WASHINGTON – Three weeks ago, an imprisoned woman known as "Lady al-Qaida" inspired a hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue. This week, an American woman appeared in court on charges she trained other women in the Islamic State and plotted bomb attacks.
International terrorism charges against women are extremely rare, according to experts, because men tend to dominate the misogynistic groups such as al-Qaida, the lslamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, and related groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. But a dozen cases over the last decade of U.S. citizens or permanent residents revealed women shedding traditional caretaker roles to recruit fellow warriors, train others to use rifles and explosives, and even kill.
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Veteran counter-terrorism officials say that while the latest case against Allison Fluke-Ekren, a former teacher from Kansas, is unusual in terms of the senior operational rank she allegedly achieved in ISIS, women have played important roles in the international Islamic jihad movement.
“I think it's startling to the American people because they're like, 'Wait, women do this too?' But they've been doing it all along,” Tracy Walder, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer who served extensively in the Middle East, told USA TODAY.
Fluke-Ekren, 42, is accused of plotting U.S. bomb attacks at a college or a shopping mall, and allegedly training a female ISIS battalion in Syria how to use AK-47 rifles, grenades and suicide belts, according to court records. Her first court appearance was Monday and she has a detention hearing scheduled Thursday.
“What is unique with this case is the allegation that she was the leader of her own brigade. Especially for someone coming from the west, this is exceptionally rare,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism expert at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, and associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.
Besides Americans joining the fight, the ranks of women in ISIS could grow because Syria detained thousands of women and children who could become recruits for the Islamic terror groups, experts say.
“Fluke-Ekren and other women were able to assume roles in combat units and provide ideas for attacks abroad, which made them different since women in al-Qaida and its associated groups had more traditional family responsibilities,” Javed Ali, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official at the FBI and Defense Department and at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, told USA TODAY.
The Islamic State's power and influence peaked in 2015 with between 20,000 and 32,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. But Ali and other current and former U.S. counter-terrorism officials fear it is rebuilding – and once again training its sights on American targets.
Fluke-Ekren rose in stature with ISIS while her former husbands were killed, according to court records. One late husband was a sniper trainer for the group, another husband specialized in drones before his death and a third husband was responsible for defending Raqqa, where ISIS was headquartered, according to court records. Her lawyer, Joseph King, declined to comment.
Walder, author of the 2020 book "The Unexpected Spy," said in as male-dominated an environment as ISIS, Fluke-Ekren would likely have been helped immeasurably by those alleged marriages to a number of prominent and influential male leaders – especially ones who died fighting and became martyrs for the cause.
“As a female, I'm sure that it wasn’t, ‘Let’s all bow down to her,’ ” Walder said of the men in ISIS. “However, I think she was respected enough to give her the position that she had," if the accusations listed in the charges against Fluke-Ekren are true.
Brian Levin, a former New York police officer who monitors extremist groups, said having an American woman as a member of such an international Islamic terrorist organization is considered highly advantageous because they are familiar with the United States and engender less suspicion.
“Not only was she radicalized from the heartland and traveled overseas for one, but she actually participated in an all-female fighting force,” said Levin, a professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University–San Bernardino. “While there is debate in some extremist circles about the role of women and Americans, in some organizations they are highly prized because they are not the 'stereotypical' terrorist.'”
Other American women have been charged with recruiting and fundraising for ISIS
Women contributing to Islamic terrorist causes are rare, but not unique.
The FBI estimated that 300 people left the U.S. to try and join jihadists in Iraq and Syria since 2011, according to a 2018 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Of the 64 the report studied in detail, 89 percent were men, the report said.
Many of the women implicated in terrorism became involved with their husbands, just as Fluke-Ekren's husbands were also active in ISIS.
An Alabama woman, Arwa Muthana, was arrested with her husband, James Bradley, in April 2021 and charged with trying to support the Islamic State when they tried to travel to the Middle East aboard a cargo ship leaving from Newark, New Jersey. They have pleaded not guilty.
Jaelyn Delshaun Young of Starkville, Mississippi, and her husband, Muhammad Oda Dakhalla, pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiring to support ISIS as Mississippi State University students who sought to travel to Syria.
Participants in terrorist groups – including some women – have brought the fight to America. A Pakistani-born permanent resident of the U.S., Tashfeen Malik, and her husband killed 14 people and injured another 22 at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015. The FBI investigated it as a terrorist incident, saying the couple was radicalized by foreign terrorist organizations.
Some American women have admitted recruiting others for violent attacks or raising money for the Islamic State.
A Wisconsin woman, Waheba Issa Dais, pleaded guilty in 2019 to attempting to support the Islamic State through Facebook accounts encouraging people to conduct attacks and distributing information about how to make explosives and biological weapons.
A New York woman, Zoobia Shahnaz, pleaded guilty in 2018 to supporting the Islamic State by raising more than $150,000 in wire transfers to Pakistan, China and Turkey.
A Georgia woman, Kim Anh Vo, pleaded guilty in June 2019 to conspiring to support the online group United Cyber Caliphate, which distributed propaganda online and posted lists of thousands of people targeted for killing in the New York City area.
Role of women in jihadist movements is a topic of debate
Terrorism scholars have long debated the role of women in jihadist movements, whether in raising families or joining the fight.
“There has always been contradictory information coming from their own propaganda, sometimes arguing that their role is primarily domestic and other times arguing that combat roles may be required,” said Amarasingam from Queen’s University.
Before Fluke-Ekren, there was Aafia Siddiqui, commonly known as “Lady al-Qaida.” Siddiqui was detained in July 2008 by Afghan authorities, who found handwritten notes in her possession about a “mass casualty attack” listing locations such as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.
As U.S. troops tried to interview her in Ghazni, Afghanistan, she grabbed an Army officer’s M-4 rifle and fired it at others while vowing to kill Americans. Siddiqui learned how to use firearms as a student in Boston, according to evidence at her trial.
She is serving an 86 year prison sentence at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, after being convicted in 2010 of attempting to murder U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Last month, a British national, Malik Faisal Akram, took hostages at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue near Dallas, demanding Siddiqui's release before authorities shot him to death.
Women are not new to the broader Islamist cause either. Before Siddiqui, there were the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan insurgent group that pioneered the use of female suicide bombers in the 1970s as it rose to become what the FBI would later describe as the “most dangerous and deadly extremist outfit in the world.”
And before the Tamil Tigers, there was Leila Khaled, the longtime active leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A former Palestinian refugee, Khaled rose to fame for becoming the first female airplane hijacker, first as part of the team terrorizing TWA Flight 840 from Rome to Tel Aviv in 1969 and another flight headed from Amsterdam to New York City a year later.
In recent decades, al-Qaida has also trained and equipped women to become terrorists, including the notorious Chechen squad known as the “Black Widows.”
From 2000 to 2006, female terrorists were involved in 22 of the 27 suicide attacks attributed to Chechen rebels, one of many militant groups around the world that are allied with al-Qaida, according to Anne Speckhard, the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
The Black Widows included the first Chechen female suicide bombers, Khava Barayeva and Luisa Magomadova, who detonated a truck filled with explosives June 7, 2000, at the temporary headquarters of an elite Russian Special Forces unit, Speckhard said.
Speckhard, who has worked with U.S., NATO and United Nations counter-terrorism agencies, has personally interviewed at least 273 ISIS members, mostly in Iraq and Syria. About one-quarter of the subjects were women and each interview lasted at least two hours, she said.
She said that even among international terrorist organizations, ISIS has been particularly brutal in its treatment of women. Many have been subjected to sex trafficking and human slavery, and suffered harsh physical punishments for violating strict Islamist rules restricting their personal freedom and education.
But ISIS warmed to the idea of using female terrorist operatives in circumstances where they could be more successful than males, such as hiding bombs under their loose clothing while passing through checkpoints. But women still served their husbands first, and the other males of ISIS second, she said.
Speckhard voiced skepticism about the charge that Fluke-Ekrent trained a battalion of female ISIS fighters.
“They were not training all the women. There's no way. I have 273 in-depth ISIS interviews, and I've never heard that. Ever," Speckhard said. "I heard from one Albanian in Kosovo that said, 'I trained my wife to shoot so that when we left them alone to go and fight in the ISIS battles, that if they got attacked they could pick up a weapon and shoot.' But that was it."
Experts say ISIS is extremely misogynistic and chauvinistic toward women, and would never allow a woman to ascend to any position of authority in the overall organization.
But the terror network did use women to train other women and children in how to use weapons and suicide bomb techniques, they said. And ISIS also allowed women to join its brutal morality police known by various names, including hisbah or the Khansa Brigades.
“As a woman, she wouldn't have been allowed to have authority over men, which basically rules out most of what matters in ISIS,” said Peter Neumann, professor of Security Studies at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
“She might, however, have been a significant player in the Khansa Brigades, whereby women were policing women's behavior,” said Neumann, author or of seven books on terrorism, including “Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West.”
The morality police -- men and women alike -- would patrol the ISIS stronghold of Raqaa toting Kalashnikov automatic rifles, and would enforce a dress code that required women to cover every inch of their bodies in black, including their hands, feet and eyes.
“If you got on the wrong side of the hisbah, you got hauled into prison. And if you were a woman, you were undressed, and flogged, or they bit you with metal teeth," Speckhard said. "I've seen pictures of scars and had it described to me and some women were bitten so badly that they bled to death."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Allison Fluke-Ekren: Women charged with helping terror groups rare