TCS Daily


Suicide Girls

By James H. Joyner - January 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Americans woke one Tuesday morning recently to news that women had strapped bombs to themselves and detonated them inside the Baghdad police academy -- killing over two dozen people and injuring nearly forty. Later in the day, the Defense Department reported that the attackers were, in fact, male and noted that suicide bombings by women have been rare in Iraq with only two such incidents recorded, one in September 2005 and another in 2003. Still, while it remains true that the typical suicide bomber is a Muslim male between the ages of 20 and 35, females are increasingly joining terrorist ranks.

Suicide has been used as a weapon of resistance since the Zealots of the 1st Century A.D. and suicide bombings have been around since the Assassins pioneered the tactic in the 11th Century. The first known female suicide bomber was Khyadali Sana, a 16-year-old member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party who killed two members of the Israeli Defense Force with a truck bomb on April 9, 1985. The modern trend can be dated from May 21, 1991, when Thenmuli Rajaratnam, a 17-year-old Tamil Tiger, killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi using a bomb strapped to her person.

The Tigers have been the most prolific employer of female suicide bombers, using them in well over a third of their two hundred attacks. The Chechen rebels have perhaps been the most effective, including an October 2002 attack in Moscow's theater center that killed 170 people.

In a June 2004 paper for the Army's Strategic Studies Institute, Debra Zedalis catalogs some of the dubious "firsts" of the genre, including the first pregnant bomber, an unknown Kurdish terrorist who killed six Turkish soldiers in June 1996. She adds,

The most recent "first" was the first female Hamas bomber, 22-year-old Reem al-Reyashi, who, on January 14, 2004, killed four Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. Of particular note is that Reem was also a mother who left behind a husband, a 3-year-old son, and a 1-year-old daughter. A "first" yet to strike is the first female suicide bomber representing Al Qaeda.

That milestone was, sadly, claimed by an unnamed woman who bombed an American compound in Tall Afar on September 28, 2005, killing five civilians. Several have joined her company since then, including Tuesday's attacks in Baghdad and a would-be bomber Saijida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi , whose husband was among the terrorists that blew up hotels in Amman, Jordan last month.

Suicide bombing has such a long history because it is such an effective tactic. It is almost impossible to stop a determined attacker who is prepared to die. Zedalis cites some additional advantages particular to women:

  • Tactical advantage: stealthier attack, element of surprise, hesitancy to search women, female stereotype (e.g. nonviolent).
  • Increased number of combatants.
  • Increased publicity (greater publicity = larger number of recruits).
  • Psychological effect.

Anne Applebaum contends it goes further than that. Writing in April 2002, shortly after an 18-year-old Palestinian girl killed herself and two others at a Jerusalem supermarket:

By sending someone like Akhras into a supermarket to set off a bomb, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade -- or its backers -- are knowingly breaking down whatever frail, lingering barriers remain between combatants and noncombatants, terrorists and innocent civilians in the Middle East. The war has come to this: Women and children are now killing women and children. ...

The message for Israel, and the rest of the world, is clear: Terrorism is not just a fringe phenomenon. Terrorists are not just strange young men whispering in dark rooms. Terrorists are high-school students, terrorists are women -- and terrorists are all around you... The point is to make the Israelis ... give up, withdraw, quit the Middle East -- or else undertake a massive and potentially disastrous military operation of the sort that may have begun this week.

Apparently, it works. President Bush remarked of the attack, "When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying, the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people."

Applebaum argues that the consternation is misplaced:

The Catholic Church has a host of martyred female saints -- Joan of Arc among them -- and women terrorists fought with Italy's Red Brigades, Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, and America's Weathermen, among many others. In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, woman combatants are hardly exceptional either: The Israeli army itself has female soldiers.

Such rationale makes sense. Murdering innocents is morally repugnant. Having the murder committed by a woman should be no more worthy of condemnation.

Regardless, and even though more than a dozen females have joined the ranks of suicide bombers since that incident, the reaction continues to be shock. Consider this New York Times profile:

Muriel Degauque, believed to be the first European Muslim woman to stage a suicide attack, started out life as a good Roman Catholic girl in this coal mining corner of Belgium known as the black country. She ended it in a grisly blast deep inside Iraq last month.

Ms. Degauque, 38, detonated her explosive vest amid an American military patrol in the town of Baquba on Nov. 9, wounding one American soldier, according to an account received from the State Department and given to the Federal Police in Belgium.

Her unlikely journey into militant Islam stunned Europe and for many people was an incomprehensible aberration, a lost soul led astray. But her story supports fears among many law enforcement officials and academics that converts to Europe's fastest-growing religion could bring with them a disturbing new aspect in the war on terror: Caucasian women committed to one of the world's deadliest causes.

It's hard to imagine a similar reaction to a 38-year-old male who murdered an American soldier.

James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. writes about national security policy at the Outside the Beltway weblog.

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4 Comments

Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc was also burned at the stake, she did not suicide.

SUICIDE Girls
What's with Applebaum? Suicide bombers sneak up and pretend to be "just like the rest of us." Female soldiers, unless they are spies, are IN UNIFORM when they fight and they are not specifically seeking to die! Also, it was not just Jeanne d'Arc who was not a suicide. I believe the Church's women martyrs were overwhelmingly (totally?) martyred by OTHERS, since the Catholic Church takes a rather strong stand against the practice.

Wrong analogy
Suicide is not an effective weapon, whether the attacker is male or female. Killing yourself to take out a few enemy soldiers or supporters without the ability to directly impact the conflict at large is a foolish tactical endeavor.

Suicide attacks have never won a country or a terrorist group a war. These are nothing but a sign of weakness. The act itself indicates that the group or country using the tactic is powerless to hurt its enemy without taking extreme action.

Japan expended thousands of lives on kamikazi attacks, which at least were sent on military missions that, if totally successful, could have changed the course of WWII.

The suicide attacks plaguing large portions of the world today also will not help their cause

No matter how many men and woman explode in Israeli markets, that country is not going to pack up and leave the region. The suicide bombers in Iraq have not stopped people from joining the police or army. They have not stopped the average citizen from going out on the street, they have not chased the US out of the country. The IED's have proven to be a much more effective weapon and they allow the terrorist the chance to escape and kill again.

The only impact female suicide bombers is psychological, and even that is minimal. Soldiers already have to search women because male suicide bombers dress in women's clothing.

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