“I have to tell the world that if they do not defend us, then we have to defend ourselves with the only thing we have, our bodies. Our bodies are the only fighting means at our disposal.” – Hiba, 28-year old, mother of five, Suicide Bomber Trainee –
The growing use of female suicide bombers among different terrorist organizations forces us to reconsider our thoughts on what appears to be an effective strategic weapon. Their deployment has become so effective that they pose a threat not only to national security, but to individual Americans as well.
Most media accounts dangerously critique this phenomenon as that of females being either the victims of abusive men who drug them into suicide or grieving widows who sacrifice themselves over the loss of husbands, sons or other male family members.
Doing so perpetuates the stereotype of female existence being nothing more than a product of male constructs – which may neglect to prepare us to address and train for the potential of female suicide bombers.
This paper argues that female suicide bombers are instead willing warriors on the battlefield who use the most lethal weapon at their disposal – their bodies.
Acknowledging the success of female suicide bombers – as well as analyzing their motives and deployment – will help us formulate counter-measures and policies to address these potential dangers in the future.
While suicide (inithar) is considered to be an individual act condemned in Islam, many militant religious leaders assert that the act of martyrdom (istishhad) is a public act performed for the greater good and therefore rewarded as heroic by God.
The use of suicide bombers is increasing, as seen in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian intifadas, civil wars in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, the Irish Republican Army of Northern Ireland, the Chechens in Russian, and Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Southeast Asia.
The combination of suicide attacks and bombings carry a psychological effect inflicting profound fear and anxiety on the general public. At the same time, suicide bombings somehow generate empathy for both the victims and the bombers, which attract media attention for the attacking organization, making their use ideal for terrorists.
Suicide bombers possess many advantages over other forms of attack. They are low cost, require little training, low risk, and a near guarantee that the mission will succeed with maximum efficiency as the attacker is able to easily adjust the point of attack.
He or she is able to choose the precise place and time for attack – with ultimate surprise – causing the greatest number of casualties and/or property damage. It is an easily available weapon, inexpensive to deploy, yet expensive to prevent.
Lastly, a suicide bomber is much less likely to reveal confidential information to the enemy as the attacker’s death is almost guaranteed, leaving behind little evidence, and the difficulty of planning an exit strategy or rescue missions is eliminated (Yaregal, 2011).
Ultimately, suicide attacks have proven to be the most efficient form of terrorism. While they accounted for only three percent of all terrorist incidents, they have caused “half of the total deaths due to terrorism – even if one excludes the unusually large number of fatalities of 9/11” (Zedalis, 2004).
Suicide bombings in Palestine between 2000 and 2002, “caused about 44 percent of all Israeli casualties, despite representing only 1 percent of the total number of attacks during the period” (Yaregal, 2011).
In considering the September 11, 2001 attacks alone, the astronomical property damage as well as death of some 3,000 people by only 19 suicide attackers is a result that could hardly have been achieved with a conventional attack.
“It is a woman who teaches you today a lesson in heroism, who teaches you the meaning of Jihad… It is a woman who has inscribed, in the letters of fire, the battle of martyrdom that horrified the heart of the enemy’s entity. It is a woman who has shocked the enemy, with her thin, meager, and weak body… It is a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about women’s weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement” – (from the Middle East Media Research Institute, quoting a Feb. 2, 2002 Egyptian Al-Sha’ab newspaper article) (MEMRI, 2002).
While female suicide bombers are a relatively new trend, they have become particularly frequent among Muslim terror groups and are responsible for an estimated 30 percent of the recent trend of Islamic suicide bombings (Yaregal, 2011).
One of the earliest female suicide bombers was in Lebanon in April 1985. Sana’a Youcef Mehaidli – a 16-year-old member of the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party- drove an explosives-laden truck into an Israeli Defense Force convoy, killing two soldiers and injuring one other.
The May 21, 1991 assassination of Indian’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi is attributed to female suicide bomber Thenmuli Rajatnam – member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Fourteen others were also killed during this attack (Yaregal, 2011).
On January 27, 2002, Wafa Idris became the first Palestinian woman to perpetrate an act of suicide terror detonating a backpack filled with explosives in a downtown shopping district, killing one elderly Israeli man and wounding more than 100 others (BBC, 2002; Bloom, 2007).
The 2002 Nord-Ost Theatre siege in Moscow – lasting from Oct. 23rd to the 26th – resulted in the deaths of over 170 people, including 133 hostages and all 41 attackers. Nineteen of the attackers (practically half) were females.
One January 14, 2004, 22-year-old Palestinian Reem al-Reyashi killed four Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint during a suicide bombing attack, leaving behind a husband, a 3-year-old son, and a 1-year-old daughter.
Four females were involved in the 2004 Beslan Elementary School tragedy in Russia – which lasted from Sept. 1st to Sept. 3rd and resulted in at least 385 deaths, including 186 children, and 783 injured.
Posing as the pregnant wife of a soldier on her way to the maternity clinic, on April 26, 2006 Kanapathipillai Manjula Devi penetrated a military hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka and detonated her explosives. Revealing her tactical prowess, she even visited the maternity clinic several weeks prior to her attack to maintain her cover (Kemoklidze, 2009).
Much media attention was focused on Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Sept, 2013 call for small scale “lone wolf” attacks in the United States (Corera, 2013). Yet, other than in scholarly writings, little awareness was made of Umayma al-Zawahiri – wife of al-Zawahiri – and her 2009 open letter calling on women to join terrorist organizations as suicide bombers (Stofer & Addison, 2012).
Terrorist groups that have publicized their use of females include the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP/PPS), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Chechen rebels, Al Aqsa Martyrs, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and, most recently, Hamas (Zedalis, 2004).
Reports are that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin – a Hamas spiritual leader – earlier denounced the use of female suicide bombers “for reasons of modesty,” but by 2004 changed his position. He cited the use of female suicide bombers as “a significant evolution in our fight. The male fighters face many challenges… women are like the reserve army, when there is a necessity, we use them” (Zedalis, 2004).
Magnus Ranstrop, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence is quoted as touting female suicide bombers as, “the ultimate weapon… you can assimilate among the people and attack with an element of surprise that has an incredible and devastating shock value.”
As one commander in charge of training female suicide bombers was quoted, “the body has become our most potent weapon. When we searched for new ways to resist the security complications facing us, we discovered that our women could be an advantage (Zedalis, 2004).
Among the obvious advantages for terrorists’ use of female suicide bombers include: 1) tactical advantage (stealthier attacks, element of surprise as male security guards are often hesitant to search females, and the stereotype that females are non-violent), 2) they offer an increased number of combatants for terrorist groups, 3) increased publicity of their attacks (which helps to recruit new members) and 4) the psychological effect (including possible sympathy for the attackers, as has been seen repeatedly in media accounts) (Zedalis, 2004).
Ghosh (2008) notes that female suicide bomber success rates can be attributed to ingrained cultural norms which forbid male security personnel from properly screening female subjects, while simultaneously frowning on female participation as security forces. The results often allow women free passage into otherwise restricted area.
Kemoklidze (2009) takes particular issue with the idea of female suicide bombers being viewed simply as victims, writing that, “the problem is that societies continue to be blinded by the traditional gender dichotomy, seeing women as victims and men as defenders. These long prearranged gender attributes are reinforced on a daily basis in people’s minds by the mass media… In almost every female suicide bombing case, there is an increasing urge to search for some personal story of this or that particular woman which is not always the case when suicide bombings involve men.”
Attacks by women receive eight times the media coverage as attacks by men. Such coverage tends to garner sympathy for not only the victims, but the female attackers as well. Terrorist use this sympathy in deploying female suicide bombers knowing that it will not only assist in recruiting efforts, but gain sympathy for their efforts among the general public.
With the increased use of female suicide bombers, terrorists have taken advantage of the tactical concept of surprise by using the most unlikely suspect to perpetuate attacks. This tactic guarantees shock value as well, and should cause major concern for their increased use.
Studies show that the only reliable characteristic of female suicide bombers is that – like their male counterparts – they are young, averaging between 21.5 to 23 years of age. Some are widows, while others are married or divorced; some are unemployed, others are professionals; some are poor, others are middle class.
Other studies show that – as female suicide bombers are often overlooked in counterterrorism efforts – they are able to easily reach high value targets and therefore render more lethal attacks.
Recognizing that female suicide bombers possess the same motivations as their male counterparts – and may be key players in future attacks – can help individual citizens formulate effective counter-measures that will help protect their families and property.
Keith Pounds is a former hospital corpsman (medic) having served in the U.S. Navy and with the Marines. In 2012, he was designated as an Honorary Green Beret by the S.C. Chapter of the Special Forces Association. He holds an MBA with a concentration in organizational psychology and is the president and CEO of Countercon, a Columbia, S.C.-based counterterrorism consulting company.
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