Lugano attack: a new role for women in European jihad? – by Maria Chr. Alvanou

The deadly incident that has taken place in Lugano-Switzerland on November 23d is under investigation as a terroristic one, especially because of the reported “jihadi background” of the suspect[1]. As the authorities continue their research there are some first comments and points to take under consideration.

  1. The suspect arrested is a woman, who has been reported to have shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and that she was from the Islamic State[2]. At in the West, knife attacks up to now were carried out by men. Of course, during the so called “Knife” or “Stabbing Intifada” (that has inspired the campaign of Daesh), indeed Palestinian women have attacked Israelis with knives[3]. However, at least in Europe- whether “lone wolves” or members of terror cells acting based on their prior planning- knife attackers (as well as ramming vehicle drivers) have been men. It is important to find out if the perpetrator indeed was a terrorist and if yes, whether she acted completely on her own, if she was radicalized to violence online, or if she has carried out orders as an active member of an existing terror cell. Our Western view (or stereotype) about women in Islamist terrorism has been that of aspiring “jihadi brides” who fled to the Middle East to marry and now want to return, disappointed due to the reality they met there, or to act as “radicalization bombs” ready to raise future shahids. This case brings our interest back to women as “conventional” terror operatives who can act in the same way as men (resembling other typologies of terrorism) and without the immediate control and supervision by men (like for example cases of men controlling the mechanism in the explosive belts of female suicide bombers).
  2. It remains to be seen if indeed Daesh (or even any other big “actor” of the Islamist terror scene) will embrace the attack of the Swiss-Turkish national[4]. While many times there have been news pieces about women in the ranks of Daesh[5] , there was no proof that members of the international Islamist terror network have sponsored fighting operational roles for women. The actual validity of the claim that this woman acted on behalf of Daesh is of little significance, as terrorist strategy takes advantage any opportunity that offers operational benefits. For example, Palestinian organizations for a long time refused to accept women for suicide operations, however after the attack by Wafa Idris, not only they accepted women[6], but generally the Second Intifada had a strong female presence. If this attack proves to have given Daesh more leverage, opening new, effective ways to pose a danger, then we will see it embracing it and- why not- calling for more women to carry out such operations. It remains to be seen whether this will stay a one-time event, or it can become the beginning of a new threat trend.

We must always expect terrorist groups to evolve their operational choices and this includes also the profile of terror perpetrators recruited. Women have put their mark for years now in terrorism, however surviving social stereotypes can still present them as innocent, nurturing, peaceful, motherly, incapable and above suspicion for crude violence. Although such labels are far from real, they help organizations appear very strong and dangerous when they use women operatives. If Daesh can mobilize “even women” to carry out jihad, then part of the public may feel more frightened about the organization’s capacity to strike. Furthermore, Daesh will add one more “novelty” to its operational presence in the West, reinforcing its terror branding. For researchers all the above mean we have to start seriously looking at radicalization to violence patterns for women that can help us come up with suggestions about gender tailor made prevention measures, in order to reduce a potential female recruitment pool for jihad.






[6] On the subject and also the strategic use of women in extremism with the example of Palestinian organizations, see also