, and retention efforts. While the profile of the “average” female jihadist is still unclear, commonalities can be seen within three categories — plotters, supporters, and travelers.

The nature of female jihad goes beyond gender and ideology all together. Eggert agrees, finding that the future of female participation in violent extremism is attributed ideologically mutability of the Islamic State. By effectively shifting positions to empower or oppress women depending on the “tactical advantage to their aims”, the central tool of the Islamic State is the exploitation of disenfranchised individuals.

counterterrorism jobs

Given the numerous losses stemming from conflicts in 2016 and 2017, the Islamic State is reliant on female presence in a military capacity. It is imperative to include female voices in national security discourse in order to best understand the intersections of societal norms, socioeconomics, and history within extremist regions. However, when implementing feminist theory in counterterrorism, women must not be conceptualized as monolith, bound by a singular identity.

When discussing women in conflict, female bodies that fail to be known as the victim are automatically considered casualties of war. This trope is equally threatening to international security. Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl write, “Even though gender-based violence represents an assault against one half of the human population and, we argue, affects everyone, rarely have sovereign states tackled the issue with any seriousness— certainly not in the hard-nosed fashion that characterizes multilateral sanctions imposed on other behaviors such as nuclear proliferation or chemical weapons”.

In the post-9/11 age, counterterrorism and security measures have a similar effect on marginalized groups, specifically women in conflict regions. Ní Aoláin argues that the “secondary effects of antiterrorism regulatory schemes” result in gender consequences, often increasing the very radicalism counterterrorism seeks to expel. “Counterterrorism regulation [must] make visible the complexity of [women’s] interaction with violence and violent actors, to reassess the categories that are deemed to fall within the “action” sphere of legal regulation.”

counterterrorism jobs

Being that historical approaches to counterterrorism are conflated with patriarchy and imperialism, these measures rarely secure the entire population. Effective feminist means of security and counterterrorism must strive to enact operations that diffuse tension and radicalism without reproducing conflict and sparking increased extremism.

How does one reverse the effects of gender inclusive extremism in the modern age? Dr. Edit Schlaffer maintains that since “security is one of the last bastions of male dominance with the main focus being intelligence, military operations and law enforcement,” it is often ill-equipped to combat extremism while protecting primary targets of violence, women and children.

Feminist theories of security provide a dual defense against gender disparity and emboldened radicalism. Ní Aoláin writes, feminist counterterrorism has the potential to empower women while serving as a “vital way of combating terrorism. By making gender a national security issue [feminist theories of security] give the double benefit of advancing gender equality whilst countering terrorism.”

Today, the key to fighting against a new era of terrorism is an effort to a) re-envision women and children as more than victims of radicalism, acknowledging their agency and ideological motivations that mirror those of male jihadists and to b) consider democratization and counterterrorism mandates that perpetuate the destabilization of
the Middle East, often contributing to the societal disenfranchisement needed to make citizens receptive to assistance and eventual dominance of the Islamic State.

As the gendered barriers within violent extremism begin to shift, threat response must be modified to accurately acknowledge the diverse realm of online radicalism and extremist mobilization.

In straying from traditional male-dominated perspectives of security, there is an opening for holistic, on-the-ground approaches to countering violent extremism. According to Interpeace, “Both women and youth can be vulnerable in fragile contexts, but they can also be powerful agents of change who make the difference in the most difficult circumstances.”

The inclusion of women in and outside of conflict regions, while not foolproof, provides the necessary grounding to effectively fight against the rapidly changing demography of the Islamic State amidst the War on Terror.

Elizabeth Wright

Elizabeth Wright

Elizabeth is an undergraduate student passionate about diplomacy and international relations. She focuses her studies on terrorism and women in crisis in the MENA, hoping to use her voice to make a difference.

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