Turkish authorities released this picture of alleged bomber Ahlam Albashir from surveillance camera footage.
And then on Sunday, Nov. 13, she came again, resting for 45 minutes on a bench outside a café. When she stood up and walked away, she left her backpack and a shopping bag behind.
The backpack exploded.
Ahlam Albashir kept walking. She carried a red rose.
The bombing on the Istiklal Caddesi took the lives of six people, including a 9-year-old child, and injured 81 others. The following day, police arrested Albashir, a Syrian national living illegally in Istanbul, at her home. She later confessed to being an intelligence agent for the Kurdish People's Party, or PKK. The group is widely considered a terrorist organization, although in recent years its Syrian wing, the YPG, has partnered with the United States and its allies in the fight against the Islamic State. The PKK has battled Turkey for decades in a quest for Kurdish sovereignty, with terrorist actions that are said to have cost more than 40,000 lives since its founding in 1978.
Since the attack, Turkish authorities have apprehended more than 50 other suspected accomplices, although the PKK and YPG have both denied responsibility. Unconvinced, Turkey has escalated attacks in Syria and called for the United States to cut ties with the YPG.
But whether Albashir was a member of the YPG – or its all-female militia, the YPJ – her actions retrain the spotlight on women in terrorist groups of wildly differing ideologies, and on our ongoing failures to understand their roles, their motivations, or the dangers that they pose. As Europe begins repatriating its ISIS brides – European women who joined the Islamic State and now languish in prisons under YPG guard – recognizing the motivation and recruitment of women and their roles in various terrorist organizations is increasingly critical to the security of the West.
Even more important, are the ways in which the YPJ itself reveals crucial truths about the lives of women in Muslim-ruled countries, and their growing political impact. If terrorism threatens the West, the power of Muslim women in those terror groups may pose a very different kind of threat to much of the Middle East.
The roles of women vary among terror groups, both within and outside of the Muslim world. Jihadist organizations, for instance, by and large keep women in supporting roles, as breeders of a next generation of jihadists and servants of their warrior/martyr husbands. They are to live by sharia and teach their children to do the same, helping to spread the power of Islam and further the goal of a global Caliphate, supporting terror and violence whenever and wherever it is needed.
But this is less true of women terrorists in other groups, including many Palestinian women who become suicide bombers, as Anat Berko revealed in her classic, The Smarter Bomb: Women And Children As Suicide Bombers. Nor is it generally the case for many of the Pakistani women who also join terror groups, as counterterrorism expert Farhana Qazi states in Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals. Both authors write of young women desperate to leave abusive families, to escape oppressive lives and cultures.
"Those girls don't think they will go to jail," one Palestinian terrorist in the prisons told Berko. "They think they will die. They think death is better than living the way they do."
So, too, for the women of the YPJ, which in many ways positions itself as the polar opposite of ISIS and other Islamist groups. According to a report published by the International Criminal Justice Review (ICJR), the organization began on the basis of Marxist-Leninist teachings, positioning itself as "the protector of poor peasant Kurds." Now led by Abdullah Ocalan – a near-cult figure known as "Apo" – the PKK holds a goal of forging a new Kurdish identity: "The group's message of gender equality, justice, and egalitarianism resonated among thousands of men and women who were frustrated with the status quo of the tribal authorities and patriarchal hegemony in Kurdish society," the ICJR report's authors explain.
Indeed, Kurdish women have been joining the YPJ in growing numbers in recent years. As one Turkish woman told the Middle East Eye, "Why the PKK? Because Turkish society wouldn't let women be as free as they wished." Another echoed that she joined "mainly because the PKK's fight for Kurdish freedom had always incorporated the struggle for women's emancipation, which was lacking in my society." Women now comprise about 40 percent of the PKK's military force.
Still, while women members wax rhapsodic over the opportunities afforded them in the PKK/YPJ, the fact remains that it engages in terrorist attacks, that its members bomb innocent civilians rather than engage in a peaceful political process.
To some extent, attracting women is pure strategy. As Berko observes, "radical organizations regard female bombers as the ultimate weapon." Less likely to arouse suspicion, women move more anonymously in crowds (Albashir covered her thick hair in hijab while walking the Istiklal Caddesi), and more easily arouse sympathies from others. Arguably, then, the emphasis on women's rights within the PKK is less about ideology than it is a recruitment tool, aimed at attracting the stronger, braver women to serve among its warriors.
And it works, as the growing number of women recruits to the YPJ demonstrates.
What is striking is the way this is playing out just as ordinary Iranian women are taking to the streets, demanding an end to the oppression of women in the Islamic Republic and, with it, the end of Islamist theocratic rule. Some experts believe their actions have become a real and growing threat to the regime. Iran's football team refused to sing their national anthem during the World Cup games in Qatar, the players' gesture of support for the uprising.
Authorities in Iran immediately warned the team of repercussions when they return. "We will never allow anyone to insult our anthem," declared Tehran City Council Chairman Mehdi Chamran.
All of which seems to say something about the accelerating demand among women in the Middle East for power, for emancipation – a demand so strong growing numbers are willing to kill, or to die – to make it happen. It's a signal the region would do well to take more seriously, as their call is clear and growing: if these societies want assurance of security and peace, they will have to start by setting women free.
IPT Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman.
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