When a man carries out a “suicide” or “martyrdom” attack, the ground trembles. But when the suicide bomber is a woman, the entire planet convulses. Media goes into a frenzy, exacerbating the existing state of panic. But why is a suicide attack involving female bombers seen as more significant than the projected objective of the attack, and why do women jihadists cause so many political aftershocks?
Nada al-Qahtani is a Saudi woman who left her country to join the radical Islamic group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and to partake in “jihad” in Syria. At the time, ISIS supporters saw the move made by Sheikh Mohammad al-Azdi’s wife as an act of boldness and courage that many men lacked. However, others in jihadist circles criticized Nada’s initiative, claiming that it went against Islam and its laws, especially since women are not required “to bear arms and carry out suicide attacks according to the rulings of Islam.” For instance, Omaima Hassan, the wife of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, called on women not to “mobilize” to fight the enemy, and rather to remain in their homes instead.
Nada on the other hand called on women not to shy away from "duty", asking supporters to pray for her and for the success of her mission – as though women’s jihad is indicative of bravery in defying Islamic Sharia and creed as well as politics.
But who are these women who developed their own laws on female jihad, and how did they manage to make a bloodcurdling name for themselves, long after their destructive departure from this life?
Palestinian Women Jihadists: Explosive Anxiety
The phenomenon of female suicide bombers surfaced at the turn of the 21st century with the start of the second Intifada in Palestine, spreading fear among the Israeli army and people. A long list of women struck precise and painful targets in the occupied Palestinian territories, signaling the birth of a special unit of “Women Martyrs” affiliated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and named after Wafaa Idriss, the first Palestinian woman to use this method in 2002. This was followed in 2006 by the creation of a secret military formation for female suicide bombers in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, comprising 100 women ready for jihad. Many adolescent girls, wives, mothers, and even grandmothers would so leave their soft, bloodstained mark.
Baghdad: The Capital of Women Jihadists
Women have carried out more than 80 jihadist operations in Iraq to date. Some of them don’t scruple at taking the lives of other Iraqi women, as in July 2008, when three women blew themselves up using explosive belts against crowds of pilgrims who were heading to the Kazimiyah district of Baghdad to attend a religious ceremony.
The story begins with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, when he declared that his group had recruited the first woman to carry out a suicide bombing in the town of Tal Afar near the Iraqi-Syrian border, killing five Iraqi army recruits in September 2005. In 2008, women “martyrdom brigades” emerged, with its mission to execute revenge attacks against U.S. invaders.
Um Salamah, wife of Sheikh Abu Ubaida al-Rawi, leader of al-Qaeda in northern Iraq, killed in a U.S. raid in 2007, vowed to deploy an army of women suicide bombers on Baghdad’s streets, which is what happened. In 2008, a memo prepared by a team of Iraqi military experts accused wives and daughters of men killed by U.S. and Iraqi forces of standing behind a number of revenge attacks.
Fifty-five of the women who were involved in suicide attacks were indeed wives or daughters of senior al-Qaeda leaders. But al-Qaeda’s media arm never published tapes showing female operatives, indicating that the lawfulness of women carrying out such attacks under Sharia remains a sensitive, divisive topic, and one that may not be discussed officially – except in Chechnya, where women are given the freedom to tread this path albeit on a personal basis.
Less than a month ago, Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Bureau ambushed 13 women, some of whom wearing explosive belts, who had entered Baghdad in expensive cars to ward off suspicion. This is a new camouflage method adopted by al-Qaeda nowadays. In early November, a woman was arrested wearing an explosive belt, as she was preparing to blow herself up outside an elementary school in Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite district. So have women now become al-Qaeda’s new weapon in Iraq?
The Export and Import of Women Jihadists
While Russia, specifically the city of Sochi, was preoccupied with preparations for the Winter Olympics scheduled for February 2014, an attack was staged in Volgograd in October, near the restive North Caucasus region. The attack was carried out by a “Black Widow” – a common term for a female suicide bomber in Russia. The 31 year old Nadia Asiyalova blew herself up as she was riding a passenger bus, killing several people, most of them children.
The explosive belt worn by Nadia, who had recently converted to Islam, was devised by her husband, 21 year old explosives expert Dmitry Sokolov, known as Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar was behind several bomb attacks, including one that took place earlier this year in Russia. The "Black Widows" have long threatened to discharge attacks against Russia, but have re-surged only recently after a 3-year-long lull in retaliation against Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict.
“Black Widows” is a moniker coined by the press to describe the female fighters who blew themselves up in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 2002. The term was then used to describe female fighters who came from the North Caucasus to avenge their men killed by Russian forces. The death of thousands of men left many women in the North Caucasus without husbands or fathers. This, in addition to systematic rape, aggravated their psychological conditions, and prodded them to organize an army of "Black Widows". Their hearts now lack in compassion, and most of them belong to Riadh al-Salikin “martyrdom” brigade created by Shamil Basayev, a militant commander who took part in the wars for Chechnya’s independence from Russia.
The only purpose of this group is revenge. Before Nadia, in April 2010, two women, Janet Abdurahmanova, the widow of a militant commander from the Caucasus, and another woman from the Caucasus, blew themselves up in two metro stations in Moscow, killing 40 people.
Women of different nationalities from all around the world, but specifically from Europe, are converting to Islam and later engaging in jihadist operations. This could either be the result of their personal decision, or the result of a deliberate strategy pursued by al-Qaeda and its ilk in exporting and importing women jihadists.
Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the "White Widow", is the world’s most wanted woman today. She might be one of the perpetrators behind the attack on the West Gate Mall in Kenya in September, which caused panic for several days and reverberated across the world.
To the media and the international community, Samantha was the victim of her husband’s crime. He died while carrying out a terrorist attack in London on July 7, 2005, leaving 52 people dead. She became a “single mother” who had to care for her children by herself, that is, before she joined a group affiliated to the Somali Al-Shabab radical Islamist movement.
Muriel Degauque was the first European suicide bomber to die in Iraq. After converting to Islam, she went to Morocco for a deeper study of her newfound faith. In November 2005, she went to Iraq and blew herself up against a U.S. military patrol.
The Sahel region of Africa is widely considered a transit point for women jihadists. According to press reports from last year, 80 female suicide bombers of different nationalities were using the Sahel as their staging ground. These women have reportedly pledged to carry out attacks in Europe and the United States.
One British suicide bomber called Isabel, aka Um Abdullah, proclaimed: “We are coming to you, France, America, and England, with martyrdom operations.” Um Abdallah affirmed she and other women were prepared to execute attacks in these countries “to avenge what befell Muslims in the lands occupied by the Americans or NATO forces.”