Deep Dive Recap: Counter Terrorism and the Gender Perspective

  • 28 Mar. 2023 -
  • |
  • Last updated: 11 Apr. 2023 08:30

On the 28th March 2023, the NATO International Military Staff Office of the Gender Advisor hosted its tenth Deep Dive Session, this time focused on Counter Terrorism and the Gender Perspective. The session discussed key gender considerations integral to understanding terrorism in order to enhance the effectiveness of counter terrorism measures. The session further highlighted NATO’s role in global counter terrorism efforts and considered further opportunities to integrate the gender perspective into counter ¬terrorism strategies.

Subject matter expertise was provided by Ms Cristina Finch, the Head of the Gender and Security Division at the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF), Ms Marie Paulus from the NATO Counter Terrorism Section of the Emerging Security Challenges Division, and Colonel Daniel Stone, the Former Deputy Director at NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism (COE-DAT).

Ms. Finch opened the Deep Dive session with an explanation of gender and its broader socio-cultural context as an imperative for the effective provision of security. She emphasised the need to account the differing needs of the entire population in order to develop a stable environment for everyone.

In regards to preventing extremism and counter terrorism specifically, Ms. Finch explained that drivers to perpetrate violent extremist acts, the roles performed within terrorist groups, the impacts of violent extremism and terrorism, and state responses to them vary between men, women, boys and girls and across time, region and ideology.

She identified five main reasons to integrate gender in preventing extremism and countering terrorism:

  1. to uphold state obligations with respect to human rights;
  2. to accurately identify potential perpetrators of violent extremism and terrorism;
  3. to identify accurately (potential) victims of violent extremism and terrorism and the type of gender-based or gender-related violence they may endure;
  4. to achieve evidence-based and effective approaches to preventing violent extremism
  5. and to avoid adverse gendered consequences of PVE and CT activities.

Based on Ms. Finch’s recommendations, military actors can be more gender-sensitive and gender-responsive by:

  1. Enabling a safe and secure environment for men and women, in particular allowing for a safe and collaborative working environment.
  2. Incorporating a gender analysis into intelligence gathering and operational planning so that operational impacts on different groups of women, men, girls and boys are adequately considered and negative effects can be mitigated.
  3. Enhancing capacities for the integration of a gender perspective into major military work strands.
  4. Having mission mandates that include central considerations about gender equality.
  5. Striving to improve internal workplace conditions free of gender-related barriers.

Building upon Ms. Finch’s presentation, Ms. Paulus further explained the complex roles of women both within terrorist groups and in countering terrorism. She highlighted the gendered implications of different push and pull factors that drive or exploit actors in terrorism and violent extremism, as well as the influence of women in social networks that can be leveraged and used to identify early warning signs.

Ms. Paulus then explained NATO’s role in terrorism and its work to integrate the gender perspective as required in NATO’s Policy and Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). She outlined how the gender perspective is integrated across NATO’s counter terrorism efforts through:

  1. raising awareness and understanding;
  2. including gender in counter terrorism training and education;
  3. engagement with Partners and other International Organisations;
  4. and integrating gender into counter terrorism policies and programmes.

Ms. Paulus’ presentation demonstrated how NATO has enhanced its mainstreaming of gender, WPS and human security in its counter terrorism efforts over the years and how it continues to explore further opportunities to include the gender perspective in future counter terrorism work from both the civilian and military perspective.

To close off the session, Col Daniel Stone explained why gender matters in counter terrorism from a military perspective and how integrating the gender perspective can improve operational effectiveness. He explained the need to understand the direct linkages of gender to the analysis and response to a terrorist threat. The failure of counter terrorism efforts to recognise the way women radicalise, support and perpetrate violence in extremist groups constitutes a security threat. 

Col Stone discussed how reinforcing particular gender roles and biases can misguide and lead to a miscalculation of counter terrorism efforts. He highlighted three common gendered narratives that often limit the understanding of the role of women in terrorism. The first is how women are viewed as an extension of men with their roles prescribed only to this affiliation, for example, as brides joining for only personal reasons. The second concerns the view of women as nurturers and mothers by nature, therefore not violent and considered unlikely perpetrators of terror. Finally, that women are victims brought into these organisations against their will and without agency. “All three of these assumptions are based on wildly held gender roles for men and women, and they’re wrong” said Col Stone. From the triggers and recruitment pathways to the ability to be resilient and recover following a terror attack, gender plays a factor.

Women are increasingly more visible in active terrorism, compared to in the past. In Europe, 22% of arrestees suspected of terrorism were women in 2018. In the OSCE region, 17% of people leaving the region to be foreign fighters are women. Research shows that armed groups supported by women are more likely to control greater territory and more likely to achieve victory over government forces. Women in armed groups further increase legitimacy as they are an indication of greater community support and enhanced tactical capabilities.

Failing to recognize the roles women occupy leads to insufficient responses to the threat of terrorism. Integrating the gender perspective supports counter-terrorism measures in identifying and countering gendered recruitment strategies. Current measures often dismiss the agency of women, which can also lead to the lack of prosecution against them, which in turn limits access to support, disengagement and deradicalisation programs.

In addition to the lack of awareness of women’s role in terrorism, there is also a gap in recognising their essential roles in countering and preventing terrorism as predictors, preventers and security actors. Col Stone discussed the need to involve women, emphasising how diversity produces better policies and outcomes. He highlighted the correlation between the increase of women in public life and decreasing levels of corruption and how, conversely, societies that exclude women are more likely to institutionalise violence more and are less likely to negotiate.

The role of women in terrorism and counter terrorism is complex and needs to be considered beyond the binary between victim and perpetrator. As active agents of terrorism, women can exploit existing gender norms and bias in order to offer a strategic advantage to their groups. Armed groups that have successfully integrated women are viewed with more legitimacy and thus counter terrorism efforts must focus on the prevention of violent extremism, including women. Finally, if women are left out of the prosecution process due to gender based assumptions, they may not be able to access deradicalisation programmes and raise the next generation of terrorists. Analysing and incorporating gender-specific vulnerabilities adapted to situational context enables NATO and its Partners to better prepare and respond to the challenges and threat that terrorism poses, including the push and pull factors that drive women towards extremist groups.