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Pamela G. FaberMegan K. McBrideJulia McQuaidEmily MushenAlexander PowellWilliam G. RosenauElizabeth Yang
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The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict – Stability and Humanitarian Affairs (OASD (SO/LIC-SHA)) asked  CNA to study the role of women and gender in both violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and US counterterrorism (CT) and counter violent extremism (CVE)  operations (hereafter CT/CVE). This request emerged from the recognition that greater understanding of the role of gender and women in CT/CVE operations is necessary as mandated in section 1047 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and in accordance with the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act of 2017. This study addresses the following research questions: 

  • What roles do women play in VEOs organizationally and operationally? 
  • How have these roles shifted over time, and how might they evolve in the short and long terms?
  • What are the existing Department of Defense (DOD) and Special Operations Forces (SOF) approaches and policies regarding gender and CT/CVE? 
  • What opportunities are presented to DOD, and SOF in particular, through increased consideration of gender in CT/CVE? What are the risks of failing to do so? 
  • How should the US factor the role of gender into future CT/CVE operations, training, and education?

To carry this out, we developed a three-part approach: 

  • Identified the roles of women and gender in VEOs through nine case studies: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Al-Shabaab, National Socialist Underground and National Action (two white supremacist groups in Europe), Boko Haram, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Lord’s Resistance Army, and Abu Sayyaf Group.
  • Assessed whether current US DOD CT/CVE strategy, policy, and activities incorporate gender considerations.
  • Identified gaps, risks, and opportunities according to four thematic categories: strategy, policy and doctrine, internal activities,1 external activities, and conceptual understanding.

Our findings demonstrate that women play supporting, enabling, and operational roles in VEOs, and that there is no deliberate or coordinated effort to integrate these roles into CT/CVE strategy, policy, or activities.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited.


  • Pages: 232
  • Document Number: DRM-2021-U-029105-1Rev
  • Publication Date: 3/10/2021