Terrorist organisations may be increasingly recruiting women, data from the first large-scale research project evaluating the characteristics of women involved in jihadism-inspired terrorism has found, days after the worst terror attack in Sri Lanka.
A woman was part of the nine suicide bombers in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday and intelligence officials say more women posing as devotees were planning to carry our terror attacks on Buddhist temples in the island nation.
A study published on Monday by the North Carolina State University in the US found significant differences between men and women in both their backgrounds and their roles within terrorist groups.
For the study, researchers drew on data from the Western Jihadism Project, based at Brandeis University, which collects data on terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda-inspired organisations.
The researchers conducted comparative analyses of 272 women and 266 men, who were matched to control for variables such as ethnicity, nation of residence and age at radicalisation.
There were significant differences in background for men and women. For example, only 2 per cent of women had a criminal background before radicalisation, compared to 19 per cent of men.
While about 14 per cent of men had no profession in the six months preceding their affiliation with a terrorist group, almost 42 per cent of women were unemployed during the same timeframe, the study found.
"The data also suggests that terrorist organisations may be increasingly recruiting women," says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State and co-author of the paper.
"For example, 34 per cent of the women in our sample were born after 1990, while only 15 per cent of men were born after 1990. Since we were able to control for age at radicalisation, this suggests an increase in women's involvement in terrorist groups," Desmarais said.
The research also highlighted different roles for women in terrorist action.
"Women were less likely than men to be involved in planning or carrying out terrorist attacks," Christine Brugh, lead author of a paper on the work and a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University.
"Only 52 per cent of the women were involved in plots, compared to 76 per cent of men," Brugh said.
"In many ways, the roles of the women in these terrorist groups are consistent with traditional gender norms," Desmarais said.
"The women were more likely to play behind-the-scenes roles aimed at supporting the organisation," Brugh said.
"The fact that these differences are so obvious but that no one had found them before suggests that we are just scratching the surface," Brugh said.
"We need to see what, if anything, sets these people apart from their counterparts in the general population. Are there relevant variables that could inform threat assessments or models of radicalisation?
"It would also be good to see if there are similar patterns in other types of terrorism. Are the differences we found in this study particular to jihadism-inspired groups? In short, there is a lot of work to be done in this field."
The paper, "Gender in the Jihad: Characteristics and Outcomes among Women and Men Involved in Jihadism-Inspired Terrorism," is published in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management.
The paper was co-authored by Joseph Simons-Rudolph, a teaching assistant professor of psychology at NC State; and Samantha Zottola, a Ph.D. student at NC State.