White Widows and Our Obsession with the Female Terrorist

The recent terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi immediately ignited a frenzy of media interest in Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called White Widow. News stations have been ebulliently throwing up tidbits of Hollywood thriller-style plot devices. There’s a “pipeline” that takes terrorists to Somalia. Lewthwaite was plotting to blow up UN offices. She has a new “secret” husband. An Interpol warrant has been issued for her arrest. Everything feels like we have been thrust into the second act of a creaky screenplay. It seems apt — if not pre-determined — that in her crusade Lewthwaite is pursuing the legacy of her deceased husband, since he was one of the perpetrators of the London 2005 suicide bombings. Being a woman, her path to radicalization is not allowed to be purely ideological. It must be emotional as well.

samantha lewthwaite white widow

The media revels in Lewthwaite’s status as a mother. “White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite’s diary says her children want to follow in footsteps of their 7/7 bomber father,” reads a headline for the Mirror. “A ‘shy’ girl from Buckinghamshire but… once again being linked to a global atrocity,” reports the BBC. She went from condemning her husband’s role in the London 7/7 bombings as “abhorrent” to being “the world’s most wanted woman”.

We like this kind of story of high jinks and character arcs. It was not enough for Ulrike Meinhof to be political. She also had to be glamorous and female, a fluent and intellectual journalist with a gift for polemic, and who turned from words to action. “Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like,” as she famously wrote — and she followed through. Leila Khaled was another beautiful woman — and a PFLP commando who hijacked and blew up an airplane. Her looks perhaps inspired as many followers as her deeds. Or the enduring image is of a girl with a gun; we like this apparent contradiction. It is wealthy heiress Patty Hearst, kidnapped by New Left terrorists in 1973. Hearst later succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome, denounced her parents and joined the guerrillas, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Security camera footage iconically shows her abetting in a bank robbery, pointing a rifle at customers.

ulrike meinhoff RAF

According to a 1999 Library of Congress report, most terrorists at the turn of the new century were male, with in excess of 80% of terrorist operations in 1966-1976 commanded and carried out by men. However, it has also been at times suggested that the proportion of women involved with terrorism is higher than that of crime, although this claim remains statistically unverified.

Even pre-9/11, women operatives were certainly vital to the militant groups of Latin America, West Germany’s RAF and the Japanese Red Army. Red Zora, a German terrorist group active between the late 1970’s and 1987, recruited only women. In order to explain the larger number of women in groups such as the RAF (at times more women than men), it has been suggested that German women were more emancipated and proactive than counterparts in other nations. Women’s Lib had been so successful in West Germany that it had birthed a terrorism that was literally feminized.

On top of being praised as more practical than male terrorists in the day-to-day running of their organisations, the women may better the men when it comes to the final mission too, since they are less likely to be suspected. No doubt this is why Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did not think that among the women garlanding him with flowers in May 1991 there would be one with a bomb strapped to her, which she detonated and killed him (as intended, the blast also killed her too — actually severing her head from her body — along with many others nearby). Like the classic honey trap, women can be used to put targets at their ease before executing the mission.

Something like a quarter of suicide bombers between 1985 and 2008 were female. Mia Bloom has made women and terrorism her career’s work, and in books like Bombshell she examines the situations and sometimes exploitation that leads women in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya to attach explosives to themselves and commit atrocities. In Bombshell, though, Bloom does not mention who I want to talk about.

She is another “widow”, another female terrorist who has likewise attracted more than her fair share of media mythologizing. Her name is Fusako Shigenobu. She shares traits with Lewthwaite in that she lost her husband in an attack. But Shigenobu was married to Tsuyoshi Okudaira in name only when he became one of the three Japanese revolutionaries who carried out an assault on Lod Airport in Israel in 1972.

Okudaira, Yasuyuki Yasuda and Kozo Okamoto arrived at the airport from a flight from Rome. Taking out machine guns and grenades from their luggage, they then began firing. It is still a matter of intense controversy whether they deliberately aimed for innocent civilians or whether the massacre happened in the crossfire between the trio and the police. In total, twenty-six lay dead on the floor of the terminal, the majority of whom were Puerto Rico pilgrims. Okudaira and Yasuda were killed, possibly by their own hands. Okamoto was arrested after failing to kill himself. (The BBC World Service broadcast an interview with a survivor last year in which she reflects not just on the horror of the incident but also the sheer arbitrariness of it.)

In order to get a passport and a new name, Shigenobu had married Okudaira. As a known member of the Sekigun-ha, the Red Army Faction, she was being watched by the authorities, who took the group’s threat very seriously. After all, they had already arrested its ideologue and commander, as well as seizing an cache of arms in Yamanashi that the group had been planning to use in a people’s revolution. The remaining hard-core members of the group’s inner circle — including Shigenobu’s boyfriend — then pulled off Japan’s first ever airplane hijacking when they took over JAL Flight 351, the Yodogō, in 1970, and flew it on to North Korea.

fusako shigenobu

Shigenobu was a veteran campaigner for the group, and extremely adept at raising funds. She held several jobs and had put herself through university while working full-time. However, like the Yodogō hijackers, she believed that the future of Sekigun lay in moving overseas to assist in the international revolution at its hotspots around the globe. The most logical place to go was the Middle East, a region teeming with guerrillas and people’s armies. However, Tsuneo Mori, who had taken over the Sekigun by now, was only focussed on the domestic struggle; Shigenobu was forced to go it alone. Later others would trickle over as the new international wing of the Sekigun established itself, eventually numbering some thirty to fifty, but initially it was a mere handful, led by Shigenobu and Okudaira while embedded in the Palestinian cause. At the time, going abroad like that was far more challenging, both financially and administratively, than in today’s low-cost carrier days, and it is worth remembering what a remarkable feat Shigenobu et al achieved just by their very act of emigration.

In the Middle East, Shigenobu and her colleagues would eventually become the independent Japanese Red Army, a group that carried out numerous high-profile hijackings and attacks on embassies in Europe and Asia across the 1970’s, though most of their biggest operations were actually done in order to generate publicity and free imprisoned peers. With the political sands shifting in the late 1980’s, the army changed tactics and targets. It began to spread out around Europe and Latin America. One of its soldiers was arrested in America in 1988 plotting to blow up an army facilities with homemade explosives in his car. Some have speculated the the JRA was also linked to Libya and the Lockerbie bombing.

Shigenobu’s role within the army itself is not as certain as you might think. She was its most famous member and is typically said to have been its commander-in-chief. However, the extent to which she perpetrated or directly planned its operations is debatable. When she was arrested in Osaka in 2000, the prosecution really wanted to bag her but, in spite of her repute, the actual evidence was flimsy. She ended up getting twenty years for passport violations, a harsh conviction that unofficially acknowledging tenuous ties to a 1974 terrorist incident in The Hague.

Shigenobu is a prolific writer and has published several books, both during her “career” and since her incarceration. However, it is as much what others think and write about her that has created her legacy. Especially after her departure from Japan and her appearance in the Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi film Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War as a spokesperson for the revolution, she has been portrayed as the glamorous femme fatale. She was, we are led to believe, a temptress, a beautiful witch who slept with people to get what she needed for the cause. This kind of chauvinistic and cynical cliche seems to follow many female terrorists around, especially when they are leaders. Even Takaya Shiomi, the founder of the Sekigun, once wrote: “She was called an enchantress, a Mata Hari.” Why is it that we find it permissible to associate female terrorists with brutality and mania combined with sexuality?

Comparable attitudes affect how we remember the late Hiroko Nagata, the leader of the Kakusa group which merged with Mori’s Sekigun to form the United Red Army. It retreated into the mountains and ended up massacring its own members, and the final hold-outs managed to take a hostage in a lodge and keep off the police for days. After the bodies of the URA soldiers were unearthed, people could not believe what had happened and it arguably disillusioned a generation of potential student radicals. That Nagata as the second-in-command deserved the blame was cemented when Mori committed suicide in prison. Nagata’s apparent cruelty and heartlessness, especially to other female members of the revolutionaries, has led to her lasting demonization as a witch.

This misogyny wasn’t limited to the Japanese women, of course. In her essay, In Search of Ulrike Meinhof, Karin Bauer writes that “popular reporting on the hunt for terrorists was often highly eroticized”. Gudrun Ensslin was an “ice-cold seductress” while the portrayal of Meinhof was “as a desexualized crusader, a tragically misguided Joan of Arc, and a highly eroticized seductress who took and dismissed lovers and incited young men and women to violence”. The media used images of suspected female terrorists with bare breasts. Meinhof’s radicalization was often quasi-dismissed as being more physiological than ideological, the result of her brain surgery affecting her mental state. Bild-Zeitung even went so far as to suggest that Meinhof’s conversion to militancy was an attempt to flee her failings as a mother.

Although scholars have argued that the deployment of, say, female suicide bombers is often manipulated for maximum media effect to strike chillingly into the heart of society, it is certainly not the case that female terrorists inherently generate more publicity and mythology than their male counterparts. After all, for every Fusako Shigenobu or Ulrike Meinhof or Samantha Lewthwaite, there is a Carlos the Jackal, Bobby Sands or Andreas Baader. But our sensibilities towards paramilitary activities and violence can remain naive. (In the Middle East, no doubt this isn’t the case.) Is it that the women terrorists are betraying our ideals of femininity and maternity? (Shigenobu and Meinhof had children, who were needless to say, guaranteed little else but atypical upbringings.) The rules of engagement dictate that the men should do the hunting; the women, the gathering. The men should be bearing arms while the womenfolk help with fund-raising and practical matters. Even within the New Left organizational structures these old-fashioned attitudes surprisingly prevailed at times, hence Shigenobu’s frustration and desire to take her destiny into her own hands. Shigenobu was the only original female Sekigun activist to rise up the ranks and this was due to her skills at fundraising and her ambition. The other ladies were essentially consigned to (excuse the pun) manning the phones. The filmmaker Adam Curtis also once unearthed an insightful fly-on-the-wall documentary about British students who took over their art college in 1968. “The women make the tea and run the switchboard while all the men sit round talking to [the director] about ‘kicking the police horses’ bottoms’.”

In Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (2004), Jeremy Varon touches on the frustration of the women in Weatherman, confined to the second tier of the budding guerrilla army. Even in the collectives, the “radicals” reverted to a division of labour that was quite bizarre in the circumstances. In an apartment of the Up Against the Walls Motherfuckers group, one female activist observed that the men were doing the profound theoretic debating while the women were occupied with “cooking, cleaning and changing diapers”. She found herself asking: “What’s different here?” And this sexism in the collectives also led to sexual exploitation.

While women made up something like half of Weatherman, female membership of terrorist groups is usually a minority and often the role of women in Latin American groups like the Tupamaros was limited to non-violent operations, such as collecting intelligence, serving as couriers or nurses, and maintaining safehouses. However, the IRA and some other groups apparently treated male and female members equally, which was a refreshing experience for the women at the time and likely instrumental to their continued participation.

We perhaps like to see the women as having emotional reasons for their terrorism, hence why they are “widows”, angered like Medea by savage events or a wronging into committing their own taboo-busting barbarities. The route to radicalization is often portrayed by the media as being less about politics as melodrama. The Russian press called the Chechen women bombers “Black Widows” when it became apparent they were avenging their dead menfolk. Women terrorists are somehow more dangerous because they are “single-minded”. And yet we are also happy with the archetype of the female Nazi, the concentration camp guards like Irma Grese and Maria Mandel who ruthlessly carried out orders no matter how inhumane.

Lewthwaite, apparently not being an intellectual, will likely find her notoriety like that of a celebrity’s. Once the tabloids get tired of the key details, there won’t be enough to milk, especially if she is caught by the authorities. Putting pen to paper and being fluent on camera were arguably the proficiencies that solidified Shigenobu and Meinhof’s reputations and mythologies. Such people, though, are even more likely to be remembered for their public persona than their genuine causes.


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