The Bomber Under the Burqa

Print Friendly


Farhana Ali[*]


(Since March 2003, when the war in Iraq began, the participation of women in that country in suicide terrorism has increased by nearly 30 percent. This year alone there have been eight attacks committed by women compared to six in 2007. The exponential increase in female suicide bombings suggests the trend will continue to rise unless security officials, the Iraqi government, and the international community seek new solutions to counter the rising violence by an important non-state actor. Author).

Introduction: Why Women Kill

Over the past six years, more Muslim women appear ready to conduct suicide terrorism for reasons similar to their male counterparts. On the surface, women seem to be no different than male terrorists and appear to be equally affected by their local context, driven to suicide terrorism in part by their personal, familial, organizational, and societal responsibility to protect their families, communities and nations perceived to be under attack. Many assume that women, like men, are motivated by an extremist interpretation of Islam that promotes, if not legitimizes, suicide terrorism (i.e., martyrdom operations) to defend the faith against perceived infidels. While Islamic doctrine is used to encourage and incite violent jihad, women’s communiqués, interviews and online statements indicate that religion is the least common denominator for the would-be female bomber.

The literature on women in armed conflict, war, and political violence is growing, but few studies focus on the motivations that drive Muslim women to support the violent jihad. The reality of many women engaged in terrorist activities is that they, unlike men, are invisible to local security forces and the outside community. Through their anonymity, Muslim women have successfully perpetrated attacks with the bomb under the burqa which provides them an additional layer of protection; by wearing the burqa or the abaya (Arabic term), women are able to mask their intentions and master the art of deceit and deception.

While recent studies of female suicide terrorists highlight the Islamic dress, partly attributed to Western fascination with “veiling” and “patriarchy,” this focus fails to recognize the psychological factor that contribute to women choosing suicide terror. Therefore, by highlighting the dress code of Muslim women, and the Islamic societies from which suicide terrorism increasingly emerges, Western scholars have confused Islam with terrorism.

Why and how are Muslim women recruited by male terrorists or volunteer for suicide attacks? For terrorism analysts, the answer often lies in the woman’s connections, direct or indirect, to the terrorist leader, other group members, organization or the conflict. The answer may be traced to the ideological, historical, socio-political, or economic factors that impact their decision to choose suicide as a tactic of warfare. Some Western scholarship on this subject has emphasized the role of female emancipation within Islamic patriarchal societies, assuming that all would-be female terrorists are second-class citizens.

Overcoming the increasingly accepted argument that women commit attacks to attain equality, this article integrates some of the unconventional norms that have unjustly been used to categorize Muslim women into a single framework. This narrow view discounts the important variables that reflect a woman’s decision to choose suicide terrorism, such as culture, religious practice, and the familial/societal role of Muslim women in any given environment. The reality is that Muslim female bombers vary considerably along the lines of culture, religion, national identity, as well as their own personal perceptions of their roles within the nuclear – and extended – familial systems to which they belong.

A full account of Muslim female activism – and by extension, the role of men who recruit women – requires further attention, and should consider the impact of values and norms within a particular society that could act to persuade some women to choose violence. How these norms are violated with respect to women is a point worth highlighting. For example, in most conflicts today, including the non-Muslim world, women are also victims of rape, torture, kidnappings and other heinous crimes committed by men as acts of vengeance or simple blood-letting and/or barbarism.

Therefore, women who do not join terrorist groups also fall victim to violence. As victims of war, women suffer from rape, kidnappings, and torture. Radical Iraqi men, similar to men in other Muslim countries, exact revenge against the women of their society. In a newly released report by the Women for Women International, created by Iraqi-born female activist, Zainab Salbi, almost two-thirds of the 1,500 Iraqi women questioned for the survey she conducted in Iraq said that violence against them had increased.[i] According to Salbi’s survey data, only 26.9 percent of women questioned were optimistic about the situation in Iraq.  Like Salbi, Iraqi-born Dr. Rashad Zidan, who was voted Person of 2006, reflects the growing concerns of women, especially widows. She exposes the conditions of Iraqi women to the West, noting the loss of their men, including brothers and son to ongoing wars. In an interview with US reporters, Zidan states, “I would say to the American Congress, your war has ruined my country. You need to repair what you have ruined and then leave us alone.”

Of equal value is the cultural psychology of men. Female acceptance by male leaders is key to gaining access into terrorist organizations and perpetrating suicide attacks – a tactic that has helped alter the assumption that women are pacifists, moderate and non-violent. Thus, the role of culture and ideas, as interpreted by male extremists and their followers, can alter the choices women make and convince them that there is glory in suicide attacks. Couched in religious symbols and language, some Muslim women might choose to express their real-world grievances through violence.

Although it is accepted that we may never know the full range of motivations that female bombers might use to rationalize suicide terrorism, and their reasons may vary from person to person, group to group, and conflict to conflict, certain common themes and patterns among female bombers can provide a framework for analysis. Drawing on earlier research and interviews of female extremists, this author frames the mujahidaat’s motives for suicide terrorism under broad categories into what is called the five “R’s”:

  • Reform to the conflict through a peaceful settlement and for future generations
  • Revenge for the loss of family members, and/or loss of community/nation;
  • Respect from the larger Muslim community for her sacrifice;
  • Reassurance that she is a capable and equal partner in affecting change in war;
  • Recruit other women to follow her example.

This list is not meant to exclude other factors that could inspire women to participate in terrorism. Professor Andrew Silke maintains that certain factors exist within a given community that enables groups to employ suicide. His argument assumes that groups using suicide have a “cultural precedent for self-sacrifice; the conflict is long-running…and involves casualties on both sides; and the protagonists are desperate.”[ii] In a separate article, Silke highlights the psychology of vengeance, social identification (i.e., the need to belong to a local or international community of believers), accessible entrée into a terrorist group, status and personal rewards, and the feeling of exclusion from mainstream society which leaves individuals vulnerable to religious indoctrination.[iii]

No Two Conflicts Are Alike

Local conflicts are critical motivators, but each one is unique and must be viewed from a specific set of circumstances, such as the historical framework from which conflict emerges, to assess the factors that drive women in various parts of the world to suicide terror. For instance, aside from being linked by gender, the mujahidaat in Chechnya have little in common with women in Palestine, and women in Saudi Arabia have absolutely nothing to share with their “sisters” in Uzbekistan. Therefore, different people generate different reactions to local and global conflicts.

Like men, women understand the importance of propaganda (i.e., the “CNN” factor) in fighting for a cause they believe in. No different from men, women have chosen suicide attacks to call attention to their conflict, raising the level of awareness from the world community to the heightened frustration, alienation, and despair experienced in local conflicts. Increasing awareness with instant media coverage, however, has not always guaranteed an end to conflict or increased involvement by regional or other actors, such as the United States, to mediate for a peaceful solution to conflict. In some cases, news of female bombers helps to create more anger and disillusionment from the general population, while motivating other women to commit the same act. For example, four Palestinian women committed suicide attacks within four months after Wafa Idris’s suicide bombing in January 2002.[iv]

While conflicts and motivations vary, a woman’s decision to pursue violent action is impacted by personal experiences and outcomes.  Coupled with the absence of change to her own local conflict, of which she is a part of, a woman is more apt to volunteer or be recruited for a terrorist operation to end her own suffering, or that of the people she identifies with.

Suicide is the preferred tactic when Muslim women believe that their social structure, which is the fabric of an Islamic society, is threatened or has been violated by the prevailing authority. Veteran Palestinian jihadist Leila Khaled said, “we are under attack…the Palestinians are ready to sacrifice themselves for the national struggle for the respect of their just rights,” extolling female bombers like Wafa.[v] Following Idris’ bombing, Hanadi Jaradat detonated a bomb in October 2003 in the Arab-owned restaurant, Maxim, in Haifa, Israel, which killed nineteen people. In an excerpt aired on 16 August 2005 on Al Jazeera, Hanadi says:  “By the power of Allah, I have decided to become the sixth female martyrdom-seeker, who will turn her body into shrapnel, which will reach the heart of every Zionist colonialist in my country.”[vi]

The perceived threat against Islam also serves as a powerful motivator that has justified the use of violence as an effective means of communication.  Convinced that the local Muslim community can no longer afford inaction, some Muslim women enlist in operations to ensure the survival of the Muslim community. For the believer of martyrdom, subjugation to the faith (i.e., Islam) is rewarding.  The individual, knowing that death is likely, “inspires other Muslims to continue the struggle and the martyr’s death is kindling wood for jihad and Islam.[vii]

Accepting that other motivations are likely, two factors offer women a heightened sense of awareness of the world in which they live: a breakdown of a woman’s societal structures (including foremost the loss of her family and community) and increased opportunities for women to volunteer for or join terrorist groups. Through the latter, women – even those not living in war, occupation or armed struggle – can become members of a larger community, or what Islam calls the Ummah (Global Islamic Community). Scholars and psychiatrists refer to this as embracing a “collective identity.”[viii] Terrorism experts Dr. Jerold Post and Paul Horgan stress the importance of the social psychological perspective as the “most powerful lens through which to examine and explain terrorist behaviour.”[ix] Through the identification process, the mobilization of women into terrorist organizations represents an evolving network.[x]

With a wide range of possibilities, it is therefore difficult to draw firm conclusions about the motivations of all mujahidaat for a number of reasons. First, there is limited data on women’s motivations for suicide terrorism, particularly in emerging conflicts such as Iraq. In older conflicts, such as the Arab-Israeli crisis, empirical evidence has been collected over time by thoughtful researchers, although one could argue that the bulk of this research is that of Israeli scholars and former defence officials. There is little to no evidence provided by Palestinian experts, writers, and/or activists, probably due to a lack of access to failed suicide bombers inside Israeli prisons and/or the lack of interest.[xi]

Second, the history of female involvement in terrorist organizations, including secular/nationalist groups, indicates women providing logistical support including protection for male fighters. In the author’s recent interviews in Kashmir, female militants noted the wide range of support they offered to the mujahideen, ranging from offering their homes for protection against authorities to cooking their meals.[xii] Other women join extremist groups or participate in warfare to protect their honour and dignity. In the same region (i.e., Jammu and Kashmir), women have formed armed groups to protect their interests, their homes, and families from Islamic militants, rather than kill in the name of Islam.  According to one female fighter, “we were subjected to mental and physical harassment by militants who would force us to provide them with food and shelter, and in some cases, sexual favours,”[xiii] and this induced women to use guns and grenades for their own survival.

Third, women participating in terrorist activities suggest no clear pattern. Existing data on female operatives render it nearly impossible to profile the female bomber. They are both young and old, single and married, educated and illiterate, and few are mothers. Thus, the wide range of women in female suicide terrorism today discounts any one “profile” of a female bomber. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the mujahidaat could be anyone. The increased invisibility of the female bomber today also makes profiling an ineffective exercise. Rather, an important area of research that “profiles the circumstance” may be a more useful mechanism, but will require further exploration before drawing preliminary conclusions.[xiv]

Female Bombers in Iraq: Why the Trend Continues

In Iraq, the trend of female suicide terrorism is unpredictable and unprecedented. As the war in Iraq continues, more Iraqi women will be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice: to use their bodies as human shields. The US Government and other experts are asking: Why now? Why has there been a spike in attacks in Iraq committed by women? More important, how will the new role of women as suicide bombers change the nature of this conflict?

Since March 2003, when the war began, Iraqi women’s participation in suicide terrorism has increased by nearly 30 percent. This year alone there have been eight attacks committed by women, compared to six in 2007. The exponential increase in female suicide bombings suggests the trend will continue to rise, unless security officials, the Iraqi Government, and the international community seek new solutions to counter the rising violence by an important non-state actor.

Over the past year, publicly available data of Iraqi female bombers has shown that women are now the driving force of suicide terrorism. To understand the psychological factors that stimulate such acts, there are three likely motivations relevant in Iraq: a mother’s love for her children – a cathartic desire for revenge that has motivated mothers, who had lost children to sectarian violence, to become suicide bombers; a woman’s love for her country – like men, Iraqi women are also die-hard nationalists and have the right to protect their families against sectarian attacks and foreign occupation; a woman’s love for her body – suicide terrorism becomes an act of restitution for women who perceive violence as a way to cleanse themselves of sinful acts. An additional explanation is related to men’s exploitation of women’s vulnerability and exposure to violence by other groups, foreign troops, and/or Iraqi security.

These factors can be summarized in the following way:

  • Extremes of maternal love. The cathartic revenge mothers feel for losing their son(s) is exceptional. No one is of more value to an Iraqi woman than her son, for whom she will “rip out her heart,” according to a former professor of Baghdad University. The loss of a son, a mother’s prized possession, is turning young mothers into “cannibals,” according to the Baghdad University scholar. She says, “These women have no reason to live,” and are therefore more susceptible to violence.
  • Survival instinct. During Saddam’s era, many women were given light arms training to protect their families from the threat of Iran. Today, these same women are in charge of protecting not only their families (i.e., when a husband dies or is not available) but are also die-hard nationalists. Consider the first suicide attack by two women in March 2003. Both young women asserted their national duty to save their country from the US-led occupation. In the early days of the conflict, other Iraqi women expressed their primal fear of being ruled by an external force and were thus willing to conduct acts of violence in defence of their homeland.
  • To die for Iraq. Information on Arabic websites from Iraqi-based Sunni insurgents and Shia militias suggests that their women are ready to sacrifice themselves for the “love of their country and faith.”[xv]The Abu al-Boukhari Islamic Network indicates that because Islam is under attack from the Crusaders, women have an obligation to defend their faith.[xvi] Therefore, the restriction imposed on women to stay in their homes is lifted in jihad. A rare martyrdom video from 2003 shows Wadad Jamil Jassem saying, “I have devoted myself to Jihad for the sake of God and against the American, British, and Israeli infidels and to defend the soil of our precious and dear country.” Increasingly, the effect of the occupation and insurgent attacks against women (i.e., torture, rape, kidnapping) has invariably resulted in growing despair, disillusionment, and depression among Iraqi women, which could explain their decision for death over life.
  • Exploitation by men. On the Internet, male extremists encourage women to become actively involved in the conflict in Iraq. The evidence on Sunni and Shia websites clearly demonstrate that women are increasingly participating in the conflict as fighters, suicide bombers, and “mothers of the martyrs.”[xvii] This reprehensible exploitation of women is a nightmare for Iraqi security officials as well as US forces trying to counter female violence.

Aside from conducting suicide operations, Iraqi women are honoured for taking care of male insurgents. For example, in a pro-insurgent web page known as the Iraqi League, an Iraqi woman from the city of Falluja is celebrated for remaining in the city during the siege. This woman provided her home to the insurgents, baked them bread, and buried them in her own garden; for her efforts, she has been called “the mother of martyrs.”[xviii] Insurgents also encourage Muslim women to support their husbands in jihad. The Islamic Army in Iraq, for example, posted an article entitled “This is How Women Should Be” to carry this message. Other women support insurgents by offering to marry them, albeit temporarily. These women agree to marry Sunni men, accepting no dowry in exchange for a ‘temporary’ marriage. Sunni girls who choose to marry would-be insurgent fighters are seen as devout to their religion and their country – a sign that the girls’ only wish is to free Iraq from occupation.[xix]

While temporary marriages were banned during Saddam Hussein’s regime, it is a widely accepted practice in Shia culture. Known as a “muta’a” marriage, a couple is permitted to live together as husband and wife so long as they sign a contract and agree to a fixed term. This practice is used to recruit Mehdi Army fighters to encourage young men, who cannot otherwise afford a heavy dowry, to join the militia. In one statement, Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr motivated Shia girls to agree to a temporary marriage to “provide enjoyment and pleasure in their bodies and money to the fighters who are sacrificing their souls for the Imam.”[xx]

Finally, women’s inclusion in the war is intended to confuse the enemy and make it more difficult for Iraqi and coalition forces to identify the female bomber. It is the invisibility of female bombers in Iraq that poses a grave security concern. The anonymity of the female bomber protects her personal identity and cloaks the terror groups’ location, membership, and activities. Because she is an invisible non-state actor, a female supporter of terrorism makes it difficult for authorities to profile her. Only recently have security forces been able to suspect and stop women from detonating. On 6 June 2007, a woman dressed in the abaya who refused to respond to Iraqi police was shot at, causing the explosives underneath her dress to explode before she reached her target. A report from Aswat al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq)[xxi] in January 2008 indicated that Iraqi police had intelligence information that ten female suicide bombers entered the province of Diyala, while in March, US troops arrested a male recruiter of female suicide bombers north of Baghdad. According to the later report, the male cell leader intended to use his wife and another woman to conduct suicide attacks.[xxii]

So long as the war in Iraq continues, women could become increasingly available and ready to commit suicide attacks. Because the trend is recent, there is an urgent need to understand why these women – once considered the liberated females of the Middle East – are resorting to such extreme acts of violence. It is important to identify why, in their misplaced zeal for jihad, they inevitably choose suicide terrorism and will instigate others to do the same. This alarming development, so poorly understood, demands serious and immediate research to pre-empt the acceleration of suicide attacks perpetrated by women in Iraq.

The ultimate question is will an end to the occupation decrease the level of violence by women in Iraq? The US withdrawal from the country may not necessarily restore women’s rights though America can play a leading role in helping them rebuild their lives by providing security, economic opportunities, educational freedom, and other wide-ranging reforms. A former Baghdad professor told the author, “Iraqi women were equal to men under Saddam’s regime; today, women are targeted for abuse and violence. We need to give women back what they deserve.”

Scholars Support Female Martyrs

To isolate this study from the ideological underpinnings of suicide terror, as delineated by some members of the Muslim clergy, would be to misplace the importance of scripture in determining when, and how, violence can be used.  The current debate in various Islamic circles about the utility of suicide, and conversely, the use of women in warfare, has divided the Muslim ummah (community).

The Muslim clergy have failed to reach consensus on whether suicide is an acceptable means of warfare, but several scholars in the wake of September 2001 and the subsequent  July 2005 attack in London have issued various fatwas (edicts) condemning suicide bombings. The former head of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, Shaykh ‘Atiyyah Saqr, uses references to historical Islamic literature to argue that the Prophet Muhammad said a believer would be forbidden from entering Paradise if he committed suicide.[xxiii] More recently, a prominent Syrian cleric, Abdel Mon’em Mustafa Abu Halima, issued a fatwa prohibiting suicide operations.  A resident of London, Abu Halima, also known as Abu Naseer Al Tartusi, said “whoever hurts a Miuslim has no Jihad reward,” and quotes the Prophet as having said: “whoever murders a non-Muslim enjoying protection under the Islamic state would never smell the scent of Paradise.”[xxiv]

Despite these references, religious extremists justify new rules of warfare to defeat their enemies, including the use of suicide operations. Rather than suicide, these actions are considered martyrdom operations (‘amaliyat istishhadiyya). Using this term helps to legitimize, promote, and activate future male and female bombers. First, martyrs are held in high esteem in Islam, but some Islamic theologians and contemporary jihadis distort several hadith to suggest that: 1) women receive fewer rewards for martyrdom than their male counterparts; and 2) the male martyr is entitled to more rewards, though his entitlement to these rewards is mentioned neither in the Qur’an or popularly cited traditions of Imams Bukhari and Muslim. Rather, some of the rewards attributed to male martyrs may be intentionally circulated to motivate, inspire, and activate the male bomber. For example, a well-known and widely transmitted hadith of Imam Ahmad al-Tirmidhi explicitly notes that male martyrs will enjoy the pleasure of 72 virgins in paradise. Tirmidhi’s opinion on the rewards for the male martyr appears to be all-encompassing and arguably enticing for a would-be male fighter:

The Martyr has seven special favours from Allah:

He [or She] is forgiven his sins with the first spurt of blood,

He sees his place in Paradise; He is clothed with the garment

Of faith. He is wed with seventy-two wives from the beautiful

Maidens of paradise. He is saved from the Punishment of the

Grave. He is protected from the Great Terror (Judgment Day).

On his head is placed a Crown of Dignity, a Jewel better than

The world and all it contains, and he is granted intercession

For seventy people of his household to enter Paradise.[xxv]

Of the seven favours listed above, the most controversial but at the same time widely accepted among violent jihadis is the promise of 72 “maidens of paradise” for the male martyr. The promise of 72 virgins is even “reminiscent of the medieval Assassins’[xxvi] doctrine, involving the paradise that awaits the holy terrorists,”[xxvii] but the concept is not recognized by all Muslim scholars. The translation of the word “virgin” in the hadith is characterized in a sexual manner, but other scholars insist that the word houri is closer to ”the most pure,” a likely reference to the Prophet’s pious companions.[xxviii] Outside of Tirmidhi’s narrative, the Qur’an makes no reference to the black-eyed virgins or admitting 70 of the martyr’s relatives to heaven. And yet jihadi literature continues to cite this reference to incite would-be male bombers to conduct terrorist operations.

Well-known clerics in the Muslim world, such as Doha-based Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, and the late Dr. Abdallah Azzam, along with several Saudi sheikhs, continue to support martyrdom as a holy concept, rejecting the Western use of the word “suicide.” They argue that women can participate in jihad because it is not “suicide.” According to Qaradawi, the word “suicide is incorrect and misleading,” and prefers to use the phrase, “heroic operations of martyrdom.”  In an interview in an Egyptian newspaper, Qaradawi justifies suicide on the basis that it is “the weapon of the weak.[xxix]

Qaradawi first issued a fatwa on the role of women in jihad following the suicide attack by Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian Muslim woman to perpetrate an attack on 27 January 2002 when she detonated explosives at the entrance to a shopping mall in Afula, a city in northern Israel.  First published on the HAMAS Internet site, in January 2004, Qaradawi said that Muslim women could disregard certain codes of dress and Islamic law to participate in suicide operations: “when jihad becomes an individual duty, as when the enemy seizes the Muslim territory, a woman becomes entitled to take part in it alongside men…and she can do what is impossible for men to do,” even if it means taking off her hijab (headscarf) to carry out an operation.[xxx]

Before Qaradawi, one of the leading proponents of jihad was Umm Mohammad, the wife of the late Dr. Abdallah Azzam who was Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentor and leader of the Afghan Arabs. In an interview to Al Sharq al-Awsat in April 2006, Umm Mohammed said she became the “mother figure” who coordinated amongst the wives of the mujahideen (male fighters) in Peshawar.  In a memoir from late 1990, Umm Mohammed wrote: “I ask my Muslim sisters to encourage their husbands and sons to continue with the jihad.” Both husband and wife supported the empowerment of women in jihad. In his book, Defense of Muslim Lands, Abdullah Azzam, said women did not need their husband’s permission to participate in jihad. In a separate fatwa published in 1984,[xxxi] Azzam declared that “jihad was the action required (fard ‘ayn) of every Muslim, regardless of gender.”[xxxii] He appealed to Muslim women to support the male fighters. In Part Two of Join the Caravan published in 1988, he wrote: “What is the matter with the mothers, that one of them does not send forward one of her sons in the path of Allah, that he might be a pride for her in this world and a treasure for her in the hereafter through her intercession?”[xxxiii]

As Azzam states, mothers were essential to the jihad in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union. Through their support for male family members, which included their sons, husbands, and brothers, women were seen as playing a key ideological role. Similarly, the wife of the veteran terrorist leader in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi – also named Umm Mohammad – posted a letter in July 2006 on the Mujahideen Shura Council website, calling on Muslims everywhere to defend the honour of her husband and participate in jihad. Interviews of would-be suicide bombers have also shown the strong affinity women have towards securing a better future for their children. The maternal instinct for Muslim women is powerful and rooted in Islamic doctrine. According to the Prophet of Islam, Heaven lies at the mother’s feet and therefore, a mother’s role in the family – and by extension, her community, society and nation – is incomparable to the role played by men, who are seen as providers and protectorates of the family.

The world’s most glorified ideologue, Osama Bin Laden, also extolled the role of the Muslim woman in jihad in his 1996 fatwa: “Our women had set a tremendous example of generosity in the cause of Allah; they motivated and encouraged their sons, brothers and husbands to fight [for Allah].” Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Bin Laden told Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir: “I became a father of a girl after September 11. I named her Safia after Safia who killed a Jewish spy at the time of the Prophet. [My daughter] Safia will kill enemies of Islam like Safia of the Prophet’s time.”[xxxiv] Aside from this single statement, bin Laden is not known to support female suicide terrorists, but has glorified the auxiliary roles of early Muslim women, with specific reference to Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife and the first Muslim convert in pre-Islamic Arabia. Bin Laden honoured Khadija for inciting men at the time of the Prophet to participate in jihad against the Quraysh, Islam’s fiercest and first enemy. In his Declaration of War against Americans, Bin Laden stated: “Our women had set a tremendous example for generosity in the name of Allah. They motivate and encourage their sons, brothers, and husbands to fight for the cause of Allah in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzigovina, Chechnya, and in other countries …Our women encourage jihad.”[xxxv]

Al-Qaeda’s number two, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri also proudly cited examples of female jihadis, probably to encourage other women to fight for the cause. In an interview with Al Majallah, Zawahiri said: “A British Muslim woman called Umm-Hafsah carried out another operation during which she killed two Americans.”[xxxvi] Religious enablers of jihad also include key Al-Qaeda ideologues such as Yousef al-Ayyiri, the former head of operations for Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia until he was killed by Saudi security forces in 2004. A prolific writer, Ayyiri also wrote The Role of Women in Jihad Against the Enemies; referring to the early Muslim female fighters, he stated: “behind every Mujahid stood a woman,” which suggests that women were the primary instigators of jihad.

Today, the debate among the ulama on the permissibility of suicide continues to divide the Muslim world; some view suicide as a legitimate tactic while others defy it on the basis that it was never employed by the Prophet of Islam, and therefore, suicide is haram (forbidden). Many scholars argue that suicide is one of the major sins in Islam that annuls one’s faith,[xxxvii] and those well versed in religious text often cite the Qur’anic verse that clearly rebukes those who kill: “He who kills anyone not in retaliation for murder or to spread mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed all of mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”[xxxviii]

A Short-Lived Panorama

The liberal door that now permits women to participate in operations will close once male jihadists gain new recruits and score a few successes against the war on terror. The sudden increase in female bombers over the past year may represent nothing more than a temporary wave of Al-Qaeda’s success rather than an enduring feature of global jihad. Male jihadists could find it difficult to accept a female operative as the revolutionary vanguard of Islam, and while younger members of Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups are encouraging Muslim women to join the ranks, there is little indication that they would allow the mujahidaat to overshadow images of the male folk-hero.  There is also no evidence that Muslim female operatives will have contact with senior male leaders, calling into question the male jihadists’ willingness to directly deal with women on an equal footing.

The more conservative terrorist regards a Muslim woman as key to maintaining the family structure, while the new, younger generation of terrorists could increasingly encourage women to join their ranks to offset the losses of male operatives. She provides the male jihadist with multiple operational advantages, but while she is indispensable to the war effort, she also is expendable.

While a female fighter might not enjoy the same status and rank as her male counterpart, her participation in suicide bombings could, in the near-term, provide impetus for other women to participate in future operations. A Muslim female academic states that: “by resorting to this tactic [suicide], women would most likely appeal to the female Muslims in the world; that is, to those who are not aware, or have been prevented from becoming aware of the actual teachings of the Qur’an.”[xxxix] Suicide arguably attracts those women who have a distorted view of Islam; that is, they have subscribed to the patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an, rather than understand the religious verses in their historical context. Coupled with the dire socio-political conditions under which some Muslims live, these women probably believe they have nothing to lose in this life, but have everything to gain from that-world (the Hereafter).

Should suicide attacks become a trend among Muslim women, it would be the exception rather than the rule. Some terrorism experts understand that the jihad movement is not homogenous, and there are places where social mores are perhaps conducive to more ‘progressive’ treatment of women’s status. Even in Muslim societies where female fighters are the norm, (i.e., Palestinian territories) it still remains unclear whether traditional societal norms will make adjustments to afford women equal rights once the conflict ends.

Conclusion: Empowering Women

A formidable challenge for countries where women are active participants in war is how states integrate them into mainstream society in the post-conflict phase. Disrupting female networks and the conditions that are conducive to violence, necessitates a multi-faceted approach. This must not only serve to identify, target and counter such women but also put in place an effective strategy for detecting male handlers, clerics, and terrorist leaders.

A holistic approach is therefore one that aims at improving intelligence capabilities, increasing outreach efforts between local law enforcement with religious leaders and community figures, and involving women in peace and security initiatives. The latter point is often overlooked but studies have shown that women’s inclusion in democratic change and institutions affords them greater opportunities to participate and shape civil society. Giving women a chance at peace means placing them in positions of authority to manage security issues – often reserved for men – in order to advance the process of peace. Doing so can help women develop relationships with women across society and ensure that females prone to violence or vulnerable to terrorist recruitment are included in the peace process.

With a policy platform that is inclusive of their interests, women across different classes, traditions, ethnicities, and religious sects can facilitate cohesion in the movement and prove invaluable for feminist lobbying efforts to ensure that women’s agendas are heard. For example, in the endeavour to provide radical women political opportunities, institutions backed by state support can contribute towards reintegrating them into society. Through amnesty for female terrorists, the state can create an enabling environment within which they can be brought back into the fold of society. The inclusion of former female terrorists into women’s movements and organizations helps strengthen their efforts to lead “normal” lives and offers them a way to mitigate divisions with other members of the society that might arise as a result of their participation and support for war and conflict.

Ultimately, the next step for governments to reduce the rise of female terrorists is to improve the lives of women by providing basic necessities such as education for their children, protection for their families during times of war, and equal rights to women wishing to participate in post-conflict resolution. By encouraging females to participate in the post-conflict phase, for instance as peacemakers, there is a greater likelihood that society will be able to rebuild, particularly in the Islamic world where the primary responsibility for rearing and nurturing the family system falls on women.

In most cases, however, governments do not have a uniform plan to protect and provide for women who wish to return to a “normal” life. Governments should reconsider their current programs in favour of a community-based approach that aims to improve the socio-economic opportunities for women in the pre and post conflict phase; fund community development projects; centre activism on education and social issues that matter to women; and support various women’s organizations and social movements to encourage their participation in the political process. By protecting the social and political development of women, states can reduce, to a large extent, the rate at which females are drawn towards terrorist groups.

[*] Farhana Ali is a scholar and the author of several internationally published research papers.

[i] For the full report, see Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: 2008 Iraq Report, Women for Women International, accessed at

[ii] Andrew Silke, “The Psychology of Suicide Terrorism,” in Terrorists, Victims, and Society, Andrew Silke (ed.) (Sussex, England: Wley, 2003), pp.105-107.

[iii] For background of these factors, see Andrew Silke (ed.), “Becoming a Terrorist,” in Terrorists, Victims, and Society, (Sussex, England: Wley, 2003), pp.37-51.

[iv] Wafa Idriss was the first Palestinian female suicide operative in January 2002. She detonated explosives at a Jerusalem shopping district, killing one Israeli and injuring over 150 people.  Some analysts have argued that she was seeking revenge from occupation and retribution from her husband for being barren and divorced. While personal reasons are cited for her attack, it remains unclear and unknown if Wafa’s unmarried status and other personal factors were taken into consideration before she committed the attack.

[v] Westerman, Toby, “Cheerleader for female suicide bombers,”, 2002

[vi] Al Jazeera, “Al Jazeera Airs Special on Female Suicide Bomber,” 24 August 2005.

[vii] Lustwick, Ian S., “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Targets and Audiences,” in Martha Crenshaw, ed., Terrorism in Context.  University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 1995. p. 536.

[viii] See John Horgan, 2005, Post, 1986, 1987, 1990

[ix] Jerold Post, “The Psychological roots of Terrorism,” in Addressing the Causes of Terrorism: The Club de Madrid Series on Democracy and Terrorism, vol. 1 (Madrid: Club de Madrid, 2005); Jerold Post, E. Sprinzak, and L. Denny “The Terrorists in Their Own Words: Interviews with 35 Incarcerated Mddle Eastern Terrorists,” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 15, no. 1 (2003), pp.171-184; and John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2005) and (2008, forthcoming).

[x] See Mia Bloom, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Bomber,” in Bulletin o the Atomic Scientists, Nov/Dec 2005. Bloom indicates that historically, women have served supporting roles but the “advent of suicide bombers has not so much annulled that identity as it has transformed it. Even as martyrs, they ay be portrayed as the chaste wives and mothers of revolution.” (p.56)

[xi] It is difficult to explain the lack of scholarship by Palestinians; of worth noting is that data collected by a female U.S.-based expert, Nichole Argo, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and former work by Nasra Hassan have proved useful to this author’s assessment. However, there is no evidence of recent scholarship by an Arab and specifically, a Palestinian of this phenomenon.

[xii] Interviews conducted by the author with two Kashmiri women in February 2008; these two women were the first to cross the Line of Control from India into Pakistan. They are both celebrated and honored by male militants for the support they provided to men during the conflict.

[xiii] Prakriti Gupta, “Muslim Women Take Up Arms Against Islamic Militants in Kashmir,” 10 September 2005.

[xiv] This paper does not consider the circumstances that drive women to suicide terrorism but rather, presents several different likely motivators for different women across different conflicts. Because profiles no longer prove useful in terrorism studies, profiling the circumstances or environment from which terrorism breeds (i.e., the roots of terror) can offer a useful framework from which to analyze the causal relationships between terrorists and their societies, as well as look at individual relationships between the female bomber and the male handler, leader, or source of inspiration.

[xv]. A website called The Iraqi Diaspora in Switzerland Forum posted an article and opened a discussion through its chat room on the subject of “The Girls of the Insurgency and the Tempting Offer.” Accessed through


[xvii]. Ibid. Also see and, accessed in July 2007. In the latter webpage, a woman by the name of Noofa Ghargan, 40 years of age, is considered the first Iraqi female woman to fall at al-Qa’im battles, where she fought with men against U.S. marines in al-Anbar province.



[xx] Here, the imam is a reference to Imam al-Mahdi, the last of the twelve imams who is believed to return to restore order to the world.

[xxi] Voices of Iraq, January 22, 2008, accessed at

[xxii] Patrick Quinn, “U.S. captures female bomber recruiter in Iraq,” Associated Press, March 2, 2008

[xxiii] ‘Ask the Scholar,” 21 May 2003.

[xxiv] “Salafi Jihadi Trend Theorist Turns against Al Qaeda and Issues a Religious Opinion of the Imipermissibility of Suicidal Operations,” Al Sharq Al Awsat, 2 September 2005. News from Al Mendhar.

[xxv] From verse 9:111 from the Qur’an.

[xxvi] For a historical background on the Assassins, see Akbar, M.J., The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity (New York: Routledge, 2002), 195

[xxvii] Hoffman, Bruce, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 99.

[xxviii] Muhammad Asad, a Muslim scholar, translates the Arabic word to mean ”one who is most pure” and “white” but refutes the term “virgin.”

[xxix] “Debating the Religious, Political and Moral Legitimacy of Suicide Bombings,” MEMRI – No. 53, 2 Ma 2001.

[xxx] “Ask the Scholar,”, 22 March 2004.

[xxxi]. The idea that jihad is fard, or an obligation on all members of the Muslim society, demand that women, like men, play an active role in militant organizations. Even when jihad is not fard and is instead, fard kifaya (duty for select male members of society), women were not obliged to fight but did participate in warfare in the early days of Islamic history, as indicated earlier. While the concept of jihad as a religious obligation for all Muslims is not new, its reintroduction into contemporary jihadi literature signals a shift towards mandating jihad for all Muslims worldwide, making it incumbent for Muslims living outside of conflict to help those in need (i.e., wage jihad). Borrowing from the ideas of classical theologians, Azzam reinvents jihad by attaching to it symbolic drama to propagate a consistent Al Qaeda message: Muslims comprise a single “Nation” and must unite to resist anti-Islamic aggression through the use of obligatory defensive jihad.

[xxxii]. “The Union of Good”,

[xxxiii]. Azzam, Abdullah, Join the Caravan, Part Two, (London, U.K.: Azzam Publications, 2001),

[xxxiv] Cited from Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “Lady Killer,” September 11, 2006, at TNR Online.

[xxxv] The full text of bin Laden’s fatwa can be found on the PBS web page, accessed at

[xxxvi]. “Paper Cites Al-Zawahiri’s Al-Majallah Interview, ‘Sensational Revelations,” in Al Arab al Alamiyah, December 17, 2001.

[xxxvii] Abualrub, Pp. 209-211.

[xxxviii] Verse 32.

[xxxix] Interview with female Muslim professor in the United States who teaches courses on Islam and gender. September 2005.