As the United States and Europe have slowly come to terms with the grim reality of the Islamist terror threat, comment and analysis on how to deal with it have almost invariably concentrated on angry young males. What has frequently been overlooked is the role played by females on the peripheries of many terror plots in the West. Their involvement has ranged from encouraging their jihadi relatives, ensuring that their will to carry out the operation remains strong until the end, to withholding information from the authorities. Although the West has yet to see its first female suicide bomber, recent developments suggest that such an incident is likely, perhaps even inevitable.

Osama bin Laden prescribed a role for women in jihad in his 1996 declaration of war against America and its allies:

Our women had set a tremendous example for generosity in the cause of Allah; they motivate and encourage their sons, brothers and husbands to fight for the cause of Allah in Afghanistan, BosniaHerzegovina, Chechnya and in other countries.

(…)

 Our women instigate their brothers to fight in the cause of Allah.

(…)

Our women encourage Jihad saying: Prepare yourself like a struggler; the matter is bigger than the words.

He did not call for them to take part in suicide operations, stressing instead a duty to encourage and support jihad. Until recently, al-Qaeda and its affiliates maintained bin Laden’s position on women in jihad. Now, in what is perhaps a sign of the increased weakness and desperation of al-Qaeda, women are increasingly being ordered to ‘martyr’ themselves.

In late 2009, the wife of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote “A letter to the Muslim sisters” in which she set out new guidelines. As well as informing women of the importance of indoctrinating their children, she also reminds them that jihad is a fard al-ayn [collective responsibility] for both men and women, and that they should “fulfill whatever they [the commanders of jihad] ask of us, may it be through monetary aid to them or any service or information or suggestion or participation in fighting or even through a martyrdom operation.”

Muslim Brotherhood jurist Yusuf al Qaradawi, who has provided Hamas with much of the religious justification for suicide bombing, describes jihad in Israel as fard al-ayn. He is opposed to terrorist attacks in Europe, but calls for the destruction of Israel by any means necessary. In 2006, he issued a fatwa in support of female suicide operations in Israel:

I believe a woman can participate in this form of Jihad [suicide bombing] according to her own means and condition. Also, the organizers of these martyr operations can benefit from some believing women as they may do, in some cases, what is impossible for men to do.

Although he rejects al-Qaeda’s idea of a worldwide violent jihad, Qaradawi shares many of its ideological traits and his fatwa illustrates growing Islamist approval of female participation in suicide attacks.

Like many “commanders of jihad”, Qaradawi clearly recognizes that women can be effective: they attract less suspicion and may be able to gain access to certain areas more easily than a man. Qaradawi adds that in carrying out such an operation, a woman does not require a mahram [male companion].

In the Middle East and South Asia, women long ago took the final step of self-immolation. Between 1985 and 2006, there were 134 Islamism-inspired suicide attacks carried out by women in Russia and Chechnya; Israel and the Palestinian territories; Jordan; Lebanon; Iraq; Morocco; Uzbekistan; and Pakistan.1

No official numbers exist for the post-2006 period, although in Iraq in particular the female bomber has become common since then. In the most recent attack, in early February 2010, 41 Shia pilgrims were killed when a female member of al-Qaeda in Iraq detonated her suicide belt in Karbala. The Taliban have also begun to use this tactic, and deployed at least one woman in Peshawar during intensive fighting with the Pakistani army in late 2009.

Female bombers can be subject to different motivating factors than their male counterparts. In Iraq for example, a female al-Qaeda operative conceived of a novel way to boost female recruitment: Samira Ahmed Jassim recruited up to 80 women, 28 of whom went on to carry out suicide attacks, by first arranging for them to be raped. After this, she would play upon religious and cultural attitudes toward honor and chastity in the Arab world, and offer the women what seemed the only noble way out.

Chechen Islamists have also exploited local customs and attitudes towards honor to recruit female suicide bombers, the most devastating use of which took place at the school in Beslan in 2004, where two women were among the terrorists who killed 240. Known as “Black widows,” these women are often forced into carrying out suicide attacks in Russia by the families of husbands killed fighting the Russian army. In some conservative circles, a widow essentially becomes the property of the dead husband’s family, who are offered huge sums of money by Chechen rebels to force them into carrying out attacks. In other instances, the women are willing actors, seeking to avenge the death of their husbands, brothers or sons. According to a Tel Aviv University study on female suicide bombing, one of the most extensive of its kind, the jihadi ideology appeals to the immediate emotional vulnerability of the bereaved:

A religion-based terrorist ideology that incorporates national tradition and even the obligation to avenge a family member can serve this need in the short run, providing a type of psychological first aid that is necessarily short-lived if it ends in the individual becoming a human bomber as a result.

The jihadist ideology thus provides ill-fated psychological help to the trauma victim in the short run as a result of the terror-sponsoring organization’s distorted use of Islam to further its political goals.

2005 gave us the first European-born female suicide bomber when a 38 year old Belgian named Muriel Degauque blew herself up near American troops in Baghdad. In the same year, police in Holland arrested Dutch convert Soumaya Sahla in the town of Rijswijk. She was a suspected member of Hofstad, a Dutch terror cell, and was on her way to kill Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Muslim apostate and former Dutch MP.

Since then, the UK has seen five women convicted of terror related offences: Yeshiemebet Girma and Muluemebet Girma were both convicted in 2008 of failing to disclose information about an act of terrorism; Fardosa Abdullahi, convicted in 2008 of assisting failed July 21 London bomber, Yassin Omar, in his attempts to evade police; Shella Roma, convicted in 2009 of disseminating terrorist publications; and Houria Chahed Chentouf, convicted in 2009 of possessing materials likely to be useful to a terrorist, including weapons and bomb making manuals. With the exception of Abdullahi, who suffered from mental health problems and was likely to have succumbed to pressure, there is no evidence that any of these women were forced or coaxed in any way into taking part in an atttack; they were ideologically committed to the cause.

This year there have been four reports of possible female jihadi activity in Britain. In September 2009, Abdullah Ahmed Ali was convicted of plotting to detonate explosives on transatlantic airliners bound for the United States; his wife, Cossor Ali, was recently found not guilty for failing to inform the police of her husband’s plans. However, it is still significant that during her trial, one of the main pieces of evidence against her was a notebook in which she clearly sets out an ideological devotion to his cause. In one passage she writes:

I am growing more and more attached to the cause for which you are striving for [sic], and the reason for which we are apart. I hope and pray Allah grants your wish and gives you the highest level of Shahada [martyrdom].

In late January, the Sunday Times reported that at least a dozen British Somalis, including one woman, had joined the al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab militia. That month, it was also widely reported that US and British security services were concerned that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - which had planned Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day attack - were training women in Yemen to carry out operations in the West. In mid-February, it emerged during their trial that members of an amateur jihadist cell in the northern city of Blackburn had in their possession a speech that stated: “I have received so many e-mails from ladies, they want to be the bombs themselves and do jihad.”

With a few exceptions, terrorist attacks and plots in the West are inspired by those in the Middle East and use methods that have been tried and tested there. The basic concept of suicide bombing is the primary example of this trend, but many of the more subtle (and ghastly) refinements have also found their way to the West.

The exploitation of the mentally ill is nothing new to terrorist groups, with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Iraq having used them regularly over the last decade. Jihadists in the West have followed this lead: Nicky Reilly, for example, who detonated a small bomb in a bar in Exeter in 2008, had the mental age of a ten year old.

In 2008, Pervez Khan was convicted along with his co-conspirators of plotting to kidnap a British Muslim soldier in the Midlands region of England and to film his beheading. The inspiration for this apparently came from members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who were at that time building their reputation by filming the beheadings of their hostages.

Women have for some time been used by jihadi groups as highly effective weapons and it comes as no surprise that this year has seen reports of a heightened interest in that threat from a number of national security services. Women are just as susceptible to the jihadist ideology as men and their role in the west as facilitators and enablers of jihad could evolve, as it already has in other parts of the world, to a more direct and violent one.

1 Yoram Schweitzer (ed.), ‘Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?’, Tel Aviv University: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS), Memorandum No. 84., 2006

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