Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists

October 20, 2011

Ever since Vera Zasulich shot the governor of St Petersburg in 1878, it has been clear that women could be at least as effective terrorists as men. Since terrorist groups, until recently, have often been driven (as was Zasulich's group Narodnaya Volya) by socially progressive ideologies, we might well expect them to have been gender blind. And indeed women have sometimes been dramatically more visible among terrorists than in traditional military organisations. Almost a third of some groups have been women; but even this still falls far short of equality. Is this good news, confirming the idea that women are naturally less violent, or bad, showing that they take second place to men even in revolutionary organisations?

Mia Bloom thinks that the threat of women terrorists has been seriously underestimated. She sets out to "work past gender stereotypes and examine the conditions that really influence female violence". Telling us that there have been women in terrorist groups "as far back as the 1960s", she presents them in a series of conflict zones: Chechnya, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Indonesia. She likes a good story, and has plenty of grisly ones to tell, such as the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage-taking in which the Chechen women carried suicide belts and the men did not, which seems to offer good material for analysis. It is when she moves on to larger patterns of behaviour that readers may feel a bit short-changed.

With a rather loose comparative framework, her stories can seem a bit random. The "many faces" of her subtitle come across as lots of trees but less wood. Her case-study structure - a softer option than, say, working through categories of the kind she gestures towards in her chapter titles (recruiters, propagandists, scouts, bombers) without systematically analysing them - means that interpretative points reappear in successive sections, sometimes in successive paragraphs. And the capsule histories that open each section don't always inspire confidence. Her account of the creation of Israel, for instance, contrives to avoid any mention of Jewish terrorist organisations such as the Irgun or Lehi, while her confident assertion that the Provisional IRA took its prefix to claim descent from the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State is about as wrong as it is possible to be.

As in her earlier study of suicide terrorism (called Dying to Kill: she has a neat line in titles), Bloom's material is mainly drawn from secondary sources. She has talked to terrorists, but their answers seem to tell us little new.

This would be no problem if her overall interpretation added a new dimension of understanding. But her account of a crucial issue such as radicalisation, for instance, is fairly banal. We learn that the Provisional IRA's Mairead Farrell was surrounded by violence as a child, "had to pass through military checkpoints and endure curfews"; the bus she took to school was attacked. Maybe this "contributed to her radicalization", as Bloom suggests - but we also need to know why the same experience did not radicalise all her fellow passengers.

Bloom's women take part in all kinds of violence, not just terrorism. Some are definitely not terrorists. Her account of women in one of the Tamil Tigers' pitched battles is one of warfare, pure and simple. Whether you label the Tigers terrorists or guerrilla fighters, of course, says much about where you are coming from in political terms. Bloom's language is judgemental rather than neutral - she consistently uses the verb "perpetrate" instead of "carry out", the adjective "notorious" instead of "well-known". She tells us that terrorists are "corrupt and hypocritical", and thinks that scholarly researchers "have an obligation to advertise their crimes". Al-Qaeda she labels "the very embodiment of evil". Yet she plainly admires some women terrorists: her treatment of Farrell ("murdered" by the British) is almost hagiographical in tone.

On her key question - are they independent volunteers or are they "the pawns of men"? - her answer is: some are enthusiasts, some are bullied, some are tricked. She holds that women and children "will carry on the conflict in the future"; but if, as she suggests, the best way to stop this is to convince them that terrorism is not just wrong but futile, the future looks grim indeed.

Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists

By Mia Bloom. Hurst, 240pp, £12.99. ISBN 9781849041607. Published 20 October 2011

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