The Glass Ceiling for Female Terrorists

Can women lead an Islamist terror group?

Emergency workers carry the body of a victim of a terrorist attack out of a metro station

Two female suicide bombers struck the Moscow subway system Monday morning, killing at least 35 people. Several Islamist terror groups have used female operatives in recent years, including al-Qa i da in Iraq, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, but you rarely see women holding management positions in terrorist groups. Is there a glass ceiling for female Islamist terrorists?

Probably. Women do not hold leadership positions in any of the major Islamic terrorist organizations. When Ayman al-Zawahiri was asked about the highest rank held in al-Qaida by a woman, he replied that there are no women in the group, but the domestic service of a jihadist’s wife is heroic. Women may even be second-class citizens in the suicide-bomber set. Interviews with failed female attackers suggest that many were sent into the field with little training, and their male bosses sometimes didn’t even tell them where to go or when to detonate. Women are also rarely trained for battle. But there are jihadist jobs for women beyond mother and wife. Many are involved in recruiting and indoctrination—Noralwizah Lee Abdullah, the wife of Indonesian terror chief Hambali, became active in this field when her husband went into exile. Women also appear to have written for al Khansa, the now-defunct al-Qaida Web magazine for women, although some believe the writers pulled a reverse George Eliot.

Aspiring female terrorist leaders have reason to feel aggrieved. Algerian separatists employed burqa-clad female fighters against the French in the 1950s but excluded them from leadership positions after winning independence. Leaders of the Kurdish PKK and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers told female suicide bombers that their sacrifices would pave the way for other women to advance within the organizations, but their promises went unfulfilled.

Women in the al-Qaida family are frequently used as marriage fodder. Many top terrorists marry their daughters off to colleagues abroad as a way to strengthen ties between regional or international terrorists organizations, just as old-school European monarchs once did. Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar appear to be married to each other s daughters. Indonesian terrorist Haris Fadhilah gave his daughter to Omar al-Faruq, a major al-Qaida operative. These arranged marriages are thought to enhance collaboration and communication among terrorist groups, but there’s little indication that the women wield any real power. (Many female Chechen fighters gained their status through marriage, as well. The Black Widows are a group of bombers who try to complete the missions begun by their martyred husbands, fathers, or brothers.)

There are a handful of role models for women looking to climb terrorism’s corporate ladder, but they operated in a different era. Palestinian fighter and terrorist pin-up Laila Khaled planned and executed a plane hijacking in 1969. She captured the word’s attention with her brashness, making the pilot fly over Haifa—the birthplace from which she had been exiled—and demanding that air traffic control refer to the plane as ” Popular Front Free Arab Palestine rather than TWA 840. But Khaled belonged to the Marxist-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and she didn’t have to struggle with a patriarchal Islamic hierarchy to become one of the most famous terrorists of the 20th century. Zaynab al-Ghazali (PDF) wielded tremendous authority in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood when President Gamal Abdel Nasser imprisoned most of its male leaders in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

Hard-charging female terrorists had their heyday in 1970s Germany. Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Esslin of the leftist Red Army Faction terrorized Germany with robberies, bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. During the same period, the anti-sexist terrorist group Red Zora, composed exclusively of women, made headlines by destroying sex shops and bombing doctors’ offices to protest Germany’s strict abortion laws.

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Explainer thanks Paula Broadwell of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Martha Crenshaw of Stanford University, Caron Gentry of Abilene Christian University, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution.

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