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My first day at the Counterterrorism Center began with a bombing. In October 2000, al-Qaeda killed seventeen American sailors and injured nearly forty when a small boat carrying explosives crashed into a US Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, in Yemen’s Aden harbor. This was the deadliest attack against an American ship since 1987, when an Iraqi jet aircraft fired missiles at the USS Stark.

Men and women clad in business suits ran down the hallway. Everyone headed to the same large conference room. When the director, Cofer Black, entered, there was silence.

“We have been hit,” he said.

We are at war with al-Qaeda—an enemy we don’t understand.

In my mid-twenties, I was one of the youngest counterterrorism analysts and the first Muslim female to join the center. I knew I had much to learn. The daily dose of intelligence was mind-numbing. I memorized facts and details by keeping a dossier of terrorist attacks and tried to make my own predictions. Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. Would it do that again? In summer 1998, two US embassies in Africa were struck the same day. Could multipronged attacks signal a new tactic? In 2002, Wafa Idris became the first female Palestinian suicide bomber when she detonated a twenty-two-pound bomb in Jerusalem and killed more than one hundred people. Were women the new stealth bomb?

The bombing of the USS Cole proved that Muslim terrorists could take the world by surprise by conducting an attack in the most unpredictable place with an unimaginable tactic. Identifying radical men—and later women—who acted in the name of Islam forced me to reexamine my faith. Unfortunately, there was no one with whom I could discuss the tenets of Islam or radical Islam and make sense of intelligence reporting. I was the first American Muslim in the center, so I had to rely on my own knowledge of Islamic literature, history, and scripture to explain—or not explain—the use of violence by radicalized Muslims.

Tracking terrorists was unlike anything I knew how to do. I had no role model and no mentor, only my trusted friend Sara. There were no savvy spy scholars in the building, and certainly no Muslim intellectuals I could lean on to explain the perversion of Islam. I am reminded of the film The Recruit, in which the CIA instructor played by Al Pacino tells a class of young recruits, “Trust yourself.” For as long as I worked in the center, I had no one but myself to lean on. I knew I had to persuade and prevail in an environment where intolerance and ignorance of my faith existed. I had a great deal of work ahead of me to convince my colleagues and managers of the beauty within Islam; the majority of Muslims believe in dialogue and nonviolent protest to oppose war, conflict, and crimes committed against Muslims.

At the time, given the nature of our work and the around-the-clock schedule of monitoring threats, it was nearly impossible to develop a mentoring program to guide a new hire. Luckily, I had an outside mentor for life, Dr. Jerrold Post, a prominent psychiatrist known for profiling hostile leaders, including the late demagogues Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Dr. Post showed me, through case studies and his own interviews of terrorists, that they could also be heartbreakingly human: terrorists may have loved and lost; they may have been troubled children or traumatized adults; and their disconnectedness from life led them to constantly push for survival and sanity. He taught me what I always believed: that radical Muslims chose suicidal death in the form of what they considered to be labeled martyrdom operations as the answer to restorative justice because they believed it was the way into the Afterlife.

While committing to the cause in this life, but focused on Paradise, terrorists were reborn—the Afterlife was their quantum leap.

As much as I admired Dr. Post, he could not tell me about the secret world I was about to enter, except that I belonged at the center. “They need someone with your knowledge of Islam. If there’s anyone who can understand, it’s you,” he said. He graced me with his gentleness and gifted me his understanding, and decades of real research, on Muslim terrorists.

Inside the center, I led a bizarre life. I learned the tradecraft and skills that would serve me well after leaving the US government. I traveled to foreign cities and met people whom I never would have known, had I chosen a normal nine-to-five day job in the private sector, at a think tank, or at a newspaper.

Working in the center taught me a valuable lesson: Nothing is as it seems. In those early years, I was haunted by visions of being followed. I often looked over my shoulder. I minced my words when speaking with family members and relatives, including those who had become naturalized Americans. I was on the constant lookout for anything or anyone suspicious—my life revolved around the idea that our enemies are everywhere.

From the inside of my cubicle, the dark and disturbing world of religious extremism defied everything I had been taught about Islam and contradicted what I had seen of good Muslim women and their men. I had not considered that seemingly pious Muslim women, with or without the hijab (veil), would support extremist men or strap on the suicide belt, which meant leaving a family behind—in Islam, a woman’s first responsibility is her family, not the terrorist organization she joins. I had never considered that a Muslim woman could be as absurdly daring, deceiving, and deranged as male terrorists. Nor had I foreseen that Muslim women with children could impugn their gender and destroy families with senseless acts of violence.

I had always believed that women everywhere were nurturers of their society.

Many women raised children and worked; others simply worked. Whatever their choices, women were symbols of strength and love. Nothing about a woman wearing a bomb, encouraging her men to be terrorists, or publishing violent poetry made her compassionate, even when she claimed to be supporting violence so that future generations of children could live. That argument rarely persuaded moderate Muslims to join a violent cause or organization.

During my career, the appearance of names of radical Muslim women on my computer screen compelled me to report them to the White House and other senior officials in the US government. I needed to warn the officials. I drafted an intelligence assessment with the catchy title, “From Rocking the Cradle to Rocking the World: Why Muslim Women Kill,” which I published in an international women’s journal when the original report was declassified in 2005.

But the early warnings did not change policy. In those early days, there were too few extremist women to justify initiating dramatic change or transforming the way we collected and analyzed intelligence—until the question of female detainees was raised. One morning, a government psychiatrist asked me to write an instructional guide on how to treat captured Muslim women.

“We have to be prepared,” she said. “We need to know what to do, and you can help us.”

Because I am Muslim? Because I know what a violent Muslim woman looks like? Because I know what a female terrorist is thinking when she commits or supports terrorism? Or maybe you think I can stop these women with Islamic scripture?

I had not contemplated what I might do if actually faced with a female terrorist, a psychopath who shared my faith.

Before I began my work in the center, I had known the ugly truth. The pages of history are filled with violent acts committed by women from different religious traditions. They have been responsible for terrible crimes: fratricide, infanticide, serial murder, torture, massacres, judicial murder, and suicide terrorism—a relatively new form of violence committed by radical men and the women who join them.

Statistically, however, women are not the deadlier sex. Women represent less than 2 percent of the world’s serial killers, and today’s female suicide bombers are a small fraction of male bombers. So unusual are Muslim female terrorists that they are vilified for committing the type of crime that men are most likely to commit but also for the fact of being female. How could a woman have done such a terrible thing? For years, I have had to address this simple question with complex answers, harking back to my government service that changed the way I looked at love’s martyrs—females dying for a cause, community, country, and more. Their death was an assault on my religion.

Before 9/11, the mission was simple and clear: find terrorists and ascertain their motives, messages, and multiple networks of support. This is what I had been trained to do. In the center, I was labeled the Islam expert by some. Analysts and managers asked me questions about doctrine. Some questioned Islam itself. Others mocked my religion and conflated it with radical Islam.

If we are going to defeat religious extremism, we need to learn how they think.

Each day, I reminded myself that the center chose me, the Punjabi girl from Texas, to help fight the enemies of America. While serving my country, I had a more personal reason for staying in the center: I wanted to prove that Islam is a religion of peace, mercy, and compassion; that radical women (and men) destroyed the teachings of Islam by re-creating scripture through visions of death and false promises of glory for the martyrs in love with a flight to Heaven.

Within a short time, I earned a reputation and recognition for my service, answering the late-night phone call and skipping family events to piece together intelligence assessments for the President’s Daily Brief. Those were the days when all I could say with confidence was, “This might happen.” Too many probabilities clouded in uncertainty. My secret obsession then and for years to come was to write, think, and lecture on the future—that is, the unexpected—role of radical women as they made that journey into the labyrinth of death.

Why do some women kill? That one simple question by a senior US government official would consume me my entire career.

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From a Counterterrorism Expert

I have traveled to 70+ countries, visiting with people in their communities, cities, towns and villages. As a witness to real events that affect people, I write because I care. So, when you sign up, I promise to send you insightful analysis and true stories of real people trying to survive in the world we live in today. Plus you will receive free books and updates on new books delivered to your inbox. 

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