The Unaddressed Threat of Female Suicide Bombers

Women Terrorists Are an Increasing Problem

Ken Sofer and Jennifer Addison discuss why we need to acknowledge the growing number of female attacks in our counterterrorism strategy.

Female Palestinian militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who claim they are willing to be suicide bombers, hold weapons during a news conference in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, in May 2007. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Female Palestinian militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who claim they are willing to be suicide bombers, hold weapons during a news conference in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, in May 2007. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

In Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in September 2011, she expressed the need to deepen our understanding of the process of radicalization and terrorist recruitment in order to undermine the appeal of extremism.

She’s absolutely right, but there’s still a gaping hole in the U.S. National Counterterrorism Strategy of 2011’s approach toward countering radicalization: the fact that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to exploit uniquely female motivations as a tool to recruit female suicide bombers to attack U.S. soldiers and international aid workers.

As the number of female suicide terrorists rises, it becomes increasingly important to acknowledge and address this threat to American lives and interests. Doing so would result in a more comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.

We outline the problem below as well as some of the factors that lead women to become terrorists.

Not a new threat

Female involvement in terrorist groups is not a new phenomenon. Secular groups began using female suicide terrorism nearly three decades ago.

Sana’a Youcef Mehaidli, a member of the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party, conducted the first known female suicide attack in April 1985 when she drove a truck filled with explosives into an Israeli Defense Force convoy, killing two soldiers and injuring another two. In addition, 76 percent of attackers from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist terrorist group in Turkey, have been women.

The successful integration of women as suicide terrorists in secular groups led terrorist groups based in religious ideology to begin including women in their operations as well. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have both formed female suicide cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to reports from 2010, culminating in the first female suicide bomber attack in Pakistan on Christmas Day of that year.

Factors that motivate women to become suicide bombers

Radicalization is largely a gender-neutral process and is usually in response to some combination of economic, political, and social factors, including economic conditions, lack of political rights, or military occupation. Added stressors and psychological factors can transform a radical into a terrorist and, in the most serious cases, into a suicide terrorist.

For women, the impetuses that drive the motivation to carry out a suicide attack are often unique to the experience of females in conflict scenarios. One unique impetus is the loss of feminine honor and the desire to redeem it.

Feminine honor

Both Dr. Anat Berko of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Lindsey O’Rourke from the University of Chicago note that the idea of the female body as a symbol of honor is a longstanding notion in many communities, particularly as it relates to a woman’s perceived sexual purity. While this concept has lost salience in most areas of the world, there are some places—particularly in more conservative Middle Eastern and South Asian communities—that continue to take sexual purity very seriously.

If a woman’s honor is compromised through a violation of this purity, such as sex out of wedlock or being a rape victim, the shame is not only placed on her but also extended to her family. Suicide terrorism, frequently viewed by radicals as a form of martyrdom, is seen as a way to gain redemption and restore that honor.

The inability to fulfill predetermined social roles, such as bearing children, could also compromise a woman’s honor. In some communities, this loss of honor is grounds for divorce and could taint a woman as unmarriageable.

Wafa Idriss, who in 2002 became the first female suicide terrorist of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was divorced by her husband because of their failure to have children. Her life during the conflict as a volunteer medic is full of examples of what could radicalize a person, but there are certain details that make her motivations the result of a uniquely female experience—in particular her inability to have children.


Besides perceptions of honor, social structures that promote female inequality and dependency provide more pressures that could attract a radicalized female to suicide terrorism. Giving your life to further the cause of radical groups alongside men can be perceived as a way for women to achieve equal social status, a measure that a man would not feel as pressured to take since he does not necessarily feel or experience social subordination the way a woman might.

Other women are forced to be economically and socially dependent on men and never learn the skills that would allow them to be independent, such as reading or writing. As men continue to die in conflict and women are left to carry on without them, they are inadequately equipped to assume full economic responsibility for their families, resulting in greater strains on them and their families. The increased economic and social pressures have the potential to push a woman over the edge. Sometimes terrorist groups will even make promises to provide for and take care of women’s families if they execute a suicide attack.

The best example of this violent reaction to the loss of a male figure is the Black Widows, an all-female Chechen suicide terrorist group associated with the terrorist group Riyad-us Saliheen Brigade of Martyrs. Their primary motivation is believed to be revenge for husbands, brothers, fathers, or relatives who were killed in the two-decade conflict between Russia and Chechnya after the latter declared independence.

Why women are such successful bombers

Women’s success in suicide attacks highlights just how little this national security threat is being addressed.

Mia Bloom from the International Center for the Study of Terrorism attributes their success to several factors, most notably the fact that women are still not expected to be involved in violence. The common social assumption that women are inherently weaker, gentler, and more peaceful than men discounts their ability to engage in such lethal activity. That assumption allows female suicide terrorists to be overlooked by counterterrorism efforts and escape thorough security inspections in many conflict zones, despite recent attempts to correct this security lapse.

Attacks by women tend to be more lethal as well. In general, a woman is able to more easily reach high-profile targets and carry out more assassinations due to the lack of security focused on thwarting female suicide attacks and a general unsuspecting attitude toward women.

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s 1991 assassination by a Tamil Tiger female suicide bomber, who was close enough to touch his feet when the bomb went off, shows how much closer women can get to their targets in many scenarios.

These unique capabilities are probably why women are responsible for 65 percent of all assassinations among groups that use female suicide terrorists, even though they only make up 15 percent of total suicide bombers in these same groups, according to Lindsey O’Rourke.

In addition to inflicting death and injury on their victims, female suicide terrorists can inflict an additional psychological damage on survivors of the attack. A woman carrying out a suicide attack is considerably more effective in psychological warfare since it cuts against common societal views of women and builds suspicion toward a previously “harmless” segment of the population.

Further, the tendency for media outlets to focus on the gender angle is in larger part a reason why groups like using female suicide bombers—their actions have higher shock value and garner more media attention, and it sends the message of how serious these individuals and groups are about furthering their cause. As is common with these cases, the media led stories about an attack on the Moscow subway in 2010 with the fact that the attackers were women.

Finally, successful female suicide attacks are in part attributable to existing social, cultural, and religious restrictions on gender interactions resulting in weakened security measures toward women. For instance, men are not permitted to touch or pat down women in a way that would allow them to effectively search for explosives.

This problem is exacerbated by the use of both disguises and traditional female garb, such as the niqab, to hide weapons and explosives. Many women—and sometimes even men—disguise their bombs as faux pregnancies.

In 1996 a female suicide bomber from the PKK killed nine Turkish soldiers at a military parade when she detonated what turned out to be a bomb, not a baby. And in 2010 British intelligence discovered that women were being fitted with exploding breast implants, which are nearly impossible to detect at most security checkpoints.

A persistent problem that needs official recognition

With continuing problems of social equality and 86,000 war widows in Iraq, the impetuses for female suicide terrorism do not appear to be going away anytime soon.

In fact, Debra Zedalis, a terrorism expert from the U.S. Army War College, stated in 2004 that trends were pointing toward an increasing reliance on female suicide terrorists. In 2009 Umayma al-Zawahiri, wife of current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued an open letter to her sisters in Islam stating that women could contribute to terrorist organizations as suicide bombers. Since that letter went public, a number of websites and publications have emerged encouraging women to take on a more active role in terrorist organizations.

We remain exposed to a growing female suicide terrorism threat without proper recalibrations to our current counterterrorism policy to address women’s motivations, tactics, and targets.

Efforts such as the 300-person Daughters of Iraq program, a U.S. military initiative that trains Iraqi women how to pat down and search suspected female suicide terrorists at check points, help mitigate some of the effects of this problem and should be promoted. But our counterterrorism strategy must also identify and address uniquely female motivations for suicide terrorism just as it identifies and addresses some of the gender-neutral motivations for suicide terrorism.

We should answer Secretary Clinton’s call to better understand the process of radicalization. But if we want to actually protect our country, we can’t simply forget about half of the world’s population. Including a female element to our counterterrorism policy also would be a welcome addition to Secretary Clinton’s larger push to make advancing women’s rights around the world a key piece of a progressive foreign policy. A counterterrorism strategy that works in coordination with a women’s rights strategy would be a progressive way to keep us all safer.

Ken Sofer is Special Assistant with the National Security team at American Progress. Jennifer Addison is an intern with American Progress.

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Ken Sofer

Senior Policy Adviser

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