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Finding women in the 'Global War on Terrorism'

The events of 9/11 triggered years of counter terrorist efforts by the USA and its global partners. However, Dr Joana Cook, of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, has found these measures failed to fully consider the diverse roles of women as agents, partners and targets of this work.

For decades women have been involved in terrorism, whether carrying out attacks or supporting organisations. They have been victims of terrorist acts, and many have also been involved in diverse aspects of security, including on the front lines with forces trying to reduce the threat from terrorism.

However, Dr Joana Cook, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, says women were not adequately considered in the counter terrorist strategies developed since the events of 9/11, and this has created a major gap in how we understand and respond to terrorism today.

If you look at a group like ISIS, women have certainly been present and contributed to it, but because they have not been the ones in videos conducting the most brutal acts of violence or are rarely involved in perpetrating the most significant attacks, they have become a secondary concern. What that means is we really don’t holistically see or understand these groups, and this has been a big shortfall in how we have approached them. – Dr Joana Cook

An example of this was in Iraq around 2005 to 2007, where al-Qaeda in Iraq used women to move weapons and other contraband, or as suicide bombers because they knew there were so few females on the front line or in Iraqi security forces that they were unlikely to be searched.

In her new book A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism since 9/11, Dr Cook looks back over 18 years at the discourses and practices of counterterrorism under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump. She looks at how these affected what happened to American women, as well as local women in key countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.  

 She considers women across the full spectrum of counterterrorism operations, spanning defence, diplomatic and development activities by the US Department of Defense, Department of State and USAID. She also highlights related fields such as women in relation to counterinsurgency, countering violent extremism and stabilisation operations.

In these she found that women were often overlooked or included in flawed or limited ways, although this evolved over the 18 years. To better understand this, she highlights what roles women were most frequently emphasised in, what factors most commonly drove changes to these roles, and how diverse actors claimed different justifications for including or engaging women.

Framework for others

Her research developed a framework that other countries (particularly practitioners and policy-makers) could use which can help anyone better understand how, where and why women become emphasised in relation to counterterrorism, and how problematic practices of the past can be left behind.

It also helps us understand the gendered relationship between counterterror actors, and the groups they target. For example, at least 13 percent of all foreigners that travelled to Iraq and Syria were women and, although Dr Cook says there were clear reasons why they were joining these groups, their motives were not initially understood by those tasked with trying to stop them.

If we really want to effectively and comprehensively understand and respond to the biggest security issues of our day, then we have to take women seriously. – Dr Joana Cook

Next generation

For the next generation of international security researchers, she believes jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, but also the rise of Far-Right movements, will be key influences that shape contemporary security concerns. As such, her research will demonstrate it is crucial to more effectively engage women in all aspects of security, including countering violent extremism and countering terrorism, as well as the importance of understanding what may also pull women toward such groups. 

Her findings will be delivered in lectures to students in various War Studies undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and she hopes will be taken up by policy makers and practitioners to ensure the important roles of women are not overlooked.

She explains: "For so long there has been a real neglect of women in all aspects of international security and we can now demonstrate with very clear evidence the negative impacts this has had -- whether it is was women joining ISIS by the thousands , or whether this was seen in the limitations to full capabilities we have when countering terrorism or violent extremism.

"It is more imperative than ever that, not only do young women around the world feel like they have a role in contributing to the security of their societies, if they choose, but also an important role in thinking about, defining, and responding to, the security concerns of the day.

"We also have to better understand how the roles of women, as well as gender dynamics, really function in these organisations. This is going to be absolutely critical for how we respond to security concerns going forward."


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