Like a thriller come to life, Samantha Lewthwaite or the “White Widow” is on the run. Interpol has put out an arrest warrant for Ms. Lewthwaite for her involvement in a 2011 case in Kenya. The White Widow is only the latest in a growing trend. This is particularly disturbing due to our perception of women as less violent, nurturing and more sympathetic to others. Hard questions remain. With this White Widow in mind, we might ask, is the number of female terrorists growing? And how has this phenomenon changed over time?
Originally, groups such as Al Qaida banned women from taking part in these deplorable acts. Nowadays they have an Arabic magazine to recruit them. And it’s no wonder. Since the mid 1980’s female acts of terrorism have skyrocketed, taking place in such countries as Palestine, Iraq, Israel, Chechnya, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Sri Lanka. Half the suicide bombings in Turkey, Sri Lanka and Chechnya since 2002 have been perpetrated by women. In 2008 Iraqi female bombers had detonated themselves 21 times before the year was even halfway over.
According to researchers at the University of Lancaster, female terrorists are motivated by more personal matters than their male counterparts, such as the death of a significant other or a member of the family. Terrorists of the supposed fairer sex are generally well educated, have a job and are often naturalized citizens of the country in which they carry out attacks. The study states that the average ages range for both male and female terrorists is between 16 and 35 years old. Most had never been in trouble with the law before. Female terrorists according to this study were more likely to be widowed or divorced, motivating them to take part in these heinous crimes.
Of course, instances where women have fought in battle are not new to history. Ancient Irish pagan women during Roman times were said to fight alongside their men. There was French Revolutionary women, women warriors of the Vietcong the list goes on. But terrorism is different than war. And the White Widow case is only the latest in a growing list of female terrorists, a phenomenon that has been taking place for decades, and took off in the 2000’s. The trend seems to have begun with the feminist movement of the 1970’s. We see the most famous cases coming out of America and Northern Ireland at that time.
The first well documented case was Patricia “Patty” Hearst. She was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, and heiress to the substantial Hearst publishing fortune. She and her boyfriend were kidnapped from her Berkley California apartment. She was 19 at the time. Their captors the Symbionese Liberation Army, was a group of radical militants, an offshoot of the black power movement. They brainwashed her intensely.
Two years later, she took part in a bank robbery scheme as a member of the SLA. She was arrested and sent to prison. Her sentence was commuted however by President Jimmy Carter, and Patty was pardoned by President Bill Clinton many years later. Patty Hearst is considered the epitome of the Stockholm Syndrome, a condition where a captive comes to sympathize and identify with his or her captors.
Another case from involves Joanne Chesimard, the first woman to be put on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list which occurred earlier this year. A member of the Black Liberation army, she is wanted for the death of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster whom she shot and killed during a traffic stop. Chesimard currently lives in Cuba, a country with no extradition treaty with the U.S. She uses the name Assata Shakur, and was late rapper Tupak Shakur’s godmother. Rapper Common has a song speaking fondly of Assata which caused an uproar last year when he was invited by Michele Obama to the White House for a poetry slam.
Also in the 1970’s there is the case of Patricia Rose Dugdale. There was no shortage of female Irish Republican Army members carrying out operations. But Dugdale was a special case, she wasn’t Irish. An English millionaire’s daughter, Dugdale was kidnapped by and later joined the IRA. She helped hijack a helicopter in one operation. With it, she and other IRA member attempted to blow up a constabulatory or police station by dropping bombs in milk urns onto the station from the helicopter above. She also took part in an art heist, attempting to steal a Vermeer. Dugdale was caught and imprisoned for nine years, but has never showed any regret for her crimes. In fact, she states that you have to look at the IRA as freedom fighters, pushing out an occupying force.
There were other, unknown women who have taken part in a multitude of acts, placing bombs on street corner during the Vietnam War to kill American G.I.s., made famous in a scene in “Full Metal Jacket” and other movies. Women soldiers have been found among the FARC in Columbia for many years. Just as the car bomb and these other tactics were adopted by Muslim militants, so too has the phenomenon of female terrorists been adopted by radical Jihadists.
In 1991 former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a young Tamil woman known as Dhanu. Gandhi was among a crowd of supporters while campaigning for reelection at the time. She detonated her explosives as she knelt at his feet. This was done in revenge for India sending military forces to Sri Lanka to help stop the civil war there. In addition to herself and Gandhi, fourteen others perished in this attack.
Shahidka or “Black Widows” are female Chechen suicide bombers, fighting for an independent Chechnya, an area under Russia’s control. They were made famous by the 2002 Moscow Nord-Ost theater siege. Chechen militants took over the theater and demanded Russia’s exit from Chechnya. An unknown gas was pumped into the place and a Russian paramilitary team infiltrated it, wiping out the terrorists. But many hostages were killed or seriously injured, mostly from the unknown gas that was pumped into the theater. 130 people perished in this attack. Black Widows have caused a series of suicide bombings since then. Many were motivated by their husband’s death in earlier attacks. Chechen terrorist leaders have been so impressed that they now prefer female bombers to their male counterparts.
In 2006, 57 year old grandmother Fatima Omar Mahmoud Al Najjar was shot and killed as she attempted to blow up two Israeli soldiers. In a video recorded previous to the incident, she said that she hoped Allah would accept her act.
American women are no strangers to this phenomenon either. They have been active participants in Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. They have taken part in operations in Britain, Egypt, Afghanistan and Somalia. Colleen LaRose is a famous case. She was dubbed “Jihad Jane” by the media. Her radicalization stems from things she saw on the internet. She and a friend, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez moved to Europe to become a part of Islamic terrorist operations there. Jihad Jane was taken in in 2009. LaRose pleaded guilty to all charges.
As for the White Widow herself, the 29 year old Lewthwaite was married to Germaine Lindsay, former British soldier and the main perpetrator of the London Underground bombing in 2005. 26 people were killed in that attack. Britain considers this its 9/11. Her latest Interpol charges are conspiracy and possession of explosives. But the incident she is indicted for took place in Kenya back in 2011. She was allegedly casing soft targets, restaurants and hotels, for a terrorist attack at that time. She and fellow British conspirator Jermaine Grant were picked up by police. She escaped, but Grant still remains in a Kenyan prison. The White Widow is also thought to be in connection with the Kenyan West Gate Mall siege that took place over last weekend.
Her activities and involvement are particularly bizarre, as Lewthwaite had a normal upbringing in Northern Ireland and England. She has three small children, two with her previous husband. The father of the third is unknown. Lewthwaite became interested in Islam in her teen years. She married Lindsay, a Jamaican born Muslim, after meeting him on the internet only a few months earlier. At the time of the London bombings, Lewthwaite stated that she never knew about Lindsay’s plans, calling them “abhorrent” when they first occurred. Nothing was heard about her since, until the West Gate incident last week. People who knew her said she had no self-esteem and wasn’t strong willed, making her involvement in these heinous crimes a tremendous shock for her estranged friends, family and acquaintances.
The White Widow is only the latest in a phenomenon of growing female acts of terrorism. What strategies can we put into place to ameliorate this? Certainly decreasing collateral damage in warzones and in battles with terrorists would help. Disputed territories need to be addressed such as the Chechen situation. But Russia will be dead set against it. Certainly more research has to be done on exactly what radicalizes a person, particularly women and how to undo this phenomenon. But in the short term, expect many more female terrorist incidences to occur.
By: Philip Perry