Middle East

Mother of all Bombs: Women as the Best Weapon against Violent Extremism


From Nigeria’s Boko Haram, to Al Qaeda, to ISIS, one commonality that links terrorist and extremist groups is their malicious assaults on the rights of women and girls. However, while women and girls are often the first targets of terrorist organizations, and remain vulnerable to their attacks, they may also be the best weapon in fighting against them.

Image courtesy of Nicoline Hermans, © 2006

Traditionally, counterterrorism efforts have undervalued the role women could play in rooting out violent extremism, as conventional wisdom holds that most terrorists are men, and how women traditionally lack political clout in societies that are particularly vulnerable to radicalization. Focusing counterterrorism initiatives on the unique role women do play in identifying and stopping radicalization within their communities is key to combating and preventing violent extremism.

While gender roles vary between communities, in poor and underdeveloped societies susceptible to radicalization and extremism, women’s roles as wives and mothers are traditionally weighted with a unique social importance. In this role, they are the nexus of all family matters, and hold unique access to not only the ongoings of the family, but to others through female-only spaces within the community. This vantage point offers an opportunity for women to act as powerful pillars against violent extremism, as the shapers of familial and social norms, and promoters of tolerance and societal engagement, especially for young children.

One independent study of terrorism in Jordan determined that the rights and physical integrity of women were frequently among the first targets of fundamentalists, and a qualitative analysis of more than 30 countries found that women were substantially more likely to be early victims of extremism. The fact that women’s rights are one of the first targets for extremists is no accident. Terrorists have recognized something the international community as a whole has not: empowered women are the groundwork of strong and unwavering societies – societies that are resilient to radicalization.

Including women is crucial to the success of counterterrorism measures, particularly in places where women lack political clout. Women are uniquely positioned to disseminate counterterrorism measures effectively in families, with access to youth, homes, schools, and social environments that men lack access to. Those advantages are also paralleled for female security officials, such as law enforcement, in terms of accessibility to specific and vulnerable populations.

As wives and mothers, women are uniquely suited to raise delicate issues within their family structure, create a safe environment for conflict resolution, and inspire other women to take up similar roles within their community and family.

The central role of women in families allows them a unique vantage point for recognizing unusual behavior patterns that serve as early warning signs of radicalization, such as family members amassing weapons, or hosting or attending secret meetings or trainings. In Kosovo, for example, many women saw early warning signs of radicalization, but lacked support and reporting systems to whistleblow, which if implemented could have enabled the international community to preemptively de-escalate or more adequately respond to the Kosovo War. In Sierra Leone, women reported knowing the plans and strategies of the RUF against the peacekeepers well in advance, but lacked whistleblowing mechanisms to report them, which led to 7 UN Peacekeepers being killed, and over 300 held captive.

The steps needed to build resilience in communities prone to social isolation or violent extremism are twofold. Initially, the U.S. and international community must incorporate female leaders and groups in the fight against radicalism, to mitigate radicalization in vulnerable communities. Gender diverse military and police forces are more respected and effective, as they generate an increased positive perception of law enforcement; the international community must take steps to diversify their security forces, and educate female security officers in particular on best practices. Secondly, establishing formal and informal reporting mechanisms, along with systems for whistleblower protection, in vulnerable areas is also key. By taking steps to identify and capitalize on women’s unique abilities in identifying and stopping radicalization, we take one step further to winning the war on terror.

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