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Hazards of Terrorist Profiling

The isolation of attributes or traits shared by terrorists is a formidable task because there are probably as many variations among terrorists as there may be similarities. Efforts by scholars to create a profile of a "typical" terrorist have had mixed success, if any, and the assumption that there is such a profile has not been proven. Post (1985:103) note that "behavioral scientists attempting to understand the psychology of individuals drawn to this violent political behavior have not succeeded in identifying a unique "terrorist mindset." People who have joined terrorist groups have come from a wide range of cultures, nationalities, and ideological causes, all strata of society, and diverse professions. Their personalities and characteristics are as diverse as those of people in the general population. There seems to be general agreement among psychologists that there is no particular psychological attribute that can be used to describe the terrorist or any "personality" that is distinctive of terrorists.

Some terrorism experts are skeptical about terrorist profiling. For example, Laqueur (1997:129) holds that the search for a "terrorist personality" is a fruitless one. Paul Wilkinson (1997:193) maintains that "We already know enough about terrorist behavior to discount the crude hypothesis of a 'terrorist personality' or 'phenotype.'

The U.S. Secret Service once watched for people who fit the popular profile of dangerousness--the lunatic, the loner, the threatener, the hater. That profile, however, was shattered by the assassins themselves. In interviews with assassins in prisons, hospitals, and homes, the Secret Service learned an important lesson--to discard stereotypes. Killers are not necessarily mentally ill, socially isolated, or even male. Now the Secret Service looks for patterns of motive and behavior in potential presidential assassins. The same research methodology applies to potential terrorists. Assassins, like terrorists in general, use common techniques. For example, the terrorist would not necessarily threaten to assassinate a politician in advance, for to do so would make it more difficult to carry out the deed. In its detailed study of 83 people who tried to kill a public official or a celebrity in the United States in the past 50 years, the Secret Service found that not one assassin had made a threat. Imprisoned assassins told the Secret Service that a threat would keep them from succeeding, so why would they threaten? This was the second important lesson learned from the study.

The diversity of terrorist groups, each with members of widely divergent national and sociocultural backgrounds, contexts, and goals, underscores the hazards of making generalizations and developing a profile of members of individual groups or of terrorists in general. Post cautions that efforts to provide an overall "terrorist profile" are misleading: "There are nearly as many variants of personality who become involved in terrorist pursuits as there are variants of personality."

Many theories are based on the assumption that the terrorist has an "abnormal" personality with clearly identifiable character traits that can be explained adequately with insights from psychology and psychiatry. Based on his work with various West German terrorists, one German psychologist, L. Sullwold (1981), divided terrorist leaders into two broad classes of personality traits: the extrovert and the hostile neurotic, or one having the syndrome of neurotic hostility. Extroverts are unstable, uninhibited, inconsiderate, self-interested, and unemotional--thrill seekers with little regard for the consequences of their actions. Hostile neurotics share many features of the paranoid personality--they are intolerant of criticism, suspicious, aggressive, and defensive, as well as extremely sensitive to external hostility. Sullwold also distinguishes between leaders and followers, in that leaders are more likely to be people who combine a lack of scruples with extreme self-assurance; they often lead by frightening or pressuring their followers.

Some researchers have created psychological profiles of terrorists by using data provided by former terrorists who became informants, changed their political allegiance, or were captured. Franco Ferracuti conducted one such study of the Red Brigade terrorists in Italy. He analyzed the career and personalities of arrested terrorists by collecting information on demographic variables and by applying psychological tests to construct a typology of terrorists. Like Post, Ferracuti also found, for the most part, the absence of psychopathology (see Glossary), and he observed similar personality characteristics, that is, a basic division between extroverts and hostile neurotics. By reading and studying terrorist literature, such as group communiqués, news media interviews, and memoirs of former members, it would also be possible to ascertain certain vulnerabilities within the group by pinpointing its sensitivities, internal disagreements, and moral weaknesses. This kind of information would assist in developing a psychological profile of the group.

Post points out that the social dynamics of the "anarchic-ideologues," such as the RAF, differ strikingly from the "nationalist-separatists," such as ETA or the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). From studies of terrorists, Post (1990) has observed indications that terrorists, such as those of the ETA, who pursue a conservative goal, such as freedom for the Basque people, have been reared in more traditional, intact, conservative families, whereas anarchistic and left-wing terrorists (such as members of the Meinhof Gang/RAF) come from less conventional, nonintact families. In developing this dichotomy between separatists and anarchists, Post draws on Robert Clark's studies of the social backgrounds of the separatist terrorists of the ETA. Clark also found that ETA terrorists are not alienated and psychologically distressed. Rather, they are psychologically healthy people who are strongly supported by their families and ethnic community.

Post bases his observations of anarchists on a broad-cased investigation of the social background and psychology of 250 terrorists (227 left-wing and 23 right-wing) conducted by a consortium of West German social scientists under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Interior and published in four volumes in 1981-84. According to these West German analyses of RAF and June Second Movement terrorists, some 25 percent of the leftist terrorists had lost one or both parents by the age of fourteen and 79 percent reported severe conflict with other people, especially with parents (33 percent). The German authors conclude in general that the 250 terrorist lives demonstrated a pattern of failure both educationally and vocationally. Post concludes that "nationalist-separatist" terrorists such as the ETA are loyal to parents who are disloyal to their regime, whereas "anarchic-ideologues" are disloyal to their parents' generation, which is identified with the establishment.

Sociological Characteristics of Terrorists in the Cold War Period

A Basic Profile

Profiles of terrorists have included a profile constructed by Charles A. Russell and Bowman H. Miller (1977), which has been widely mentioned in terrorism-related studies, despite its limitations, and another study that involved systematically analyzing biographical and social data on about 250 German terrorists, both left-wing and right-right. Russell and Bowman attempt to draw a sociological portrait or profile of the modern urban terrorist based on a compilation and analysis of more than 350 individual terrorist cadres and leaders from Argentinian, Brazilian, German, Iranian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Palestinian, Spanish, Turkish, and Uruguayan terrorist groups active during the 1966-76 period, the first decade of the contemporary terrorist era. Russell and Bowman (1977:31) conclude:

In summation, one can draw a general composite picture into which fit the great majority of those terrorists from the eighteen urban guerrilla groups examined here. To this point, they have been largely single males aged 22 to 24...who have some university education, if not a college degree. The female terrorists, except for the West German groups and an occasional leading figure in the JRA and PFLP, are preoccupied with support rather than operational roles....Whether having turned to terrorism as a university student or only later, most were provided an anarchist or Marxist world view, as well as recruited into terrorist operations while in the university.

Russell and Miller's profile tends to substantiate some widely reported sociological characteristics of terrorists in the 1970s, such as the youth of most terrorists. Of particular interest is their finding that urban terrorists have largely urban origins and that many terrorist cadres have predominantly middle-class or even upper-class backgrounds and are well educated, with many having university degrees. However, like most such profiles that are based largely on secondary sources, such as newspaper articles and academic studies, the Russell and Miller profile cannot be regarded as definitive. Furthermore, their methodological approach lacks validity. It is fallacious to assume that one can compare characteristics of members of numerous terrorist groups in various regions of the world and then make generalizations about these traits. For example, the authors' conclusion that terrorists are largely single young males from urban, middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds with some university education would not accurately describe many members of terrorist groups operating in the 1990s. The rank and file of Latin American groups such as the FARC and Shining Path, Middle Eastern groups such as the Armed Islamic Group (Group Islamique Armé--GIA), Hamas, and Hizballah, Asian groups such as the LTTE, and Irish groups such as the IRA are poorly educated. Although the Russell and Miller profile is dated, it can still be used as a basic guide for making some generalizations about typical personal attributes of terrorists, in combination with other information.

Edgar O'Ballance (1979) suggests the following essential characteristics of the "successful" terrorist: dedication, including absolute obedience to the leader of the movement; personal bravery; a lack of feelings of pity or remorse even though victims are likely to include innocent men, women, and children; a fairly high standard of intelligence, for a terrorist must collect and analyze information, devise and implement complex plans, and evade police and security forces; a fairly high degree of sophistication, in order to be able to blend into the first-class section on airliners, stay at first-class hotels, and mix inconspicuously with the international executive set; and be a reasonably good educational background and possession of a fair share of general knowledge (a university degree is almost mandatory), including being able to speak English as well as one other major language.

Increasingly, terrorist groups are recruiting members who possess a high degree of intellectualism and idealism, are highly educated, and are well trained in a legitimate profession. However, this may not necessarily be the case with the younger, lower ranks of large guerrilla/terrorist organizations in less-developed countries, such as the FARC, the PKK, the LTTE, and Arab groups, as well as with some of the leaders of these groups.


Russell and Miller found that the average age of an active terrorist member (as opposed to a leader) was between 22 and 25, except for Palestinian, German, and Japanese terrorists, who were between 20 and 25 years old. Another source explains that the first generation of RAF terrorists went underground at approximately 22 to 23 years of age, and that the average age shifted to 28 to 30 years for second-generation terrorists (June Second Movement). In summarizing the literature about international terrorists in the 1980s, Taylor (1988) characterizes their demography as being in their early twenties and unmarried, but he notes that there is considerable variability from group to group. Age trends for members of many terrorist groups were dropping in the 1980s, with various groups, such as the LTTE, having many members in the 16- to 17 year-old age level and even members who were preteens. Laqueur notes that Arab and Iranian groups tend to use boys aged 14 to 15 for dangerous missions, in part because they are less likely to question instructions and in part because they are less likely to attract attention.

In many countries wracked by ethnic, political, or religious violence in the developing world, such as Algeria, Colombia, and Sri Lanka, new members of terrorist organizations are recruited at younger and younger ages. Adolescents and preteens in these countries are often receptive to terrorist recruitment because they have witnessed killings first-hand and thus see violence as the only way to deal with grievances and problems.

In general, terrorist leaders tend to be much older. Brazil's Carlos Marighella, considered to be the leading theoretician of urban terrorism, was 58 at the time of his violent death on November 6, 1969. Mario Santucho, leader of Argentina's People's Revolutionary Army (ERP), was 40 at the time of his violent death in July 1976. Raúl Sendic, leader of the Uruguayan Tupamaros, was 42 when his group began operating in the late 1960s. Renato Curcio, leader of the Italian Red Brigades, was 35 at the time of his arrest in early 1976. Leaders of the Baader-Meinhof Gang were in their 30s or 40s. Palestinian terrorist leaders are often in their 40s or 50s.

Educational, Occupational, and Socioeconomic Background

Terrorists in general have more than average education, and very few Western terrorists are uneducated or illiterate. Russell and Miller found that about two-thirds of terrorist group members had some form of university training. The occupations of terrorist recruits have varied widely, and there does not appear to be any occupation in particular that produces terrorists, other than the ranks of the unemployed and students. Between 50 and 70 percent of the younger members of Latin American urban terrorist groups were students. The Free University of Berlin was a particularly fertile recruiting ground for Germany's June Second Movement and Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Highly educated recruits were normally given leadership positions, whether at the cell level or national level. The occupations of terrorist leaders have likewise varied. Older members and leaders frequently were professionals such as doctors, bankers, lawyers, engineers, journalists, university professors, and mid-level government executives. Marighella was a politician and former congressman. The PFLP's George Habash was a medical doctor. The PLO's Yasir Arafat was a graduate engineer. Mario Santucho was an economist. Raúl Sendic and the Baader-Meinhof's Horst Mahler were lawyers. Urika Meinhof was a journalist. The RAF and Red Brigades were composed almost exclusively of disenchanted intellectuals.

It may be somewhat misleading to regard terrorists in general as former professionals. Many terrorists who have been able to remain anonymous probably continue to practice their legitimate professions and moonlight as terrorists only when they receive instructions to carry out a mission. This may be more true about separatist organizations, such as the ETA and IRA, whose members are integrated into their communities, than about members of anarchist groups, such as the former Baader-Meinhof Gang, who are more likely to be on wanted posters, on the run, and too stressed to be able to function in a normal day-time job. In response to police infiltration, the ETA, for example, instituted a system of "sleeping commandos." These passive ETA members, both men and women, lead seemingly normal lives, with regular jobs, but after work they are trained for specific ETA missions. Usually unaware of each others' real identities, they receive coded instructions from an anonymous source. After carrying out their assigned actions, they resume their normal lives. Whereas terrorism for anarchistic groups such as the RAF and Red Brigades was a full-time profession, young ETA members serve an average of only three years before they are rotated back into the mainstream of society.

Russell and Miller found that more than two-thirds of the terrorists surveyed came from middle-class or even upper-class backgrounds. With the main exception of large guerrilla/terrorist organizations such as the FARC, the PKK, the LTTE, and the Palestinian or Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations, terrorists come from middle-class families. European and Japanese terrorists are more likely the products of affluence and higher education than of poverty. For example, the RAF and Red Brigades were composed almost exclusively of middle-class dropouts, and most JRA members were from middle-class families and were university dropouts. Well-off young people, particularly in the United States, West Europe, and Japan, have been attracted to political radicalism out of a profound sense of guilt over the plight of the world's largely poor population. The backgrounds of the Baader-Meinhof Gang's members illustrate this in particular: Suzanne Albrecht, daughter of a wealthy maritime lawyer; Baader, the son of an historian; Meinhof, the daughter of an art historian; Horst Mahler, the son of a dentist; Holger Meins, the son of a business executive. According to Russell and Miller, about 80 percent of the Baader-Meinhof Gang had university experience.

Major exceptions to the middle- and upper-class origins of terrorist groups in general include three large organizations examined in this study--the FARC, the LTTE, and the PKK--as well as the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. Both the memberships of the Protestant groups, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the Catholic groups, such as the Official IRA, the Provisional IRA, and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), are almost all drawn from the working class. These paramilitary groups are also different in that their members normally do not have any university education. Although Latin America has been an exception, terrorists in much of the developing world tend to be drawn from the lower sections of society. The rank and file of Arab terrorist organizations include substantial numbers of poor people, many of them homeless refugees. Arab terrorist leaders are almost all from the middle and upper classes.

General Traits

Terrorists are generally people who feel alienated from society and have a grievance or regard themselves as victims of an injustice. Many are dropouts. They are devoted to their political or religious cause and do not regard their violent actions as criminal. They are loyal to each other but will deal with a disloyal member more harshly than with the enemy. They are people with cunning, skill, and initiative, as well as ruthlessness. In order to be initiated into the group, the new recruit may be expected to perform an armed robbery or murder. They show no fear, pity, or remorse. The sophistication of the terrorist will vary depending on the significance and context of the terrorist action. The Colombian hostage-takers who infiltrated an embassy party and the Palace of Justice, for example, were far more sophisticated than would be, for example, Punjab terrorists who gun down bus passengers. Terrorists have the ability to use a variety of weapons, vehicles, and communications equipment and are familiar with their physical environment, whether it be a 747 jumbo jet or a national courthouse. A terrorist will rarely operate by himself/herself or in large groups, unless the operation requires taking over a large building, for example.

Members of Right-wing terrorist groups in France and Germany, as elsewhere, generally tend to be young, relatively uneducated members of the lower classes (see Table 1, Appendix). Ferracuti and F. Bruno (1981:209) list nine psychological traits common to right-wing terrorists: ambivalence toward authority; poor and defective insight; adherence to conventional behavioral patterns; emotional detachment from the consequences of their actions; disturbances in sexual identity with role uncertainties; superstition, magic, and stereotyped thinking; etero- and auto-destructiveness; low-level educational reference patterns; and perception of weapons as fetishes and adherence to violent subcultural norms. These traits make up what Ferracuti and Bruno call an "authoritarian-extremist personality." They conclude that right-wing terrorism may be more dangerous than left-wing terrorism because "in right-wing terrorism, the individuals are frequently psychopathological and the ideology is empty: ideology is outside reality, and the terrorists are both more normal and more fanatical."

Marital Status

In the past, most terrorists have been unmarried. Russell and Miller found that, according to arrest statistics, more than 75 to 80 percent of terrorists in the various regions in the late 1970s were single. Encumbering family responsibilities are generally precluded by requirements for mobility, flexibility, initiative, security, and total dedication to a revolutionary cause. Roughly 20 percent of foreign terrorist group memberships apparently consisted of married couples, if Russell and Miller's figure on single terrorists was accurate.

Physical Appearance

Terrorists are healthy and strong but generally undistinguished in appearance and manner. The physical fitness of some may be enhanced by having had extensive commando training. They tend to be of medium height and build to blend easily into crowds. They tend not to have abnormal physiognomy and peculiar features, genetic or acquired, that would facilitate their identification. Their dress and hair styles are inconspicuous. In addition to their normal appearance, they talk and behave like normal people. They may even be well dressed if, for example, they need to be in the first-class section of an airliner targeted for hijacking. They may resort to disguise or plastic surgery depending on whether they are on police wanted posters.

If a terrorist's face is not known, it is doubtful that a suspected terrorist can be singled out of a crowd only on the basis of physical features. Unlike the yakuza (mobsters) in Japan, terrorists generally do not have distinguishing physical features such as colorful tatoos. For example, author Christopher Dobson (1975) describes the Black September's Salah Khalef ("Abu Iyad") as "of medium height and sturdy build, undistinguished in a crowd." When Dobson, hoping for an interview, was introduced to him in Cairo in the early 1970s Abu Iyad made "so little an impression" during the brief encounter that Dobson did not realize until later that he had already met Israel's most-wanted terrorist. Another example is Imad Mughniyah, head of Hizballah's special operations, who is described by Hala Jaber (1997:120), as "someone you would pass in the street without even noticing or giving a second glance."

Origin: Rural or Urban

Guerrilla/terrorist organizations have tended to recruit members from the areas where they are expected to operate because knowing the area of operation is a basic principle of urban terrorism and guerrilla warfare. According to Russell and Miller, about 90 percent of the Argentine ERP and Montoneros came from the Greater Buenos Aires area. Most of Marighella's followers came from Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, and São Paulo. More than 70 percent of the Tupamaros were natives of Montevideo. Most German and Italian terrorists were from urban areas: the Germans from Hamburg and West Berlin; the Italians from Genoa, Milan, and Rome.



Most terrorists are male. Well over 80 percent of terrorist operations in the 1966-76 period were directed, led, and executed by males. The number of arrested female terrorists in Latin America suggested that female membership was less than 16 percent. The role of women in Latin American groups such as the Tupamaros was limited to intelligence collection, serving as couriers or nurses, maintaining safehouses, and so forth.


Various terrorism specialists have noted that the number of women involved in terrorism has greatly exceeded the number of women involved in crime. However, no statistics have been offered to substantiate this assertion. Considering that the number of terrorist actions perpetrated worldwide in any given year is probably minuscule in comparison with the common crimes committed in the same period, it is not clear if the assertion is correct. Nevertheless, it indeed seems as if more women are involved in terrorism than actually are, perhaps because they tend to get more attention than women involved in common crime.

Although Russell and Miller's profile is more of a sociological than a psychological profile, some of their conclusions raise psychological issues, such as why women played a more prominent role in left-wing terrorism in the 1966-76 period than in violent crime in general. Russell and Miller's data suggest that the terrorists examined were largely males, but the authors also note the secondary support role played by women in most terrorist organizations, particularly the Uruguayan Tupamaros and several European groups. For example, they point out that women constituted one-third of the personnel of the RAF and June Second Movement, and that nearly 60 percent of the RAF and June Second Movement who were at large in August 1976 were women.

Russell and Miller's contention that "urban terrorism remains a predominantly male phenomenon," with women functioning mainly in a secondary support role, may underestimate the active, operational role played by women in Latin American and West European terrorist organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. Insurgent groups in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s reportedly included large percentages of female combatants: 30 percent of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) combatants in Nicaragua by the late 1970s; one-third of the combined forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador; and one-half of the Shining Path terrorists in Peru. However, because these percentages may have been inflated by the insurgent groups to impress foreign feminist sympathizers, no firm conclusions can be drawn in the absence of reliable statistical data.

Nevertheless, women have played prominent roles in numerous urban terrorist operations in Latin America. For example, the second in command of the Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua's National Palace in Managua, Nicaragua, in late August 1979 was Dora María Téllez Argüello. Several female terrorists participated in the takeover of the Dominican Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, by the 19th of April Movement (M-19) in 1980, and one of them played a major role in the hostage negotiations. The late Mélida Anaya Montes ("Ana María") served as second in command of the People's Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación--FPL) prior to her murder at age 54 by FPL rivals in 1983. Half of the 35 M-19 terrorists who raided Colombia's Palace of Justice on November 6, 1985, were women, and they were among the fiercest fighters.

Leftist terrorist groups or operations in general have frequently been led by women. Many women joined German terrorist groups. Germany's Red Zora, a terrorist group active between the late 1970s and 1987, recruited only women and perpetrated many terrorist actions. In 1985 the RAF's 22 core activists included 13 women. In 1991 women formed about 50 percent of the RAF membership and about 80 percent of the group's supporters, according to MacDonald. Of the eight individuals on Germany's "Wanted Terrorists" list in 1991, five were women. Of the 22 terrorists being hunted by German police that year, 13 were women. Infamous German female terrorist leaders have included Susanne Albrecht, Gudrun Ensselin\Esslin, and Ulrike Meinhof of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. There are various theories as to why German women have been so drawn to violent groups. One is that they are more emancipated and liberated than women in other European countries. Another, as suggested to Eileen MacDonald by Astrid Proll, an early member of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, is that the anger of German women is part of a national guilt complex, the feeling that if their mothers had had a voice in Hitler's time many of Hitler's atrocities would not have happened.

Other noted foreign female terrorists have included Fusako Shigenobu of the JRA (Shigenobu, 53, was reported in April 1997 to be with 14 other JRA members--two other women and 12 men--training FARC guerrillas in terror tactics in the Urabá Region of Colombia); Norma Ester Arostito, who cofounded the Argentine Montoneros and served as its chief ideologist until her violent death in 1976; Margherita Cagol and Susana Ronconi of the Red Brigades; Ellen Mary Margaret McKearney of the IRA; Norma Ester Arostito of the Montoneros; and Geneveve Forest Tarat of the ETA, who played a key role in the spectacular ETA-V bomb assassination of Premier Admiral Carrero Blanco on December 20, 1973, as well as in the bombing of the Café Rolando in Madrid in which 11 people were killed and more than 70 wounded on September 13, 1974. ETA members told journalist Eileen MacDonald that ETA has always had female commandos and operators. Women make up about 10 percent of imprisoned ETA members, so that may be roughly the percentage of women in ETA ranks.

Infamous female commandos have included Leila Khaled, a beautiful PFLP commando who hijacked a TWA passenger plane on August 29, 1969, and then blew it up after evacuating the passengers, without causing any casualties (see Leila Khaled, Appendix). One of the first female terrorists of modern international terrorism, she probably inspired hundreds of other angry young women around the world who admired the thrilling pictures of her in newspapers and magazines worldwide showing her cradling a weapon, with her head demurely covered. Another PFLP female hijacker, reportedly a Christian Iraqi, was sipping champagne in the cocktail bar of a Japan Air Lines Jumbo jet on July 20, 1973, when the grenade that she was carrying strapped to her waist exploded, killing her.

Women have also played a significant role in Italian terrorist groups. Leonard Weinberg and William Lee Eubank (1987: 248-53) have been able to quantify that role by developing a data file containing information on about 2,512 individuals who were arrested or wanted by police for terrorism from January 1970 through June 1984. Of those people, 451, or 18 percent, were female. Of those females, fewer than 10 percent were affiliated with neofascist groups (see Table 2, Appendix). The rest belonged to leftist terrorist groups, particularly the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse--BR), which had 215 female members. Weinberg and Eubank found that the Italian women surveyed were represented at all levels of terrorist groups: 33 (7 percent) played leadership roles and 298 (66 percent) were active "regulars" who took part in terrorist actions. (see Table 3, Appendix). Weinberg and Eubank found that before the women became involved in terrorism they tended to move from small and medium-sized communities to big cities (see Table 4, Appendix). The largest group of the women (35 percent) had been students before becoming terrorists, 20 percent had been teachers, and 23 percent had held white-collar jobs as clerks, secretaries, technicians, and nurses (see Table 5, Appendix). Only a few of the women belonged to political parties or trade union organizations, whereas 80 (17 percent) belonged to leftist extraparliamentary movements. Also noteworthy is the fact that 121 (27 percent) were related by family to other terrorists. These researchers concluded that for many women joining a terrorist group resulted from a small group or family decision.

Characteristics of Female Terrorists

Practicality, Coolness

German intelligence officials told Eileen MacDonald that "absolute practicality...was particularly noticeable with women revolutionaries." By this apparently was meant coolness under pressure. However, Germany's female terrorists, such as those in the Baader-Meinhof Gang, have been described by a former member as "all pretty male-dominated; I mean they had male characteristics." These included interests in technical things, such as repairing cars, driving, accounting, and organizing. For example, the RAF's Astrid Proll was a first-rate mechanic, Gudrun Ensslin was in charge of the RAF's finances, and Ulrike Meinhof sought out apartments for the group.

According to Christian Lochte, the Hamburg director of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the most important qualities that a female member could bring to terrorist groups, which are fairly unstable, were practicality and pragmatism: "In wartime women are much more capable of keeping things together," Lochte told MacDonald. "This is very important for a group of terrorists, for their dynamics. Especially a group like the RAF, where there are a lot of quarrels about strategy, about daily life. Women come to the forefront in such a group, because they are practical."

Galvin points out the tactical value of women in a terrorist group. An attack by a female terrorist is normally less expected than one by a man. "A woman, trading on the impression of being a mother, nonviolent, fragile, even victim like, can more easily pass scrutiny by security forces...." There are numerous examples illustrating the tactical surprise factor that can be achieved by female terrorists. A LTTE female suicide commando was able to get close enough to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991, to garland him with flowers and then set off her body bomb, killing him, herself, and 17 others. Nobody suspected the attractive Miss Kim of carrying a bomb aboard a Korean Air Flight 858. And Leila Khaled, dressed in elegant clothes and strapped with grenades, was able to pass through various El Al security checks without arousing suspicion. Female terrorists have also been used to draw male targets into a situation in which they could be kidnapped or assassinated.

Dedication, Inner Strength, Ruthlessness

Lochte also considered female terrorists to be stronger, more dedicated, faster, and more ruthless than male terrorists, as well as more capable of withstanding suffering because "They have better nerves than men, and they can be both passive and active at the same time." The head of the German counterterrorist squad told MacDonald that the difference between the RAF men and women who had been caught after the fall of the Berlin Wall was that the women had been far more reticent about giving information than the men, and when the women did talk it was for reasons of guilt as opposed to getting a reduced prison sentence, as in the case of their male comrades.

According to MacDonald, since the late 1960s, when women began replacing imprisoned or interned male IRA members as active participants, IRA women have played an increasingly important role in "frontline" actions against British troops and Protestant paramilitary units, as well as in terrorist actions against the British public. As a result, in the late 1960s the IRA merged its separate women's sections within the movement into one IRA. MacDonald cites several notorious IRA women terrorists. They include Marion Price, 19, and her sister (dubbed "the Sisters of Death"), who were part of the IRA's 1973 bombing campaign in London. In the early 1970s, Dr. Rose Dugdale, daughter of a wealthy English family, hijacked a helicopter and used it to try to bomb a police barracks. In 1983 Anna Moore was sentenced to life imprisonment for her role in bombing a Northern Ireland pub in which 17 were killed. Ella O'Dwyer and Martina Anderson, 23, a former local beauty queen, received life sentences in 1986 for their part in the plot to bomb London and 16 seaside resorts. Another such terrorist was Mairead Farrell, who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988. A year before her death, Farrell, who was known for her strong feminist views, said in an interview that she was attracted to the IRA because she was treated the same as "the lads." As of 1992, Evelyn Glenholmes was a fugitive for her role in a series of London bombings.

MacDonald interviewed a few of these and a number of other female IRA terrorists, whom she described as all ordinary, some more friendly than others. Most were unmarried teenagers or in their early twenties when they became involved in IRA terrorism. None had been recruited by a boyfriend. When asked why they joined, all responded with "How could we not?" replies. They all shared a hatred for the British troops (particularly their foul language and manners) and a total conviction that violence was justified. One female IRA volunteer told MacDonald that "Everyone is treated the same. During training, men and women are equally taught the use of explosives and weapons."


Female terrorists can be far more dangerous than male terrorists because of their ability to focus single-mindedly on the cause and the goal. Lochte noted that the case of Susanne Albrecht demonstrated this total dedication to a cause, to the exclusion of all else, even family ties and upbringing. The RAF's Suzanne Albrecht, daughter of a wealthy maritime lawyer, set up a close family friend, Jurgen Ponto, one of West Germany's richest and most powerful men and chairman of the Dresden Bank, for assassination in his home, even though she later admitted to having experienced nothing but kindness and generosity from him. Lochte told MacDonald that if Albrecht had been a man, she would have tried to convince her RAF comrade to pick another target to kidnap. "Her attitude was," Lochte explained, "to achieve the goal, to go straight ahead without any interruptions, any faltering. This attitude is not possible with men." (Albrecht, however, reportedly was submitted to intense pressure by her comrades to exploit her relationship with the banker, and the plan was only to kidnap him rather than kill him.) After many years of observing German terrorists, Lochte concluded, in his comments to MacDonald, that women would not hesitate to shoot at once if they were cornered. "For anyone who loves his life," he told MacDonald, "it is a good idea to shoot the women terrorists first." In his view, woman terrorists feel they need to show that they can be even more ruthless than men.

Germany's neo-Nazi groups also have included female members, who have played major roles, according to MacDonald. For example, Sibylle Vorderbrügge, 26, joined a notorious neo-Nazi group in 1980 after becoming infatuated with its leader. She then became a bomb-throwing terrorist expressly to please him. According to MacDonald, she was a good example to Christian Lochte of how women become very dedicated to a cause, even more than men. "One day she had never heard of the neo-Nazis, the next she was a terrorist." Lochte commented, "One day she had no interest in the subject; the next she was 100 percent terrorist; she became a fighter overnight."

Female Motivation for Terrorism

What motivates women to become terrorists? Galvin suggests that women, being more idealistic than men, may be more impelled to perpetrate terrorist activities in response to failure to achieve change or the experience of death or injury to a loved one. Galvin also argues that the female terrorist enters into terrorism with different motivations and expectations than the male terrorist. In contrast to men, who Galvin characterizes as being enticed into terrorism by the promise of "power and glory," females embark on terrorism "attracted by promises of a better life for their children and the desire to meet people's needs that are not being met by an intractable establishment." Considering that females are less likely than males to have early experience with guns, terrorist membership is therefore a more active process for women than for men because women have more to learn. In the view of Susana Ronconi, one of Italy's most notorious and violent terrorists in the 1970s, the ability to commit violence did not have anything to do with gender. Rather, one's personality, background, and experience were far more important.

Companionship is another motivating factor in a woman's joining a terrorist group. MacDonald points out that both Susanna Ronconi and Ulrike Meinhof "craved love, comradeship, and emotional support" from their comrades.

Feminism has also been a motivating ideology for many female terrorists. Many of them have come from societies in which women are repressed, such as Middle Eastern countries and North Korea, or Catholic countries, such as in Latin America, Spain, Ireland, and Italy. Even Germany was repressive for women when the Baader-Meinhof Gang emerged.

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