A New Tactic in Iraq's Insurgency?

4 MINS READSep 28, 2005 | 22:48 GMT
A suicide bomber killed six people and wounded more than 25 inside a police recruitment center in the northwestern Iraqi city of Tall Afar on Sept. 28. At first glance, this could be seen as business-as-usual in the Iraqi insurgency — except for the fact that the attacker was a woman. The unprecedented use of a female suicide bomber could indicate a shift in insurgent tactics — one possibly made in desperation. The Iraqi army's 3rd Division and the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment recently concluded the two-week Operation Restoring Rights in Tall Afar, killing or capturing hundreds of insurgents and significantly disrupting insurgent power in northern Iraq. In a move to reassert their presence as soon as possible, then, the insurgent leaders who remain in Tall Afar might have chosen to use a female bomber rather than wait until a male bomber was available. Whether this woman was a willing suicide bomber, however, is unclear. Hardcore Baathist groups such as Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen paramilitary group forced women into the role during the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. As U.S. troops advanced through southern Iraq on their way to Baghdad, the Fedayeen would abduct a local woman from her home and threaten to kill her family unless she followed orders. It then would put a suicide vest on her and instruct her to approach a U.S. column. When she was close enough, the vest would be detonated. The Sept. 28 attacker, on the other hand, might have been the widow of a jihadist fighter killed in the recent operation against Tall Afar — and out for revenge. Some female suicide bombers in Israel and Chechnya reportedly have been similarly motivated. Jihadists from Uzbekistan and Chechnya have used women as suicide bombers, and Islamist militants from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas have done the same in Israel, but al Qaeda is not known to have used women in this way before. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is fairly unorthodox when it comes to standard al Qaeda tactics and ideology, might have made this decision independently. However, this new tactic — if it indeed is new and not an anomaly — could suggest that the many losses suffered by Iraq's al Qaeda branch have weakened the group. The insurgents also could be shifting tactics due to countermeasures adopted by the U.S. and Iraqi forces — as they have done in the past. Iraq's recruitment centers are well-protected by Iraqi security forces, which are getting better at spotting and stopping suicide bombers before they can reach their targets. In the Tall Afar attack, then, security possibly did not search the woman, precisely because of her gender. There have been incidents, however, in which al Qaeda males dressed as women in an effort to evade security. So, if this female attack was not the result of a shortage of male bombers, an easier tactic would have been to dress a male bomber as a woman in an all-concealing burqa. Males supposedly are on hand for this job; women would have to be recruited and trained. Since spring, U.S. and Iraq forces have conducted a sustained campaign against insurgent safe-havens and supply routes in northern and western Iraq. This pressure could be impeding the logistical support necessary for staging suicide attacks, which are more complex than other insurgent tactics. First, a suitable candidate has to be found. Although there appear to be plenty of willing candidates in the Arab and Islamist world, the process of getting volunteers into Iraq and onto the battlefield has been complicated by the offensive campaign. Second, a suicide vest has to be procured. This means finding suitable explosive materials and someone to make the vest, including rigging the detonator. If attack is to be vehicle-borne, a car must be obtained and properly rigged. All of this has to take place covertly, avoiding the scrutiny of U.S. and Iraqi security forces. A change of tactics often indicates that previous tactics are not working, or that they cannot be sustained. If this is the case, then U.S. and Iraqi operations have been effective — either by increasing pressure through military action or by improving countermeasures. The further use of female suicide bombers would suggest that the insurgents are having difficulty sustaining their suicide-bombing campaign.

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