Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq

Over the last thirty-five years, terrorist groups have increasingly used women as suicide
bombers. Within academic and policy circles, however, female terrorists continue to be
viewed as an aberration. On average, four female suicide attacks occur per year, with
some years seeing as many as forty attacks. In total, there have been roughly 155
female suicide attacks since 1968. Female bombers are used by terrorist organizations
for both group-based and structural reasons. Increasingly, women are being used to
conduct attacks in all groups, including Al Qaeda and AQ-inspired or affiliated groups.

Five main groups have used female suicide bombers: Iraqi (accounting for roughly 25%
of all attacks perpetrated by women), Palestinian (roughly accounting for 24% of female
attacks), Caucasus Emirate (or Chechen groups, making up approximately 20% of
attacks), the LTTE (which despite its renowned use of women, only accounts for
approximately 14% of female suicide attacks), and the PKK (roughly 8%). Other groups
have also used female suicide bombers, but these attacks have either been historical in
nature or were relatively isolated incidents.

Female suicide bombers are used for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is because a
group’s recruitment base has been depleted (such as in the case of the LTTE1), or
because men are unwilling to join the group. Similarly, a multiplicity of groups (or
competition amongst groups) can sometimes create the conditions for female
recruitment, as is likely the case in the Palestinian context. Other times, women are
recruited to fill a tactical gap – the ability to strike the enemy. This often occurs in longstanding
conflicts, where the need to defeat sophisticated counter-terrorism measures
exists. Women can often achieve surprise attacks in these contexts more easily than
men, hence filling the tactical void.

Women are often used to attack “soft” targets such as public markets or public
gatherings; likely as a result, attacks perpetrated by women have a higher casualty
count than those perpetrated by men. There are several possible explanations for
groups using women to attack ‘soft’ targets. Women may be viewed as less reliable than
their male counterparts, meaning that they are sent to attack targets that will have less
counter-terrorism deterrence factors. Women may also be viewed as less threatening,
and blend better in large crowds, or perhaps have a more natural reason for being at a
particular target’s location. Finally, security forces have had a difficult time accepting the

reality that women can also be perpetrators of violence, meaning that women are less
likely to be stopped at check points or subjected to extended searches (a decision
frequently influenced by cultural or religious factors). Whatever the reason, groups have
used women to attack these types of targets to great effect, particularly in Iraq.

While group-based reasons for including women are beginning to be understood, little is
known about why women might be inclined to join a particular group. In general,
theories of why individuals join terrorist groups (root causes, pathways of radicalization)
have done little to shed light on terrorist group recruitment. In the case of women, even
less has been done. The question remains as to whether there is a gendered aspect to
the radicalization process. Generally, understanding the radicalization process is difficult
because the study of the phenomenon suffers from a number of biases, including
selection: many of the would-be study participants die as a result of their actions, while
others have a vested interest in re-framing their participation either because of legal
processes, or to make their reasons for joining a group more palatable to themselves or

While women’s participation in groups can be understood from the group’s perspective
as a measure of the group’s evolution or current operational state, understanding what
motivates women to join a group is crucially important as well. As policy makers
increasingly discuss the issue of radicalization, the issue of gender needs to be
examined. Women’s involvement in the conflict in Iraq marks a significant change in the
global jihad, and may have paved the way for women’s expanded participation in AQ
and AQ-inspired or affiliated groups and activities. Understanding both how a group
employs women and when it seeks to recruit women is of vital importance, helping to
articulate a counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism plan by identifying the factors that
have led to women’s recruitment. Given the increased focus on individuals residing in
Western countries who are radicalized, and have little or no attachment to terrorist
groups, understanding if and when women might also participate in this aspect of
terrorism is valuable. Because if women are used to exploit vulnerabilities in our
counter-terrorism activities abroad (vulnerabilities that exist as a result of our own
biases), they may well seek to do the same in our home countries.

For a fuller discussion see: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1057610X.2013.763598#.UYvAwb9nH0c


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