Terrorist organizations increasingly recruiting women for radicalization, study finds

RALEIGH, N. C. — Very little research has delved into the characteristics of women who take part in jihadist terrorism cells. Now a new study that claims to be the first of its kind shows that there are clear differences between male and female terrorists and potential recruits. Perhaps most alarming, however, is the finding that terrorist organizations seem to be targeting female recruits more than ever before.

Researchers from North Carolina State University conducted the first large-scale study into so-called “Jihad Janes,” or women who become radicalized into groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS. The study compared 272 women and 266 men who were known terrorists linked to Al Qaeda-inspired groups.

“There has only been one other large-scale study to evaluate the characteristics of women terrorists, and none that have looked exclusively at women in jihadism-inspired terrorist groups,” says lead author Christine Brugh, a Ph.D. student at NC State, in a university release. “There have been no previous, large-scale studies to look at the roles women play in terrorist organizations.”

The data, which was collected from the Western Jihadism Project based out of Brandeis University, showed that, among notable differences between male and female terrorists, just 2 percent of women had criminal backgrounds before they were radicalized. That’s compared to nearly one in five (19%) male terrorists. Additionally, 14% of men were unemployed in the six months before radicalization, versus 42% of women.

“The data also suggests that terrorist organizations may be increasingly recruiting women,” notes co-author Sarah Desmarais, associate professor of psychology at NC State. “For example, 34 percent of the women in our sample were born after 1990, while only 15 percent of men were born after 1990. Since we were able to control for age at radicalization, this suggests an increase in women’s involvement in terrorist groups.”

Among other findings, most women had high school education at the least and were legal, native residents in the countries they hailed from. There was a diverse range of ethnicities and countries among the segment.

The study also showed that while women may be greater assets to terror units, they’re not playing as significant of a role in the actual planning or execution of attacks. Researchers determined that 52% of women took part in terror plots, compared to 76% of men.

“In many ways, the roles of the women in these terrorist groups are consistent with traditional gender norms,” says Desmarais. “The women were more likely to play behind-the-scenes roles aimed at supporting the organization.”

But Brugh and Desmarais say there are countless other questions that must be researched when it comes to women and terrorism.

“The fact that these differences are so obvious – but that no one had found them before – suggests that we are just scratching the surface,” says Brugh says. “We need to see what, if anything, sets these people apart from their counterparts in the general population. Are there relevant variables that could inform threat assessments or models of radicalization? Are the differences we found in this study particular to jihadism-inspired groups? In short, there is a lot of work to be done in this field.”

The study is published in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management.