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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Female Terrorists in the United States

Staci Strobl

Crimcast sat down with Dr. Alessandra L. Gonzalez, Princeton University post-doctorate researcher, to discuss her latest work, "How Women Engage Homegrown Terrorism" (with Joshua D.  Freilich, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Steven M. Chermak, Michigan State University) on female terrorists in the United States, published in Feminist Criminology (Volume 9, 2014).  Using the United States Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) Study data of homicides by far-right extremists and arsons and bombings by environmental and animal rights extremists, their analysis reveal the importance of relationships to women’s involvement in terrorism and that recruitment and opportunity differ by ideology. 

Tell us about the U. S. Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) and how it was developed.  It’s a great resource for analysis of terrorist offenders across known cases.

Drs. Freilich and Chermak created the ECDB study in 2005. Since then, the ECDB has been funded by a series of grants from the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate’s University Program Division; and Resilient Systems Division, both directly and through the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). 

The ECDB is an open source relational database that tracks violent and financial crimes by political extremists in the United States. It codes hundreds of attributes related to violent criminal incidents or financial criminal schemes, the perpetrators of these acts, their victims and targets, and the organizations and groups involved, as well as the quality of the open source information found on the case.

The research findings include that the women terrorists studied never act as lone wolves.  They also tend to be influenced by female friends or relatives to commit acts of violence-- not just male friends/lovers/husbands. This is also a new contribution to our understanding of women extremist offenders.  Did the data provide information, or can you speculate about, why these trends are occurring?  

The use of a gendered lens with which to understand pathways to homegrown radicalization sheds light on the important nuances of inter-personal relationships and social networks that have not been counted so centrally in previous terrorism studies. An inter-disciplinary approach to the study of women in terrorism points out the importance of mediating social networks on creating opportunities for motivated perpetrators.

However, there were differences by ideology and crime type and this is reflected in the social networks that enabled women to participate in either far-right extremist crimes (homicides) or eco-terrorist crimes (arsons and bombings). Similar to male terrorists, females are affected by group-level effects such as the structure of the group and methods of operation. For example, we observe that several of the victims of far-right extremists in the United States were killed not as a result of ideological forethought but more as “presented opportunities,” the unintended casualties of unstructured time by aimless youth. Several of the far-right females were homeless and on the street (four, all non-extremists). This lends evidence to view homeless females as more vulnerable to being co-opted into violent crimes although they do not believe in the ideology. Five out of 14 of the extremist perpetrators were involved in inter-gang violence or racial homicides to earn prestige within the gang. This makes the case of ideologically motivated females interesting because it might more closely approximate patterns for gang involvement. 

Of the three eco-terrorist bombings, one woman was involved with three other men and all were students at the same university, and the other two women involved in a separate incident were sisters. All three women involved with bombings had male accomplices and were ideologically motivated. Of the eco-terrorist arson incidents, seven women were repeat offenders, and five were involved in multiple offenses together. Women were not lone-wolf arsonists, and where multiple offenses occurred, there tended to be more than one female involved. So again, the story of relationships is important although it is unclear how these relationships were forged except for 

 

 

 

common interest activity groups on campus or as relatives of activists.

The data also shows that anti-abortion terrorists are overwhelmingly male.  What do you think this finding brings to frameworks for feminist criminology?

Interestingly, there were no anti-abortion victims or targets where women were involved, as opposed to various incidents where men were perpetrators of anti-abortion violent crime. We know that social relationships were essential to female involvement, and it is interesting that we found three mothers who were extremists and two other women who were expectant mothers at the time of the incident. It is possible that gender and social networks trump violent action against anti-abortion ideology so that we do not see women participate in these crimes. However, further research should continue to analyze the pathways for men who get involved in radical action in anti-abortion terrorist crimes because their involvement is just as important to understanding the lack of female involvement.

What is the connection between terrorism by definition having an ideological component, and the article’s assertion that religion did not seem to be a major factor in women’s involvement?  

Although religious ideology can be conflated with other powerful ideological beliefs, in this study, we isolate terrorist ideology from religious identity and belief. This methodological choice is data-driven. Of the female terrorists who engage homegrown terrorism in the United States, there were no open-source data available on their religious beliefs or affiliation. In addition, the women’s far-right and eco-terrorist ideologies did not access religious arguments for their political agendas when justifying their violence. Of course, it is possible for terrorist ideology to act as a substitute for religion for terrorists, but again, we find no data to support this theory.

What else can or has the ECDB been used to analyze?  

There have been many recent publications using ECDB data by my co-authors Joshua Freilich and Steven Chermak, including one in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology. The findings from ECDB data have been pathbreaking regarding the composition, methods, and reach of homegrown terrorism in the United States. However, this was the first publication using ECDB data with a focus on gender. 

What else are you working on these days? 

I have been continuing my research on gender, politics, religion, and deviance. I have a forthcoming article on the study of “Irreligiosity as Social Deviance in a Majority Muslim Context” for the journal Deviant Behavior which again analyzes the influence of gender and ideology on crime and social deviance.

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Dr. Alessandra L. González is a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in Sociology from Baylor University and received a B.A. in Sociology and Policy Studies from Rice University. She is the principal investigator of the Islamic Social Attitudes Survey Project (ISAS), a study in conjunction with Baylor’s Institute for Studies in Religion (ISR) on Islamic religiosity and social attitudes, including attitudes about women’s rights in the Arab Gulf region. Her latest book is Islamic Feminism in Kuwait: The Politics and Paradoxes (Palgrave Macmillan Press).