The spectacular rise of female suicide bombers

Posted in Terrorism | 03-Apr-06 | Author: Julian Madsen

Julian Madsen

Female suicide bombers are neither new nor unique. Rather, their embracement by Islamic groups signals a significant shift that has spurred their growth in the post-September 11 world.

Wafa Idriss defies all stereotypes. The 27 year-old Palestinian divorcee from the West Bank city of Ramallah, volunteered as a paramedic and tutored local children. Family pictures show her wearing make-up and sleeveless dresses, hardly the image of a violent extremist. Yet, on January 27, 2002, Idriss laden with explosives detonated herself in a Jerusalem street, killing one Israeli and wounding 140. Therein she entered the annals of history to become the first Palestinian female suicide bomber or shahida (Arabic for martyr). So, what drives women to such acts? And does this mean that women have achieved equality in the male domain of suicide bombings?

Mythologised as the ‘gentle sex’, women are traditionally associated with nurturing and caring. Their image as homemaker; creator, not the destroyer of life, is a theme that permeates all cultures, especially conservative societies. Thus, even more so than their male counterparts, shahidas provoke a reaction of horror and awe. Their participation tends to neutralise the brutality of their actions and re-casts them as victim, whose grievances must be addressed. “The day I detonate myself and it is publicised that I am a wife and a mother, the world may be jolted into wondering and asking why”, explains a Palestinian would-be bomber.

Yet, contrary to popular perceptions, these martyrs are neither new nor do they display any inherent pathology. Instead, their motivations appear to be similar to the malestream. “There is no psychological profile whatsoever for suicide terrorists” insists Scott Atran, an anthropologist of the University of Michigan. They are driven by a combination of hatred, ideology, coercion, and fear that is born out of helplessness, disempowerment and rage. They are a low-cost, high tech and lethal ‘smart bomb’ achieving a deadly balance of terror that would otherwise be unattainable against a superior enemy.

Macabrely, women’s participation in suicide bombings or martyrdom operations is in many ways an extension of women’s earlier actions. Consider ‘luminaries’ such as the ‘deadly beauty’ Leila Khaled of the Palestinian Popular Front whose reign of terror included scores of hijackings and bombings, or those of Ulrike Meinhof who led the Red Army Faction that terrorised West Germany in the seventies and eighties.

Nevertheless, what is remarkable is the occurrence and intensity of female suicide attacks and the willingness of Islamic groups to use them. Previously, Islamists including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda affiliated groups, had shunned using women. The greater acceptance of female suicide bombers since 911 confirms the fears of many security experts. “Suicide attacks have become the benchmark of commitment…it affects the whole world of terrorism because there is an imitative quality”, says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation.

Looking back The first female suicide attack occurred on March 10, 1985, when 18 year old Sumaya Sa’ad attacked an Israeli military position in South Lebanon, killing 12 soldiers. This attack, attributed to the leftist Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), was the first of five attacks women undertook, representing 40% of the organisation’s total suicide attacks.

Following Hizbullah’s success in driving Western forces from Lebanon, the secular Tamil Tigers (LTTE) of Sri Lanka began martyrdom operations. Since 1987, they have become the world’s leader in suicide bombings, responsible for 240 attacks, with women participating in a staggering 40%. Indeed, female bombers have successfully assassinated two heads of state- Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and the Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993.

More recently, Chechnya has become synonymous with shahidas. Here, the so called ‘Black Widows’, whose family members have been killed by Russian forces, have carried out 70% of all suicide attacks since 2000. The preponderance of female attacks is astonishing when compared to the gender breakdown of other suicide terror campaigns in the world, and underscores the increasingly nihilist nature of the war. Ominously, these figures do not include the 19 explosive-laden women amongst the 41 hostage takers of the Debrovka theatre siege or the two female attackers in Beslan.

Other ‘spectaculars’ attributed to the Black Widows include Russia’s own September 11, involving the downing of two commercial airlines that killed 89 people. Female attackers also bombed a train in the north Caucasus last December, killing 50 people, and a coach that killed 38. In fact, nearly all suicide attacks against Russian forces in the last two years have been executed by women.

Looking at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there was not a single case of female suicide bombing in the first Intifada (1987-93), whilst in the second Intifada (2000-), women have perpetrated some 5% of attacks, or seven in total. Whilst statistically small, they equate to 37 deaths and 300 wounded.

More recently, it appears that al Qaeda has crossed the Rubicon. A female suicide bomber is believed to have bombed the Hilton Hotel in the Sinai, Egypt that killed 34 mainly Israeli holidaymakers. This marks a radical and dangerous departure amongst global jihadi groups, and follows earlier FBI warnings that al Qaeda splinter groups may be trying to recruit female suicide bombers to attack Western airlines.

Explanations There is no single profile of a female suicide bomber. Their motives and methods are as multifarious as their backgrounds. “There are so many theories to explain women’s motivation that is impossible to sort through them”, complains one journalist.

There are obvious tactical advantages in using female bombers, it is cheap, ensures mass casualties and is comparatively low-risk to the organisation. The prospect of success is greater as women offer a veneer of non-violence and are less likely to be searched. Palestinian and Chechens have exploited this opportunity with deadly effect. Defending this radical shift in using women, the late Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said, “the male fighters face many obstacles on their way to operations, and this is a new development in our fight against the enemy. The holy war is an imperative for all Muslim men and women”.

Using women instead of men has a greater psychological impact on the target population, creating greater publicity and thereby generating a larger number of recruits. The shahidas score a propaganda goal by trying to embarrass local regimes and international opinion that things are so desperate that women are fighting instead of men.

For the woman, there are religious, nationalistic, economic and social rewards for carrying out an attack. After their deaths, their families may receive large sums of money. Additionally, suicide bombers can expect to be admired, and envied by those left behind. Photographs capture them as heroines and songs and even books written are about them.

Some Israeli commentators have suggested that Palestinian martyrs were misfits and were manipulated by males into carrying out an attack to repent some alleged impropriety. Whilst Russian critics claim that Chechen women are “sold” to terrorist organisations, drugged, and/or raped and blackmailed to carry out these acts. Yet, there is little evidence to support either of these assertions being widespread.

Moreover, these explanations divorce the actions of the shahidas from their environment and ignore the violence, despair and helplessness in which they occupy. War correspondent Anna Politkovskaya insists that Chechen women need no motivation apart from their own grief and despair. With 100,000 deaths, and Human Rights Watch claiming widespread kidnapping, rape and disappearances at the hands of Russian forces, Chechen women have not been spared in the conflict. An estimated three-quarters of women have lost relatives. Following the Moscow siege, surviving hostages recounted that their female captors spoke of ruined lives and personal agony. Following the death of her brother and husband, one of the hostage takers allegedly confided to her captive ‘I have nothing to lose, I have nobody left’.

In the Palestinian Territories, with 70% living below the poverty line of $2 a day, and more than 3,500 Palestinian deaths including over 600 children since late 2000, the sense of rage is palpable. Add to that the daily humiliation of the checkpoints, army incursions, assassination of Palestinian leaders, house demolitions, blockaded towns and the reviled ‘security wall’ that has gobbled up large sections of Palestinian land, support for suicide bombings stands at a record 50%. Citing his younger sister’s actions, Khalil Idriss says “I know why she did it…all the terrible things she saw when she worked for the ambulance service, the body parts, the children who were shot, the pregnant women who lost their babies at Israeli checkpoints”. Revenge is a powerful motivator, and when met by organisations that are ready to exploit this rage, they make an explosive combination. Still the paucity of testimonies by surviving shahidas makes the task in explaining their motives all the more difficult. Deconstructing the fusion of social, psychological, ideological and personal experiences that shape her actions will take time.