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Dr. Joana Cook explores the roles of women in the War on Terror

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Dr. Joana Cook who is an Assistant Professor of Terrorism and Political Violence in the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University in the Netherlands. 

Dr. Cook’s focuses on women and gender in violent extremism, countering violent extremism, and counterterrorism practices. Her 2019 book, A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism since 9/11, has received considerable praise for its insights and analysis. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: I’m honoured to speak with Dr. Cook about her book as well as her broader research into the various roles that women have played in terrorism and counterterrorism efforts over the past 20 years. Thanks for joining us, Joana. 

JOANA COOK: Thanks for having me. 

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a scene-setting question. There’s been a lot of commentary and analysis on counterterrorism post-9/11. But, to my knowledge, you’re one of the few scholars who has investigated these questions through the lens of gender. What led you to ask the question about the intersection between post-9/11 counterterrorism and the role of women?

JOANA COOK: I think it’s a great question. What you would tend to generally find in the field of security—and while this is changing a little bit—the general rule has been that both the roles of women and gender dynamics, more generally, have tended to be neglected. So, whether you’re looking at defence, policing, and so forth, those questions around the roles of women and gender have really only started to get a lot more salience or traction, I would argue, in the last couple of decades, and particularly since 9/11. 

For me, then, the interesting question becomes, “What roles have women had? How or why are they changing? How are people discussing the roles of women in relation to this?” And with all of the coverage of counterterrorism and the responses of the U.S. and other actors since 9/11, I really wanted to investigate what roles women had in these developments and how this has shaped international policies and practices around counterterrorism for two decades now. 

Women in counterterrorism

SEAN SPEER: One particular role that women have played is in the development of policy and the execution of counterterrorism operations. That’s hardly the only lens through which you carry out your analysis but it’s obviously an important one. In overall terms, what role have women played in protecting the U.S. homeland in the aftermath of 9/11?

JOANA COOK: When we talk about counterterrorism, it’s important to define what I mean by that. If you look at how the U.S. has talked about counterterrorism for the last 20 years, it’s talking about an all-of-government approach, or an all-of-society approach. So, really looking at how multiple actors and institutions work together and contribute in some way to countering terrorism. I think a lot of folks still think about counterterrorism in terms of policing and military roles, which of course play a key role. But when I look at it, I also consider things like diplomatic initiatives, and aid and development initiatives, that have some kind of nexus or focus on countering extremism. For example, when initiatives focus on things like human rights or women’s rights as a means to counter extremism in society, where the end goal would obviously be to reduce extremism and thus terrorism in that society as well, this becomes relevant. 

So, when we’re talking about counterterrorism, I take a very broad view to it—in effect any of these programs or policies under the government that really had some role or contribution as part of an overall approach to countering terrorism. That’s the first thing. 

When we look at the roles that women contributed to these broad efforts, they were absolutely expansive. The most visible ones for a lot of folks would be the roles that women took in the military. In the U.S., if you look at the Department of Defense, for example, there were a lot of really unique programs that came up along the way that focused exclusively on all-female units. For example, starting in Iraq, there was Team Lioness, and this was initiated because, at checkpoints, you would have populations going through those checkpoints, but you wouldn’t have women present there, so women were able to go through these checkpoints without any kind of searches. Thus, you would see insurgent actors starting to utilize women to transport goods across these checkpoints. When this was recognized as a problem, the idea was to set up Team Lioness so you could actually have that capability to search women at checkpoints. 

You saw a number of other all-female units or units which included women in new ways to do similar roles—for example, we saw in Afghanistan Female Engagement Teams, which, as part of the counterinsurgency initiatives over there, were meant to work with and speak with women in Afghan communities. They were trying to get a sense of what their concerns were, getting information from that “other half of the population” and seeing how they could support women in those communities as well. Cultural support teams are something similar, but in mixed-gender units, they would work alongside men as well. But they were driven by this idea that if you wanted to engage women in those communities—in some cases, you needed to search them at checkpoints if you needed to speak with them in interviews, if you were searching a house where women were present, or if there were sensitive subjects that you needed to speak with them about—it was generally more culturally appropriate to do that with female soldiers. 

They had to come up with how that could function on the ground, and subsequently, as they started training up local forces, a lot of these responsibilities got handed over to local women. You would have different programs set up in places like Iraq, called The Daughters of Iraq program, where Iraqi women would be trained and set up to carry out these duties themselves. The same thing happened in Afghanistan, with women in the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army. That’s a very brief overview of the Department of Defense, but, as I said, there were many big roles or many big agencies that had a role in this campaign. 

You look at the Department of State, for example. There was a lot of effort on empowering women and bolstering women’s rights around the world, with the idea that not only would this help lead to more democratic and stable societies, but you could also then support women to counter extremism in their own communities. This was something that was emphasized a lot with things like women’s training for political empowerment, or women’s training in different professions as well. But again, a lot of these programs, for different reasons, would often frame them in terms of how those programs helped counter extremism in those countries. 

Finally, looking at USAID, which focused on aid and development, historically there had not really been any significant link to countering violent extremism or countering terrorism. In fact, it’s been generally viewed very much outside of that space. But what we saw was that, because there was an increasing amount of activity happening in places where this aid needed to be delivered, where it was most needed like Afghanistan, for instance, a lot of those programs and actors had to start thinking about actually, “How do you deliver aid, and how do you deliver on humanitarian programming in these increasingly complex circumstances, where terrorism and extremism are active issues?”

The way that some of this programming was framed was that by addressing things like education, humanitarian aid, health care, or other general aid and development work, much of which did focus on women, you could then also counter extremism in those communities by reducing grievances. Or you would create more incentives to avoid people joining insurgencies, or being drawn into a violent extremist group. So, a lot of aid and humanitarian work also began working on what’s called preventing and countering violent extremism, or PCVE. 

Those are the three fields where I focused on in the book. Those three fields—defense, diplomacy, and aid—were the most active with women taking up new or unique roles, or being the targets or focus of programming that had a specific nexus to countering extremism and terrorism. 

Let me make a final point here. I think when we talk about this work as well, we’ve often overlooked the role that local women have already played in countering extremism, or providing security, or contributing to security in their own communities. And so, part of the book was also trying to highlight again some of the roles that women had already taken within their own communities to try and address some of these concerns.

The shifting war on terror

SEAN SPEER: As you were speaking, one thing I was thinking about, Joana, was the shift in the rhetoric and messaging about the war on terrorism in general and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular. If you look at President George W. Bush’s speeches immediately following 9/11, it was primarily about responding to the terrorist acts. It was hawkish and belligerent. Then if you look at his 2004 inauguration speech, it was about the flowering of liberal democracy, including strengthening the rights of women and other groups within these societies. 

How much planning and effort went into specifically targeting the conditions and opportunities for women and girls as part of the overall goal of establishing more stable societies in Afghanistan and Iraq? How much of that rhetoric that we saw from the Bush administration in Washington, and the Blair government in the U.K., was more about political messaging to justify the overall counterterrorism agenda?

JOANA COOK: You’re very right in pointing that out. Well firstly, there was a shift in the focus over the last 20 years. The initial mission after 9/11 was something very, very different than what we saw as late as this year. The initial mission in Afghanistan was meant to be something very specific, very targeted, and very limited, and we saw this really evolve and expand into full-blown democracy and state-building projects. Which was really complex and, as we see today, has created many problems for how this campaign has unfolded. Women’s issues were not initially part of this mission, but increasingly become folded into the global war on terror as it carried on.

We also saw gendered language about the suffering or the status of women used to justify some of those initiatives. For example, looking at the plights of Afghan women, and using that status of these women to justify conducting a counterterrorism program. So in this case, women’s plights were being instrumentalized to justify counterterrorism actions.

When we talk about discourse and practice, or the language in these policies and what actually unfolded on the ground, there’s often a gap. So, you’ll see a lot of grand political statements that focus on things like the importance of women’s rights and so forth, but how that actually translates into the policies developed and the practices on the ground was something very different. Afghanistan in particular had a lot of focus over the years on improving the status of women. To give you an example of this, if you look at the U.S. between 2003 and 2010, work that focused on the needs of Afghan women and girls was about $627 million that was appropriated. So, these aren’t insignificant amounts of money. 

One area in which there were interesting efforts was to make women active members of different security forces in Afghanistan. So, by about 2016, we’d seen about 3,945 women in the Afghan Forces including the Afghan National Police, the Afghan Air Force, and Special Security Forces. I think, most importantly, we saw 78,000 women in government positions: 8,000 of which held office in 2017. 

So, women in Afghanistan did in fact make significant advances, even if they held roles that really faced a lot of limitations along the way as well. But it’s incorrect to say that they did not make significant advancements over these last twenty years. However, we have seen these rolled back almost completely overnight by the Taliban. So we need to ask, when the U.S. made the decision to withdraw, what significance did women’s status in the country have then? These actions speak to how the U.S. really prioritized (or not) this consideration. 

SEAN SPEER: A follow-up to that question: part of your analysis both in this book and some of your other research has focused on political arguments and messaging and how different concepts or ideas resonate (or don’t resonate) with different populations. Is it your view that messages about female oppression and creating opportunities for women tend to resonate with Western populations? Is that a galvanizing idea for foreign policymaking in countries like Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, where we saw, over the course of the 20-year period covered in the book, politicians come to lean on those types of arguments more and more as the distance from 9/11 grew?

JOANA COOK: I struggle to think of anybody that I interviewed along the way, or any document I saw, that suggested that it was not a good thing to empower women in these areas and that it was not a good thing to ensure women had equal rights and were participating in all of these spheres of public life. So, at no point do I think that was not a galvanizing or desirable outcome.

However, the caveat here is that when we look at the last 20 years, the priority was really a very heavily militarized and heavily securitized counterterrorism agenda. If you’re looking towards Washington to receive your funding from programs that focused on things like women’s empowerment and women’s rights, you increasingly saw that a lot of these programs actually had to shape them or justify them in terms of how they contributed to countering extremism, or how they contributed to countering terrorism in a country. This was opposed to recognizing the value to society more generally, and the stabilizing features or broader societal gains that came from the contributions of women, or women having more or equal rights or being more empowered in societies. 

So, a lot of this rhetoric we saw addressing issues around female oppression was linked very much to security in this period, and very problematically so. Some of the consequences that could come from that, for example, is if your program was focusing on empowering women and this became framed as a counter-extremism program, those women themselves could become targets of extremists in their community. If you foresaw the level of risk going down in that society, would the funding to support programming around women’s rights and development programs that focused on women, dry up because the security risk was seen to be reduced? So, there were a lot of complications that came around how that concept of female oppression was both utilized and addressed over these years.

Women as policymakers

SEAN SPEER: I think back to the congressional vote to authorize force in Iraq. If I recall correctly, there were only one or two dissenters in Congress. The vast majority, including male and female representatives, voted in favour. At different times some of the most hawkish proponents were in fact female politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Do you think that female politicians in Western countries face pressure to be more hawkish on defense and security issues to address gendered stereotypes including a conscious or subconscious perception that women are weaker than men?

JOANA COOK: I think anything that starts with looking at one subject and saying women will generally think about the topic like this or approach it in very distinct ways based on their gender, that becomes a very complex point.  Because, in some cases, that is absolutely correct, and in others, it’s absolutely incorrect. 

The way in which persons of different genders in society perceive security and the means best suited to address security concerns in society can differ depending on their background, their identity, and some of the different features in their lives. Again, your gender might influence your decision. 

I certainly do think that, because the security space has generally neglected or been an unwelcoming place generally for women, women, in some cases, may feel that sense that they might have to take a position that is perceived to be perhaps a little bit more hawkish or more severe than they would otherwise, simply to prove that they should be at the table. That’s certainly not in all cases, but I can imagine that to some extent, and depending on each case, those gender stereotypes around women’s roles in security would certainly influence how some women may act in developing policies or voting on security measures, for example.

Women who join terrorist organizations

SEAN SPEER: One final question, Dr. Cook. One group of women that the book and your broader research target is women who are drawn to these terrorist movements and organizations. There’s been a lot of high-profile cases of Canadian women, or women from other Western countries who are actually going to Iraq or Syria to join movements like ISIS. What motivates these women and what are their roles and experiences like in these places?

JOANA COOK: I think when you’re talking about counterterrorism, it’s impossible to talk about counterterrorism without talking about the terrorist threat. So, what are those policies and practices actually countering? You need to understand what those terrorist organizations look like, who their members are, who their supporters are, and what actions they’re taking. 

This neglect of women in the security space has very much extended to studies of terrorist organizations themselves. Women’s roles in terrorism have been extensive over the years, but they’ve often been ignored. They’ve been present and active in every single terrorist group in history in diverse roles. But we didn’t really see their participation examined over the last 20 years until we saw foreigners mobilizing in numbers we’ve never seen before and going to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, if I’m looking at the evolution of women’s roles over the last 20 years, you need to start with Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was then an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and the precursor to ISIS. They actually had women go over as foreign fighters there. Muriel Degauque, who was a Belgian, was the first female from Europe to be a suicide bomber with Al Qaeda. 

You saw these stories come up that were never really examined or understood. That meant that as we saw foreigners going over to join ISIS, there wasn’t a focus on why women might be going over and indeed, how many were going over. So, me and my former colleague, Gina Vale, looked at 90 countries around the world, and we figured out that about 16 percent, at a minimum, of these foreigners going over were women. The number is likely much, much higher, which we found out later because half of these countries we looked at didn’t even bother recording the numbers of women going over. We had this case where we saw thousands of women from around the world going to join ISIS, take up roles to be things as simple as stay-at-home mothers to what ISIS perceived as or called the “cubs” of the Caliphate: the children that were forced to be affiliated with this organization. 

We saw women take up roles in health care and education, and indeed, we saw women take up roles in some of the military or the policing units, like the Al-Khansaa Brigade in Iraq and Syria, where they were actually policing other women and enforcing ISIS’s moral code on local women as well, or women who were under the governance of the Islamic State. We saw them deployed as suicide bombers in places like Mosul. And so, the lack of consideration of women meant that we were playing a catch-up game continuously: we weren’t looking at why women were interested in joining Islamic State, why they might feel a sense of purpose there, we didn’t get a full sense of the diverse roles they were taking over there, or how those contributed to the overall success of the group, for example. 

Now, we’re in a place where we still have Canadians who were affiliated with ISIS in northeast Syria, including many women and innocent children that were born to women over there, and we now have to account for things like how do gender dynamics or gendered considerations play into things like the arrests, charges, and trials that these women might become involved in? Because in some cases women aren’t being charged similarly to men. Or what kind of deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration programming should be shaped for these women? Why would these women join in the first place, and maybe more importantly, what motivated many of them to, in fact, leave this group behind or realize that they’ve made a wrong choice?

We didn’t have a full grasp on that, and we’re still playing a bit of a catch-up game. It’s only highlighted to me the absolute importance of considering, more clearly, why women are motivated to join very diverse, violent extremist groups and participate in political violence more generally. What roles do women take in those groups and with what purpose? How do those evolve over time and what might motivate them to leave? How we can support their exit from these groups? These questions are a big part of my ongoing research. 

SEAN SPEER: Well, Dr. Cook, this has been a fascinating conversation. The book of course is A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism Since 9/11. I think, as our readers have heard today, it’s just chock full of fascinating insights that don’t just look backward, but can and must inform policymaking going forward. Thank you so much for joining us today.

JOANA COOK: Thanks a lot, Sean. I appreciate it.