Review – Joana Cook: A Woman’s Place. US Counterterrorism since 9/11

Julia Handle | INTERVENTIONEN – Zeitschrift für Verantwortungspädagogik | Ausgabe 14/2019

Joana Cook’s “A Woman’s Place – US Counterterrorism Since 9/11” comprises an impressive and sharp analysis of the way US presidential administrations have (or have not) included women in the discourses and practices around the Global War on Terror (GWOT) after 9/11. Holistically, Cook considers women as “actors, partners and targets of this work” (p.2). Her book is based on the premise that despite having played an important role in terrorism and counterterrorism efforts, women have often been pushed in auxiliary roles, relying on idealized roles for men and women. Historically, however, women have played more than just supporting roles as housewives and bearer of future fighters but have taken on more important und strategic roles in terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, LTTE or Tehrik-i-Talibal Pakistan (p.8). This has become especially clear in the wave of individuals who joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq: 13 % of foreign fighters are female, not included local women who have joined the terrorist organisation.

The underlying assumption of Cook’s analysis is that any counter-terrorism strategy is constructed according to the assessment of the terrorist threat. If women are considered substantial actors of terrorism, naturally, women will be included more extensively in counterterrorism strategies. Thus, if women’s roles within terrorist organisations continue to be underestimated, counterterrorism measures will fail to include gender-sensitive approaches. In order to analyse how women have become visible in the Global War on Terror since 2001, Cook has drawn upon a wide range of sources that are publicly accessible (e.g. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, National Strategy for Counterterrorism, documents produced by the Department of Defence, US State and USAID). With a focus on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Cook unravels how language determines the implementation of the GWOT regarding gender aspects and argues that the more women are included in the language and written form of policy the more women are included in practice. To break down the key factors that inform women’s roles in counterterrorism, Cook has divided the analysis into discursive, operational and institutional factors, covering national and international operational environment and objectives as well as institutional conditions.

Throughout Cook’s analysis, it becomes clear that the rhetoric as well as the practice of counterterrorism has changed regarding the incorporation of women. While still frequently being neglected in the context of security related issues and often being included in indirect counter-terrorism efforts (stabilization, peace-making, mediation) rather than in direct strategies, the role of women as actors, partners and targets of counterterrorism has become more visible. However, Cook also places emphasis on the fact that this development could change at any time along with the respective presidential administration. Since the election of Donald Trump, for instance, his “controversial and bombastic language” (p.360), his discourses around terrorism, his perception of Islam (notably his conflation of Islam and terrorism) and his focus on women as victims (of Muslim men) reduces women – again, into the roles of victims. According to Cook, the importance that is allocated to gender issues in policy-making is not more than a “minimal lip-service” (p.370).

Cook concludes her analysis with a powerful outlook on the special attention that will have to be paid to the future importance of counterterrorism as a key security focus as well as future trends in jihadist groups. She paves the way for further research expanded to more countries and the far-right extreme as well as leftist movements. As we are likely to continue to see women being pushed aside in counterterrorism efforts, a full understanding on women’s roles in terrorism and counterterrorism is essential. Cook concludes: “We must demand that women are involved in meaningful and inclusive ways in all aspects of security and particularly countering terrorism and violent extremism (in its many forms) in our societies today.” (p. 420)

Joana Cook: A Woman’s Place. US Counterterrorism since 9/11, Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2019, 592 p., ISBN 978-1787381315.