Tag Archives: female terrorists

Sajida al-Rishawi the Woman ISIS Demanded be Released for Slain Jordanian Pilot


In past weeks ISIS has been demanding the release of Sajida al-Rishawi for the release of two Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto who were purportedly beheaded and also for the release of Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh who was captured in December, 2014 after his jet crashed in territory controlled by the militants in Syria.  Muath al-Kasaesbeh is claimed by ISIS to have been brutally set ablaze and killed today.

Sajida al-Rishawi is a hero to the Islamic State and al Baghdadi, although unsuccessful to date in obtaining her release, has made her, his cause. Why?

In 2005 she and her husband, along with others from al Qaeda in Iraq detonated themselves in simultaneous suicide attacks in three separate hotels in Amman, immediately killing sixty victims and injuring another one hundred fifteen, many of them seriously. In one hotel a wedding was taking place and the parents of the bride, as well as many guests were killed. Sajida was the only attacker to live—her suicide vest had malfunctioned.

These attacks, although preceded by other attacks in Jordan, shocked the entire nation leaving many with symptoms of acute and post-traumatic stress disorder. They were the worst suicide attacks in Jordan’s history and particularly poignant in that a wedding party had been struck. The shock was that the targets were purely innocent civilians, unconnected to the government and that the Muslim perpetrators felt justified to kill other Muslims. Jordanian civilians did not understand why al Qaeda in Iraq would target them.

The fact that Zarqawi, then leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had picked top hotels where American servicemen, diplomats, civilians and contractors also stayed on their way into, and out of Iraq, may have been part of that story.

The politics of al Qaeda in Iraq, and now ISIS, have played out in Jordan in an interesting way. When Jordan joined the U.S. led coalition to fight ISIS, many Jordanians were reluctant and thought it’s not our war. However with the taking and now claimed brutal murder of a Jordanian pilot and the invoking of a national traumatic memory in which innocent Jordanians were targeted by Sajida al-Rishawi and her cohorts, Jordanians’ public opinion may shift to more support for fighting ISIS.

Sajida al-Rishawi is now in her mid forties and currently resides as a death-row prisoner in solitary confinement inside a high security prison in Jordan. Rishawi was sentenced to death in 2006 after surviving the attack on the Radisson Hotel in Amman

Sajida as Rishawi is not the first woman that ISIS demanded be released from prison. They previously demanded Aafia Siddiqui, a forty-two year old Pakistani neuroscientist educated in the U.S. who was convicted in 2010 in a Manhattan federal court of trying to kill Americans while she was detained in Afghanistan. American journalist Steven Sotloff was offered in exchange for Siddiqui, but no deal was made.

In both cases, the women are of tremendous propaganda value to ISIS. First, the idea that a Muslim woman, particularly an Iraqi woman one from one of their tribes, would be held in a foreign prison is an anathema to many conservative Muslims. The assumption is that she is being sexually violated. In Iraq, the images of American disgraces at Abu Ghraib are still seared into public memory. Second, to secure either woman’s release demonstrates ISIS as protective to the Iraqi and middle eastern, and really to all Muslim people who side with them.

It could also score Abu Bakr al-Baghdad important loyalties with Iraqi tribes. Sajida is from the powerful Sunni Abu Risha tribe in Iraq’s central Anbar province, an important constituency for ISIS to win favor with. Three of her brothers, one said to be the right hand man of Zarqawi were killed in fighting in Fallujah in 2004.

A cousin of Sajida’s and senior figure from her tribe, Sheikh Mehdi Abdel Sittar Abu Risha, explains that ISIS, “has used this as a political matter to say, ‘We take pride in our people more than you take pride in yours.’”

Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed by a U.S. air strike in 2006 had ordered the attack Sajida took part in and after she was caught, he also vowed to free Sajida. Comparing the rivalry between ISIS and al Qaeda, an Iraqi security official explains, “Whoever fulfills this vow will win the sympathy of all the jihadists loyal to Zarqawi. This will be a point for (Islamic State) against al Qaeda.” Thus if ISIS can secure Sajida’s release they will have one more triumph, including declaring a caliphate last year in land they control in Syria and Iraq, to claim their legitimacy to Muslims and Iraqis vis a vis al Qaeda whose leaders have disavowed ISIS.

Jordan government officials had offered to free Rishawi in return for their pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh although they feared that he may not be alive, as ISIS has not provided proof that he is.  And now it appears that ISIS has lashed out in impotent fury–brutally killing him by setting him ablaze inside a cage.

Female terrorists, like Rishawi can play an important role in terrorists groups—often as suicide operatives—precisely because they are rarely suspected and can more easily hide explosives and pass checkpoints. However, they are rarely leaders in terrorist groups. And while Chechen terrorists and other groups used women frequently, ISIS has made little use of women as operatives or fighters yet. And its predecessor group, al Qaeda in Iraq only resorted to using them in a common pattern to many conservative Muslim terror groups—when check points became so difficult to cross, that using women made sense. Robert Pape reported in 2005 that of 462 suicide terrorist histories he had collected, only twenty percent were women. As time goes on we may see ISIS beginning to use more women as operatives, but for now they are simply championing their cause.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

The Chechen Black Widows—Female Terrorists in al Qaeda and the Tsarnaev Brothers

As Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body awaits a burial place and Dzhokar Tsarnaev a trial for charges of using weapons of mass destruction, the spotlight has temporarily been turned to the elder brother Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell, whose computer has been found to have al Qaeda materials downloaded to it and whose kitchen and bathroom show traces of explosive materials indicating the brothers’ bombs were likely assembled in her home.  Katherine Russell, an all American girl who converted to Islam after falling in love with Tamerlan was married to him in June of 2010 and together they had a small child.

Russell claims that she knew nothing about her husband’s intentions and has, according to FBI informal reports, been working closely with them.  The possibility that Russell could also be a terrorist alongside her husband raises questions for many about the involvement of the female “Black Widows” –suicide operatives in the Chechen terrorist groups that following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, hijacked that republic’s secular independence movement turning it into a Chechen “jihad”.

During the early nineties when the Chechen secular rebel movement was met with a firm Russian response culminating in the first Chechen war of independence, the Chechen freedom fighters looked to the west for support.  Except for westerners decrying human rights violations, the Chechen freedom fighters didn’t find the support they hoped for.  But they did find—between the two wars of independence with Russia—an influx of foreign fighters coming victorious from the Afghan jihad—militants still euphoric over defeating the former USSR.  These foreign fighters were confident that they could declare and win a “jihad” in Chechnya as well.

Most notable among them was Saudi foreign fighter Khattab, who brought the nascent al Qaeda ideology along with the methods of “martyrdom” or suicide missions into the Chechen battle for independence.  He successfully convinced then rebel leader Shamil Basaeyev to change methods.  Khattab and other foreign fighters brought the ideology, themselves as trainers and funneled funds into the “Chechen jihad” changing it completely. And as a result starting in 2000, a long terrorist campaign grew up out of the Chechen rebel movement in which over thirty suicide missions were carried out involving over one hundred and twelve “martyrs” half of whom were women operatives who blew themselves up in subways, on airplanes, at checkpoints and most infamously who took over a Moscow theater of over eight hundred theater goers and the Beslan school, taking over twelve hundred hostages—mostly women and children. 

And what was perhaps most chilling about the Chechen terrorists was that they used women from the start.  The first Chechen suicide bombers were two young women who drove an explosive laden truck into their target.  Half of the hostage takers in Moscow were women dressed in long black Salafi style robes with bomb belts strapped to their waists—they were seen by journalist as women in mourning clothes when in fact they were dressed in conservative Islamic dress common to their extremist groups and they were wrongly dubbed the “Black Widows”. 

All the Chechen suicide bombers that we conducted psychological autopsies on (over half of the total) had lost a family member traumatically to the two wars but the women had lost not only husbands, but brothers and fathers as well—so many were widows, but some were simply traumatically bereaved and seeking revenge.  For Chechens this was the first time that women had been involved in revenge seeking behaviors – a domain in Chechen culture usually reserved only for the men.

As Chechens joined the militant jihadi ideology we found that they were instructed by their Middle Eastern teachers that they should fulfill their life duties before going on suicide missions—by marrying and having children—something that Tamerlan also did.  Likewise women were presented in their world view as useful for childbearing but the best “love” was presented as “brotherly” or homosexual lovemaking and women were presented as needing to be respected, but as unclean.  Basaeyev as well as other terrorist leaders also chose their wives strategically from among various areas and clans so as to guarantee protection when needed from their extended families.

The Chechen case gave us one of the first insights into how women carry out their roles in militant jihadi groups.  Thus far al-Qaeda central has been slow to use women—although two Belgian women were recruited into their ranks and one—a European descent white convert—Muriel Degauque carried out a suicide mission in Iraq.  Al Qaeda in Iraq also began to use female bombers toward the end when males could no longer pass the checkpoints and we have now seen them in Afghanistan as well.  But unlike in Chechnya where women joined the fighters in the forest and were suicide bombers from the beginning, al Qaeda has kept women in the roles of money carriers, instigators—some in Europe even offering themselves as a prize in marriage to potential “martyrs”, as translators of militant jihadi texts into the local languages and in some rare cases even as suicide operatives and trainers.  Women have yet to be fully activated in al Qaeda central. 

And although women joined right from the start in the Chechen case, we did not find them in leadership roles—men still call the shots when it comes to terrorism. Indeed in the Moscow theater hostage taking the women terrorists inside the theater (mercifully) did not detonate their bombs without an order from the men who were outside the theater proper—engaged in battle with Russian Special Forces.  Although the women could have blown the theater and all those held there to bits, had they felt the initiative to act on their own.

With Katherine Russell, we still wait to learn more.  She was a hardworking mother supporting her family—working seventy to eighty hours a week outside her home.  She may have been just like the many Palestinian family members I interviewed who were in complete shock upon learning their son or daughter had blown themselves up—and she may have failed to notice how radicalized and serious her husband had become about his extremist views.  Lack of knowledge and denial of the horrific is often a common attribute among close family members of terrorists.

Her case does however bring up a chilling parallel of the 7-7 London metro bomber, Germaine Lindsay’s widow—Samantha Lewthwaite—who also claimed innocence after her husband’s terrorist act, calling it “abhorrent”. Lewthwaite, also the mother of her “martyred” husband’s two children later turned up in Kenya leading and carrying out terrorist attacks against western targets.  Lewthwaite according to a UK police officer’s comments reported in the Telegraph to have written in her diary that the devoted wife of a mujahid (holy warrior) must realize that her “life in the hereafter promised to be sweeter because of her husband’s “sacrifice” and that a wife must be “discrete”, “obedient” and must understand that her husband’s calling meant that she and her husband would be cut off from their families.

Let’s hope the story of a terrorist’s wife and mother to his child doesn’t follow those same lines in the case of Katherine Russell who in any case must be suffering from a great deal of sadness and loss over her husband’s sudden heinous death.  And let’s hope that al Qaeda continues to be reluctant to use women operatives as time has proven they are the best at passing security checkpoints and lulling us into a false sense of safety. 

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs” In the last decade she interviewed over four hundred terrorists, suicide bombers, terrorist supporters, family members, close associates and hostages. She also conducted psychological autopsies with a Chechen colleague on over half of the 112 Chechen suicide bombers investigating what put them on the terrorist trajectory and what motivated them to explode themselves.