The first time I viewed an al Qaeda recruitment video, I squinted at a scratchy black blob shimmying across the screen. It took a moment to recognize this was an amateur effort to obliterate the image of a woman from a clip of a politician’s visit to Saudi Arabia. The blob was evidently his wife. I wondered at the time it must have taken to erase her from every frame. Of all the rapid-fire images of death and destruction in the video, I found this one the most chilling.
That same feeling surfaced in the days after Seal Team Six killed Osama bin Laden two years ago. I watched talking heads on every network hold forth on the takedown. Almost without exception, they were men. I felt like my female colleagues had been erased from the picture.
In the 1990s it was largely women who tracked the threat from bin Laden, who pieced together slivers of data to form a surprisingly accurate picture of an international terror network that had yet to announce its existence to the world.
When Greg Barker interviewed me for the documentary “Manhunt,” he asked what it was that made women so good at tracking terrorists. I felt a moment of panic at being led into the minefield of gender stereotypes. I worried about discounting the efforts of some excellent male counterterrorism analysts I had known. Then I thought to myself, “Yes, women do have a special genius for the job.”