The past year has been characterized by an increase in suicide bombings perpetrated by women. Suicide attacks continued to be conducted by Chechnyan and Palestinian women, but also began to be seen in rather unexpected countries such as Iraq. There was also a thwarted attack in Morocco. Moreover, an FBI report expressed concern over the forming of al-Qaeda female units.
October 2002 A crowded Moscow theater was overtaken by about 50 abductors, 18 of them women dressed in black and wearing explosive belts. This marked the first time in the history of female suicide terrorism that such a team was established, signaling a shift from an individual action to a group structure. Although large-scale operations occurred in the past, only an small number of women had assumed the role of warriors. May 12, 2003 Two suicide bombers—one of them a woman—drove an explosives-laden truck into a Chechen government compound, killing more than 60 people. May 14, 2003 During a busy Muslim festival, a female suicide bomber detonated her explosive belt in an attempt to kill Chechnya’s Moscow-appointed leader, Akhmad Kadyrov. He survived the attack, but the explosion claimed 16 lives and left 145 wounded. A second female suicide bomber killed only herself in a second blast. June 5, 2003 A Russian Air Force bus was targeted in North Ossetia by a female suicide bomber. Seventeen people died in the attack. June 20, 2003 In Grozny, a suicide truck bomb perpetrated by a man and a woman targeted Russian Government buildings, killing eight, and wounding 25 people. July 5, 2003 Two female suicide bombers detonated their bombs 10 minutes apart at a Moscow suburb open-air rock festival, killing 14 people, and wounding 60. Most of the casualties were caused by the second blast, with the first bomber killing only herself. The Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported that another bomb was discovered at an entrance and defused by the police. A suspect involved in the bombings is still at large. July 10, 2003 A bomb expert was killed after an apparent mechanical failure prevented a female suicide bomber from detonating her bomb at a downtown Moscow restaurant. The failed attack might be connected to the afore-mentioned July 5th attacks. The female bomber, Zarema Muzhikhoyeva, was arrested and charged with various counts, including terrorism and premeditated murder. More significantly, her arrest and interrogation uncovered information on some elements of the terror group behind the plot. The 22-year-old woman revealed that her intended target was a MacDonald’s restaurant, but she got lost due to her lack of familiarity with the city and eventually entered the closest caf?, where she tried to detonate the defective bomb and was caught. July 27, 2003 Southeast of Grozny, a female suicide bomber detonated her explosive charge at a military base, as the son of Mr. Kadyrov was reviewing troops. Interfax News Agency reported that security forces were searching for another female bomber suspected to be on a mission to assassinate Kadyrov. December 5, 2003 A female suicide bomber blew up in a commuter train in Southern Russia, Killing 42 people and wounding more than 150. Two or three other women were involved in the attack. December 9, 2003 Two female suicide bombers detonated their charges near the Red Square in the heart of Moscow, killing 6 people and wounding a dozen.
May 19, 2003 19-year-old Hiba Da’arma blew up at the entrance to a mall in Afulah, killing 3 civilians and wounding 83, after being stopped by security guards. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the attack, marking the first time the PIJ claimed responsibility for an attack conducted by a woman. October 4, 2003 A suicide attack was perpetrated in Haifa by a 29-year-old female lawyer in Jenin. The PIJ claimed responsibility for this attack.
April 4th 2003 a suicide car bomb attack against coalition forces was carried out by two women, killing three soldiers and wounding two civilians. A videotape subsequantly aired by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network featured the two women, holding the Quran and a machine gun and expressing their support for Saddam Hussein. Some reports indicate that one of the women might have been pregnant.
May 21, 2003 A bomb rocked the Crocodile coffee shop in Ankara frequented by students learning English in nearby private schools, claiming the life of the female terrorist. No one claimed responsibility for the blast. It is still not clear if this was an attempted suicide attack or whether the woman terrorist detonated it in the ladies room while hiding, possibly as a result of being scared off by the presence of a policeman.
In the summer of 2003, two teenage girls were arrested in Rabat and sentenced for terrorism offences. According to various reports, the two were on their way to target a liquor store, with some sources suggesting this was possibly a suicide attack plot. The teenagers were influenced by a branch of radical Islam advocated by the Salafi Jihad organization, which has been continuously gaining in strength in some suburbs.
Terrorist organizations legitimize the use of women as suicide bombers in two ways: by reference to prevalent social norms, and by religious ideology. In a society that welcomes and encourages female suicide bombers, religious legitimization in the form of edicts (fatwas) will further promote an already accepted terror tactic. Yet if fatwas are issued in a society that does not approve of such modus operandi, female suicide bombings are less likely to be promoted.
In the early part of 2003, the PIJ announced a strategic shift to a more “liberal” attitude towards women by accepting them as potential suicide bombers. As Col. (Ret.) Yoni Fighel explains, this shift aimed to upgrade the PIJ’s “operational capabilities by the introduction of a new methods to elude Israeli efforts to thwart and profile suicide attackers.” Accordingly, an active propaganda campaign targeting Palestinian universities and promoted on the PIJ’s web site was launched. An AP translation of some promotional material included the following statement, attributed to a man allegedly training female recruits: “Our women are no longer the type of women who cry or weep. We have martyrdom women now…”  Further religious legitimization was provided last May, when leading Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar, issued a fatwa in response to the female suicide bombing in Afula, asserting that “the act is a form of martyrdom for the cause of Allah… [and] that a woman should go out for jihad even without the permission of her husband…” Qaradawi notes that terror groups could benefit because women “may do what is impossible for men to do.” Hence, women are then allowed to violate “Islamic teachings,” avoid wearing the veil, and be without a male escort. It is also notable that Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheikh Yassin, condoned the use of women as suicide bombers back in February 2002. At the time, Hamas leaders declared that they had no need of female suicide bombers, as there were enough male volunteers. However, in January 2004, Reem Raiyshi, 22, a married mother of two small children, became the first woman to carry out a suicide bombing on behalf of Hamas. According to a report in Yediot Ahronot, Raiyshi was compelled to perpetrate the terror strike to atone for having betrayed her husband.
In March 2003, the FBI expressed its growing concern over the possible change of al-Qaeda’s modus operandi following reports of increased recruitment of women. Also of concern was a unit that formed around a female leader known as Umm Usama (the mother of Usama), who was reported to be in close contact with Usama Bin Laden and making extensive use of the Internet to communicate with her network. According to the London-based Saudi A-Sharq Al-Awsat, the group was modeled after and inspired by the successful integration of women by the Palestinians and Chechens, raising the specter that at some point in the future the practice of female suicide martyrdom could also be emulated. Another hint of women’s greater involvement in Bin Laden’s group dates back to March 2003, when female Pakistani neurological expert Aafia Siddiqui was sought by the FBI for her alleged links to the terror group. This marked the first time in the aftermath of September 11th that a warrant for a woman was issued in the “War on Terror.”
Reports from various human rights organizations point to the increasing role of women in the economic well being of the family. While women have been forced by societal changes to become breadwinners, they have also sadly adopted other formerly male roles—including that of suicide terrorist. The “Black Widows,” women whose husbands were killed during the war, are recruited because they are widows and there is no man to protect them anymore. It is only when they become widows that they turn to terrorism, but as will be discussed later, the motives for their involvement are more complex.
Out of the numerous attacks launched against coalition forces and civilians to date, only one was conducted by women. However, since there is a high number of readily available male warriors in the country, we can assume that at this point there is no need to recruit female bombers. Hence, no fatwa calling for female suicide actions was issued in the country thus far.
In the Palestinian territories we have seen active promotion of suicide bombers (male and female), which along with a general climate of martyrdom glorification, serves to reinforce a culture of suicide. For example, on August 15, a Palestinian youth summer camp in Gaza was inaugurated by Fatah members and named after female suicide bomber Ayyat al-Akhras. This marked the second time her name was given to a children’s camp. Moreover, school textbooks inculcate children with hate and encourage death for jihad. In fact, an entire “industry” has developed around the suicide-bombing trend, which features videotapes and posters of the “shaheed” (martyr) and the “shaheeda” (female martyr) that are freely distributed and proudly displayed, as well as “martyr medallions” which are traded by school kids the way children in the West trade baseball or soccer cards.
The motivation of any suicide bomber, whether male or female, is often open to some interpretation, as the motives cannot be established with certainty. Some factors that come into play include ideological (religious or nationalist), socio-economic (including a financial incentive of special stipends handed out to the families of the bombers), and personal (specific traumas, desire for revenge, or possible psychological predisposition). In the case of the Palestinian female suicide bomber, two main factors have to be taken into consideration. First is the popular religious belief, shared by both religious and secular Palestinian Muslims, in life after death. Hence, whatever the main incentive for a suicide attack, this basic notion needs to be addressed. Secondly, while Palestinian women have carried attacks to “atone” for some infringement of propriety, the choice of becoming a suicide bomber is a rational and independent one that a Palestinian woman may make without any coercion. The Palestinian female bomber usually has a future and various paths to choose from, yet she consciously chose to carry out the suicide attack.
Since these women came from every sphere of Palestinian society, it is difficult to draw a profile of the Palestinian female suicide bomber. However, it was discovered that often the bomber’s motivation was to make a statement on behalf of Palestine or Islam, especially in the case of the religious PIJ. Yet it is interesting to note that an alleged female supervisor of a terror camp stated that “Suicide bombings have pulled women out of the boxes created by society—the box of a weeping, wailing creature always crying for help…Can anyone say that men are greater patriots than women?” Also notable is the implied notion that patriotism constitutes a motivation for suicide attacks as opposed to religious Islamic rhetoric. As noted in “Messengers of Death: female suicide bombers,” women have channeled the frustration stemming from their role in society into ruthless behavior. As highlighted above, instead of being “the weeping and wailing creature” the female Palestinian suicide bomber chooses to become a human bomb, possibly in order to demonstrate that women too can express overwhelming “patriotism” just like their male counterparts. Yet despite these notions, male terrorists are not likely to view the situation similarly and will use females merely because of narrow tactical considerations, without according them a higher social status.
In Chechnya, many reports on the actions of the “Black Widows” indicated that they have acted out of revenge. During the October 2002 theater hostage crisis, Al Jazeera aired a pre-recorded videotape featuring five of the female suicide bombers expressing their willingness and readiness to die, and justifying their acts by claiming that they are “avenging their losses.” However, the physiological test results of failed suicide bomber Muzhikhoyeva, showed traces of drugs, which may point to a certain degree of coercion. Another interesting point revealed during the interrogation of Muzhikhoyeva was the presence of a female recruiter and trainer; a middle-aged woman referred to as “Lyuba,” who might have been involved in several recent female suicide attacks. There is also a striking commonality between Chechnyan and Palestinian female suicide bombers: many of these women had family members killed as a result of involvement in terrorist activities. Thus, it is often when they were psychologically weaker that recruiters prey on them as potential suicide bombers. Col. (Ret.) Yoni Fighel adds: “…It is well known that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad use funerals and mourning booths as a potential platform for recruitment. These organizations are able to exploit the emotionally loaded circumstances, when feelings for revenge are high, for their own ends.”
The use of women—both Chechnyan and Palestinian—as human bombs as a successful modus operandi will likely continue to be an inviting option for terror groups (to a greater extent in Chechnya). Each Palestinian terror group, whether secular or religious, goes through an internal debate when it comes to including women. On the one hand, the use of women could increase the likelihood of perpetrating a successful terror attack. Yet on the other hand, the involvement of women as suicide bombers could lead to their greater inclusion in terror activity and the possibility of equality with men. The al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a branch of Arafat’s secular Fatah, and the more religious Palestinian Islamic Jihad have decided to use women, while the Hamas, although officially accepting female participation, never implemented it.
The potentially gravest and recently emerging threat comes in the form of women being utilized by al-Qaida. This concern has been reinforced by the discovery of wigs in one of the group’s caches in Saudi Arabia. Even if terrorists did not intend to carry out attacks disguised as women or using women, the disguise could have served other purposes, such as surveillance of potential targets. Furthermore, we have witnessed a trend of women being more actively involved in bin Laden’s organization, being used as messengers and helping in various logistical tasks. Other information indicates that the women’s position in the group was upgraded, as indicated by an Italian warrant for a Tunisian woman, Bentiwaa Farida Ben Bechir, allegedly active in recruiting suicide bombers to be sent to Iraq among other countries. Ben Bechir’s whereabouts are unknown, amid suggestions that she could have left Europe and gone back to Tunisia.
Since terrorists can be very adaptable and are likely to resort to previously successful modus operandi, such as the use of women bombers, counter-terrorism measures have to be adapted and evolve at the same pace. A good example has been the increased recruitment of female guards and screeners in Israel, which enable a stricter security screening of women without compromising their dignity. However, the best way to counter suicide bombing, whether perpetrated by men or women, is to eradicate the promotion campaign for suicide terrorism. If girls are presented with positive examples that do not glorify violence and death, they are more likely to become productive and positive adults instead of seeking to sow destruction and find glory in a martyr’s death. But in a society where death is more highly regarded than life, a fundamental change must take place first. In order to eliminate the teaching of hate and promotion of violence a shift within society triggered by a committed political leadership is required. The day when posters of suicide bombers are ripped off the walls of public spaces could signal the beginning of a new era of hope and peace. In the meantime, the faces of past suicide bombers are still there.
Sources: ABC News, AP, AFP, CNN, BBC News, the English Pravda, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, Le Monde, Liberation, ICT website, ITAR-Tass, Interfax News Agency, qoqaz.net, kavkaz.org, MEMRI, the Moscow Times, MSNBC News, the Guardian, the Sunday Mail, the Telegraph, the Time Europe, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
1. Hawa Barayew is commonly recognized as the first Chechnyan female suicide bomber. 2. Abducting hostages is a common practice by the Chechen rebels. A large-scale attack was previously perpetrated in 1995 in Budennovsk, when a group of rebels seized a hospital and killed over a hundred people. A year later, an entire village of two thousand people was abducted in Dagestan. 3. Some reports indicated that the woman’s original plan was to blow up a city hospital. 4. In April 2003, a McDonald’s was targeted by a bomb in Istanbul, an attack which remains unclaimed. 5. Report from Mohammed Daraghmeh, for the AP, 31 May 2003. 6. http://www.ict.org.il/spotlight/det.cfm?id=905 7. The AP, 04/02/2003. 8. The Washington Times, 16/06/ 2003. 9. For the male suicide bomber, there is another kind of motivation that includes a sexual element. Men are said to be rewarded with 72 black eyed virgins upon their arrival in heavan. Women have no such equivalent, as a woman is not supposed to be rewarded sexually. 10. Sheikh Akrama Sabri stated during one of his sermons: “… the Muslim loves death and martyrdom. There is a great difference between he who loves the hereafter and he who loves this world…” MEMRI, N° 226, June 8, 2001. 11. Haaretz, 26/05/2003. Article by Arnon Regular. 12. The Telegraph, 20/07/2003. 13. According to Israeli sources, female suicide bomber Jaradat was approached by the PIJ during the period of mourning for her brother and her cousin. 14. http://www.ict.org.il/articles/articledet.cfm?articleid=499 15. Six Palestinian female suicide bombers were successful in their mission, but many others were intercepted before. 16. BBC News, 28/11/03.