Analytical Essay on Suicide Bombings: Current Research on Female Terrorist Recruitment

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The purpose of this literature review is to look at the current research on female terrorist recruitment, the research on female terrorism in IS and the role of Dabiq in recruitment.

Women in terrorism

Although female terrorist research is indeed under-researched, there are some scholars that have appreciated its importance. Women’s participation in terrorism is as old as terrorism itself (Sjoberg, 2011), and has been researched for decades (Lines 2009; Bloom 2011), but there is still a lack of scholarship compared to the what has been done on men. Eubank and Weinberg have reviewed female participation in terrorism concluding in support of others that women are not newcomers to terrorism (2011). While the number of females engaged in terrorist and female suicide bombers has boomed in recent times, this increase has been characterised by false information and faulty interpretations (Bloom, 2011, Sjoberg, 2011). With wrongful and faulty understandings of the theme at hand, it makes it difficult to have a sophisticated understanding of female participation in terrorism. This can also be seen due to the belief that women are inherently peaceful and incapable of violence. “Still, the continued discursive power of gender stereotypes means that the very idea that “women” may be violent seems outlandish, despite the empirical reality (Sjoberg, 2011; 238). This has contributed to issues we present in the literature of viewing women as incapable of violent acts, which have become an issue for several fields of research. When thinking about the role of women in terrorism what comes to mind first is their status as victims, as that often receive the worst treatment in difficult situations. (Eubank & Weinberg, 2011) Therefore, research have found that we not only find it implausible for women to be violent but also that the role of victim appears to be what we feel the most comfortable attributing women, and cements “the longstanding belief that women have assumed passive, inherently less interesting roles in extremist groups” (Jacques & Taylor, 2009; 499). Another assumption in terrorism studies has been that females are unable to made the conscious decision to join a terrorism organisation without the influence of a man (Bloom, 2011) In the attempt to explain the workings of terrorism to the general public, journalistic attempts have been too simplistic and proved unable to deal with the complexities found in female participation in terrorism. This oversimplification has contributed to the assumption that women are unable to join on their own accord, for example through the extreme media focus on ‘jihad-brides’. This enabling of female radicalisation and participation through the Internet (Bertram, 2016) may have made it more rapid and efficient for female radicalisation to terrorism organisations and in turn, have caused the want to study them in addition to it becoming more present in media. This scholarship has provided interesting accounts and theories of how female radicalisation occurs. However, there is lack of consensus as to what is the reason for female terrorism. In addition, Bloom claims that the majority of women in terror participate on their own accord, which would disprove their status as victims, but also suggests that reasons to join, can be different from reasons for participation in violence (Bloom, 2011).

Berko & Erez have found that women have secondary roles in terrorist organizations. “Women also help in recruiting and supporting other females involved in terrorist operations. When they go on suicide missions, they implement operations designed and orchestrated by men” (Berko & Erez, 2007; 510). Furthermore, the differences in recruitment follow gender-specific lines, which can occur regardless of ideological background. “Gendered pathways leading men and women to involvement in terrorism” (Bloom 2011: 10) can be identified (Musial, 2016). In addition, gender stereotypes are exploited and the sense of urgency for women to join is emphasized (Bloom, 2011: 4). The importance of gender in terrorism studies have been emphasized by Laura Sjoberg who also concludes that it is important to look at both women’s participation in terrorist organizations and those organizations through gendered lenses. (2011) Recent studies have attempted to concern themselves with the role of women in jihadist groups. In most terrorist groups and especially in almost all jihadist groups, the female role is supportive and limited to giving birth and raising up new generations of fighters, spreading the ideology or transporting weapons and munition (Bloom 2011: 5). This is in line with Berko and Enez’s findings concerning women in Palestine, who were found to play a secondary role in terrorism and that their roles rarely were violent. Women have participated in suicide attacks, which has become the typical image the public holds of modern terrorism, however, beyond suicide bombings, women have not held prevalent positions in religiously-inspired organizations. While women’s terrorism is old and, “…women’s participation in terrorism generally might be increasing, and women’s engagement in suicide bombings has gone from virtually unheard twenty years ago to somewhat commonplace in the current global political arena.” (Sjoberg, 2011, 237) The emphasis on female roles in violence and suicide bombing is also claimed to have been exaggerated. Eubank and Weinberg, therefore, note that suicide killings have mostly been conducted by secular groups rather than Islamist extreme ones. (Eubank & Weinberg, 2011). Jihadist female terrorism has since 2014 become a media phenomenon and a source of fascination. IS are increasingly becoming the most notorious terrorist organisation ever, but female presence has still been neglected. Cunningham argues that Western cultural expectations of female hostile attitudes in Islamic terrorist organisations are reinforced purposefully by global Islamic leaders to deflect the attention away from possible female terrorists (2007). In addition, “Complicating this case is that, to date, few women have been visibly involved with global Islamist groups, preventing officials from exploiting captured females for counterterrorism and counterintelligence purposes.” (Cunningham, 2007, 121)

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Women in the Islamic State

Saltman & Smith have identified the declaration of the caliphate to have been an important factor in joining IS (2015). “Research on the topic is still rare although the phenomenon of female recruitment by IS recently increased attention on this field” (Bloom, 2011; 4). However, this does not mean that we have a sufficient understanding of the inner workings of the organization, as it poses a threat to researchers, and it is difficult to navigate the many legal and ethical pitfalls of researching a terrorist organization. The available information on extremist organizations are difficult to acquire but an overview shows that recently there have been changes in female participation (Cunningham, 2007). One of the primary sources of information on the organisation is through media, which although often remain accurate, have also been prone to misconceptions and false information. Abdel Atwan (2015) and Jessica Stern and J. M Berger (2015) provides starting points to research into the IS propaganda machine. The propaganda and narratives that IS publishes have therefore been an important source of information and a rare insight into the Islamic State and the inner workings of the organisation. Klausen (2015), Farwell (2014) and Blaker (2015) are amongst the researchers that attempt a more general approach to IS by looking at their propaganda through their social media. Their findings are convincing, however, provides a wide and general scope with little opportunity to go into depth. As previously mentioned, easy access to propaganda material serves as an enabling factor for female radicalization. In addition, through social media, it has been established that the duty to join IS lies with females and males alike (Saltman & Smith, 2015). Indeed, the intensive use of online platforms and social media as “radicalisation agents” seems to be crucial for female recruitment in particular (Huey & Witmer 2016: 1) As IS continues to publish propaganda streamlined to women, it increases the organisations brand as attractive to women (Musial, 2016, 45). With the declaration of the caliphate and calling for women, they also recognized the necessity of softening the image of IS, posting pictures of jihadists relaxing interspersed with the pictures depicting gruesome actions, like beheadings. The softening of their image was done through including images of laughing, young men playing with kittens or eating chocolate. Efforts to portray life for women differently was also made by depicting young women in classrooms to show that IS supports education for girls (Atwan, 2015; 183). Saltman and Smith have identified this as clear evidence of efforts made by IS to appeal to women. “ISIS has also strategically sent strong international messages through their actions, dictating their dedication to their female constituents.” (Saltman and Smith, 2015; 18) This is evidence of the efforts that the IS have put out there to ensure female recruitment. Although there is a greater focus on men in the scholarship on recruitment of foreign fighters to the IS, this research identified some scholarship that differs from this. Christien has attempted to deal with the issue of youth in the IS and the purposes of discourse in Dabiq in representations of youth. She argues that the IS propaganda is advanced as it utilizes these representations of youth and children to attract potential Western recruits (2016). Although the topic of women is dealt with in more general terms in Stern and Berger, and Atwan, they make limited attempts to analyse why some Western women have chosen to join the IS. Their writing is concerned with women’s lives in the IS, but they also appear to be an afterthought. Atwan found that many Western female recruits from abroad wish to marry jihadist fighters, to live in the IS and foster the new generation of the IS. (Atwan, 2015, 182). Saltman and Smith found that a “…search for meaning, sisterhood, and identity is a primary driving factor for many women to travel.” (2015, 15) They also found that romanization of life IS attract both women and men from the West (2015; 15). Silke has found that status and the wish for adventure as played an important role in radicalization (2008). As foreign fighters have the ability to post about their lives through social media it contributes to the normalization of jihad and contributes establishes the images of this perceived adventure. (Atwan, 2015; 174). A more sophisticated form of discourse can be found in the glossy magazine-style propaganda, Dabiq. Through their messaging IS has been successful in creating a brand of authority and establish ties with their audience and create social mobilization (Pelletier et al, 2016). In this it can be concluded that there are several factors that influence or motivates the women that choose to join Islamic Extremist organisations like the IS.

The purpose of Dabiq

The increased concern with Western youth becoming radicalized can be seen further exhausted by the magazine Dabiq. As terrorist organisations have increasingly become capable of sophisticated use of the Internet to spread propaganda, it has also become evident that they do not hide their presence either. Their use of the Internet is easily detectable, however, their success with the use of the Internet is currently less understood as an important pillar of radicalisation (Aly et al. 2017). Extremist organisations have become reliant on the Internet to distribute their discourses (Dalgaard-Nilsen, 2016) the glossy magazine Dabiq has become a popular example of this sophisticated form of propaganda. The early work can be seen to focus on the production value of IS propaganda, with specific attention paid to the violent nature of it (Farwell, 2014, Friis, 2015). Ingram claims that the overarching goal of IS’s is to “…shape its audience’s perceptions in line with its own worldview, polarize their support and mobilize them towards action by leveraging a combination of pragmatic and perceptual factors in its messaging” (Ingram 2016; 1) This is in line with the conventional view on Dabiq, which is that IS does in fact utilize Dabiq as a tool of propaganda, however, it has been pointed out that the recruitment efforts are often found in urging emigration to IS territory (Colas, 2016). Welch (2018), Macnair & Frank (2018) and Mahood and Rane (2017) argue the necessity of identifying the elements in IS narratives and discourse that attract western recruits to the organisation. They recognise this as important as it is the ways in which we can identify narratives of radicalisation and policy-makers can attempt to develop counternarratives. “These narratives contain the ideologies, interpretations, and explanations that guide the extremist groups and are generally presented in a consistent way – both of which are important characteristics for soliciting sympathizers and recruitment. (Mahood and Rane 2017) However, an emerging view is that there might be more to Dabiq then previously assumed. Colas (2016) argues that the assumption that Dabiq is for recruitment and to inspire terrorist attacks is incorrect and that Dabiq is surprisingly self-critical for a propaganda magazine. Colas also establishes that IS are not simply an organisation attempting to recruit, but also an organisation that is actively attempting to compete for fighters in the region. Pelletier, Lundmark, Gardner, Ligon and Kilinic claims that Dabiq serves a larger purpose and rather expresses the overarching strategic efforts of Dabiq, which would be showing a complete society for Muslims (2016). Hanoro Ingram critiques in the same strain of thought, and challenges that belief that shocking messages and the magazine design of Dabiq are important to the IS propaganda. He claims that the messages are rather to motivate their sympathizers into action and that there has been great focus on Dabiq and the publisher Al Hayat which in turn over-simplifies their messaging efforts through local and regional media units (2016).

One issue concern itself with the importance of studying terrorism for counterterrorism purposes. As previously mentioned, Cunningham establishes that the study of female terrorism has been neglected and is not often attributed with the ability to enhance our knowledge of terrorism (2007). Musial suggests that “Gender-specifics are assumed not only to arise in strategic use of language and images, but also, in female-specific narratives (2016; 63). Propaganda has been identified as modified for women to show a romanticized view of life in the caliphate as a wife of a jihadi warrior (Aly et al. 2017). When viewing propaganda as gendered, it also poses the issue of an overarching counterterrorism strategy that does not apply itself to the female gendered propaganda. Musial argues that counternarratives study is based on the radicalisation studies, and there are differences in propaganda, and male and female narratives in radicalisation propaganda (2016). With easier access to terrorist propaganda online today, it serves as an opening and aiding factor for female radicalization, especially for western women. Due to limited information on female terrorism, and an ever-growing list of threats, counterterrorism has neglected to consider the threat women could be” (Cunningham, 2007; 124) Therefore, the current research discussed shows that terrorist propaganda is gendered and that to create efficient counternarratives, researchers must accept and continue to explore male and female terrorist propaganda.

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Analytical Essay on Suicide Bombings: Current Research on Female Terrorist Recruitment. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 18, 2024, from
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