There’s an old riddle that is surprisingly current. If you haven’t heard it before, allow yourself some time to answer before reading past the end of this paragraph: a father and son are in a terrible accident that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital but just as he’s about to be operated on, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate – that boy is my son!’ Discuss.
Did you guess that the surgeon is the boy’s mother? If yes, you’re in an obvious minority. In research conducted as recently as 2014 at Boston University, only 15 per cent of schoolchildren and 14 per cent of psychology undergraduates said the surgeon was the mother – even self-described feminists.
What does this have to do with Jihadi Janes? Taking a cue from the surgeon-mother scenario, picture this: a suicide bomber straps on explosives, marches through a crowded marketplace but stops when a bearded man walks past, saying, ‘I can’t do this – that’s my husband.’ Would you have guessed that the hypothetical suicide bomber is a woman?
Women terrorists trigger particularly morbid fascination because it is men that we usually associate with power and aggression. In the Western mass media, with abundant stereotypes of Islam as exceptionally anti-women, the idea of Muslim women terrorists provokes even greater horror. Their monikers simultaneously recognise their chilling actions yet reduce their motivations to the influence of the men in their lives, usually their husbands. They are ‘Black Widows’, or the ‘White Widow’, or ‘jihadi brides’.
So these are the myths that end up becoming common sense – Muslim men are radicalised by religion, women by romance. But surely we should investigate the concrete factors that attract men and women to various terrorist groups – within and beyond Islam – and the roles they actually play once they join? Only then can we find effective ways of overcoming terrorism.
The fact that so many men and women are engaged in the vile and indefensible killing of innocents in the name of Islam should be of urgent concern for Muslims and non-Muslims. But the solution lies neither in the Islamophobic parading of female jihadis as freaks nor in whitewashing violent jihadism as mere anti-imperialism.
With this in mind, we present our eclectic but admittedly limited list of Top Ten Jihadi Janes, in chronological order.
OK, a ‘chronological’ list is partly an excuse to start with a Biblical figure. Picture this: the hilltop town of Bethulia is besieged by Nebuchadnezzar’s invading Assyrian army, led by Holofernes (meaning ‘stinking in hell’ so no, not the hero of this story). The townspeople despair, but a beautiful and respected widow, Judith (meaning ‘the Jewess’) announces her secret plan to the elders. She sneaks out at night, meets Holofernes, allows him to think he has seduced her and after he falls asleep in a drunken stupor, she beheads him. Hello? Can anybody say ‘Jihadi Judith’? For juicier details, consult the Book of Judith in the Old Testament. Also, check out the story of Jihadi Jael in Judges 4:21, who hammers a tent peg through the Canaanite army commander Sisera’s temple (as in the side of his head) to the ground. The verse concludes: ‘So he died.’ The Bible portrays Judith and Jael as heroes, but we include them as reminders of the complex inheritance and interpretations of violence in sacred texts.
2. Rose Dugdale (b. 1941– )
Born into a wealthy English family – her millionaire father was an underwriter at Lloyd’s of London – Dugdale was ostensibly radicalised by the student riots of 1968 and joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In January 1974, with IRA member Eddie Gallagher, she hijacked a helicopter and used it to drop bombs – in milk churns – on a Royal Ulster Constabulary station. The bombs failed to detonate and Dugdale went on the run as Ireland and Britain’s most wanted woman. Later that year, Dugdale and other IRA members staged a violent art heist, ransoming their nineteen stolen paintings for the release of jailed comrades. Dugdale was arrested and in June 1974 was sentenced to nine years in prison after pleading ‘proudly and incorruptibly guilty’. She now leads a low-profile life in Dublin, but in a rare interview in 2012 she said she had no regrets and added: ‘You mustn’t forget it was very exciting times … the world looked as if it could change and was likely to be changed and, whoever you were, you could play a part in that.’ Another example of a perception gap – Dugdale sees herself as a hero, but can the same be said of the wider British public?
3. Astrid Proll (b. 1947– )
In the 1970s, the West German government considered the Baader-Meinhof Gang – a far-left militant group eventually known as the Red Army Faction – a terrorist organisation. For over three decades, the Red Army Faction engaged in bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with the police. In 1977, they provoked a national crisis dubbed the German Autumn. Proll was an early member, implicated in a bank robbery where she drove the getaway car for a fellow member. She was soon arrested and charged with attempted murder, but escaped to London. The attempted murder charge was eventually dropped. Proll did not re-join the Baader-Meinhof but found work as a picture editor in Britain. In a 2007 interview, Proll denied being ashamed of her past but objected to the Baader-Meinhof’s increasingly violent tactics. Her example offers a glimpse into the multi-layered role of politics and personal values in an individual’s terrorist and post-terrorist career.
4. Dhanu, a.k.a. Thenmozhi Rajaratnam (b. 1974? – 1991)
Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, also known as Dhanu or Gayatri, assassinated India’s former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. Her birth year has not been established, but it is widely thought she was a teenager and member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the time. Gandhi had sparked the ire of Sri Lankan Tamil militants for an earlier decision, made while in power, to send peace-keeping troops to the island nation during its civil war. Gandhi was on his re-election campaign in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, when Dhanu approached, greeted him and detonated her denim suicide belt containing six grenades, killing Gandhi, herself, and 14 others.
5. Wafa Idris (1975 – 2002)
On 27 January 2002, 28 year-old Wafa Idris became the first female suicide bomber in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Red Crescent volunteer set off a bomb outside a shoe store in the centre of Jerusalem, killing herself and an 81-year-old man and injuring more than 100 others. Born in a refugee camp, Idris was 12 when the first intifada began in 1987; she distributed food during curfew hours and supported prisoners’ families in various ways. After her death, Idris was hailed by much of the Arab mass media as a hero and a nationalist.
6. The Black Widows
In October 2002, 40 separatist Chechen militants took 912 hostages at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, where the popular musical Nord-Ost was playing. The three-day siege ended with Russian special forces pumping sleeping gas into the hall, then storming in and killing all the attackers. There was public outrage as some 130 hostages also died, apparently because of the effects of the gas. The siege also became infamous for the disturbing televised images of Chechen women dressed in black chadors, their waists and chests adorned with bombs. They became known as the Black Widows, suggesting that their recruitment into terrorism was primarily driven by the deaths of male relatives in separatist violence. The theatre siege marked the start of two years of further terrorism in Moscow, in which the Black Widows were prominently involved. They were implicated again in a series of suicide terror attacks beginning in 2010 with deadly bombings on the Moscow metro.
7. Lynndie England (b. 1982 – )
In 2004, a few disturbing pictures went viral, depicting naked prisoners piled on top of each other, others hooded and wired with electrodes. Along with reports from Amnesty International, they provided evidence of the torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, dating from the US-led invasion in 2003. Condemnations worldwide and in the US forced President George W Bush to downplay the abuses as isolated incidents. Eleven military personnel were convicted through courts-martial in 2005, including Lynndie England. Although other female soldiers were involved, England became the face of the scandal; the most notorious photo shows her holding a leash tied to the neck of a naked man crawling out of his cell. She served less than two years in prison and says she does not regret what she did. She claims she was unduly influenced by Charles Graner, her then-fiancé who was also an Abu Ghraib torturer. As an officer in the military of a sovereign state, England is technically not a Jihadi Jane. Yet her own telling of her descent into ideologically-driven violence echoes a running theme in debates about female jihadis, so succinctly captured by Lady Gaga – ‘caught in a bad romance’.
8. Samantha Lewthwaite (b. 1983 – )
According to right-leaning tabloid the Daily Mail, Samantha Lewthwaite commands an army of 200 jihadi women whom she has trained to infiltrate governments and carry out suicide attacks on behalf of Somali terror group al-Shabaab. Among others, Lewthwaite has been linked to attacks on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013 and Garissa University in 2015. Lewthwaite was born in Buckinghamshire and converted to Islam as a teenager when she started attending the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Within weeks Lewthwaite – dubbed the White Widow by the media – dropped out and married Germaine Lindsay, who would go on to become one of the four suicide bombers attacking the London Underground transport network on 7 July 2005. In 2008, Lewthwaite went to South Africa where she met and married her second husband, Fahmi Jamal Salim, introduced to her by radical preacher Sheikh Abudullah el-Faisal. She then acquired a fake ID, entered Kenya and things have been a mystery ever since. The ‘White Widow’ is not to be confused with ‘Jihad Jane’, a.k.a. the American Colleen LaRose who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder a Swedish cartoonist in 2009. Female jihadis are horrifying enough, but those that are white converts scare the bejesus out of many in the West – testament to related-but-unnamed fears of Muslim males as potential sexual monsters. The Daily Mail warned that ‘thousands of British women on holiday in Turkey this summer  were at risk’ of being smitten by jihadi toy-boys and facilitating their entry to the UK.
9. Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers
In April 2014, the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram sent shockwaves throughout the world when it abducted 276 female students from their secondary school in Chibok. Headline grabbing as it was, the Chibok incident was just one terrible case of Boko Haram’s kidnappings of girls. Later in July, Boko Haram unleashed a spate of suicide attacks by women and girls, leading to speculation that the group was turning its schoolgirl abductees into combatants – this was eventually verified by Amnesty International. Boko Haram’s use of female suicide bombers could be a sign of desperation or a calculated move to further intimidate the Nigerian government. Either way, it is a reminder of the multiple vulnerabilities of women and children caught up in violent conflict.
10. The Bethnal Green jihadi brides
In February 2015, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, boarded a plane from London’s Gatwick Airport for Turkey on their way to join the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Their unsuspecting and distraught families blamed the police for not warning them that one of the girls’ friends had already flown to Syria in December 2014 to join ISIS. It is suspected that the girls were groomed by another jihadi bride – Aqsa Mahmood from Scotland – via Twitter. The trio’s recruitment into ISIS lays bare the messy, interlocking factors in the making of a Jihadi Jane in the West, including multiple online networks of male and female jihadis criss-crossing national borders, misplaced youthful idealism and adventure-seeking, real or imagined grievances at home, a pre-existing spotlight on immigrants and Muslims fuelling stark feelings of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, the wider geopolitics of Islam, and missteps by intelligence and security agencies.