Book Launch: A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism since 9/11

February 7, 2020

The three panelists began by noting the different themes throughout the book, which recognizes women as agents in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, terrorist networks, and local partnerships for countering violent extremism. They noted that any policy which reduces women to their roles as mothers of potential terrorists is insufficiently nuanced to be successful.

The conversation then emphasized the importance of moving beyond discussions of only women in CVE efforts; gender analysis more broadly is necessary. For example, a discussion about domestic terrorism in the United States needs to include analysis of the construction of masculinity in far-right groups and online ‘incel’ platforms. Further, it was noted that CVE policy in the U.S. has largely been led by the military, a traditionally male-dominated space that found its capacity in communications (a largely female-dominated field) insufficient to respond to the strong online and communications campaign that underpinned much of ISIS’s initial rise.

Gendered analysis also reveals different legal responses to terrorism. Women often receive lighter sentencing for terrorism charges, and the majority of returning foreign terrorist fighters who have not been charged at all are women. There is also a difference in the government’s immediate response to potential threats. Often women and girls who have been identified as potential threats are removed from their contexts and provided different role models and psycho-social support, whereas men and boys face immediate legal consequences. The panelists noted that harmful stereotypes about women’s lack of agency and their role as passive recipients of (male) family members’ ideology underpin this difference in response. However, attention to the unfairly gendered responses may actually provide a window into how to more effectively prevent the radicalization of both men and women.

Moving forward, this nuanced gendered analysis will continue to be critical for effective CVE policy. The panelists were largely hopeful that there was finally movement towards this subtlety in policy conversation, although they noted that some agencies such as USAID were much better at conducting gender analysis than others (DoD and State), despite attempts to integrate legal frameworks such as the 2011 WPS National Action Plan and 2017 WPS Act into all of the agencies’ operating procedures. Another barrier to nuance was an inflexible legal system, a particularly difficult issue for local community organizations fighting against radicalization in ways that might involve providing economic assistance, education, or support to individuals deemed to be threats. Here, the panelists pointed to the role of judicial discretion. Although laws against providing material support to terrorists lack nuance, it is still possible for judges to review individual cases so as not to inadvertently undermine counter-radicalization efforts that involve reaching out to potential terrorists.

Another area where this nuance is critical is in budget allocation for CVE, which encourages recipients of development grants to include CVE elements as part of their mandates to access funding. By forcing CVE language into work that may already combat radicalization by supporting education or development initiatives or other root causes, local groups or NGOs (often led by women) risk being perceived as part of the US security apparatus rather than as independent local groups, further undermining real on-the-groundwork that in practice does help counter violent extremism.

In all of these areas, gender analysis can strengthen counter-radicalization efforts in a humane way. Effective policy requires nuance, and a gender lens is one of many important steps in introducing this nuance into the counterterrorism space.

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