Female Suicide Terrorism

Update 1/21/14: Russian authorities are searching for what they call a “Black Widow,” a suspected female suicide bomber targeting Sochi in the lead up to the Olympic Games.

Her name is Ruzanna Ibraginova, and she is believed to be the widow of an Islamist militant from Dagestan (a separatist, predominantly Muslim region of Russia) killed by Russian security forces.

Another suspected “Black Widow” female terrorist accused of plotting to attack Sochi during the games has reportedly just been killed in Dagestan, but Russian authorities remain on the lookout for others.

On December 29th, a suicide bomber attacked in Volgograd, Russia. Much of the media coverage has focused more on the security implications of the attack (and a second one the next day) on the upcoming Olympic games in Russia.

But another detail about the bombing is also interesting: the bomber was a woman.

Now, saying that fact is interesting is not the same as saying it is unheard of: women have always been involved in terrorist and guerrilla organizations, and participated in suicide bombing attacks. Women were involved in the Black Tigers (suicide bombing) division of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist ethnic Tamil group in the north of Sri Lanka. (The group is also credited with pioneering suicide bombing as a tactic more generally.) In a single attack in February 2009, a female suicide bomber killed 26 people, significantly higher than the average number of casualties in such attacks.

Since the Tamil Tigers began using these tactics, terrorists the world over have followed suit. In one year in Iraq, from late 2007 to late 2008, there were 33 suicide-bombing attacks carried out by women.

Suicide terrorism is something not widely understood by many people in the first place, and participation by women has been really severely under-studied.

Suicide bombing seems totally irrational to a lot of people, a sign of desperation in pursuit of a hopeless cause. But for the terrorist groups that use it, it is actually a very logical choice to make. (For a really good look at this subject, I suggest the book Inside Terrorism by Bruce Hoffman.)

There are several key reasons why:

–       A person wearing explosives is the ultimate smart bomb. Missiles miss, bombs that you plant along a road or near a target can fail to detonate or do so at the wrong time. A person can make adjustments accordingly when they run into some sort of pitfall while carrying out their mission.

–       Planning the mission is easier. You only have to worry about getting the bomb to the target, not planning the escape of your operative.

–       It is relatively cheap.

–       Finally, in terrorist attacks, it is not just the physical damage or death toll that counts. It is also the psychological impact on the target population. Knowing someone is willing to die just to hurt or kill you weighs on the mind more heavily than just planting a bomb and then retreating to a distance.

In societies that tend to associate women with domesticity, gentleness, and caretaking, a female suicide bomber has an even bigger psychological impact.

In the past, when the phenomenon of female suicide terrorism has been discussed, it has been mentioned in passing, a footnote to the bigger discussion of terrorism. And it has often been assumed that women who engage in this form of warfare in particular are most likely coerced or pressured, unable to resist within the confines of their often male-dominated cultures.

But a recent study (the first to comprehensively engage the question of female suicide terrorism) instead found that female suicide bombers seem to share the same motivations as their male counterparts. In other words, they are true believers in their cause.

The researchers also found that female suicide bombers are more effective on average (read: kill more victims in their attacks) than their male counterparts. As a result, we can probably expect their role in these kinds of terrorist operations to continue to grow.

The above study is the first step in what will hopefully be a more comprehensive look at female suicide terrorism specifically, suicide terrorism more generally, and from there maybe we can extrapolate new ways to combat both phenomena.


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