Femme Fatale: The Rise of Female Suicide Bombers
Last week, a woman in Afghanistan blew herself up after being stopped at a checkpoint in eastern Nangarhar province. She killed an officer and her three children. If suicide bombings themselves are difficult to fathom, then those conducted by women — and in this case by a mother whose own children were among the victims — are virtually impossible. Indeed, during police raids in the aftermath of last month’s multiple terrorist attacks in Paris, an explosion was initially (and inaccurately) reported as a suicide vest detonated by 26-year-old Hasna Aitboulahcen. The public response to these reports was one of surprise, fear, and fascination.
The number of women involved in suicide bombings is increasing, partly due to groups like Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, the Taliban, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). These groups are using women to commit attacks against security forces and local populations. States should be concerned about female suicide bombers’ role in creating instability. A multi-faceted approach is necessary to reverse the trend and deter female involvement in suicide bombing.
Throughout history, women have participated directly and indirectly in extremist organizations. According to a study conducted by Yoram Schweitzer, between 1985 and 2006, female bombers committed more than 220 suicide attacks, representing nearly 15 percent of the overall number of such bombings. Schweitzer’s database identified the overall number of suicide attacks, the groups that sponsored them, the gender of the attackers, the weapons used, etc. His work also identified the predominant locations where female suicide bombers have struck: Sri Lanka; Israel and Palestinian territories; Russia and Chechnya; and Turkey.
These locations correlate to the operating areas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP); and the Chechen rebels and Black Widows — groups that are historically identified as users of female suicide bombers. But determining why a group uses female suicide bombers is not always simple.
Why are More Groups Using Women as Attackers?
Several leading researchers have identified likely factors to explain why groups resort to using women to conduct suicide attacks. These may include tactical advantages: an increased number of operatives, increased media attention, and psychological effect. A study of these factors may help better understand why organizations continue to use female suicide bombers to execute critical operations as part of their overall strategy.
The tactical advantage or surprise with female suicide bombers is that females typically generate less suspicion. In 1991, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by Thenmuli Rajaratnam (code name Dhanu) when she activated a bomb — killing him, herself, and sixteen others. Dhanu was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and was able to get close enough to Gandhi for him to speak to her so she could kill him. Women and children undergo less suspicion from security forces who rightly view them as non-combatants. Women are also able to conceal explosives in clothing or fake pregnancy.
Some organizations use women as suicide bombers to increase their number of operatives. The LTTE used women was out of necessity due to the fact that the Sri Lankan government decimated the male LTTE population. Adding women to their ranks helped to support their mission and their ability to execute attacks. The LTTE’s use of women also benefited their organization by promoting the Tamil cause — the LTTE actually created their own division of women bombers called the Freedom Birds. Several other organizations recruit women as suicide bombers to bolster their numbers. With 51 percent of the population being women, it makes practical sense to use women in their organizations.
Organizations have used female suicide bombers to generate media attention, to promote their cause, and bolster recruiting. Women who commit violent acts generate more publicity. Some organizations have learned to use this to their advantage. In a 2002 interview with Agence France-Presse, Palestinian sociologist Liza Taraki concluded, “Suicide attacks are done for effect, the more dramatic the effect, the stronger the message.” In 2002, a Palestinian woman named Wafa Idris became the first widely known suicide bomber. The suicide attack transformed her into a “cult heroine” throughout the Arab region. In an editorial titled “It’s a Woman!” the Egyptian Islamist weekly Al Sha’ab wrote:
It is a woman who teaches you today a lesson in heroism, who teaches you the meaning of Jihad, and the way to die a martyr’s death. 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. … It is a woman who has now proven that the meaning of [women’s] liberation is the liberation of the body from the trials and tribulations of this world … and the acceptance of death with a powerful, courageous embrace.
World opinion also matters. With the speed of information and how quickly news can travel, contemporary media has become a critical tool for terrorist organizations to tell the public what they want them to know.
A suicide bomb attack may also create a psychological impact on the adversary or on the population. This type of attack can cause fear across villages, towns, cities, and countries. A widely known attack is when Chechen “Black Widows” were among those who seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002. Forty-one Chechen terrorists, including 19 women, held approximately 800 people hostage for three days until Russian forces stormed the building, which killed many hostages and terrorists. This incident propelled the Black Widows into the spotlight as terrorists who were committing a majority of the suicide attacks in Russia.
Why is it a Concern?
As instability in the world continues to increase, non-state actors seem to be more audacious, bold, or in some cases desperate. There are numerous examples that indicate significant participation of women in violent extremists groups. Studies suggest that women comprised 30 percent of the LTTE, 30–40 percent of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and 40 percent of Peru’s Shining Path. It is still too soon to understand the role that women have played in the ongoing attacks of Boko Haram and ISIL.
Most societies place women in specific roles — such as nurturer, mother, or caregiver — while placing men in the roles of provider, warrior, and protector. As terrorism expert and scholar Mia Bloom writes, “Few people immediately associate terrorism with women even though women have always been involved in terrorism and political violence.” These cultural biases can introduce vulnerabilities.
What can be done?
Organizations that are willing to use women to commit suicide attacks should be a genuine concern of the international community. Recent studies show that the trend appears to be increasing. A proactive approach to reversing this trend should include prevention, training, and further academic study. Are there enough resources to support young women and girls in war zones, failed states, or areas with poor economies? To combat this problem, a better understanding of the motivations associated with women who fight is needed to deter them from joining these causes. Aid, education, and better opportunities for these young women must prevail over oppression, abuse or any other reason why they might join one of these groups. Women need to know there are other options besides joining a terrorist organization.
Continued research of female suicide bombers through data collection and trends is needed to better understand this growing issue. The University of Chicago’s Project On Security and Terrorism recently released a suicide attack database to the public cataloging incidents from 1982 to 2015. The University of Chicago is one of many organizations studying this problem to better understand root causes of suicide bombers. The fruits of this study may help analysts better understand which cultures might be more likely to produce female suicide bombers, and thus help prepare our forces to confront them.
The growing trend of female suicide bombers is a strategic issue. Reversing this trend is going to require a comprehensive approach to deter groups like ISIL and Boko Haram from going down this path. No matter how shocking they remain, we can’t afford to be surprised by terrorists’ attempts to recruit and deploy female suicide bombers.
Kathleen Turner is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army currently serving as an Army War College Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed in the article are her own and do reflect a policy or position of the U.S. Army.