How Do We Learn?

By Dr. Christopher C. Harmon

Bren Chair for Great Powers Competition


How is it that we anticipate a coming threat, so as to understand and meet it?

Unusually, the danger may be new.  The Internet was revolutionary, so cyber attack is largely a new threat to us.  It cannot be met by hiring more postal inspectors but must be considered and defeated by other experts – many quite young -- in very arcane and technical fields.  That is true even though collective response may also be shaped by senior leaders and thinkers whose experience with traditional strategy problems is far longer. 

More usually, a “new” danger reflects older threat patterns.  So, what we already know can be matched with copious imagination, as well as that special prudence that envisions how a new problem fits into wider circumstances and longer-term questions. 

Consider the similarity between the 1930s bomber fleets that threatened Europe and the more recent challenge of intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Winston Churchill had heard all the arguments that “the bomber will always get through” but he and a few British scientists such as R. V. Jones and Frederick Lindeman declined pessimism; they sorted out the problem in the early 1940s, becoming able to take down unnumbered Luftwaffe bombers with varied tricks and tactics and new shells.  So when the ICBM came along, aging British strategists and weapons specialists were in splendid position to challenge contemporaries to figure out how to knock those speedier threats down too.  Across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan and defense planners could learn by the analogy, not just with new research and development.  Reagan’s own bold 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative, publicly ridiculed by hundreds of scientists who could only see the difficulties, turned out to be practical after all; SDI is now well-known to have helped win the Cold War, as surely as a version of it shields Israeli territory today.  

This “flying peril” example suggests how we can be ignited by fresh new thoughts when considering older innovations or problem-solving.  The continuities in human affairs and strategic problems are immense, and command such thinking because, in fact, the brand “new” often isn’t.  I worked for several good years for a Director of Command and Staff College at Marine Corps University who loved that saying “If you want a new idea, read an old book.”  He was a creative, forward-leaning thinker, and there was always a history book on his list of reading for that month.  Something of this approach to learning and thinking is suggested by the keeping of certain “old” books on each “new” issue of the Commandant’s Reading List.   

In our day a seemingly new challenge is the female terrorist.  The concept is still frightening and foreign to citizens, and even to many a policeman, and it disturbs our military personnel for cultural and other reasons.  Academics are focusing on the problem, as they should.  When she was with the Marines’ Center for Cultural Lessons Learned, Paula Holmes-Eber joined me in a hunt through terrorism’s history for examples, and patterns among perpetrators, to help us understand the emergent present.  This Anthropologist and Middle East specialist and I found variety and depth in the ranks of violent female undergrounders. 

Who runs today’s terrorist safe houses?  Few think about it, but the good histories on terrorism are instructive.  Dr. Holmes-Eber and I found women in that role in many past conflicts, including the 1950s war of the (Algerian) National Liberation Front with France.  Without generating suspicion, women make trips to the market or a water well; prepare large and extra meals; arrange overt or covert visits by doctors at night; serve as a message center—with or without electrical service; offer exhausted fighters space to sleep; store supplies or propaganda; and do a dozen other important things.  Young FLN women also carried and placed bombs, were lionized for it—and sometimes were captured and tried for the offense. Regularly they were weapons couriers for other fighters.  As Marines well know from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is most awkward to search Muslim women—and males may well decline, or fail to be sufficiently skeptical about who they are dealing with.   

The role of financier to an insurgency or terror group is another place women have frequently served, as Jessica Davis recognizes in many asides in her 2017 book Women in Modern Terrorism: From Liberation Wars to Global Jihad and the Islamic State.[i]  Skill with money accounts is valuable, and in the case of insurgency, there is usually a kind of proto-government in which all aspects of administration including finance are key to success and to popular credibility.  Not all the swaggering young men of Somalia’s Al Shabaab or Columbia’s ELN have such skills, or want them, yet they need their pay, and their collective operations must be paid for, planned for.  Women often play the role of purse manager.  And they may be better at it than men because so few outsiders expect it.  Women are simply less suspicious as runners of funds to banks, or money laundries, or clients expecting payment.  Drug gangs in our major cities know to put the well-dressed lady on the train with the briefcase full of money…and so do terrorists.    

These and other roles for women in terrorist undergrounds have been common yet they are not commonly recognized.  Third World “armies of national liberation” manifest big numbers of women and girls, usually trained in small arms (as pseudo-infantry); the Nicaraguan Sandinistas of the late 20th century were one example; Marxist Leninist fighters in Colombia today are another. Many women have been hijackers, and at least two wrote valuable memoirs: Kim Hyun Hee of Korea, and Palestinian Leila Khaled.  Outside a few cases, these are not discussed in Women in Modern Terrorism.  The author drives instead toward what fascinates most people: suicide bombers.  Once there were none on record; today there have been hundreds; this is a very lethal trend.  Jessica Davis documents the rise with statistics and news stories, including unsuccessful and successful attacks, and in several theaters.  This is something new under the sun.  Much else about women in terrorism is no trend at all; it’s old hat but widespread and thus needing better recognition in this new book.  Thousands of females have had roles in which they do not explode; recognition of that fact helps us immeasurably to analyze terror groups, and it also reduces our surprise when a tiny minority do choose to explode.     

Ms. Davis reaches a conclusion, in the course of her multi-chapter work:  in the end, it seems that females join terror groups for about the same reasons males do.  A reasonable conclusion—but it is the thesis of Eileen MacDonald, who published a larger and better book in 1992.  Davis shares the error of most current writers—male and female—of knowing nothing of that important collection of cases studies from around the world.  Despite a racy title, Shoot the Women First by Macdonald is an unknown book; one exception is author Farhana Qazi whose 2018 book Invisible Martyrs recognizes that ground-breaker.  A journalist, Macdonald came to her conclusion after extensive field interviews, distinguishing herself from many in academic settings who do too little of that kind of research.  My own writing on women in terrorism (within a book of 2000, and a co-authored article of 2014) shares that shortfall and would have been better with interviews of terrorists, police, etc.  

Court records can be a boon to researchers, although only a minority of terrorism specialists consult them—such as Washington D. C. area professor Aaron Danis of the Institute of World Politics.  For me, it was invaluable to see even a few days of the trials in Hartford CT of some Los Macheteros--violent Puerto Rican separatists--and read indictments and court papers.  Would that I had found the time to study the court papers on Dianne Y. Omang (called Ma Amand Puja), the registered nurse who was the science mastermind behind a mass poisoning with salmonella in Wasco Country Oregon in 1984, which aimed to throw an election.  We would all profit from a thorough English-language report on the recent court records in Japan about Aum Shinrikyo, to learn more about the elevation of skilled females to the group’s top levels in technology; bio-weapon engineering, and finances.  

Manuals are priceless.  For a few years in our School of Advanced Warfighting I taught a seminar with the “Manchester manual” for training Al Qaeda, and since then we have all the tradecraft displays in Inspire, the e-magazine from that group’s Yemen office.  The new (Davis) volume on women in modern terrorism does well to have a chapter on the Tamil Tigresses in Sri Lanka, but it would have been vastly improved by thinking through Adele Balasingham’s advisory and training manual for females in that insurgency.  Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers (1993) is easily available with a web search.  The cover carries the author as “Adele Ann,” who has survived the terrorist and guerrilla war she helped make. Why would so valuable a primary source, which is at hand, go neglected by an author making plenty of space for quotations from other academics writing from afar?  The Davis volume also neglects a tremendous aid to our thinking through the roles of women in IS.  Although the Quilliam Foundation in London had translated and published a fascinating ISIS manual[ii] for “its” women, this source went unmentioned and unemployed in this book of two years later, 2017.   

The new book notes that female roles in leadership of terror groups is rare, without decisiveness on why that may be.  Readers may not deserve an answer to a question so difficult, but many readers would feel they deserve at least a snapshot or two of some remarkable women who have in fact held reins of power within terrorist groups.  In Peru, Sendero Luminoso was led by a male, but it has been reported that his top deputies were females.  In Germany, the famous Baader-Meinhof gang was a troika: one man and two women (Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof).  And when the latest German neo-fascist killing gang was exposed, it was also a troika of decision-makers: two men and a woman; the latter was the only survivor to get to trial, Beata Zschape.  American Bernardine Dohrn of the Weather Underground and Fusako Shigenobu of the Japanese Red Army each led important communist terrorist groups….but communists all somehow fell out, beyond the parameters of this book, despite its broad title and subtitle.    

Also neglected is a highly-important female, and sole leader, of People’s Mujahidin e Khalq, a large, perhaps totalitarian group of Iranian dissidents.  When her husband disappeared years ago, Ms. Maryam Rajavi succeeded to power over the group’s organizational units in Iraq and Europe (especially France, and later Albania).  She has since been a busy author of books, a good organizer, and a master of politics.  The latter extends to the strategic choice of pulling back MEK from violence: by the fall of 2012, the European and U.S. governments had crowned her choice and her efforts by removing MEK from state terrorism lists.[iii]  In 2017 and 2018, as in earlier years, important Americans such as former New York city mayor Rudy Giuliani are speaking at her rallies in Europe.

Nearly all influential personalities and big actresses on the world stage are missing from this little paperback.  It does offer some new material on Boko Haram in Nigeria, and proffers certain insights on other regions outside Africa.  Our author made strong use of sound original works by Brigitte Nacos and the multi-lingual, globe-trotting scholar Mia Bloom.  Davis has not neglected Christoph Reuter, a German journalist who wrote well and carefully in 2002 about terrorist suicides of both sexes in the Middle East.  But the deficits in the 2017 book are many.  There are few to no primary sources.  We rarely hear the words of the terrorists themselves—although, being fiercely political, nearly all terrorists have done media interviews, confessed to police, made videos, or done something else revealing of state of mind, or on political purposes.  Some female violent extremists have even written monographs or autobiographies.  This new book, like so many of the journal articles published by academics today, is too much about other terrorism writers and never enough about the principals—that is, the women who took up violence.   

It is fall.  The latest literary leaves slowly pile up, and all their color surely grabs our attention.  Any book on female suicides will do so. But to learn, we must not neglect the vital trees from which such leaves fall.  Like the males, who outnumber them, the girls and women who make terrorism have names, and personal histories, and important jobs inside their groups, and many of them have taken the trouble to write.  They should not be sidelined; they are the very center of the analytic work to be done.  

Christopher C. Harmon, Bren Chair of Great Power Competition, serves Marine Corps University, its foundation (MCUF), and the Krulak Center for Innovation & Creativity.  Dr. Harmon’s most recent articles about terrorism have been in Combating Terrorism Exchange, the geopolitics journal Orbis, and Oxford Bibliographies.    



[i] Jessica Davis, Women in Modern Terrorism: From Liberation Wars to Global Jihad and the Islamic State (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2017).

[ii] Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al Khanssaa Brigade, ed. Charlie Winter (London: Quilliam Foundation, Feb. 2015).

[iii] Christopher C. Harmon and Randall G. Bowdish, The Terrorist Argument: Modern Advocacy and Propaganda (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2018).

Marine Corps University