Lethal women: Why militant groups turn to female suicide bombers

Women bombers break new ground
By Neil Arun
BBC News

The majority of suicide bombers, like most of the world’s soldiers, have been young men.

But women involved in a series of recent attacks and attempted attacks – in Iraq, Jordan and Indian-administered Kashmir – are beginning to undermine this stereotype.

For modern militant groups, the advantages of using women as suicide bombers can override historical strictures against their involvement.

A woman is less likely to be intercepted precisely because she does not match the typical profile of a suicide bomber.

Attacks by women tend to be more surprising and sensational than the work of their male counterparts.

Moreover, their actions generate greater media coverage, boosting the militants’ propaganda battle.

Traditional perceptions of women as givers of life – rather than killers – are behind much of the shock their attacks excite.

Mothers and wives

Just such a shock was felt in Jordan when television showed an alleged woman bomber captured after her explosives failed to detonate.

But Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, who said she had been hoping to die in the manner of her husband, an Iraqi national alleged to have blown up the Radisson SAS hotel in Amman last week, was not al-Qaeda’s first female recruit.

In September 2005, eight people were killed in the Iraqi town of Talafar by a woman suicide bomber, said to have been sent by al-Qaeda.

According to BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy, the organisation’s occasional use of female bombers defies most of its ideologues, who have argued that women can best serve the jihad as dutiful wives and mothers to fighters.

Female involvement in al-Qaeda bombings is therefore likely to remain an eye-catching exception rather than becoming a rule, he says.

Indigenous traditions

Elsewhere in the Islamic world however, women suicide bombers are better established.

Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev has long boasted of his regiment of Black Widows, the wives of men apparently killed by Russian forces.

Images of women strapped with explosives and wearing black veils, revealing only their eyes, became icons of the rebels’ bloody hostage-taking operations in Beslan and a Moscow theatre.

During a four-month period in 2003, six out of seven Chechen suicide attacks were carried out by women.

Their high profile proves the national tradition in the Chechen insurgency has survived the import of a more conservative Wahabbi Islam by Arab fighters to the region.

‘Love of victims’

Anger at losing loved ones to conflict appears to be a major source of motivation among female suicide bombers.

The first suicide bombing by a Palestinian woman in Israel was carried out by a 28-year-old paramedic, Wafa Idris, in January 2003.

Her mother later said that her daughter had probably been motivated “by all the wounded people she saw in ambulances”.

Some scientists who have studied suicide bombers say this is not surprising – many of their subjects are driven more by a love of the victims of perceived injustices rather than by any hatred of the injustices’ perpetrators.

Conservative worldview

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the insurgency in Iraq, where suicide bombings are a near-daily occurrence, have promoted a view of the suicide bomber as a male motivated by a sense of injustice against Islam.

However, some of the most lethal exponents of suicide bombing have been neither male nor Muslim.

Women bombers were widely used by Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka, most dramatically in the 1991 assassination of the former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Young women, with no dependents, are said to be among those most commonly chosen for suicide missions by the Tigers.

Women bombers have also been used by Kurdish guerrilla groups operating in Turkey.

Like the Tamil Tigers, the Kurdish groups are motivated more by a nationalistic cause than a religious one.

Experts remain unsure whether female suicide bombers will be more widely deployed by al-Qaeda, whose conservative Sunni Muslim worldview restricts women to domestic duties.

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