Is the role of women in al-Qaeda increasing?

By Murad Batal al-Shishani
Analyst, BBC Arabic

  • Published
Protest for Aafia Siddiqi in Pakistan 2010
Image caption,
A US court sentenced Aafia Siddiqi to jail for attempting to kill US federal agents

In the last week of September, the As-Sahab Foundation, which disseminates al-Qaeda messages and propaganda, released a video clip showing a group of militants launching mortar attacks on Pakistani army sites.

The attacks, the video clip said, were "in support of" of Aafia Siddiqui.

Siddiqui, 38, is a neuroscientist who had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, before returning to Pakistan and marrying a relative of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

On 24 September 2010, she was sentenced in the US to 86 years for trying to kill American government agents in Afghanistan in 2009.

Jihadist groups are reportedly seeking to stir up feelings of anger in Pakistan against the decision of the US court, as well as exploiting sensitivities surrounding a Muslim female being taken captive, in order to increase recruitment and support.

Last June, the deputy leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Saudi Said al-Shihri, released an audio message, urging al-Qaeda supporters in Saudi Arabia to kidnap Saudi royal princes, ministers and Christians in response to the arrest of al-Qaeda supporter Hila al-Qusair.

She is alleged to be an al-Qaeda fundraiser in Yemen.

And while jihadists aim to exploit cases involving women, the role of women in al-Qaeda activities appears to have been increasing recently.

Ideological Shift

While no-one can be certain that the numbers of women involved in attacks is increasing sharply, there appears to have been an ideological shift on the issue.

Hassan Abu Haniya, an Amman-based analyst of Islamic groups, told the BBC that the Salafi jihadist ideology has shifted toward the acceptance of women's participation in armed actions.

Image caption,
Colleen LaRose, self-titled "Jihad Jane", was charged with involvement in a terrorism plot

Salafism is a trend in Sunni Islam which claims to draw inspiration from the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate companions. Many of the most radical and violent jihadis see themselves as Salafis.

"While the traditional jihadists limit women's participation in jihad to supporting militant men in activities such as nursing, teaching, and moral support, the new ideologues have begun to mention female participation in armed actions in their literature recently," Mr Abu Haniya said.

The leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Yusuf al-Uyayri, was among the first ideologues to encourage women to join jihad.

Uyayri was killed in May 2003 and that period witnessed an increase in suicide bombings carried out by Chechen women in the North Caucasus; although this was not related to al-Qaeda.

There are opponents to women's involvement in violent jihad. The second-in-command of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, rejects the participation of women in armed actions.

His wife, Omayma, directed an open letter last December to Muslim women urging them to support Jihad by all means other than physical fighting.

"It is not easy for women…and it is forbidden for her to move without being accompanied by male relatives and jihad requires mobility," she argued.

'Incitement to Jihad'

Many suicide bombings have been carried out by women associated to jihadist movements. Part of the thinking behind this is practical - women are believed to draw less suspicion than men and go through less rigorous security checks.

Belgian Muriel Degauque carried out the first known female suicide attack in Iraq in 2005.

Her attack convinced then reluctant al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who was killed in June 2006), of the feasibility of female suicide bombing.

About 500 attacks have been carried out by women in Iraq, according to Mr Abu Haniya.

Another example was Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi who failed to detonate her explosive belt while her male colleagues succeeded in blowing up three hotels in the Jordanian capital Amman in 2005.

Image caption,
Muriel Degauque carried out the first female suicide attack in Iraq in 2005

There is also Malika al-Aroud, who is still on trial in Belgium for her role of "incitement to jihad" via the internet, as well as American Colleen LaRose - known as Jihad Jane - who is accused of "conspiring to kill a Swedish man and attempting to recruit fighters across the internet to commit terrorist acts abroad".

Female jihadist activities appear to be increasing in the West.

Houriya Ahmed, a researcher at the London-based Centre for Social Cohesion, extensively follows the phenomenon of women's participation in jihadist activities.

She told the BBC that women in the West, as well as men, are "prone to radical ideology", because of the increasing identity-oriented debates among Muslim communities in the West on issues such as Niqab, integration and others.

France announced last week the arrest of a group of jihadists seeking to carry out attacks in the country, including a woman.

"Although we have not revealed many details yet, this might be related to the decision to ban the Niqab, and discussions of identity in France," Ms Ahmed said.

According to Ms Ahmed, there are also several legal cases in Europe where women have been convicted for expressing their interest in taking part in jihad - but that they have not actually done.

Correction 19 November 2010: The second paragraph has been corrected following a mistranslation. It previously read: "The attacks and the clip were attributed to Aafia Siddiqui."