Meet the New Face of Terror
The last thing that seven Iraqi policemen at a checkpoint in Ramadi in late July saw was a woman approaching them. Seconds later, she detonated her explosives vest, killing herself and everybody else at the site. Just two weeks earlier in Pakistan, some would-be female suicide bombers were less successful in martyring themselves. When government forces stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque, several women were among the die-hards hoping to make a stand. "We wanted to carry out suicide attacks . . . but we didn't have sufficient explosives," one woman later regretfully told the BBC.
Surprised? Don't be. Female participation in jihadist groups and operations has grown alarmingly in recent years. And unless we come to terms with the phenomenon, female Islamist militants might be an important part of our future.
Islamic puritans used to uphold a strong taboo against women's active participation in the holy struggle. In al-Qaeda's training camps in Taliban-run Afghanistan, wives were kept segregated from men, and the women's primary role was to groom their sons to follow their fathers. Moreover, many al-Qaeda members are rabid misogynists; just recall the will of the lead 9/11 hijacker, Muhammad Atta, which insisted that no women attend his funeral or visit his grave.
But since September 2001, women have become increasingly involved in Islamist terrorism. The most important underlying factor behind this troubling new trend is the jihadists' deepening sense that they are engaged in a total war against the United States and the Muslim regimes it supports. Remember, Osama bin Laden used to be a relatively lonely voice, arguing that Islam was facing an existential struggle to defend itself from the aggressive United States.
But the U.S. occupation of Iraq has convinced a vastly larger circle of militants worldwide that bin Laden's paradigm is the best way of explaining their world. All's fair in total war, many jihadists have concluded, so al-Qaeda ideologues have dropped many of their objections to women playing a more active role in their struggle. Meanwhile, women from Pakistan to Iraq to Belgium have been galvanized by images of Muslims being victimized by U.S. forces (images shrewdly amplified by al-Qaeda's propaganda machine) and have felt drawn to fight -- even as suicide bombers.
The key here is the deeply held belief in the Islamic world that Muslim lands are under attack, which lets clerics bless extraordinary actions in the name of self-defense against a rapacious West. This concept was central to a 2003 fatwa by the influential Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi that sanctioned female suicide bombings, arguing that "when the enemy assaults a given Muslim territory, it becomes incumbent upon all its residents to fight against them to the extent that a woman should go out even without the consent of her husband."
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's ideologues have taken Qaradawi's logic one step further, issuing their own online injunctions urging women to martyr themselves on any front of the "global jihad." In particular, al-Qaeda's Saudi branch launched the al-Khansa Web forum in 2004, depicting an idealized Muslim woman holding "a wild machine gun which does not rest as long as her religion is humiliated and the land is taken."
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this new phenomenon is the use of female bombers. As a tactic, this makes good sense: Women are less likely to be searched at checkpoints or borders and can hide explosives under their Islamic dress. But above all, it is the shock value of such attacks that is attractive to the militants' leaders. After all, they are out to get the maximum publicity for each attack.
One particularly worrisome growth area here is the rising number of Muslim women brought up in the West who have participated in terrorist operations -- ironically, it seems, as a result of their greater expectations of gender equality in all spheres. Strikingly, al-Qaeda's second-ever female suicide bomber was Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian convert to Islam who traveled to Iraq in late 2005 to conduct a suicide operation. (Degauque triggered her suicide vest as a U.S. patrol passed her in Baquba, north of Baghdad, in November 2005, killing herself but no U.S. soldiers.) Similarly, the wives of the members of the so-called Hofstad group, which has been linked to the assassination of the controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004, engaged in target practice, and one female member of the group even accompanied her husband on an unsuccessful mission to kill the feminist parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And al-Qaeda's only alleged senior female operative is Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani American who studied neuroscience at MIT and worked in the United States before she disappeared in Pakistan in 2003.
Beyond Europe, some women have launched terrorist attacks simply to seek revenge, such as many of the so-called black widow suicide bombers in Chechnya and some female recruits to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Unlike bin Laden, who has been hesitant about calling for women to fight, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, explicitly sanctioned female suicide bombings. In September 2005, in the Iraqi town of Tall Afar, the Zarqawi network used a woman in a suicide attack for the first time. Two months later, Zarqawi launched an attack against three American hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing some 60 people. One of Zarqawi's bombers was Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who had seen three of her brothers die in Iraq. (She was captured by Jordanian authorities after her explosives belt failed to detonate.)
To date, Farhana Ali, a researcher at the Rand Corp., has documented about 10 female terrorist attacks in Iraq and adds that Web sites and forums suggest that many more women are fighting alongside the insurgents. Keen to bulk up his ranks quickly, Zarqawi calculated that using female operatives could shame men into volunteering for suicide missions, and his replacements seem to agree. By being willing to use women, al-Qaeda in Iraq instantly doubled its potential number of recruits.
Increasingly, that logic is winning over the broader world of Islamist militancy. Kashmiri terrorist groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, have given women more military tasks in the past few years, including suicide attacks. In Somalia, female suicide bombers have been deployed twice in the past year. Two women blew themselves up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in March 2004, one detonating her bomb in a toy store. And in May 2005, two veiled women drove up behind a tourist bus in central Cairo and fired shots into its back window before turning their guns on themselves.