Al Qaeda's 'Female Squads' Go Online

The contrast between the Web site's pretty pink-hued visuals, bathed in feminine shades of peach and ocher, and the strident, often incendiary text is stark and unsettling.

Against a pastel image of a road studded with roadblocks, disappearing into a desert, a banner in ornate Arabic script reads, "al-Khansaa," followed by a tagline, "published by the Women's Information Bureau in the Arabian Peninsula."

Named after a renowned Arab poetess of the early Islamic era, al-Khansaa is a Webzine ostensibly written by women and specifically targeted at women.

But instead of the usual feminine fare of food, fashion and furnishings, it provides tips on how to physically prepare for jihad, parenting advice on grooming future "lions on the battlefield" and discussions on the role of female holy fighters — mujahidat — in Islamic law.

"We will stand covered in our veils and abayas [all-encompassing robes favored by Saudi women], with our weapons in our hands and our children in our arms," proclaims the editorial in the inaugural issue of al-Khansaa, which first appeared on the Internet last month.

Linked to a sophisticated new series of militant Islamist Web sites emerging from Saudi Arabia, al-Khansaa is a disturbing pioneer in the fast-growing world of cyber jihadists.

It represents the first time al Qaeda — a chauvinistic, conservative, Sunni Muslim-led terror network — is very publicly reaching out to women on the Internet.

But even more alarming than the "feminist-jihadist" rhetoric is the fact that al Qaeda seems to be targeting a new generation of potential recruits via their mothers.

"It's a very disturbing phenomenon," said Rita Katz, director of SITE Institute, a Washington-based terrorism research group that monitors the Web. "It seeks to reach a huge, new untouched audience that will now be exposed to this dangerous message."

From the Saudi Heartland

Female militants — women joining their men in their perceived struggle against occupation or exploitation — are not a new phenomenon.

Palestinian women such as Leila Khaled in the 1970s and a handful of female suicide bombers in the occupied territories have taken up arms — and explosives — for their cause. A 19-year-old Palestinian woman blew herself up at a bus station in Jerusalem on Wednesday, killing two Israeli policemen and wounding 16 bystanders.

In recent times, Chechnya's "Black Widows," or female militants, have grabbed the spotlight with their participation in the October 2002 Moscow theater attack and last month's Beslan school siege.

  Click here for more on history's female militants.

But al Qaeda — by all accounts the biggest terrorist threat to Americans on U.S. soil — has been following a partly derived, partly concocted Islamist ideology that has so far been avowedly patriarchal.

Although al Qaeda today is a vast, nebulous terrorist network, its ideological core springs from the conservative Wahhabism of its leaders, Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri. Most al Qaeda ideologues, however, refer to themselves as Salafists, a broad, puritanical branch of Islam that includes the Wahhabi sect.

In the past few months, significant militant Islamist material has been emerging from al Qaeda's Saudi branch, including Webzines such as Sawt al Jihad — or Voice of Jihad — and al-Battar [The Sword].

The relatively sophisticated sites are edited by a group calling itself "Al Qaeda's Military Committee in the Arabian Peninsula."

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