The Role of Women in Al Qaeda

There is something haunting and deeply sinister about the interview that NEWSWEEK TÜRKIYE's Adem Demir did with Defne Bayrak, the wife of the "CIA bomber," last week. But she seems to have quit talking since she was picked up by the cops in Istanbul, questioned, and released—and that's really too bad, because there are a whole lot of questions I'd still like to ask her.

For starters, did she put him up to the bombing? Did she, perhaps, want to be the bride of a martyr? Is this a "divorce, jihadi style"? Read what she's said so far, and you're left wondering.

At a more philosophical level, the bomber's wife put herself right in the middle of a raging debate among Muslim women. A few weeks ago the spouse of Al Qaeda's Ayman Zawahiri published a letter "To the Muslim Sisters" encouraging them to support violent jihad any way they could. There's not much question that Bayrak is one of those sisters. But there are also a great many Muslim women and organizations like those that have signed onto the manifesto called "Jihad Against Violence" issued last summer by the WISE Muslim Women's Shura Council. Dense with references to the Quran, it argues that violent extremism and domestic violence in Muslim households are all part of the same tendency to pervert the Prophet's teachings and read the words of Allah out of context. I'd like to hear Bayrak explain herself to those sisters.

Radicalization is not a mechanical process. It is deeply emotional and personal—especially when suicide is involved. For a well-read woman like Bayrak it is also an intellectual journey. Was she along for the ride, merely doing her husband's bidding, or was he doing hers?

Humam al-Balawi, the 32-year-old Jordanian doctor who blew himself up along with seven CIA employees and a Jordanian handler in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, was always a pretty lonely guy. According to his mother, Shnara Fadel al-Balawi, he had "a social phobia." She told NEWSWEEK's Ranya Kadri that he seemed to live his life on the Internet. Whether he focused entirely on jihad there or indulged in other vices, we don't know. In any case, while he was in medical school in Turkey in the late 1990s, he got tired of using technology and started looking to meet women face to face—good, religious women, of course. He first came across Defne Bayrak in a chat room. An aspiring journalist who was a few months younger than he, she had just recently started wearing the hijab, or head covering, that is a clear political as well as religious statement in modern Turkey.

As Bayrak describes their relationship, it was a rather cold-blooded contract in the beginning. They decided to get married, she said, after they "evaluated and agreed on [their] opinions, family structure, and friendship." Soon afterward they moved to his hometown of Amman, Jordan. Their two daughters were born in 2003 and 2004, and they all lived in the same house with his parents. Every so often, Bayrak would go back to Turkey, but Humam didn't join her.

While he was struggling with his medical career, working in different Jordanian hospitals, she was developing hers as a propagandist for violent jihad. Over the last decade, this has become a key role for women who sympathize with Al Qaeda. "There is an army of female organizers, proselytizers, teachers, translators and fund-raisers, who either enlist with their husbands or succeed those who are jailed or killed," writes American scholar Mia Bloom in a draft of her forthcoming book, Bombshell: Women and Terror (Penguin, August 2010). "A significant development in women's participation in the global Jihad has been the dissemination of radical ideologies on-line. The Internet has afforded Jihadi women ... the opportunity to participate in Jihad without compromising their position and inferior status in the society. Articles, communiqués and online chat rooms offer women the space to express their fanatical support."

One of the most famous examples is Malika al-Aroud, the Belgian widow of one of the suicide bombers who killed Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in September 2001, a strategic murder carried out by Al Qaeda just before its attacks on New York and Washington. Now awaiting trial in connection with an alleged terrorist plot in Belgium, Al-Aroud grew famous earlier this decade writing in French under the pseudonym Oum Obeyda. "It's not my role to set off bombs—that's ridiculous," she told The New York Times in 2008. "I have a weapon. It's to write. It's to speak out. That's my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb."

Bayrak seems to have taken precisely that attitude when she was translating books like Bin Laden: The Che Guevara of the East from Arabic into Turkish. And while she makes her husband's blogging about jihad sound as if it was all his idea all along, you have to wonder if she was reading—and editing—over his shoulder.

It's worth remembering that the widow of a man who kills himself or is killed in combat often gains status from her late husband's "martyrdom." One famous bride of a member of Al Qaeda's inner circle, Rabia (formerly Robyn) Hutchinson, is an Australian convert to Islam who's had so many husbands that one former CIA agent reportedly calls her "the Elizabeth Taylor of the jihad." Others, more charitably, call her "the matriarch of radical Islam." A recent book about Hutchinson by Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Sally Neighbor, "The Mother of Mohammed" (Melbourne University Press, 2009), describes her as a "mysterious black-veiled woman, with the broad Australian accent and fiery Scottish temperament." It also notes that she has been officially designated as a threat to Australia's national security.

Bayrak may earn a similar label in Turkey. What her plans for the future are, she did not say. But she seems never to have been very concerned when she talked to al-Balawi. "In all our conversations, when he would say, 'God forbid, if something happens to me what would you do without me?' I would tell him: 'God is generous, great, He is the one to provide people with one's livelihood.' This is my belief. At the end, this is about belief. In my belief, it was his time for death. You cannot postpone it. It is so in the Quran."

Bayrak was speaking last week before the release of a posthumous video in which al-Balawi claimed to have carried out his attack to take revenge on the Americans for killing Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. But it's interesting to see the way Bayrak questions whether her husband was really up to the task. "I did not think he would carry out a mission of martyrdom. That is my surprise," said Bayrak. "If he is a martyr, let's pray Allah blesses his martyrdom. Because only Allah knows about martyrdom. Today, especially, this concept is made very cheap. Today they call everybody a martyr. My husband tried to do something for his belief. He managed to do a big mission."

One can only hope that the next man she marries is not so effective.