Lessons From a Foiled Terror Attack in Tel Aviv
When most people picture a terrorist, the image is rarely of a pregnant Jewish woman. And this is exactly how terrorists use our preconceived notions about violence, motherhood, and gender to enhance the success of their terrorist attacks.
On December 15th, Israeli security and intelligence officials arrested five Palestinians who were planning a major suicide-bombing mission in Tel Aviv. According to Israel National News, Yasmin Sha’aban, an Arab woman from Janin, and four other terrorists, were “in touch with a terrorist operative from Gaza who gave them instructions on how to assemble explosives and carry out the attack.” Yasmin was “supposed to carry out the attack with an explosives belt hidden in her clothes while disguised as a pregnant Jewish woman.”
Why was Yasmin instructed to dress as a pregnant Jewish woman? The answer lies in how the West views women, motherhood, and violence. First and foremost, we associate terrorism, or any violence for that matter, with men. Men are considered to be more aggressive, and women more docile. Second, Yasmin was instructed to dress as a pregnant woman not just because her “belly” would fit explosives—she was instructed to do so because she wouldn’t be checked as thoroughly at a checkpoint. This is because we view motherhood as life-giving, while terrorism is life-taking. Third, in Israel, Jewish women are viewed as inconspicuous compared to their Muslim counterparts. To sum it up, pregnant Jewish women are seen as the face of innocence in every conceivable way.
Ironically, this perception of weakness is what terrorist groups take advantage of in order to enhance the likelihood of success of their attacks. When a woman comes to a security check, (which are often dominated by male security forces), they are viewed as less dangerous and are therefore less scrutinized. As a result, terrorist groups often recruit women in particular to go on suicide bombing missions. But even male terrorists have dressed up as women to increase their chances of being overlooked at a security check.
As simple as it may seem to fix this error in the security process, it is still a very effective tactic. A study by Lindsey O’Rourke on the lethality of female terrorism showed that women are supremely effective. In her study on the Lebanese, Kurdish, Sri Lankan, Chechen, and Palestinian terrorist groups, women were found to kill an average of 8.4 people per attack versus 5.3 for male attackers.
Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are using these tactics to enhance the effectiveness of their attacks, but Israel seems to be catching on. This bombing plot was uncovered before it even happened, but there have been many other female attackers within Israel that were not caught.
Addressing these lethal trends within the counter-terrorism arena is challenging, as the trends rely on deeply seeded notions of gender that are highly ingrained in our subconscious. The U.S. and Western civilizations need to become more aware of our own beliefs and their effects on terrorist tactics. Our preconceived notions directly affect our security and readiness for attempted terrorist attacks. Rising to this challenge is especially important in Israel, where many average citizens are or will be soldiers protecting Israel’s land, borders, and people.
Even more, with the rise of ISIS and radical Islam, these attacks may become even more prominent all around the West. Thus, it is paramount that we continue to question our pre-conceptions of women and violence in order to effectively combat terrorist tactics.
Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies Follow her @ellierudee. This article was originally published by The Hill.