Perspectives on Terrorism Book Review of Invisible Martyrs

Book reviews matter and I’ve been honored to receive the following reviews of my new book, Invisible Martyrs, from other scholars and kind-hearted readers. I’m honored to have this review from Joshua Sinai published in the “Counterterrorism Bookshelf” section of the Perspectives on Terrorism journal, Volume 12, Issue 5. 

Farhana Qazi, Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Radicals (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018), 216 pages, US $ 19.99 [Paperback], ISBN: 978-1-6265-6790-0.

This is a conceptually innovative and highly-informed account of the appeal of violent extremism to the tiny minority of Muslim women who leave their homes, especially in Western countries, to join foreign terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (IS). What makes this account especially important is the author’s personal background as a Pakistani Muslim immigrant to America, her extensive experience as a government expert at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and her field research, which included interviewing female Muslim extremists. To explain this phenomenon, the author formulates an analytic framework based on the ‘Three Cs’: culture (e.g., the strongly held religious beliefs and religious rights and wrongs promulgated by violent Islamist extremists, including the appeal of entering paradise by conducting martyrdom operations), context (e.g., the “push and pull” factors for radicalization, such as their perceived sense of injustice done to the Muslim community in overseas conflicts affecting their brethren that need to be avenged), and capability (e.g., their competence in attaining the ability to become violent extremists, such as traveling to join a jihadist struggle in a conflict zone such as Syria for training in firearms to carry out their attacks). This framework is applied to examining several cases of Muslim female extremists who had decided to embark on violent trajectories into terrorism, such as Tashfeen Malik, who had carried out a terrorist attack with her husband, Syed Farook, in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015; Shannon Maureen Conley, a convert to Islam from Arvada, Colorado, who was arrested at Denver International Airport during her attempt to travel to Syria to join the IS on July 2, 2014; and others, including several extremist British females who had joined IS in Syria where they married jihadi fighters who later died in battle. What can be done to defeat such violent extremism? The burden, the author concludes, primarily lies with the Muslim world “to eradicate the conditions that lead to radical recruitment,” including teaching a more moderate and tolerant form of Islam and promoting “active female participation, rebuilding civil society, legislating educational reform, accounting for human rights abuses, and abetting Muslim women’s organizations” (p. 161). The author is a gender expert instructor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and a Research Fellow at the Center for Global Policy.

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If you haven’t read the book, you can read an excerpt below.



For years, I dreamt of hijackings on airplanes. In my dreams, men with dark eyes wear raven-black masks and wield sharp weapons. They speak a language I vaguely understand and make plans to strike a passenger. At that moment, I rise from my seat to announce my faith.

La illaha illa la Muhammadan rasulilah There is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet. I say it three times.

The masked men stop. They look at each other. They don’t know what to say or do. I clutch on to the scarf pulled out of my handbag and recite the first lines in the Quran, The Opening Verse. The men remain standing, motionless. Until someone says in Gulf-accented Arabic, “Who are you?”

In the dream, Sara is always next to me.

We have been together for as long as I can remember. We went to the same college in Texas, the Lone Star State, overlooking hill country and then, I followed her to the same graduate school in Washington, DC. We both joined The Counter-Terrorism Center. We have so much in common: we love to travel to the Middle East; write and speak on foreign policy issues; learn foreign languages—Sara mastered Pashto, the tongue of the Afghans; and we both love mint tea.

If I had a blond-haired sister, it would be Sara. Which is why I’m not surprised that she is always with me in the hijacking dream or when I have terrible visions of being kidnapped by masked murderers—all of whom are Muslim—and I pretend to be the Muslim heroine by saving Sara.

Looking back, I know the dark dreams forced me to focus on the mission. Each morning, I donned a business suit, 24-karat gold jewelry and drove twenty minutes from my home to Langley. The guards looked the same. The glass building glinted underneath a half-sun. My key card, which let me through security and into my vaulted office, was the same royal blue background with a younger-looking me—an innocent version of myself when I had just accepted the career that would change and challenge me in unimaginable ways.

On most days, when Sara was not traveling overseas, we would talk about our lives. Our parents in Texas—her family lived in Houston, and my parents settled in Austin and lived in the same house for over thirty years. She asked me about my baby boy. I began my career as a young mother at the age of twenty-five. We talked about our work, too. The terrorists’ profiles and the countries the men belonged to.

Before 9/11, intelligence analysts investigated mostly men because women were largely invisible—we later learned that women would play a vital role in terrorist organizations as supporters, sympathizers, and staunch loyalists. Few women would covet suicide attacks.

We exchanged stories on the places we visited and the police officers, security personnel and government elites we met in foreign countries. We treasured the gifts we gave to one another. During her trip to Israel, Sara took a picture of Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a holy city where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven to speak to God. Years later, she gifted me “The Verse of the Throne,” known as Aytul Kursi, written in large golden letters over jet-black cloth sealed in a golden-glass frame.

When we worked together, Sara and I shared our secrets.

…As I learned more about Islam, I also began to look deeply at the profiles of terrorist women. The oft-repeated question of why they do it forced me to look beyond the push and pull drivers of violent extremism. I had to humanize the girls and women that committed savage crimes. I had to admit to myself that not all violent women are delusional, disturbed, depressed or distracted—that they could be rational, too.

I had to find a way to know them, the women of terror, if I was going to understand a life broken by death—a world surreal to me but real and romantic to them. Perhaps they were trapped in an endless dream, imagining a paradisiacal spot with scraps of pink clouds and the intensity of light defined as the touch of God.

In time, the agonizing dreams stopped.

To read more, you can order on Amazon.


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