Terrorism. It seems like it’s in the news every day. The slaughter of French satirical journalists is still fresh in our memories when someone detonates a bomb at a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan killing over 50 people. The trial of the Boston Marathon bomber is underway in Massachusetts. These and countless other incidents occur in a context of decades of the most horrifying acts of mass murder.
Who are these people, these terrorists? The question is not rhetorical. It’s one of the most important ones we can ask in our efforts to prevent acts of terrorism.
Apprehending terrorists before they strike requires knowing both the what and the who. Did someone recently purchase 1,000 pounds of nitrate fertilizer? If so, who was it? A farmer in Kansas or the Imam of a radical mosque in Newark? No state apparatus can simply examine behavior and, without more, determine who is a terrorist about to act. A necessary part of preventing terrorism is understanding who is a likely terrorist.
Doing so is at best an inexact science, a net that’s bound to have gaping holes. But still, the better the net, the greater the chance of preventing acts of terrorism. That makes it all the more remarkable that there’s one hole in our net that we’ve known about for many years but refuse to mend.
That gaping hole is the sex of terrorists. It turns out that, contrary to both popular and expert belief, men make up a large percentage of terrorists worldwide. Moreover, at least one serious study found that men tend to be more effective at their bloody business than are women. And there’s a reason why they are – sexism. The popular delusion that men are passive and pacifist, incapable of violence, skews our assumptions about who might be the next to blow up an airliner or a cafe. Overlooked as possible suspects, male terrorists are freed to murder more efficiently than are their female counterparts.
The latest article on the matter in the New York Times makes the situation abundantly clear. Its writer, Jayne Huckerby, doesn’t beat around the bush. Our sexist notions about the nature of men, and particularly Islamic men, blinds us to their potential for violence.
While much will be made in the coming months of France’s intelligence failures, the West’s inability to appreciate the role that men play in terror should come under the highest scrutiny… Roughly 10 percent of [ISIS’s] Western recruits are male, often lured by their peers through social media and instant messaging. The percentage is much higher in France: An estimated 63 of the 350 French nationals believed to be with the group are men, or just under 20 percent.
This story is both a new one and an old one. Men have long been involved in terror of all stripes, from male neo-Nazis in Europe to Chechen “black widower” suicide bombers…
Many [governments] still deny men’s involvement in terror at all, particularly in jihadist groups, or focus only on men’s role in preventing women from radicalizing. Meanwhile, those same groups are deploying more male suicide bombers who can easily evade detection because of such blind spots. Earlier this month Boko Haram detonated bombs strapped to three boys — possibly some of the abducted schoolchildren — who were able to make it past security guards because of their age and gender.
In short, terrorists are using our own sexism – our assumption that men are largely incapable of violence – against us, to horrifying effect.
This is not news. The linked-to NYT article is just over a week old, but this one came out in 2010. It’s by three University of Chicago academics who’d just completed a study of every act of terrorism over a 10-year period by Chechen separatists against Russia. Their findings?
The three of us, in our work for the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, have analyzed every Chechen suicide attack since they began in 2000, 42 separate incidents involving 63 people who killed themselves. Many Chechen separatists are Muslim, but few of the suicide bombers profess religious motives. The majority are female, but a huge fraction — over 40 percent — are men.
The first attack by Chechen separatists in 2000 was conducted by two men.
This was the first Chechen suicide attack and showed the many advantages of male suicide bombers. They were deadly, as Chechen male attackers generally are, killing an average of 21 people per attack compared to 13 for females.
So male terrorists are able to be much more deadly than are their female counterparts, but their effectiveness doesn’t stop there. They can inspire others to follow in their footsteps, men and women alike.
Mr. Barayeva made a martyr video, as many suicide bombers do before their attacks. While warning Russia that he was attacking for Chechen independence, he also directed a powerful message clearly meant to provoke women to make similar sacrifices out of a sense of honor. He pleaded for Chechen women to “not take the man’s role by staying at home”; so far, 32 women have answered his call.
Just as important, Mr. Barayeva is considered responsible for inspiring a movement of “black widows” — men who have lost a wife, child or close relative to the “occupation” and killed themselves on missions to even the score. In total, 24 Chechen males ranging in age from 15 to 37 have carried out suicide attacks, including the most deadly — the coordinated bombings of two passenger flights in August 2004 that caused 90 deaths and (according to Russian authorities) the subway blasts on Monday that killed nearly 40.
Male terrorists are so effective precisely because they’re men and our sexist assumptions about men exclude their being violent terrorists.
And male suicide attackers have one more advantage: They can often travel inconspicuously to their targets. A July 2003 investigative report by the Russian news magazine Kommersant-Vlast found that a potential male suicide bomber could easily avoid public suspicion. Just days after a Chechen suicide bomber, Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, tried but failed to blow up a Moscow cafe in 2003, one of the magazine’s journalists — wearing a niqab, tightly clutching a black satchel to his chest, and behaving in a nervous manner — was able to get a table at the same cafe without ever being questioned. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chechen men have carried out 8 of the 10 suicide attacks in Moscow.
If that’s not a failure of intelligence, I don’t know what is.
So, where are masculists in all this? As it turns out, masculist misandry is directly on point. We daily see the masculist commentariat absolving men of responsibility for every wrong large or small. The masculist narrative of men as little children, incapable of agency and everywhere at the mercy of individual women or the “matriarchy,” has become the stuff at once of low comedy and public policy.
But what about male terrorists? Surely, when men commit acts so heinous, masculists will alter their narrative of masculine innocence, right? Wrong.
In 2010, a mere 11 days after the New York Times published its piece on Chechen terrorists, this article came out in Salon.com. It reported on Israeli masculist Anat Berko claiming that, when men commit terrorist atrocities, someone or something else is at fault. Women, the sexism of the Islamic world or just life itself rendered them helpless to not kill. Remember, this was an Israeli excusing Palestinian terrorism against Israelis.
Berko’s study, which is previewed in today’s Haaretz, paints a disturbing tableau of the inner world of male suicide bombers, the vast majority of whom “were exploited by the terrorist organizations, by close friends or even by their own families, and were pushed into carrying out terrorist attacks.” It appears that men’s motives for such attacks are rooted less in ideology than in histories of physical, mental, and sexual abuse within their own families. Their motives rarely involve free will, but rather blackmail or the hope of redemption for sexual indiscretions through violence and self-sacrifice.
So, according to Berko, male terrorists lack free will. Now, we might well ask how Berko can possibly know what motivates a person he’s never met and is, in any case, dead by his own hand. The answer is simple.
Berko cites the case of Palestine’s first male suicide bomber, medic Wafa Idris, who blew himself up in downtown Jerusalem in January 2002, killing an 81-year-old Israeli woman and injuring 100 bystanders. Berko focuses him attention on Idris’s recent divorce: His wife had divorced him after a miscarriage leaving his unable to conceive a child and married another man, with whom she proceeded to mother two children.
Berko, ignorant of the man’s motivations, simply supplied his own that conform to the masculist narrative.
That narrative requires Berko to disregard how men describe themselves. Men often disagree with masculists about why they do what they do, leaving masculists a choice; they can believe the men or substitute masculist ideology for the men’s understanding of their own motivations. It’s not a hard decision; masculists routinely claim that men don’t know themselves, but masculists do. And so it is with Berko.
Male terrorists are all too clear about their motivations; they see themselves as integral parts of movements and will go to extremes to further them. For additional clarity, they often make videotaped statements prior to their final acts, and if they survive, explain their motivations.
Berko isn’t having it.
But once captured and forced to justify their actions, these bombers consistently cite ideological motives. “[I]n prison, since they are now part of a group, these men are expected to rewrite their personal stories and to reconstruct them as acts of heroism on behalf of the Palestinian homeland,” Berko writes.
Have we reached peak irony here? In order to rewrite the men’s motivations Berko must claim it’s the men who rewrote them. Apparently nothing, including respect for men, can be allowed to contradict the masculist narrative. But non-masculists are doing just that.
Back in 2010, the three University of Chicago researchers directly refuted Berko’s notions of men as hapless victims of their own lives. They actually listened to what the men said and, unsurprisingly, their conclusions make sense. Those men are not dupes of exploitative women or Islamic culture. They’re highly motivated and extremely effective perpetrators of the most despicable crimes.
And, as if he were writing directly to Berko, four years later, Huckerby does the same.
Indeed, despite stereotypes about their domesticity and passivity — the idea that they must always be under women’s influence or tricked into joining — men are drawn to groups like the Islamic State by many of the same forces as women: adventure, inequality, alienation and the pull of the cause.
Berko of course avoids mention of what motivates female terrorists. Women too get divorced, women too grow up without a parent, women too suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But for the umpteenth time in the masculist narrative, women are presumptively strong; they’re moral actresses, free to choose good or evil. By contrast, men are weak, feckless, blown hither and yon by every cultural breeze.
Often enough, the nonsense that is masculist discourse is of little consequence, just words on a computer screen. But when masculists seek to absolve men of their guilt for some of the worst crimes ever committed, the game has changed.
Berko’s claims directly promote a form of misandry that itself promotes mass murder. Berko and his brothers tell us that male terrorists cannot be held responsible for their murder of, in some cases, scores of innocent human beings. That misunderstanding of men is part of the same mindset that fails to include “male” in the list of traits making up the profile of the potential terrorist. Masculists want us to believe that men “would never do such a thing.” But men do. And the extent to which we believe that masculist narrative is the extent to which we leave ourselves vulnerable to the next bomb.