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."

Click here to read more about Islamist Web sites.

Al-Khansaa appears to have emerged from this prolific group of publications, and its cited "heroes" include well-known Saudi militants, some of whom have been killed by Saudi security forces in recent months.

‘The Biggest Oxymoron’

The fact that al-Khansaa is linked to Saudi Arabia — a country where women may not drive, go unveiled in public and have never voted — is an irony not lost on Sara Daly, an international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a California-based think tank.

"It's the biggest oxymoron that these Saudi jihadists are trying to get women involved, when the Saudis are not known to respect the rights of women," said Daly.

But most experts say they are not surprised by al Qaeda's latest seemingly feminine-friendly moves.

"Remember how pragmatic this group is," said Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University and author of the respected book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. "Recruiting women is a very smart strategy, because we won't think of women as terrorists — it doesn't fit the terrorist profile of young Arab males from 17 to 25."

What's more, Stern notes that the dress code for devout Muslim women and the norms for body searches make it easier for women to hide weapons and explosives.

Influenced by Palestinian and Chechen Women

Over the past year, there have been indications al Qaeda may be trying to incorporate women in its ranks.

In an interview with the influential London-based Arabic daily, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, conducted on the Internet last year, a person claiming to be a woman and "the commander of al Qaeda's women's organization" said al Qaeda was setting up training camps for women.

Calling herself Umm Osama ("mother of Osama" in Arabic), she maintained that al Qaeda's women's camps "are now a reality and a concrete fact so as to prepare Muslim women for the coming stage [of jihad]." She declined to provide further details, such as the camps' locations.

When asked about when al Qaeda first thought of establishing a women's wing, she replied that "interest increased after the martyrdom operations by women in Palestine and Chechnya."

Vehicles of Indoctrination

But while most Palestinians and Chechens are radicalized by often vicious crackdowns by Israeli and Russian forces, experts say al Qaeda's recruitment strategy in the past has relied on indoctrination provided at training camps in Afghanistan to often ill-informed young men from across the Muslim world.

With the post-9/11 crackdown on al Qaeda training camps, experts say there has been a growing emphasis on recruitment via the Internet.

And while the al-Khansaa Webzine appears to target women for operational or operational support missions, Daly believes its prime mission is a long-term strategy of using women as "vehicles for indoctrinating the next generation into a jihadist mindset."

There is no indication however, that al Qaeda has any plans for women to rise up its ranks. In her interview with Al-Sharq al-Awsat for instance, Umm Osama explicitly stated that the opinions of her fellow mujahidats were "not as important compared to the opinion of my unique brother leaders."

Spreading the Word

As for the effectiveness of al Qaeda's overtures toward women, Daly maintains that though it's still too early to judge, she has her doubts about its success. "I don't know if it will catch on," she said. "I don't think that just because women are putting up propaganda they will necessarily do it."

The al-Khansaa site is currently very hard to find on the Internet. The French server that inadvertently hosted the Webzine's inaugural issue last month later stripped it from its site. (Militant Islamist Webmasters often host their content on unsuspecting sites in a process that has come to be called "piggybacking.")

Read more about al Qaeda's "piggybacking."

But Katz has no doubt that new issues of al-Khansaa will appear on the Internet and its feminist-jihadist word will spread. "It's billed as a monthly publication," she said. "They'll manage to bring it out, believe me. Even if it goes down on one server, they'll upload it on a different server. Al-Khansaa is not going away."