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The Department of Defense (DOD) does not fully recognize or address the roles that women play in terrorist groups and its efforts to counter terrorism and extremist groups would be stronger if it did, a new study from CNA shows.

In Understanding Gender and Violent Extremism, researchers explore the complex intersection of gender and conflict and offer specific recommendations for how U.S. national security policymakers—particularly at DOD—could significantly improve counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CT/CVE) policies. The report is broken into two main parts: a deep dive into the roles of women and gender in terrorist groups and an analysis to determine the extent to which gender is integrated into CT/CVE approaches. The report includes nine case studies about women and gender in terrorist groups, ranging from Boko Haram in Western Africa to the National Socialist Underground and National Action in Europe.

Among other observations, the report finds that prevalent stereotypes about women in terrorism cause policymakers to overlook the majority of female activity in terrorist groups and misunderstand the range of experiences of women involved with terrorism. For example, while the popular conception that women have supporting roles, such as domestic responsibilities and psychological support to militants, is partially correct, it does not capture the majority of the roles women play in terrorist groups. As the report explains, women play a wide range of enabling roles, such as recruiting in al-Shabaab, fundraising in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), building social networks in Abu-Sayyaf Group (ASG) and smuggling weapons in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Women also have operational roles—women in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fight on the front lines. U.S. CT/CVE strategy should reflect the complexity of women’s roles.

“Women play an under-recognized but significant number of roles within violent extremist organizations that have yet to be fully reflected in or understood by U.S. efforts to counter these groups. By further integrating a nuanced understanding of gender roles within violent extremist organizations, the U.S. government will be better equipped to effectively develop strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism,” said lead author Pamela Faber. Faber and the team offer four primary conclusions:

  1. The dominant stereotypes about women’s roles in violent extremist organizations overlook the vast majority of female activity in these groups and fundamentally fail to capture women’s lived experiences.
  2. Despite significant growth in this space since the passage of the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, internal DOD activities that truly consider gender are severely limited, lack nuance and are not institutionalized.
  3. External DOD CT/CVE efforts do not consider the roles that men and women play in terrorist groups with sufficient nuance. They are disproportionately influenced by a set of gender stereotypes about the roles of men and women in these groups.
  4. Much of the current DOD approach to countering terrorist groups can be traced to misunderstanding gender as a concept.

The final section of the report offers actionable policy recommendations for addressing these conclusions, particularly for bolstering training, education and regular evaluations to assess DOD’s integration of gender.