The Lure of Violent Extremism for Women: A Terrorism Specialist Explains

Liat Shetret
Liat Shetret, a security analyst, directs the New York office of the Global Center on Cooperative Security. She says that women and men can be drawn into terrorism through “sexy,” persuasive narratives.

Liat Shetret is the director of the New York office for the Global Center on Cooperative Security, a nonprofit group that helps governments and other organizations develop responses to international security issues. Shetret’s work — currently in Africa — focuses on community engagement in terrorism prevention, countering violent extremism, the use of Internet for terrorism and counterterrorism pursuits and anti-money laundering activities.

Shetret has a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. She talked about her work at the Global Center recently, touching primarily on the role that women are playing in contemporary terrorism and counterterrorism activities and what may be driving them to join extremist groups. She noted, for example, that preventing women in conflicts from heading into radicalism entails giving them “spaces” in which they can be heard. Shetret emphasized that her views do not necessarily express those of the Global Center.

Q. How did you get involved in counterterrorism work?

A. I as an undergrad, I focused on political science and psychology at the University of Illinois. For graduate school, I studied international security policy at Columbia University. While at Columbia, I started working in the Global Center in research. I was also in the military for three years before that. I had a lot of observations about female leadership and female contributions and how women do differently in these kinds of traditionally male organizations. All that kind of rolled into this. Now I primarily focus on Africa.

Q. Are there certain triggers that lead women to become involved in terrorist activities?

 A. There are a bunch of different philosophies. Some people will say it’s the pull factor: an external attraction — basically recruiters from the terrorist side do a very good job because they develop specifically tailored models for whom they are trying to capture — i.e., kids, women, the youth, men. They will appeal to whatever they know is culturally and socially contextualized to appeal to those groups. So you do see very glossy magazines that are targeting these particular age groups or demographics or women specifically. There is an appeal to their sense of self — as a mother, a caregiver, a family provider — and ask of her to join a “higher cause.”

Going back to psychological concepts: if you can identify people at risk — men or women — it is very easy to appeal to them in what’s a very “sexy” narrative of “come join us.” I think there is also a targeting of roles for particular individuals; I think women are particularly targeted for their logistical support, for their community mobilization, for their funding abilities. Recently, they are targeted for tactical fighting. Now they are targeting this sense of equal opportunity, higher cause. There is still an organizational appeal and there is a sense of belonging in a higher cause. I often think that it’s a concept that needs to be considered in programming. If we are looking at preventative instead of reactionary, you want to get to women before they have joined the other side — you want to get to them when they are still focused on self- empowerment, their own business, their families.

Q. CNN published an article about an affluent Scottish girl who joined the Islamic State [or ISIS] extremist group. The Washington Post similarly did a piece on an M.I.T. graduate who joined Al Qaeda. Is there an explanation as to why educated, well-off women from the West are now joining terrorist groups, say, in the Middle East?

A. I would just say one thing about these various individual stories that we hear about. They are dangerous anecdotes. Every other day there is going to be a profile of this and that woman from this and that background who is pursuing a career in a terrorist organization. Those anecdotes are somewhat dangerous because we may run the risk of overgeneralizing to assume that there is a much bigger problem. Basically, we may have an investment at a place that may not necessarily be preventative. There may be one or two of 1,500 cases. That may not necessarily mean that we need to ignore the millions and millions and millions of women that are not joining.

We need to make sure we are not abandoning preventive mechanisms and hyping the few who join such movement. Because they do remain, still few. I attribute such things to a byproduct of globalization. There has been a lot of immigration, a lot of migration, global aid, intercultural movement and ideological movement across the globe. This assumption that just because someone joined [a terrorist group] from Scotland or America or whatever, it doesn’t negate the fact that they have other cultural ties. This is why I love psychological concepts — because when you look at these individuals, they are not just the passports they hold; they are also a really complex self that has a lot of history. Continuing to profile based on affluence, passports and even genders is complicated because human beings are complicated.

Q. It also seems that counterterrorism work is not too preventive in its approach. For example, governments quickly shut down terrorist sites and send in armies to combat them, but there is not much being heard about prevention. Do you agree?

A. This is where you get to really tricky ground. Governments vary. Different governments are approaching things very differently. The UN and the Global Counterterrorism Forum are two mechanisms that are really attempting to coordinate those efforts. So one of the biggest challenges that you have is that there is a lot of different programming that is going on attempting to address preventative measures, but that isn’t necessarily coordinated across programming areas, regions, countries or demographics. That is one of the biggest challenges, and it’s still something we are learning how to do. We have gotten better at it, but we aren’t there yet.

Q. How can terrorism prevention be included in conflict prevention? How are they related?

A. All these terms and concepts, like conflict and terrorism and counterterrorism, are terms that are used sometimes interchangeably and not well defined, if at all. There is definitely no consensus on what these mean. The challenge is that you risk having two programs or three programs that are “conflict prevention” and everyone is doing different things.

There has been a challenge in defining terrorism globally as every country has a different approach to it. What I would suggest doing in general – and this is something we advocate – is rather than necessarily going in with labels, find the underlying elements and factors and address them in programming. Don’t call something a counterterrorism program if it’s not. It’s not respectful of populations you are trying to support and assist and does not speak to the concepts of local ownership. It is removed from the context.

Q. Why is terrorism still not being defined and why is that problematic? How does this interfere with work on counterterrorism?

A. One of the greatest examples is that different donor governments contribute funds to the UN to do counterterrorism work, and I think there has been a way in which the work has been ongoing because UN entities are able to find the lowest common denominator on what is agreed on and focus on that. But it ignores sensitive issues because of political disagreements.

The perception of terrorism within each country is different and that leads to different understandings of how countries should respond. So the threat in some countries is perceived as internal and domestic, and in some countries it is perceived as being external. And that would impact how countries would prioritize response, and how countries would respond and what kind of response. It goes back to perceptions of priority.

Q. What is the Global Center’s relationship with the United Nations and with the United States government?

A. For the longest time, we didn’t actually have a relationship with the US. They only started funding [some] of our programs this year. The two US-funded programs are countering violent extremism through mapping, awareness-raising and training for front-line officials in East Africa and the Greater Horn of Africa, and countering violent extremism in West Africa and the Sahel region. We are an independent NGO and we don’t actually lean any which way. With the UN, we see them as partners, and we help with some of the implementation and programming. We share information and cooperate across different issues and areas.

Q. There is a growing movement on the Internet by Al Qaeda and now ISIS to recruit women and encourage women to teach children about radical theories. What can governments and organizations working on counterterrorism activities do to stop such online messages?

A. We need to be very reflective about how reactionary we are being to every social-media campaign. They are clearly good at organizing social media campaigns that get picked up by the global media. We give them the airtime. Governments and media should stop fueling the fire. We are multiplying the effects. My big issue is to understand that removing content from the Internet is a short-term solution. We need to stop being involved in terrorism and need to create more space for counterterrorism narratives.  

Q. In a policy brief you co-wrote, titled “The Roles of Women in Terrorism, Conflict and Violent Extremism, it was suggested that government and organizations must use the media to spread the message that joining terrorism groups is wrong instead of just terrorists using it to spread their message and making it seem like an adventurous, “sexy” profession. Can you tell me more about this?

A. This goes back to the point about we need to stop being involved in terrorism and be countering the terrorism. We need to create more space for the counternarratives. The way governments have been interpreting counternarratives is that we need to put up more stories that say something else on UN or government websites. That’s not necessarily the way to do it. There is this glorification of the lifestyle of being a terrorist. It’s very exciting. You get the sense of brotherhood. When, in fact, you are cut off from your family, you are lonely, you don’t see your wife for ages, you have never seen your kids because they were born when you left and you are constantly hiding from governments. So it’s not a sexy lifestyle. It’s not an appealing lifestyle. And I think we need to put more emphasis on the misery versus that glorification. 

I think it’s very important to create political spaces for women to be more involved. For example, if the UN is holding trainings, or a government is holding trainings, some of those participants that are nominated by governments need to be women. The UN is in a position to push to have more women included. The UN Women organization is doing a good work with this.

Q. Have there been changes in counterterrorism strategies for women in recent years?

A. Yes, the attention to the concept of gender is growing. It needs to continue, and better yet, it needs to continue to programming at a field level. I think there are a lot of great discussions happening at headquarter levels. Its natural evolution will be to practically implement it at the field level.

Q. In another policy brief you wrote, you say that women clearly have multiple roles in terrorism: sympathizer, mobilizer, preventer and perpetrator. Do you think that women can have a stronger role to play in counterterrorism activities?

A. The first statement you made also applies to men. Men also play a similar role. I think the emphasis on women in general is really important because they carry the bulk of the burden within conflicts. The impact on women is often significantly higher than the impact on men. Women are more negatively impacted in conflicts. To answer your question, women often are recipients of various funds that are sent back. If those women decide to not use the money for food but rather for arms sale, that’s a problem. I think it’s more important to create spaces for women to feel heard and empowered, and that’s a safety goal right there. Political inclusiveness, having women involved in governance, having women involved in law enforcement — as police, as interrogators in law enforcement — that’s really important. If we are arresting more women that are only being interrogated by men, that’s an issue because you are not getting a lot of sensitivity that women bring. I don’t see it as women playing a stronger role than men but as being an added value — an added tool in the toolbox. There are just so many benefits. 

This article was updated.  

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