In a world fraught with terrorism, a University of Regina graduate is adding to the body of knowledge about the way people, particularly women, are drawn into terrorism. In the process, she is helping governments, military, law enforcement, businesses and intelligence agencies around the world combat and prevent terrorism.

People often mishear Joana Cook BA(Hons)’10 when she tells them she researches war studies. “They say to me ‘Oh, you do horse studies,’ ” Cook laughs at the end of a long work day at King’s College London where she is a post-doctoral research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).

Cook’s PhD research examined women’s roles in counterterrorism post-9/11 with a focus on the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Yemen. But her curiosity about women in conflict was born long before a series of coordinated attacks carried out by al-Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. and injured more than 6,000 others.

At a young age, Cook often read stories of young women in conflicts like the Second World War or in the former Yugoslavia, and observed that women were often more adversely affected whenever violence was perpetuated. This realization was continuously apparent to her in topics ranging from gender-based and intimate partner violence, to the many incidences of missing and murdered Indigenous women within Canada. It bothered Cook that while women were the most impacted by conflict and violence, they weren’t always part of the solution.

As a political science student at the University of Regina, she sought to understand women’s agency in political violence, especially in parts of the world affected by conflict and war like Rwanda, Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Her learning was always meaningful,” recalls Brenda Anderson, associate professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies at Luther College. “She certainly was concerned about how the theory plays out in real life.”

Anderson recalls Cook once convincing her to offer a class – a directed reading on women in Islam – she hadn’t planned on teaching that semester. “She had started to think about the role of women in crisis areas, and specifically in places where political extremism had taken hold,” says Anderson.

But it wasn’t enough for Cook just to zero in on societal beliefs that limited the participation of women in politics. She wanted to go to the source, to see for herself.

In the years since she graduated from the University of Regina, Cook has travelled the world extensively, always on a mission to investigate women’s roles in politics and security. It is through that careful interrogation that it became clear to her the fundamental changes 9/11 had initiated for women around the world.

Luther College Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies associate professor Brenda Anderson
Luther College Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies associate professor Brenda Anderson

“It is no longer surprising if women play violent roles in a terrorist group – women have been suicide bombers in the Tamil Tigers, Boko Haram, and Islamist groups.”

She explains: “Prior to 9/11 – and I’m looking specifically at the U.S. here – there was a recognition that a lot of the development and governance work being done abroad was aimed at creating more stable societies. It wasn’t necessarily connected to counterterrorism.”

But after 9/11, Cook says, as demonstrated in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or countries like Yemen, programs that were previously focused on areas such as women’s education and skills development were reframed towards their contribution to counterterrorism.

“All of a sudden, if you wanted to access resources to support this or that program, to keep it relevant, you had to figure out all the different ways it could be seen to contribute to counterterrorism,” she says.

One result was that women became increasingly visible participants in relation to security, both positively and negatively. Because the war on terror had as its primary focus Iraq and Afghanistan, the gender-segregated cultural norms there also required that new roles for women be established within the U.S. military.

“You now needed female security personnel to engage with women in these populations, so that they could talk to women or search women,” says Cook, adding that even though they were restricted from combat roles, women often inadvertently found themselves on the front line.

Then women became more visible in terrorist groups. In 2015, increasing numbers of women from around the world were travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State group, including young women and families from Britain and Canada.

In an article Cook wrote that same year for British newspaper The Telegraph, she stated, “It is no longer surprising if women play violent roles in a terrorist group – women have been suicide bombers in the Tamil Tigers, Boko Haram, and Islamist groups in Chechnya, and have been militants in groups like the IRA and the Basque separatist movement.” She further noted, “Some have been forced or coerced into such roles, while others have been enthusiastic participants.”

Joana Cook moved to London in 2013 to complete her doctorate. She has provided analysis on terrorist issues for such media outlets as The Telegraph, The Washington Post, Time, The Huffington Post, Radio Free Europe, The National Post and on BBC World News, Sky News and CBC.

(Photo by Ivan Seifert)

Even then, Cook says, those cases of women carrying out terrorist attacks were often nationally contextual.

But that all changed with the emergence of the Islamic State group in 2014. Cook says they created roles for women in a way that was absolutely unprecedented for jihadist terrorist groups.

“A lot of that had to do with the fact that “ISIS” were framing themselves as a state-building project,” she explains. “They were putting out calls for professionals in terms of everything from teachers to nurses to doctors – any role you can think of in a state that would work specifically with other women; “Daesh” structured itself as a gender-segregated state.” (Cook refers to ISIS or Islamic State as “Daesh” because it’s a term that’s condescending to the jihadist organization, and one that the militants do not favour.)

According to Cook, many women were, and continue to be, lured from Western countries, including from Canada, to join “Daesh” in Iraq or Syria. Not surprisingly the story is different upon arrival.

“They are often immediately married off and encouraged to have kids. They may also be exposed to sexual violence and incredibly strict and conservative interpretations of how they should conduct themselves,” Cook said in an interview with Radio Free Europe, an organization that reports the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

Though horror stories are now commonplace in the media, women (and men) had continued to leave their so-called first world countries to join “Daesh” until very recently. The motivations, Cook says, were as diverse as the women themselves. There’s the pull of “Daesh” promoting itself appealingly to women, providing public services, homes or husbands. And there are other factors at play, too. For some individuals, direct manifestations of Islamophobia, such as the recent shootings at a Québec mosque in Canada, make them believe that their faith is under attack – narratives “Daesh” often emphasize in their propaganda to recruit.

“However, if you see Muslims in Canada that are equal citizens with equal rights who have a stake in society the same as any other citizen, then to me that’s demonstrative of a healthy, well-functioning society that can help prevent that kind of propaganda from resonating,” she says. “We also have to be empathetic and understand how this kind of violence affects different members of our society and how we can work together to overcome those challenges or face them more proactively.”

According to Cook, many women were, and continue to be, lured from Western countries, including from Canada, to join “Daesh” in Iraq or Syria. Not surprisingly the story is different upon arrival.

Joana Cook poses at the Scotland Yard sign in front of the Curtis Green Building on the Victoria Embankment.
Joana Cook poses at the Scotland Yard sign in front of the Curtis Green Building on the Victoria Embankment.

This June, when three men carried out a vehicle attack and went on a rampage near London Bridge, Cook was nearby in Borough Market where perpetrators stabbed people in and around pubs and restaurants. She was impressed with how quickly officers responded and how efficiently they disseminated helpful information through social media, and how citizens helped each other from the scene and came together the day after the attack.

“They could be the very ones driving those kinds of radical narratives in the home or in women’s groups,” Cook cautions. “It’s a fine balance and women have to be understood in complex terms.”

With increasing and diverse incidents of terrorism around the world, including often overlooked right-wing violence, Cook says it is now a matter of when the next attack will happen, not if. Countries like Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. are continuously assessing their responses so that they are prepared for the eventuality.

For Cook, this is all the more reason to include women in new ways of countering the rise of violent extremism. Women participate and contribute in many ways. Mothers may be well poised to detect when a family or community member is being radicalized or recruited by a terrorist organization. They can, she says, with proper guidance and assistance, help intervene and disrupt this process.

She warns, however, against a heavy reliance on stereotypical roles of women as peacemakers and caregivers, as that viewpoint can also limit the scope of what women are capable of, especially as violent actors themselves.

“We also have to be empathetic and understand how this kind of violence affects different members of our society and how we can work together to overcome those challenges or face them more proactively.”

“They could be the very ones driving those kinds of radical narratives in the home or in women’s groups,” Cook cautions. “It’s a fine balance and women have to be understood in complex terms.”

But even more strongly, she advises against the underutilization of the merits of women in all aspects of countering terrorism – women can play important roles in security forces, as community leaders, in counter and deradicalization work. As a researcher with ICSR at King’s College London and an affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), Cook has lent her expert voice to the dialogue about women in counterterrorism in wide-ranging news media and discussion forums. She has commented on stories for Time, The Washington Post, BBC and CBC, to mention but a few. And she doesn’t take lightly the opportunity to share her views on these platforms. In fact, she wishes for more women and minorities to engage in conversations about such topics as terrorism and societal violence.

Joana Cook on BBC World News talking about women and children in ISIS.
Joana Cook on BBC World News talking about women and children in ISIS.

“If you’re a woman, a Muslim, a First Nations youth or other group currently under-represented in security research, policy or practices in Canada or other countries, and you see a face resembling your own talking authoritatively about security, or shaping security policy, or playing a role in security practice, that’s very important,” Cook says.

In that way, eventually when she tells people that she studies war, their minds will not wander to horses.

About the Author

Iryn Tushabe is a Ugandan freelance journalist and writer living in Regina. Her short fiction story, A Separation, is forthcoming this fall in book seven of the Carter V. Cooper short fiction anthology.

Photos courtesy of Joana Cook unless otherwise noted.