Elisabeth Braw wrote this story for and the Huffington Post.
Islamist terrorists: hostile to women? Wrong. These days they actively recruit women, often over the internet.
"Sister, do you fear the horror of death? Don't you wish for such an end - an easy transition from this world to paradise?" asks a woman on the online forum al-Hesbah. Four years ago, the internet was male territory. Today there are scores of sites, online forums and chatrooms targeted to women. Some are virtual support groups, while others provide terrorist training. (Websites are often sabotaged or taken off the air -- al-Hesbah is currently down -- but new ones quickly replace them.) "The internet offers women an opportunity to gather and inform themselves, since in many countries they can't congregate freely", notes Dr. James Forest, Director of Terrorism Studies at the US Military Academy.
The trend started in 2004 with a women's issue of the Al-Qaeda online magazine Sawt al-Jihad. (Color: pink) "Terrorist groups watch each other, so if something works for one group the others will use it", says Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a communications professor at the University of Haifa and American University in Washington, DC. "They target women both to encourage them to let their husbands and sons join the jihad, and to recruit women themselves as fighters." Last year Sheikh Mustafa Abu Yazid, al-Qaeda's leader in Afghanistan, posted an appeal on the website al-Ekhlaas, calling on women to join the holy war.
Perhaps the most fervent recruiter is Malika el-Aroud, a 49-year-old Belgian woman. For the past four years el-Aroud, whose husband is said to be an al-Qaeda fighter, has written thousands of online posts encouraging men and women to join the jihad. In 2007 she was convicted of supporting Islamist organizations via the internet. (Over a thousand of el-Aroud's messages, in French, are available here: http://www.minbar-sos.com/forum/search.php?searchid=31511)
Using women as fighters is savvy, says Weimann: they seem more innocent than men, can easily hide weapons in their clothing, and are rarely subjected to body searches. "But women are recruited as foot soldiers, not leaders", explains Forest. "There's a hard ceiling in the terrorist world."
In 2004 Reem al-Riyashi, a 21-year-old Gaza mother of two [see photo] blew herself up at an Israeli border crossing. Al-Riyashi was one of Hamas' very first female suicide bombers. While her family condemned the attack, Hamas has featured al-Riyashi's daughter in a video glorifying the attack. "My love will not be [merely] words. I am following Mommy in her steps", her daughter sings.
There will be even more al-Riyashis. In February Iraqi authorities arrested a woman suspected of recruiting other women for suicide operations. Several days later, a woman killed at least 35 people in a suicide attack near Baghdad. Such news generate excitement in the online sisterhood. Female terrorists frighten the infidels, notes a poster who calls herself Ummu Muhammad in a recent post with an IJU banner on a Turkish jihadist forum.
But preventing terrorists' online recruitment is virtually impossible. "You can shut down a website, but 30 minutes later it will be re-launched in another country", says Forest. "The long-term strategy should be to tackle the grievances that give terrorists fertile ground for recruitment."