Commentary Magazine


Female Terrorism

The New York Times has another front-page story on the UK bombings today by Alan Cowell, who has a joint byline with Raymond Bonner. Is there a new spin today like there was in yesterday’s front-page story? Perhaps, but if so, its veers off in a strange direction.

The two Timesmen note that a woman has been arrested in the plot. They cite an unnamed Western official saying this is “not surprising,” as women have been previously arrested for failing to report suspects to the police. But the same anonymous official is then paraphrased saying that if the seized woman had been “directly involved in a terrorist attack on a Western country, it would be highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented.” The official is also quoted saying, “We’ve always worked on the assumption, given that many women share the same ideology as the men, that it was only a matter of time before women became involved.”

This official requested anonymity, reports the Times, “because he was not authorized to brief reporters.” But why was he not authorized? We are not told. But one reason might be that he is too ignorant to be a spokesman. If so, the Times reporters themselves did not catch on.

To begin with, if we define “Western countries” broadly to include Israel and Russia, there have been a wealth of attacks in which women have played central roles. Israel has faced a slew of female suicide bombers over the years, with the first such attack taking place against its forces in Lebanon in 1985, killing two soldiers.

In Russia, “black widows,” Chechen women whose husbands or other close relatives have been killed fighting Russian security forces, have played prominent roles in a whole series of brutal terrorist attacks. A large proportion of the 42 terrorists who seized a Moscow theater in 2002 were women; 129 of the 700 or so hostages they seized perished. Two Russian airliners that were downed by bombs simultaneously in 2004 are also thought to have been set off by Chechen women. Part of the evidence: their bodies were the only two that went unclaimed.

But if we speak of the West proper, there is West Germany, which was plagued in the 1970’s by the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhoff gang. Ulrike Marie Meinhof, who engaged in numerous acts of terrorism and also served as the group’s theoretician, was of course a woman. Irmgard Möller and Margrit Schiller were among her female accomplices in terrorist actions that took the lives of some 34 people.

But the most interesting case concerns England itself. In 1969, Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, took part in the simultaneous hijacking of four aircraft to Jordan known as Black September. In 1970, she attempted to hijack an El Al Flight heading from Amsterdam to New York. Israeli skymarshals killed one of her compatriots and overpowered her, and the flight made an emergency landing at Heathrow airport in London.

Khaled was delivered to the British police, who treated her practically like visiting royalty. Her first visitor in jail was an immigration officer who wanted to know why she had arrived in the country without a visa. Within the month, the British had released her. “When I left, they took me on a helicopter tour, saying: ‘You must see the sights of London before you go.’”

Khaled left for Jordan, but became a regular visitor to England where she made speaking engagements, and where she was lionized by left-wing British journalists. Several months before September 11, 2001 she was interviewed by the Guardian, declaring that airline hijackings were a thing of the past and recalling her fond memories of her month in police custody, “where she played badminton with her guards, while attempting to win them over to the Palestinian cause.”

What goes around evidently comes around, sometimes in a different form. But the Timesmen know nothing of this history. There is a reason why journalism is called history’s first draft—it is often in severe need of editing.