Exploring female involvement in acts of terrorism and mass shootings podcast

Host Thomas Felix Creighton talks to author Danielle Nicholson to explore the current literature on female involvement in terrorism and mass shootings.

This episode explores the involvement of women in the planning or execution of mass shootings, spree killings or terrorist attack events. It also examines the pathology of women involved in these acts of extreme violence and highlights any gender-specific pathological and environmental risk factors associated with involvement in these events.

The article Exploring female involvement in acts of terrorism and mass shootings: a systematic review will remain free access until 30 September 2022.

Speaker profile(s)

Danielle Nicholson is an Honorary Researcher in the School of Health and Society at the University of Salford in the UK. She is also a trainee Clinical Psychologist studying at the University of Sheffield.

Danielle is co-author – alongside Clare S Allely, a Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Salford – of the journal article 'Exploring female involvement in acts of terrorism and mass shootings: a systematic review' published in the Journal of Criminal Psychology.

In this episode:

  • What is the difference between 'international terrorism' and 'domestic terrorism'?
  • What are the components that make something a mass shooting?
  • What are the distinguishing characteristics exclusive to women allied to terror organisations?
  • What is the main misconception relating to risk of female involvement in mass shootings and terrorism?
  • What are the key motivations for women involved in terrorism and mass shootings?

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Exploring female involvement in acts of terrorism and mass shootings – transcript

Thomas Creighton (TC):  Hello, my name is Thomas. Welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. Today I'm talking to Danielle Nicholson, an honorary researcher at the School of Health Sciences at the University of Salford in the UK. She was the co-author of a journal article exploring female involvement in acts of terrorism and mass shootings, a systematic review that was published in the Journal of Criminal Psychology, volume 11, number four, in 2021. She wrote it with Clare S Allely, a reader in forensic psychology, also at the School of Health Sciences at the University of Salford. Okay, Danielle, thank you very, very much for joining us today.

Danielle Nicholson (DN): No problem. Thanks for having me.

TC: Very interested. In your research, you publish this research in our Journal of Criminal Psychology. Yeah. So you're focusing very much on the women who are enacting violence not facilitating, not witnessing, and you pull down to those two specific models of violence involved with organised terrorism and mass shooting?

DN: Yes

TC: Why did you focus on those two in particular?

DN: Well, I think there is so little research that looks at both groups that we felt like it was necessary to really emphasise that and highlight that by incorporating both, the other reason why is that there seems to be some commonalities in terms of risk and perceptions of risk. When females are involved in these types of activities and events, that kind of really, they were overarching themes that connected the two forms of extreme violence. So with that in mind, we thought that it was it was the right thing to move forward, looking at both together. But, you know, you can argue that there's a limitation in grouping those things together, because it means that we're looking at basically any kind of trends that we could potentially find. We're not looking at events, specific kind of precipitating factors, things could kind of become muddled in a way. But we've tried our best to unpick all of the data that we got. And I think because we only actually returned one paper that looked at female mass shooting, that made it easier if I'm being completely honest.

TC: Yes, it was an interesting case that you included.

DN: So the one paper that actually looked at a female mass shooting, it described the case study of a woman who was referred to Mrs. T throughout the kind of the case, she's actually called Jennifer San Marco, and the paper was really, really interesting gave a very detailed background into, you know, her life, her struggles, and the events that precipitated the attack. Considering it was the only paper that looked at mass shooters, it actually talked in detail about some of the things that we were really wanting to look at. So the environmental kind of situation that she lived in prior to the attack, her psychopathology prior to her completing the attack. And it was just unfortunate that it was the only case that had been peer reviewed and published. So the rest of the cases to do with mass shooting that we spoke about in a discussion were all from mainstream media reports that were available, which obviously there's in itself, there's some problems with that in terms of reliability.

TC: Yes and before we go any further, I mean, we're using these terms, you know, terrorist organisations, mass shootings understand that some question about the very definition of those phrases.

DN: In terms of mass shooting, it's defined as an incident with multiple intended victims that result in at least four fatalities in geographically near locations in a limited timeframe. But there is problems with that definition, mainly for the purpose of this study is the number of fatalities for it to be classed as a mass shooting. What we do know is that when females complete mass shooting events, the number of fatalities is significantly lower. When compared to similar attacks completed by males. Myself and Clare, have kind of theorised why is it that there's less fatalities and I think one of the things that we've noticed that we actually didn't include in the study, because there was no data really, is that from looking at case study reports on mainstream media, these women, they use handguns, whereas I suppose it's become unfortunately all too familiar when we're looking at kind of male attacks, mass shootings, they're using assault type rifles and weaponry. But going back to the definition, if women have a lower fatality rate, it means that they are not necessarily going to show up on mass shooting databases that catalog these events when they're completed by women because they don't fit into the current definition, even though the intention was the same. So that's why the definition of mass shooting really is problematic. There's lots of different definitions of mass shooting out there. We use the FBI current definition as we fought that that was the most probably widely accepted.

TC: Again, with the word terrorism, even the American government in the early 2000s had several different working definitions of what is terrorism.

DN: Yeah, so within this paper, we again, we use the FBI definitions for international and domestic. But I suppose the easiest way of like describing it is international terrorism extends past a group or an individual's country of residence, and domestic terrorism remains in the bounds of a group or an individual's country of citizenship, but both international and domestic terrorism they can be born from, you know, ideological, political, religious, extremist beliefs. But in terms of international, you're going to see foreign fighting in domestic, you're going to see events that are carried out on the individual groups own soil. So homegrown terrorism is what it's also known as.

TC: Yes, you mentioned the motivation in the article itself, you do dig into the motivation of different types of terrorists. We like to talk about that a little.

DN: Yeah, so this is one of the things that was actually quite difficult to answer and it seems that motivations for these women that are involved in these groups or events, their motivations wildly vary based on the organisation they're affiliated with, and their circumstances prior to being involved with these groups or completing certain attacks. So one of the papers kind of used 54 case studies. And they kind of grouped the different case studies into different subsets. And the most common motivation for females in this paper was social. So kind of educational, financial needs. And I found that particularly interesting, because when we looked at all the papers that had a greater data set, we found that actually, a lot of the women had a secondary and tertiary level of education. So there was a kind of almost like conflict there. And I think that highlights another issue is when we're looking at female involvement as a whole and we're not looking at particular groups, it can kind of distort findings a little bit, I suppose, when it comes to educational and financial needs. If you take for example, like women that are affiliated with far-right extremist groups in the USA, they did have lower levels of education. But they were more likely to be employed than say, women that were allied to extremist Islamist groups. So females allied to extremist Islamist groups, they were more likely to have a secondary and tertiary level of education, but they were significantly less likely to be employed. Whereas women involved in right wing terrorist groups in the USA, they did have an adequate level of education, but it wasn't secondary or tertiary, and they were employed. We need to kind of unpick these kinds of social drivers of motivation based on actually the groups that these women are affiliated with.

TC: And even within those groups, there were some significant differences between the men and women within those groups. Is that right?

DN: Yeah, that's right. So one of the main characteristics that was looked at a lot in the papers was age, if we look at, for example, far left extremist groups in the USA, the ages, between men and women didn't differ significantly at all. They didn't differ in terms of their rates of extremist views. They didn't differ in terms of whether they carried out one or repeated attacks, they the profiles, really, of men and women in far-left groups were similar. But then you contrast that with far-right groups, women were on average, 10 years younger than males of the same group, they were significantly less likely to hold extremist religious beliefs, which is one of the things that we kind of looked at in these far right groups, the males held extremist Christian beliefs, whereas the women didn't. And females were significantly more likely to have been through recent traumatic events, such as a relationship breakdown or a divorce prior to being involved with or completing some form of attack. When we're kind of looking at groups that are more associated with for example, al Qaeda or jihadist types attacks, the data became a lot more difficult to unpick so certain papers highlighted that there was a significant difference in age in terms of when males and females were radicalised. But then another paper that looked at the same thing didn't notice a significant difference between that variable. However, they did manage to unpick that more women who have been born after 1990 are now being radicalised. Which brings that age down in terms of when more people a kind of going into the cause if you if you get what I mean?

TC: Yeah

DN: One of the reasons why we thought there was a discrepancy was in the paper that highlighted these age differences in terms of age of radicalisation, that paper looked at a very large group of women that were affiliated with multiple different groups, extremist groups, whereas the paper that didn't find as much of a clear cut difference in age, only looked at women that were in Islamist extremist groups. So that might be a reason why when you're looking at multiple different groups as a whole, it can distort the findings that we're getting. So it was kind of really difficult to unpick everything if I’m being honest.

TC: I understand there's a big difficulty of the breadth versus the depth of the studies.

DN: Yes, yeah, there really was. But one of the main things that I noticed throughout was that the only group where women held extremist beliefs was in left wing terror organisations, all of the other groups that we looked at, showed that women more likely did not have extremist beliefs, and that their motivations were mostly in terms of relational ties to the to the organisation.

TC: That is interesting that they're focused on their relationships rather than their ideology.

DN: Yes, yeah, that was something that was really clear. But again, there was a conflict. When we looked at a different paper, in terms of out of 54 case studies, 15, were able to identify that extremist ideology was present in those women. But I mean, just because one paper says that something's significant or not doesn't mean that it's not necessarily there in some cases. And I think there's a really good case study. That’s actually available on YouTube, it's about Samantha Lewthwaite. I don't know if you've heard of her.

TC: Please elaborate.

DN: She was a British woman. She grew up in Aylesbury, which is down south in England. And she converted to Islam when she was in her late teens, early 20s. And as she got into, you know, her life as a Muslim woman, she moved further and further away from kind of the traditional teachings and more into the extremist kind of view of things to the point where she actually moved to a different area of the country where there was preaching that were more extreme in nature. She then went on to marry one of the men that completed the 7/7 tube bombings in London, suicide bomber following that there was a contact made with her by police. And they didn't think that she was a risk or could be involved in any way. But she's now one of the most wanted women on Interpol for her involvement in extremist kind of terrorist events that have happened, including that have you heard of the Nairobi mall mass shooting attack?

TC: Yeah

DN: The Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013. They believe that she was the person that masterminded that. So she'd had various contact with police following the death of her first husband in the suicide bombing, but they just didn't think that she was a risk.

TC: And there's two things there really one is about the role of religious conversion as a driver, this is something you did look at in the paper, right?

DN: Yeah, we did. And what we found when looking at a larger dataset was that migration didn't appear to enhance any risk of people being part of extremist organisations. However, relational ties did. So we know that in the case of Samantha Lewthwaite, she was not extremist. But then she became extreme in her views as she became more involved and had more relationships with people that held those same values. And she then married into people with those same values. And that seems to be that kind of trajectory.

TC: And you mentioned that she became a mastermind. This is something that we don't often see in the media is a female terrorist mastermind.

DN: Well, this is the thing. One of the papers, it was really, really good paper, actually by Cunningham in 2007. So it's pretty out of date, but that's where we're at really, with research that looks at female terrorism. She highlighted these deficiencies in counter-terror, which have kind of basically paved the way for women to be able to move up the hierarchy in organisations. I think, you know, traditionally, you know, from a Western perspective, we have this maybe kind of unfounded belief of like, female passivity in Islam and I suppose, in a way that's nurtured this opinion that females can't climb the traditionally understood hierarchy within these organisations. But when we're looking at trends, it seems that women are doing and it's almost been like a tactical advantage that we've enabled through our kind of perception or unwillingness to identify this. And I think the cases that I looked at, they were looking at not only women moving away from the more traditionally understood roles that they had in these organisations, such as in the recruitment aspect, but we were looking at things like in the making of explosive devices, in the making of or completing of plots to complete attacks. The other thing that we looked at was foreign fighting, women are significantly more likely to complete acts of foreign fighting, and they are significantly more likely to be successful the first time they try it. And one of the things that we kind of discussed in the paper is, is this because, you know, women are overlooked, they're not deemed as a direct risk to the public, because, you know, our traditionally understood values of how these organisations work is that women take passive roles in terms of recruitment? Actually, we're starting to notice that that's not been the case and there's been a moving away from that over the past two decades.

TC: Yes, I've heard it said that some terrorist organisations will make use of female suicide bombers, for example, because the nature of the media coverage will be very different from that, if it were a man,

DN: I think there was a one of the papers that we looked at spoke about this, and said that, you know, it's a theoretical discussion, but that when women complete these kinds of acts, they're more likely to garner attention by mainstream media, because they are less likely to happen or, you know, women, they're acting so far out of what our social norms are that garner's more attention, but that in itself can aid in the recruitment.

TC: Yeah. So sometimes in the media, there's a suggestion that these women have must have been the victim of violence themselves. And we sometimes see that portrayal in in movies and novels, how much is that is actually based on reality.

DN: A couple of the papers looked at women who had experienced certain kinds of stresses in life prior to being involved in these organisations. And there did appear to be some evidence that they were more likely to have had contact with their doctor for kind of psychological distress, they were more likely to have been the victim of domestic violence, for example, that's been discussed in this paper. But there wasn't enough empirical research quantitatively assessing, it was more case study review and interview data from family members that were discussing these things, there's been this kind of misconception that, you know, women are drawn to, you know, for example, religious conflict, like fighting because of loss of a loved one. And that itself was seen in some of the case studies that we looked at. But it wasn't a standalone factor. It seems to be like an amalgamation of lots of different things that come together.

TC: What would you say are some of the main factors, the main drivers of female violence?

DN: I suppose, one of the things that stood out to me when, for example, when we were looking at educational level and employment is, is opportunity. So in women that had secondary and tertiary level education, they were more than likely than not unemployed. Whereas women that didn't have a secondary or tertiary level education, but they were employed, they often were living in poverty, or had experienced homelessness. And, you know, when we read these papers in depth before putting them in the review, it seemed like becoming part of an organisation. It gave them some status, some form of identity, it bolstered their own kind of esteem, I guess, in being part of something. I know that there is a misconception that many women join these groups, you know, out of the promise of financial reward. But from what we were reading case, study wise, there wasn't much evidence of that.

TC: Am I right in thinking that sometimes these women are motivated by the idea of bringing status to their families?

DN: Yes. Yeah. So there were it was, it was quite shocking, really. And this was something new when I was reading over the papers was that some of the women are blackmailed into joining, for example, like in Al Qaeda, they're blackmailed into joining because it will increase the status of their family members if they joined and completed, for example, suicide bombings. In another paper, there is this kind of concept of involuntary enlistment and there was discussion about rape and how rape is viewed in certain cultures where a lot of blame and shame is placed with the woman. So male members of the organisation will rape females. And then they are given a choice of being able to escape kind of the social rejection and the shame that will be brought on themselves and their families by becoming a martyr in completing a suicide bombing. So that was, you know, one of the things that I read into, and I thought, gosh, like, I hadn't even thought of that. But it did seem to be prevalent in some cases,

TC: Was that the most surprising thing that you came across in your research?

DN: I mean, it gave me a shock when I read about it, just because it's, it seems so desperate, but then it was kind of trying to understand the values of somebody in that religion, especially when you're researching it as somebody that doesn't hold that same faith. You know, suicide is very much not acceptable in Islam. But if you were to do it as part of a jihadist attack, then it is. So it's almost kind of been like a recruitment tactic by some male members to make life so difficult for these women that that seems like a viable option.

TC: Yes. And it's interesting, we see that cultural specificity there. And but you're looking across a wide range of ideological movements, right, even animal rights and environmental rights.

DN: Yeah, yeah, we looked at, basically, so we looked at left wing, which included, groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, Earth First, Earth Liberation Front, we looked at the communist groups, called the communist group for the Liberation of Palestine, that were all kind of on the left wing kind of political spectrum, right wing groups with kind of domestic terrorism view said like the white power skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan. And then we also looked at various different Islamist extremist groups, there was there was a lot to look at. And this is why the data was so variable, it just seems that it's very much so dependent on each organisation and the conditions that these women live prior to becoming involved with the group,

TC: Something that stood out to me was that some of the female mass shooters were motivated by previous employers.

DN: Back in 2018, after I finished my undergrad, I said to Clare, I was like, I'm really interested in this, there seems to be these cases with female mass shooters, and they're just really not discussed. So we tried to develop our own database, which looked at, you know, if there was anything to do with if they'd had brain injury, if there was anything to do with it had formal assessments for any kind of mental illness and where their target of grievance was. And it kind of got sidetracked through both was having different projects and work on at the time. But when we were doing this paper, and obviously, there was only the one peer reviewed article that came up, I decided to go back into that old database that we'd started to make and look at the other cases. And yeah, disproportionately these women are targeting previous or current places of work, which I found really interesting, because it seems to be in a kind of contrast to when we see males complete in mass shooting events, they seem to be directed at a target group of people, whether it seems to be like racially ideologically kind of driven, or a grievance towards school or university or women. But with women who are completing the same attacks, yeah, there did seem to be a big kind of difference in the fact that they were completing attacks against current or previous places of work. So that I think that's a real kind of interesting area that needs to be kind of looked at further. Because when we were looking at the individual cases, in the discussion, when we're talking about them, they did seem to follow the same pathway, the same risk pathway model that currently it's the Calhoun and Western pathway to violence that the US Department of Homeland Security uses and they follow the same trajectory of completing a mass shooting, that a male would, it was just a different kind of where they would go for place of employment versus somewhere else.

TC: Has that been a thread throughout your research that women of violent women tend to be more motivated by relationships?

DN: I don't know if they're motivated by the relationships, but it seems that relationships form a catalyst in becoming involved in certain organisations, for example, that would lead to violent outcomes. In terms of like mass shootings, colleagues, of course, they are forming a relationship. I just, it's speculative, why it is that their area of grievance seems to be employment. And I think that needs more looking into, but yeah, 100% relational ties is something that definitely popped up in, in the motivation for women in terms of terrorist organisations, why they get involved in in those aspects, but I'm not 100% sure, really, how to answer that in terms of mass shootings.

TC: Fair enough. And I was wondering if that was something that naturally came up in the papers that you read, if it was something perhaps directed by the researcher? Is there a lot of evidence for it?

DN: Well, I think The one thing that did come up that was a commonality between mass shooting females that complete mass shootings and females that are involved in in terrorist organisations is that they're overlooked in terms of risk. That was the main kind of commonality more so than relational ties. When we kind of look at women that complete mass shootings, they were known to police prior to undertaking the attack. So for example, the case that was discussed in the paper known throughout was Miss T or Jennifer San Marco, concerned family and friends spoke to police prior to her completing this attack. And, you know, that their concerns were not deemed to be particularly risky at that point.

TC: Yes, I understand that the lady's own father was telephoning, the police saying she is a risk and they did not listen?

DN: That's true. And it's the same with Nasim Aghdam. She was the lady that I've discussed, who completed a mass shooting at YouTube headquarters after they demonetised her videos, her family members became increasingly concerned. To do with her presentation, she was voicing openly that she plans to take revenge on YouTube. She then went missing. Her family reported her missing to the police explained what she was saying how she was presenting, that she'd bought a gun and that she'd been practicing at a range. They then found Nasim parked in her car 25 miles away from YouTube HQ, there's videos of the body cam footage of that interaction on YouTube, where they were basically asking her if you know she was a risk to herself. And did she plan on doing anything to harm other people? And she just said no, and the police just left. And then the following morning she completed the attack.

TC: I understand she was treated more as a vulnerable person rather than someone who's a risk to the public.

DN: Yeah. And I think both those things can be true at the same time, from what we do know about women that complete mass shootings, and also males, there does seem to be a prevalence of like vulnerability in terms of mental health issues and disorders. But that's by the by when they're presenting such a risk to the public. So they may come across as being vulnerable. And I think maybe sometimes that in you know, law enforcement mind means it will mitigate risk to others, they're more of a risk to themselves. But obviously, what we've seen in some of these cases that we've discussed in this paper is that actually that's not the case.

TC: Was there anything that you really wanted to include in the paper that you just weren't able to?

DN: I wanted to look more at kind of the psychopathological variables in women that precipitates kind of attacks. But other than the one case on mass shooting, where the female had a formal diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, there was absolutely nothing other than data derived from like family member interviews. So there was no formal testing. So it was very, very difficult to be able to kind of fulfill that objective. It was one of the objectives of the paper to kind of look at kind of the psychological wellbeing of females that get involved in these type of incidents. But there was just there was nothing that was reliable in an academic kind of sense, because formal assessment was just so lacking and papers that kind of discussed that there was there was just none.

TC: This sounds like a very ripe topic for future research.

DN: A lot more research is needed in this area. I mean, the papers that we looked at, it seems to be the same players, over and over again, that are conducting the research, they've pointed out some really, you know, interesting things to do with the fact that there are women whose, for example, suicide missions have failed, and they're in custody, but like finding out information about them has never been accessed. They've never been interviewed to try and understand what it is that led them down that path. And I think one of the most important things that I actually did want to include is that there is obviously this reluctance to look at female propensity for extreme violence in closer detail, even to the point of, there is the global index report for understanding and measuring terrorism. It comes out every few years or so. And then one of the papers that we looked at was by Cruz in 2016. He kind of highlighted that since 1985. The directing female involvement in terror attacks accounts now for 50% of all fatalities. In for example, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Palestine, but nothing to do with genders or female assailants is mentioned in the global index report for understanding and measuring terrorism. So if it's not even there, in one of the most widely accepted and you know, it's a global index report, how easy is it going to be for people academically to be able to collect data, when they're just doesn't see seems to be an incentive to look at look at those things.

TC: Thank you very, very much. If anyone listening to this podcast wants to look further into this topic, where would you suggest as their first point of call?

DN: That's an interesting one. I suppose the first thing that I did was I completed a literature search.

TC: Of 1000 papers.

DN: Yeah, 1000 papers

TC:  Of initial research

DN: Being more inclusive than exclusive to try and get at least something, I would see if the global index report has changed. At the time that Cruz's paper came out in 2016, the most recent global index report was in 2014. So I'd be interested to see if the newer additions if there is one includes females, so maybe that will be a good place to start.

TC: Danielle, thank you very, very much for joining me. I really enjoyed the discussion.

DN: No, thank you very much for having me. You take care.

TC: Thank you for listening to today's episode. For more information about our guests and a transcript of today's episode, please see our show notes on our website. I'd like to thank Danielle Crow and Daniel Ridge for their help with today's episode. And Alex Jungius from this is distorted. We should also thank the Studio Editor because he is wonderful, most of all, thank you for listening.