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A National Security Blind Spot

WASHINGTON, DC – Erin Saltman saw a disturbing trend. For months, the senior counter-extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue had obsessively tracked the profiles of more than 130 Western women who had joined the Islamic State (ISIS). Saltman and her team noticed that instead of journeying through Turkey to reach ISIS headquarters in Syria, the women were heading straight to Libya. Because women’s roles within ISIS are related mostly to reproduction and consolidating territory, Saltman was able to deduce the reason: “ISIS wasn’t just looking to have combat forces in Libya, but also to build statehood there,” she explained. “We flagged and highlighted that before security forces were aware of it.”

To Saltman, investing time and money to think about the differences between men’s and women’s movement in ISIS wasn’t “about gender equality. It was about having a better grasp on the security issues at hand.”

It’s a radical idea. Considering the divergent ways men and women might act, think, or respond is not just ticking a politically correct box. It can actually help us craft better policy and identify emerging threats.

Yet many policymakers in the United States and around the world still don’t seem able to grasp that examining the behavior of women and men alike can improve their analysis and their proposed measures. New America recently conducted unprecedented research to find out whether and how, after nearly two decades of research, data, and advocacy has crystallized the crucial linkage between gender and national security, US officials consider it when formulating policy. The short answer is: they mostly don’t.