Utilizing Society’s Forgotten Half: The Essential Role of Women in Counter Terrorism

Utilizing Society’s Forgotten Half: The Essential Role of Women in Counter Terrorism

James Howcroft

America and her partners have spent billions of dollars in the global struggle against terrorism.  A successful strategy entails not only a whole of government approach, which makes use of the wide range of abilities and expertise throughout government, but also the involvement of non-governmental players such as religious leaders, families, NGOs and private businesses which can play a vital role in a broader “whole of society” strategy.  Yet we cannot expect to be successful while ignoring the unique contributions and capabilities of the female half of our population. It is madness to ignore half of society’s talent and skill in our fight against terrorism.  Involving women in fighting terrorism isn’t a “women’s issue”, - it’s a security issue.

There is a growing appreciation that women can contribute in a number of powerful ways to a nation's counter terrorism (CT) strategy. While CT professionals increasingly acknowledge the important role of women in combatting terrorism and violent extremism, less well known and understood is precisely how to put this into practice. While there isn’t a single, “correct” academically validated model regarding how to engage females more effectively against terrorism, there is practical experience from global counter terrorism practitioners. My professional interaction with hundreds of global counter terrorism practitioners from a wide range of nations and cultures while directing the George C. Marshall Center’s Program on Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS) suggests there are important CT roles for which women are particularly well suited.       

Woman are the First Line of Defense Against Radicalization and Recruitment

Women are particularly valuable as a first line of defense to prevent or counter violent extremism. They play an especially important role in helping to build resilient communities, restrict the spread of violent extremist ideologies, and disrupt recruitment of family members into terrorist groups. Mothers are uniquely and especially well-positioned to be able to identify processes of radicalization at an early stage in their families. In traditional households women often stay at home, with the important role of raising children and teaching them values. In cases like this, while husbands and fathers are at work, mothers have the opportunity to observe their sons’ and daughters’ daily behavior and communications and interactions with friends. Law enforcement officials frequently cite changes in dress, attitudes toward others, changing sources of information and new circles of contacts as observable indicators of radicalization. Mothers are in a better position to observe such changes than anyone else.

Women Need Training and Skills to be Our Effective Partners

Given the right tools, women have the ability to intervene to prevent their children and other family members being recruited into terrorist organizations. It is therefore important to create, or use existing platforms, to engage with mothers, wives and sisters to teach them the warning signs of potential radicalization and give them the necessary skills to intervene and protect their families. As one woman who lost her son to terrorism later reflected, “If I knew back then what I know now, I may have seen it before my son left.”

Police community engagement programs - as well as non-governmental efforts - such as Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) and Mothers for Life - are important methods of providing women with the tools and education needed to play an active role in countering the spread of violent extremism and terrorism.  Global experience and research by organizations like SAVE demonstrate that women are more likely to trust,  approach and interact with other females - and specifically with other mothers, than with male authority figures. Expressing suspicions to the security services regarding concerns about one’s children is a painful and difficult choice for any parent. Mothers are less likely to be forthcoming when confronted by male officers they have never met before. Embedding trained female community liaison officers who can develop long term personal relationships, provide training regarding radicalization warning signs, and be accessible to other women concerned about dangerous changes in their family/community is a productive way to build familiarity and trust which increase reporting to police. The United Kingdom’s Prevent Program is a useful example of how this community engagement can be successful and productive at the local level.  

Of course, in addition to their roles within families, women are heavily represented in various professional backgrounds, such as education, social work and health care, where they serve as “gate keepers” of society. Women in these key professional profiles also need to be sensitized to spot and report signs of violent radicalization.

Woman are Uniquely Qualified to Deter Other Females From Joining Terrorist Groups  

While women have historically played a role in terrorism, the surge of women willing to support or join ISIS has brought new urgency to the need to invest in female-specific counter-radicalization efforts. Although face to face interactions are important, social media has played a major role in the recent increase in recruitment of women and girls to terrorist groups.  Female-led efforts to understand and counter these activities online, as well as direct engagement with vulnerable females, are essential. Motivations of females to join terrorist groups appear to be different from the motivations and appeals targeted towards males. For example, for some women, life in the caliphate may seem paradoxically liberating if they are stifled in their daily lives at home. Again, women are better at understanding the motivations and emotions driving other women toward terrorism and thus are more capable of developing narratives and programs to counter the terrorist appeal.

The Potential of Radicalization in Female Prisons

As more females are incarcerated for terrorism offences, the potential for radicalization and related challenges within women’s prisons will grow. Just as it is important to have women involved in counter radicalization efforts within the wider society, it is important to ensure that female prison staff are appropriately trained and have the resources to be able to identify and deal with the challenges of inmates with terrorist backgrounds.  Both female-focused counter radicalization, as well as deradicalization efforts are required. Female-led efforts focused on female inmates can help to ensure that when prisoners rejoin society they return as less of a threat than when they went into prison.  

Female Skill at Intelligence Collection

Women have particular skills and attributes helpful in collecting information and analyzing intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks. Women are not seen as threatening authority figures and are thus more approachable to sources with  information to share. Psychologists and practioners share a view that females often have superior superb interpersonal and listening skills and are thus more effective at eliciting information and  attitudes than their male peers who tend to focus on collecting facts and data rather than impressions and perceptions.  Females are also often more appropriate at questioning and collecting information from witnesses and victims of terrorists’ actions. For example, female Nigerian security officers were quite successful in debriefing the “Chibok Girls” when the girls were freed from captivity. Female debriefers were less threatening and had more empathy with girls who had been traumatized by their experience while held by their male captors. The information provided by the girls has been a valuable contribution in the recent tactical successes against Boko Haram.    

Practitioners note that women are valuable and productive debriefers and interrogators, both with men, as well as women.  Female empathy, patience and interpersonal skills in many cases enable them to defuse resistance from a detainee who might view his interaction with a male interrogator as a confrontational challenge After years of neglecting the female half of the population in Iraq and Afghanistan, US military forces formed “Lioness Teams”, later called Female Engagement Teams, specifically to engage with the local population. The U.S. Marine Corps finally opened its Human Intelligence military occupational specialty field to women in 2009 in belated recognition of the capability female marines can provide in this regard.

A Female Contribution Leads to Better Analysis 

My experience in nearly forty years conducting and teaching intelligence analysis to hundreds of professionals from dozens of countries is that women members on an analytic team bring a wider range of background, critical views and approaches to problem solving and assessment.  Male analysts tend to orient on known facts and actions while female analysts are often more creative in their approach, focusing on analyzing human perceptions and motivations rather than known facts.  They are skilled at inferences, identifying ambiguous human connections and interactions.  Investigation and inquiry among security professionals with similar mindsets, education and experience leads to “group think”.  In my experience, if everyone in the analytic cell has a similar personal and professional background or wears the same uniform, the cell runs the risk of drawing limited and unimaginative conclusions. Terrorists have shown themselves to be creative and adaptive. Our analytic thinking cannot afford to be rigid or any less imaginative.  Female analysts are vital in this regard.  

So, What’s the Problem? Why Aren’t We Employing Women More?       

The merit of involving more women in the fight against terrorism seems to be obvious. If that is the case, then why doesn’t it happen?   What are the impediments and how do we overcome them? The impediments aren’t financial or a lack of resources. The impediments are attitudes and perceptions - in both the male and female halves of society.  Constrained thinking by males limits opportunity because of social norms or because males within the organization feel threatened by the presence of women in their ranks or from the perception of women having more power than the males. Husbands and fathers of women may not be supportive of “their” women leaving the home. They may feel their role as protectors is put at risk by their wives and daughters working among other men, particularly those who are strangers.   Women in security services are often seen as taking away a job from a male breadwinner, rather than as a complement to their male counterparts. By taking a job within the security services, women are depicted as shirking their “primary” role of mothers and wives. Security service jobs are often depicted as manly, dangerous and exciting; - having women as co-workers lessens this exclusive and definitional male narrative. 

A woman contemplating employment to combat terrorism can perceive a number of barriers. Many are faced with overcoming perceptions of their value within societies where men are often depicted as more intelligent and hardworking. There can be a lack of recognition for   achievements outside the home, which may be more lucrative financially, but are seen as less important than their “primary” role in the home. Family responsibilities cannot be delegated to others because of traditional thinking about the gender roles in the household. Without specifically targeted and officially endorsed advertisement and recruitment efforts to encourage women to apply, breaking stereotypic roles remains a daunting challenge which will eliminate many potential candidates. The lack of senior female role models in the security services is also serious impediment.     

Components of a Plan to Increase Female Participation in the Security Services   

 The first part of the effort to involve women from traditional roles in society, such as mothers, wives, teachers and caregivers involves training and consistent and targeted outreach at the local community level. In order to increase female participation within the security services, the security services must develop their own action plan to encourage and increase participation. Each nation must work within its cultural norms to recruit women in response to how serious they perceive their terrorist threat to be. Specific measures identified by a global range of mid- level practitioners include:

  • Outreach to husbands, fathers and religious leaders to promote the idea that the work female household members are doing is of great value to society and brings honor to the family.  Ensure that males in the organization communicate that female family members are both honored and protected at work
  • Minimum quotas for female recruits
  • Identification of senior/executive leadership opportunities for females 
  • Mentoring programs by females to encourage female leadership, including outreach in schools and engagement with media
  • Promotion of female role models in CT
  • Feature media stories of successful females in CT roles 
  • Eliminating physical fitness requirements that are irrelevant for analytic jobs
  • Specific identification of jobs for women which lack physical risk or confrontation - such as cyber operations or signals collection   
  • Flexible work-schedules for women with children and other family responsibilities
  • Incorporation of culturally appropriate clothing (such as hijabs) into uniforms

It is madness to ignore half of society’s talent and skill in any regard,  fighting terrorism is certainly no different.  This isn’t an issue that requires billions of dollars to remedy; - it requires changing attitudes, identifying possibilities and providing opportunities. Frank exchanges between practitioners  are important  to identify opportunities for a greater female role in preventing and countering violent extremism and terrorism.   As one CT practitioner at a recent Marshall Center event noted, “Counter Terrorism in the absence of women is doomed to fail.”

The opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the George C. Marshall Center or the U.S. Department of Defense.

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