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‘White Widow’, ‘Black Widow’: why do female terrorists perplex us?

While the Westgate terrorist siege in Kenya propelled terrorist group Al Shabaab and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) back onto the global scene, the alleged involvement of Samantha Lewthwaite…

British woman Samantha Lewthwaite is suspected of being a ringleader in the Kenyan mall terror attacks. But why are we so surprised at the idea of a female terrorist? EPA/Dai Kurokawa

While the Westgate terrorist siege in Kenya propelled terrorist group Al Shabaab and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) back onto the global scene, the alleged involvement of Samantha Lewthwaite, the “White Widow”, has seemingly shocked both media and audiences internationally.

A convert to Islam at the age 15, Lewthwaite married Germaine Lindsay in 2002. Born in Jamaica and also a convert to Islam, Lindsay is known for his role as one of four 7/7 London bombers. Currently suspected as a ringleader in the Westgate plot, Lewthwaite has suspected links to Al Shabaab and is wanted in Kenya over terrorism-linked charges.

While the shock of the involvement of a female terrorist has made headlines around the world, females engaging in acts of politically motivated violence is not a new, or rare, phenomenon. In fact, there is an array of examples internationally of acts carried out by females - notably including the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by Tamil Tiger suicide bomber Thenmozhi “Gayatri” Rajaratnam in 1991.

Females are often utilised by terrorist organisations for specific functions. However, why females become terrorists is often overlooked and can differ from their male counterparts.

The ‘Black Widows’

An example of where females are used prevalently in terrorist attacks are the “Black Widows” within Chechnya. The Black Widows are female suicide bombers generally of Chechen origin, who have lost husbands (though sometimes also sons and brothers) in the Chechen secession wars against Russia.

The first renowned Black Widow was Khava Barayeva, who blew herself up at a Russian military base in Chechnya in 2000. Black Widows were also involved in the 2002 siege of the Moscow Nord-Ost theatre by Chechen rebels, in which 130 hostages were killed.

Chechen ‘Black Widows’ were involved in the 2002 siege of the Nord-Ost theatre in Moscow, in which 130 hostages died. EPA/NTV

Although the Black Widows are often considered to be an overall phenomenon rather than an organised group, an alert was issued to the Russian security forces in 2004 regarding a woman known as “Black Fatima”, who was thought to be the principal recruiter of female suicide bombers within Russia. Some attacks have been carried by group calling itself the “Black Widows Brigade”.

The most recent instance of a suicide attack by a Black Widow was in May this year in Dagestan.

The ‘Mother of Believers’

One of the more controversial cases of the utilisation of women as terrorists was a previous tactic used by Ansar al Sunnah in Iraq. Known as the “Mother of Believers”, Samira Jassim admitted to recruiting, indoctrinating and training women to carry out suicide attacks for the organisation, particularly in the Baghdad and Diyala provinces.

On her arrest, Jassim said she had recruited 80 female suicide bombers, 28 of whom went on to carry out attacks. She also admitted to taking advantage of these women and had some of them raped to shame them into conducting the suicide attacks. After the rape, Jassim told the women that the only way they could escape this shameful act was to act as a suicide bomber.

Though this type of manipulation of females is incredibly rare and not generally used by terrorist organisations and insurgencies, in this case it was used as a means to carry out an attack while avoiding detection.

Why do women commit acts of terror?

From a tactical perspective, there are a variety of different reasons why women are used in terrorist campaigns. If the terrorist organisation or insurgency’s membership is depleted, women are often recruited into the movement to not only build up numbers, but also to fill tactical gaps. Women are often considered capable in achieving “surprise attacks”, because they are least expected.

Particularly in relation to attacks on “soft targets”, such as public gatherings, markets and ceremonies, women are often considered to be able to blend into the crowd and subsequently are able to avoid detection. However in some movements, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC), women are considered the military and are put on the frontline.

Women also provide material, frontline support for groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. EPA/Claudio Reyes

Why women choose to become terrorists depends on the individual, the organisation, and the political goal or aim of the group. In the case of some females - such as the Black Widows - it is to avenge the loss of a loved one such as a husband, brother, son or cousin. Sometimes the act of terrorism is also conducted to redeem the family name.

In this respect, women can become involved in terrorism for personal, rather than ideological, reasons. However, in the case of some movements like the FARC, female involvement is seen as a means of evening out patriarchy, and giving women a sense of empowerment, participation and accomplishment.

It is not surprising that significant attention has been given to the alleged involvement of the “White Widow”, because the idea of a female terrorist is unexpected and quite confronting for some. However, it is also highly unlikely this will be the last time a female terrorist is propelled onto the scene.

Join the conversation

62 Comments sorted by

  1. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    Female terrorists aren't USED by terrorist organisations, female terrorists are terrorists. And like women, men also become terrorist to avenge the loss of family.

    Problem with defining who and what is a terrorist is rather blurry these days

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  2. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    It's the white bit that's perplexing me, not the female part.

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  3. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Being 'raped to shame' as an enforcement method is hardly an incentive and is a neat mirror image in patriarchal society under patriarchal religion to the 79? heavenly virgins promised to male bombers? Does not rape count as enforced enlistment into the suicide bomber ranks Rene? "Terrorists" conscripted by sexual violence? One person's 'terrorist" is another's 'freedom fighter'? Depending on what side of what war you're on.

    The fact that this was a part Israeli-owned upmarket mall and that…

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  4. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    There are a number of possible reasons given in this article as to “Why do women commit acts of terror?”

    Only one possible reason has been referenced to some reasearch, and the others not.

    I sense the other possible reasons have been made up, and are not based on any research.

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    1. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Then I suggest you familiarize yourself better with the literature, as all have been heavily discussed in it in relation to drivers for female participation in political violence.

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    2. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Having served in the Military police in The Netherlands during the last part of the 1970's and literally having questioned individuals who were part of the familiar Euro terrorist organisations those days, you will find out very quick that gender has absolutely no place in addressing or questioning terrorism.

      You deal with fanatic psycho and sociopaths and the pseudo gender science literally will do nothing to address anything

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Ben Rich

      I would like to see references to such literature.

      I have noticed the vast majority of terrorist attacks in recent times have been carried out by peopler from a certain religion.

      I think gender has little to do with it, as few women from within that religion have opposed it.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Another possibility is that many women in that religion agree with the terrorism, but they get men to carry it out.

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    5. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      That's the difference between actually being part of that world and sitting behind a desk

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    6. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      I don't speak for others, but if you think that my view is singular than you really need to wake up and do some more study.

      You think those involved in that world really question the gender aspects of it all?

      And those working or having worked in that field aren't surprised at all, so if you think there are female drivers than explain the male drivers

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    7. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      "I don't speak for others, but if you think that my view is singular than you really need to wake up and do some more study."

      You literally contradict yourself in the space of two sentences. "I don't speak for others, but here is me speaking for others"

      Gender actually isn't my focus in political violence, but as you do actually familiarise yourself with both the literature and the actual 'field experience' you will find that it plays an important and distinct role both in terms of paths to mobilization and in COIN/CVE approaches.

      There's also the fact that plenty who have worked 'in the field', such as Kilcullen (you know, the guy who is one of the major contributors to the practice of COIN in the Western world) do feel that gender is an important factor in political violence.

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    8. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      There is no contradiction, I mentioned my experience and I know my point of view isn't singular.

      And if you think that anyone cares about the gender of a terrorist you're sadly mistaken.

      And perhaps you haven't quite noticed it Western European nations dealt quite adequate with the 1970's terrorist cells and gender had zero importance in addressing it all

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    9. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      "And perhaps you haven't quite noticed it Western European nations dealt quite adequate with the 1970's terrorist cells and gender had zero importance in addressing it all"

      That's nice in the context of 1970s Western European terrorism, but we live in 2013, where political violence is a global phenomenon where local factors, including gender, are incredibly diverse and nuanced.

      "And if you think that anyone cares about the gender of a terrorist you're sadly mistaken."

      Really? I think you should read up on this little place called 'Chechnya'. Warning: It doesn't exist in 1970s Europe.

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    10. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Awesome, what do you think 1970 Euro terrorism was about?

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    11. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Ben Rich

      "Then I suggest you familiarize yourself better with the literature"
      The literature? About Islamic splodies? Written from Clayton, Victoria, Australia? Oh yes, I'm definitely going to put that on my bed-time reading list!

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    12. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      I know right! It's not actually like you'd want to get informed on the topic; that might actually challenge you to think beyond your own narrative and prevent you from dropping those wickedsick internet burns!

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  5. Anvil Springstien

    scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

    Actually, Rene, the two most salient points surround this article are gender and press sensationalism - gender being an issue here in a way that it never was in earlier European terrorism.

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  6. John C Smith

    Auditor

    Equal opportunity in action. Defense forces are following.

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  7. Lee-Anne Walker

    logged in via Twitter

    An interesting piece on an interesting subject - the growing prevalence of women active in terrorist groups and the public's seeming horror that women are guilty of such crimes, when they are so inextricably linked to their 'female', nurturing role. Women's participation in such acts will only increase as women gain power society in general and therefore more easily able to act as conduits in these organisations for the ideology they represent.

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    1. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Lee-Anne Walker

      "Women's participation in such acts will only increase as women gain power society in general and therefore more easily able to act as conduits in these organisations for the ideology they represent."

      Hi Lee Anne.

      Women will only gain power in a secular democratic state committed to sexual equality. Hardly the type of future awaiting Samantha in the coming Caliphate, eh?

      Methinks something stinks in the state of Denmark.

      Anvil.

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  8. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    And everyone seem to forget that there were more than enough female members of the Irgun and Stern - who simply were terrorists.

    That was more than 70 years ago, hence there is no surprise about women being terrorists

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    1. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      I know right?? Its not like the article states " females engaging in acts of politically motivated violence is not a new, or rare, phenomenon." or anything!

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    2. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      You have to ask the author of the article that, so far I haven't seen anyone being perplexed by it

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    3. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Yep, so why, Ben, are we perplexed and surprised? Why has "the “White Widow”, (...) seemingly shocked both media and audiences internationally."?

      I would suggest she hasn't and this is just a media angle. Sensationalism.

      By the way, I like the article. It is well written and informative regarding women engaging in acts of motivated violence - but it misses the salient point.

      The real story here, the real elephant in the room, is the idea of a female ringleader or mastermind in an islamist…

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    4. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      Anvil, could also be about the tendency for certain individuals to make everything about gender and see the world purely in male and female.

      Just because Western feminist declare women in Islam are regarded as second class, doesn't mean that Islamic women see themselves as second class and don't like to be told by Western feminist what to do, how to live etc etc

      Purely using the Taliban and likeminded Islamic cults as an example and then try to portray as if that is the norm in the Islamic…

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    5. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      The role of women in political violence - particularly in relation to its Islamist forms- does have a noticeable impact on discourse and social consciousness, and most importantly in strategy ( I suggest Googling the term 'Female interaction team' for just one example of this), even outside of today's sensationalist news media.

      If we consider terrorism for what at its heart it is, an extreme political theater, then of course the actors involved are critical. The fact that in the case of Islamist…

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    6. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      "You don't murder and blow up men, women and children so you can feel a sense of equality, empowerment, participation and accomplishment."

      And yet at a recent lecture, Niromi de Soyza stated that one of the main reasons for her joining the LTTE was specially so that she could show the men that she was just as capable as them.

      Move outside your bubble.

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    7. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Let me state from the off, so we know were we're all coming from, that I'm not one for cultural relativism. I think it blinds us to the abuse and misery that is heaped upon large sections of our world. It allows us to opt out of analysing what we see and hinders our attempts to move toward a closer approximation of the truth.

      I would also point out that whilst I was cautious enough to use the word Islamist as opposed to Islam in the context of this discussion - the two things being quite distinct…

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    8. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      And you buy the justifications and reasoning of a terrorist, good for you.

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    9. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Really? The best response you can muster is "well she's a terrorist, so her opinion as to why SHE engaged doesn't matter"?

      So I guess we've reached the logical conclusion then, where no individual's reason for engaging in political violence matters and its all terrorists are exactly the same.

      Flawless fallacy achieved!

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    10. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Hi Ben,

      "The idea that an article of this length could really touch on that subject in any substantive fashion is fairly unrealistic."

      No Ben, I disagree. You managed to touch on the subject fairly substantively in your first two para's. Is it unrealistic to talk about the issue at hand rather than ignore it completely?

      As you say this discourse is 'critical', 'important', and 'distinct' from the sensationalism of the press.

      Anvil.

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    11. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      But it still remains beyond the scope of this article, which is really just to give people who are not aware of women's roles in political violence a bit more insight. What you are proposing is really something focused on women's roles in Islamist political violence, but Alex has tried to give a more general overview and brought in numerous other cases from across the world.

      As she specifically states in her conclusion -

      "It is not surprising that significant attention has been given to the…

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    12. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Why don't you ask other women, if that's a good enough reason to blow up and murder other women, their sons, husbands and daughters

      And if it that was her main reason to become a terrorist, than you deal with a psychopath.

      The reality of the whole thing is, who determines who and what to be a terrorist.

      The fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo were pure acts of terrorism and crimes against humanity. There was no reason for anyone to bomb the crap out of Iraq and kill tens of thousands who literally posed no threat to anyone.

      But to say you become a terrorist so you can do the same thing men do....you deal with a psychopath on every level

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    13. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Ben Rich

      "...If you actually search the article there is not a single mention of the term 'gender' and the single use of 'patriarchy' pertains to an individual case study where it is highly relevant."

      Yes Ben, that was my point. The article misses an opportunity to discuss something that is highly relevant to the issue at hand.

      Anvil.

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    14. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Nice attempt to play the strawman (I especially liked the way you integrated Dresden for irrelevant 10 Red Herring points), but this is not a discussion on the etymology of the word 'terrorism', lets stay on track.

      Mz de Soyza joined a the LTTE, designated a 'terrorist organisation' by numerous states, as a militant, in part due to her response to perceptions of gendered power structures.

      Mz de Soyza is not, as far as I or you are aware, a diagnosed psychopath or sociopath.

      You love to…

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    15. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Ben Rich

      I hope you are, otherwise that would be a rather childish remark.

      I do try and bake the odd cake but generally, when looking for a quality cake I'll go to a bakery.

      I'm just a scabby arsed and ageing stand up comic looking to learn.

      I'm not afraid to give it a go, mind, so I penned a response to Alex's article last night but have since heard nothing from the conversation? Perhaps it's just because I'm a scabby arsed and ageing stand-up comic?

      Regardless, I'll readily email it you.

      Anvil.

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    16. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      If you feel as passionate about the gap in the discourse then you should absolutely put something together. Clearly this article the content of this article is not covering the area you wish it would; I'm sure with a little research you could put something together that did address the issues you feel are being left out.

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    17. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      So men can now have rational reasons to become terrorists because there are women who claim their reason to become terrorists is because of their perception about patriarchy?

      Nice try but if you want to justify the reasons and excuses for terrorism, you are pretty well much obliged to be consistent

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    18. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Er, no? There have always been rational reasons to engage in political violence, some of them being influenced by gender. This isn't an all-or-nothing argument

      I like how you equate understanding the drivers for political violence to 'excusing' it. Seriously, these fallacies have all been addressed long ago and the research has moved on, I suggest actually reading it.

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    19. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Rational reasons for political violence? good one

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    20. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Tell that to the families of the Bali bombings and other terrorists atrocities

      They were murdered by people with rational reasons

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    21. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Ben Rich

      Sorry, lousy game, at least for the denizens of Freo - everybody around me either drunk or crying or both.

      Rene, Ben is right when he says you are equating "understanding the drivers for political violence to 'excusing' it." He is doing no such thing.

      Accusing him of such hinders any meaningful and rational discourse.

      Ben, yes I feel passionate about understanding the world around me. Shouldn't we all?

      Isn't that what this site is about?

      An article begins a discourse. In this instance…

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    22. Ben Rich

      PhD at Monash University

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      "This omission, again in my lowly opinion, brings nothing new to the table and provides an academic feedback loop of legitimacy to such sensationalist claims"

      Maybe for you specifically, but the article is not tailored specifically for you. It was clearly designed as a general educator for those who are not familiar with the topic.

      "Your assertion that I, with a 'little research', could put something together, is both condescending and arrogant."

      How is suggesting you go write an article by doing some research on the topic condescending? Are you implying you can write on a topic without any previous research? I know I sure can't. Invest that energy elsewhere, instead of complaining about imagined slights.

      As I said; if you feel an article has omitted an important gap, write your own and plug it. Criticizing an author for not approaching a topic exactly as you would benefits no one.

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    23. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Ben Rich

      "Invest that energy elsewhere, instead of complaining about imagined slights."

      Imagined slight or not, it took little energy to understand. You seem angry Ben?

      "Criticizing an author for not approaching a topic exactly as you would benefits no one."

      You should read through this statement really really really slowly...

      G'night, mate.

      Anvil.

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    24. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      Anvil, Ben thinks the whole thing is some intellectual discussion when the whole thing is rather simple.

      Power and control from all sides.

      So what motivates terrorists? Power and control

      What motivates the West? Power, control and self preservation.

      That's why Governments never leave these things to academics who come up with all these wonderful theories.

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    25. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      Morning Anvil, all good here. To bad for Freo, actually thought they might get there getting within one goal in the third quarter.

      But you're quite right, wasn't quite an informative article but a bit of sensationalism.

      And when I hear academics like that Ben stating that places like Chechnya, didn't exist in 1970's, I just stare at the ceiling and wonder what he actually does know. Chechnya was simply part of the old USSR, same as Ukrain, Belarus etc

      That's why there were never any major conflicts about borders after the break up of the USSR

      Port Adelaide - Crows final next year

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    26. Anvil Springstien

      scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Glad to hear it, Rene. I’ll stick a monkey on Adelaide and split the winnings with you if it comes off.

      In response to your previous post, we ‘could’ say that what motivates people generally is Power, Control, and Self Preservation, and we would possibly be right, but this is a sweeping statement that, whilst inherently true or correct, does not enhance our understanding of say a Bosnia, or a Syria, or explain, for example, the relationship between culture, religion, and female genital mutilation…

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    27. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Anvil Springstien

      Anvil try this one.

      Bin Laden and his mob were at one stage good mates with the US, while Bin Laden always hated the West and in particular the USA and never made a secret of that.

      But for both parties, Russia was the bigger problem, even though they hated each others guts.

      Years later Bin Laden and his mob flew planes in some buildings while he was in Afghanistan. So what happens, a war started on a country with a dictator who had nothing to do with Bin Laden and who was a stringent opponent…

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  9. Anvil Springstien

    scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

    Strange to look in on this thread and see my last post has been removed?

    I've read through both the post and the T&C's of the site several times now and fail to find anything that can be construed as anything less than fair comment.

    Is it possible to find out why this was removed?

    Anvil.

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