Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Yemen and the "packages of death": Women's changing role in extremist organizations.

Although one woman's name has been cleared, we must be vigilant about the changing role of women in extremist organizations. Fahmia Al-Fotih gives us a unique insight into Yemeni reactions to the package bombs and analyzes why extremist organizations target women to play key roles in promoting their ideologies.

 Photo: AFP/GETTY via www.telegraph.co.uk. Female students protest the arrest of Hanan Al-Samawi

It has been a year since the founding of the SAVE Yemen chapter and I was hoping to celebrate the 1st anniversary of SAVE Yemen differently. 

But again, Yemen has been grabbing the international media headlines because of 'infamous' terrorist activities.
Last week’s package bombs mark the first incident of its kind in Yemen, as it involves a woman, a young 22-year old student. The computer science student, Hanan AL-Samawi, had never thought that she would be a suspect of terrorism. Neither did her family or her friends.

Despite the fact that the name of the student has been cleared, the incident has increased fears that AL Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) might have penetrated the university system. At the same time, Yemeni people and human rights activists expressed their fear that counterterrorism measures might be accompanied by violations of human rights.

The students at Sana'a University demonstrated in support of their colleague who, along with her sick mother, was detained by security (female soldiers of the Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit. For more on this Unit, follow this link http://ht.ly/36tSy).  However, there are some who say that the girl was arrested and investigated by governmental and national bodies.

The 'packages of death' were a shock for everyone, but the shock was even bigger for Yemenis. The involvement of a woman in such an incident was highly provocative in a very conservative society where the names of women are not usually revealed in public, let alone mentioned in connection with such a heinous crime and across the international media.   

More importantly, the incident has raised questions about the possibility of recruiting women within AL Qaeda in Yemen, along a similar vein to Iraq's female suicide bombers or Chechnya’s Black Widows. Many have started to wonder if the time has come for us to start hearing about AL Qaeda’s women.

When Hanan's name was cleared, many speculated a man disguised in women’s clothes might have sent the bomb packages using the personal information of the university student. Others say it might have been a woman seeking revenge (perhaps whose husband was killed by local or foreign security). 

Analysts believe that recruiting women into AL Qaeda in Yemen is contradictory to the religious and ideological beliefs of the organization. AL Qaeda believes in women’s traditional role centered on the family and house, and forbids male-female interaction. However, the call by AL Qaeda’s leaders in Iraq for women to take part in suicide bombing operations marks a turning point in the organization's ideologies and beliefs. The calls for women to join the Jihad are continuing. Some people ironically commented that 'there are some vacancies now within the AL Qaeda organization'.

Terrorists are aware that they are targets and thus their mobility becomes restricted by the need to stay undercover. From this stems the need to use women in the implementation of terrorist operations. In conservative societies, women are less suspicious than men.

Women have played - and still play - an essential role within the organization through logistical support (shelter and food for instance), preaching and spreading AL Qaeda ideologies.

Nowadays, the role of women has surpassed the 'traditional' role and goes beyond the provision of food and shelter. Undeniably, women play a vital role in promoting extremist and terrorist ideologies among community members and mobilizing and allocating money and human resources.

More surprisingly, in recent years, we have started to hear about the key role of women in electronic media in this regard. Alarmingly, a study has revealed that 40% of websites that promote extremist ideologies or who sympathize with AL-Qaeda are run by young women who are between 18-25 years old. The most well-known of those women is Saudi-born Om Osama who, along with her tech-savvy female staff, was running a magazine until she was arrested.  Of course, there are blogs, chat rooms and forums through which recruitment for AL Qaeda is taking place.

Again, a woman to become a suspect in a terrorist act is a new phenomenon in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, however, has already seen three high-profile cases of women becoming involved in terrorist acts and having links with AL Qaeda. The Saudi authorities have captured two of these women (Heela AL-Qaseer and Om Osama). The third - Wafa'a AL-Shahri – escaped from Saudi Arabia to join her husband in AL Qaeda in Yemen.

Yet, the positive thing, I think, is that people have seriously started to question the role of women in fighting terrorism and challenging extremism, which in turn will strengthen the position of SAVE and its mission.
Seeing these events, it is difficult to be anything but pessimistic, but I have faith that there is a hope or miracle out there to save Yemen. That hope or miracle stems from Yemen’s peaceful people, particularly its women.

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