Misogyny Is a Precursor to Terrorism

As the last of the January 6 rioters received their sentences in December 2023, the American justice system continues to reel from one of the most egregious acts of domestic terrorism in decades without really having reckoned with one of the key problems at its core: misogyny. While we frequently ascribe acts of terror to political or religious extremism, violence against women is actually one of the leading precursors to terrorism—both domestically, like in the case of the January 6 rioters, and internationally, with groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

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The story is the same all over the world. The Manchester Arena bomber, Salman Abedi, who killed 22 people and wounded more than a thousand in an ISIS-affiliated attack in 2017, punched a female fellow student in the head because he thought her skirt was too short while studying at Manchester College in 2012.            

Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old “involuntary celibate” who went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, cited his immense hatred for women as his motivation for the attack. (“There is no creature more evil and depraved than the human female,” Rodger wrote in his notorious 141-page manifesto.) Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, in a racism-fueled domestic terrorism attack, cited a form of patriarchal control over women as partial motivation for the shooting. (A witness reported Roof said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country” as he opened fire on a Bible study group at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, all of whom were Black.)

The list goes on: The Orlando, Florida, shooter Omar Mateen had a history of abusing his own wife; Connor Betts, who killed nine people, including his own sister, in Dayton, Ohio, in 2019, had been suspended from school for circulating a list of girls he wanted to rape. At least nine of the January 6th insurrectionists had histories of violence against women; Guy Reffitt, a member of two far-right militias who was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison for his actions during the January 6th riot, admitted to police in a 2018 interview that he had choked his wife during a domestic dispute. Mass shootings, a form of terrorism that occurs frequently in the U.S., are committed overwhelmingly by men with histories of gender-based violence: One 2019 analysis by Mother Jones found that more than a third of the perpetrators of mass shootings since 2011 had a documented history of violence against women. Violence often leads to more violence, and women are typically the first target.

Read More: Disinformation Campaigns Against Women Are a National Security Threat, New Study Finds

This was especially evident in the case of Moussa Elhassani and his wife Samantha Elhassani, also known as Samantha Sally. When then 31-year-old Moussa joined the Islamic State in April 2015 as a sniper, his friends and family back in Elkhart, Indiana were genuinely surprised. Unlike his brother Abdelhadi, who also joined ISIS after crossing the border with Moussa from Turkey into Syria, Moussa wasn’t some zealot. In fact, he wasn’t even really religious at all. But for Moussa and so many other men who have pledged allegiance to ISIS, going to Syria wasn’t about ideology, or religion, or fanaticism. Rather, the allure involved entitlement, control, and violence–particularly against women.

Long before Moussa made the decision to join the Islamic State and terrorize entire nations, the victims of his violence were much closer to home. His ex-wife, Amber, and the woman he was married to when he died, Samantha, both say he was physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive. After Moussa hit her in a fight, Amber eventually broke up with him. But for Samantha, who had a child with him and no income of her own, leaving was much more complicated. When Moussa left the U.S. to join the Islamic State and live in Syria, she left with him, thereby becoming an accomplice to his heinous crimes. Samantha served time in an American prison for her role in aiding and abetting the Islamic State, making her both a victim and perpetrator of violence.

Domestic abuse is insidious, and Samantha’s was no exception. By the time she realized that her partner wasn’t the charming man she fell in love with—on the contrary, he was controlling and violent—she was trapped. Who could have expected her to know where the relationship would take her when even experts in the geopolitics of global terrorism struggle to spot the straight line between patriarchal violence at home and extremist violence in the streets?

According to a 2022 study from Westpoint’s Combating Terrorism center, “One-third (36%) of all Islamic State defendants with a criminal history had prior arrests for domestic abuse and/or assault, which correlates to 11% of all Islamic State defendants.” This is unsurprising, considering male violence, misogyny, and conservative gender roles are part of the ideological fabric of terrorist groups like ISIS, used as both a recruiting tool and a justification for horrors. The Islamic State’s slickly-produced propaganda promised potential recruits the option to live in a sex-segregated, male-controlled utopia, where non-Muslim women could be used as sex slaves and violence against women as a tool of control wasn’t just permissible but encouraged.

Never seriously punished for his marital abuse, Moussa eventually became desensitized to violence and confident in his power. He became brazen enough to commit violent acts in public. America’s culture around intimate partner violence—underreported, under-punished, often ignored—kept us from spotting a budding terrorist in the making.

“The female relatives of extremists are often their first victims,” writes Joan Smith in Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists. “Domestic violence is a useful apprenticeship for men who are planning to crush passers-by under the wheels of an SUV or stab strangers with kitchen knives; men who have become desensitized to violence in the home are very dangerous.”

Not all men who commit domestic abuse become terrorists, of course; most do not. But in the cases of many men who become terrorists, including Moussa Elhassani, the willingness to commit violence and the susceptibility to misogynistic thinking are already there long before they make the decision to commit an act of terror.

Violence against women isn’t a shameful family secret, one to be sorted out in private amongst family members; instead, it’s a warning sign of the possibility of more violence to come, on a larger scale, and at great public cost. Despite this, domestic abuse is often dismissed, and abusers receive very limited punishment. In Indiana, for example, where Moussa and Samantha Elhassani lived before leaving for Syria, domestic abuse such as pulling hair, shoving and “improper touching” is a misdemeanor that often results in a fine and no meaningful criminal punishment. If we want to stop the next terrorist attack, whether at home or abroad, we must start to treat the crime of domestic violence with the seriousness it deserves. That means listening to victims, establishing effective criminal punishments, and breaking the cycle of abuse—before it escalates.

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