On the Cusp: The Next Wave of Female Suicide Bombers?

MIN READSep 19, 2007 | 17:56 GMT

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart Two recent incidents have called attention to one of the possible repercussions of military operations waged against large groups of Islamist militants. The first incident occurred Sept. 2, when the Lebanese army took complete control of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Tripoli, overrunning the last remaining Fatah al-Islam militants who had been holed up in the camp since May. Shortly before this final offensive was launched, the Lebanese army allowed the last of the militants' wives and children to evacuate the camp. The women allegedly were subjected to "gruesome" interrogations by Lebanese intelligence officers who were attempting to gather crucial information on the remaining militants in the camp prior to their assault. The women also were reportedly subjected to invasive searches by female military personnel. Most of the haggard-looking women who left the Nahr el-Bared camp are in their early 20s. In the second incident, which occurred Sept. 13, a suicide bomber detonated in the mess hall of a military facility belonging to the Pakistani army's elite Special Services Group in the town of Tarbela Ghazi, Pakistan, killing 20 people and injuring 42. The attack was the latest in a wave of suicide bombings that have wracked Pakistan since the Pakistani army's assault in July against militants barricaded inside the Red Mosque — an assault led by commandos of the Special Services Group. A report in the Indian media suggests the suicide bomber was a Pakistani military officer who had lost his younger sister in the Red Mosque operation. This report likely is not true, but nevertheless it raises the issue of the hundreds of women who were involved with the militants in the Red Mosque, many of whom were young students at Jamia Hafsa, the female madrassah affiliated with the Red Mosque. These two operations were led by national armies in two totally different regions of the world, but their respective targets, concentration of militant Islamists and bloody and violent outcomes — which, in both cases, were provoked and precipitated by the militants — were very similar. The operations also were analogous in that they directly affected hundreds of radicalized young women who survived the operations. The factors raise the possibility that at least some of these women could go on to form the next wave of female suicide bombers.


Female suicide bombers are not a new phenomenon. They have been around for more than 20 years and have arrived in several waves. The first wave occurred in Lebanon in the mid-1980s. Though Lebanon is where Hezbollah pioneered modern militant suicide bombers, the women in the first wave were not fundamentalist Muslims; they were secular members of the communist Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party who conducted suicide car bomb attacks against the Israeli military and the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army from 1985 to 1987. The second wave of female suicide operatives began on May 21, 1991, when a female member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after placing a garland around his neck at a political rally. Since the Gandhi assassination, the Tigers have used more female suicide bombers than any other militant group, reportedly deploying at least 46 women on suicide missions since 1991. From 1996 to 1999, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) carried out a series of attacks against Turkish military and police targets using female suicide bombers. Several of the PKK operatives strapped their explosive devices to their stomachs to give the appearance that they were pregnant. From 2000 to 2004, female Chechen militants, often referred to as "Black Widows," were involved in several suicide attacks against Russian military targets in Chechnya, civilian targets in Russia — such as subways, rock concerts and airliners — and an assassination attempt against the Chechen president. The bulk of the attacks in this wave occurred in 2003 and 2004. Female militants also played visible roles in the dramatic Chechen hostage operations, such as the October 2002 seizure of a Moscow theater and the September 2004 seizure of a school in Beslan. The Chechen group was the first radical Islamist or jihadist organization to employ women as suicide bombers. Though the jihadist theology is very chauvinistic and the concept of martyrdom it dwells upon is largely focused on men, the concept of women martyrs is supported in the Koran. Indeed, Islam's first martyr was a woman named Somaiya. Therefore, it is not surprising to see such groups apply the arguments they use to justify men's martyrdom via suicide bombing to women as well. In addition to the anger and revenge motives frequently seen in other female suicide bombers, the Muslim concept of martyrdom involves the forgiveness of all sins and immediate entrance into paradise, so suicide bombing often is seen as an avenue to atone for the shame and sins of an extramarital affair or out-of-wedlock pregnancy. With the beginning of the second or "al-Aqsa" Intifada in September 2000, suicide bombers became a commonly used weapon for Palestinian militant groups. However, when Israeli security responded to the rash of suicide bombings by instituting security measures that prevented most of the male suicide bombers from reaching their targets, the Palestinians countered those measures by employing female bombers. The Palestinian militant groups began using female suicide bombers in 2002, when a 28-year-old woman affiliated with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade detonated in Jerusalem, killing one other person and wounding 100. Following the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade's lead, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas also have deployed female suicide bombers in attacks against Israel. The wave of Palestinian suicide bombers — and particularly female Palestinian suicide bombers — has waned dramatically since its peak in 2002-2003; there have been no reports of female Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel since 2005 (though there were two female suicide bomb attacks against Israeli forces in Gaza in November 2006). Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq got into the female suicide bomber business in late 2005, and Iraq is currently where female suicide operatives are used most frequently. Perhaps al Qaeda in Iraq's most highly publicized use of such an operative was in the Nov. 9, 2005, bombing attack against three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan. The female operative involved in the attack against a wedding reception in the Radisson SAS hotel attempted to detonate her suicide belt at the same time as her husband, but her device failed and her videotaped confession was widely covered by the world media. The publicity surrounding the Amman bombings eclipsed another interesting case that happened that same day in Baghdad, when a Belgian-born convert to Islam attacked a U.S. motorcade and became the first European female suicide bomber. Some recent Internet reports suggest that the Islamic State of Iraq — the al Qaeda-led jihadist group alliance — has announced that it has formed a special all-female suicide bomber brigade and made an appeal for women to join it. However, the jihadists have sporadically employed female suicide bombers in Iraq since 2005 — some were used as recently as this summer — so even if this report is true, the formation of such a brigade likely will not make much difference tactically, as the use of female suicide bombers in Iraq is expected to continue. However, the creation of such a unit within the Islamic State of Iraq would seem to be ideologically important, signifying that the concept of female suicide bombers is gaining more widespread acceptance in the jihadist community.


The advantages to using suicide bombers are obvious. They allow militant organizations to use "human smart bombs" who can guide ordnance around security measures and place a device in close proximity to a target — such as a heavily packed crowd in a wedding reception, subway car or hotel lobby. Because of this, militant operational planners can use suicide bombers to cause more damage than would be inflicted by a larger device that detonates farther from its intended target. Smaller explosive devices also are more economical to make. A large truck bomb might contain several hundred pounds of explosives and can only be used in a single location. With the same quantity of explosives required for one truck bomb, dozens of 10- to 20-pound suicide devices can be made. This allows for multiple simultaneous attacks, such as those witnessed in Amman, or the July 2005 London attacks or October 2005 Bali suicide attacks — though it also can allow for a prolonged series of attacks. Women provide a tactical advantage in that they do not fit many law enforcement and security professionals' preconceived profile of a terrorist. Mohammed Atta now personifies that profile, but a slightly built 20-year-old woman does not and will not receive the same scrutiny. There also are cultural issues associated with searching women — or even looking at them for that matter. This is especially true of Muslim women and of women in general in many Islamic countries. This means that female operatives are given a free pass at many security checkpoints. These cultural and attitudinal issues are expanded when combined with physical issues such as the burqa and the niqab (face covering) that obscures a woman's face. Such clothing not only makes it very easy to conceal an explosive device or other weapon but also hides many of the nonverbal cues that security forces are taught to look for when identifying possible suicide bombers. These factors sometimes lead male militants in Muslim countries to dress as women to attempt to gain an operational advantage. Suicide bombers targeting VIPs pose unique challenges to protective details due to the close proximity of unscreened people at public events and the VIPs' desire to shake hands and mingle. The use of female suicide bombers in such a situation can be even more effective, as executive protection personnel are less likely to view them as a threat. This tactic was used not only in the Gandhi assassination but also in the May 2003 attempt on then-Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov. Using women as suicide bombers also provides militant organizations with a larger pool of operatives and allows a militant organization to deploy its male operatives for other types of missions. The psychological impact that comes with using female suicide bombers also is dramatic.

A Grim Forecast

In addition to the continuation of the current wave of female suicide bombers in Iraq, there soon could be new waves of female suicide bombers spawned by the recent events in Nahr el-Bared and the Red Mosque. Before the storming of the Red Mosque, the students at the madrassahs associated with it were involved in a number of high-profile incidents. Following the July 2005 London bombings, Pakistani authorities attempted to raid the mosque to look for evidence tying the institution to the bombings; they were met by baton-wielding women who denied them entry to the facility. Earlier this year, authorities in Islamabad began to demolish part of the mosque that they said infringed on public land. This resulted in a group of female students (some toting Kalashnikovs) occupying an adjacent children's library and barricading themselves inside. Later this spring, students took two groups of women hostage (including one group of Chinese expatriates) whom they accused of engaging in prostitution. In May, the students abducted four policemen and held them in exchange for some arrested colleagues. In all of these militant activities, the female students from Jamia Hafsa were in the thick of the trouble. Given the historical trajectory of female suicide bombers and the concept's acceptance in the jihadist community in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, and considering the conditions that have produced female suicide bombers in the past, it is not hard to forecast that some of the young women who survived the bloody attacks against the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp and the Red Mosque will go on to become suicide bombers. In fact, when one considers all the militant activity the women from Jamia Hafsa have been involved in so far, it is amazing they have not yet been involved in a suicide bombing in Pakistan. Editor's Note: A mistake that originally ran in this analysis has been corrected.

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