She blows herself up

Posted on: December 5, 2011

Women suicide bombers are making their presence felt in terror attacks worldwide.


Annapoorna looked pregnant. The security guards let her pass. After all, a would-be mother was not a security threat, was she? If they had frisked her, though, they would have found that the bulge around her tummy was caused by a belt of explosives tied to her midsection. Annapoorna (not her real name) had been taught how to blow herself up — and a crowd along with her.

For seven years, she learned karate, hand-to-hand combat and the use of automatic weapons. She learnt how to tie the explosives around her stomach. The 19-year-old woman was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and lived in an LTTE camp in Puthukudiyirippu, Mullaittivu district, Sri Lanka. Her aim was to die for a Tamil homeland.

“This is how young women in LTTE camps get trained to become successful human bombs,” says Mia Bloom, associate professor, international and women’s studies, Penn State University, the United States. “Women have been deployed by this militant group to penetrate the most difficult-to-reach targets,” says Bloom, the author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.

Suicide bombers have been killing themselves in crowded areas in different parts of the world. Some of the bombers are women. On Monday, two women blew themselves up in subway stations in Moscow, killing 39 people. The attacks came close on the heels of a recent report released by US intelligence which said Al Qaeda terror cells had trained female suicide bombers for fresh attacks. The report said since 1985, 262 women suicide bombers had blown themselves up.

“Women get easier access to difficult areas since they are rarely frisked unlike men who are thoroughly checked by security personnel,” says counter terrorism expert Mustafa Alani of Dubai’s Gulf Research Center. “The success rate of suicide attacks carried out by women is higher,” he says.

In Russia, the attacks have revived fears of shakhidki — the Russian word for female suicide bombers or the Black Widows who, it is believed, are widows of Chechens killed by Russian military forces. “These jeans-clad women easily blend into the swirl of Moscow. They have committed at least 18 bombings, including two on board planes, over the last decade,” says Alani.

Unlike Russia, India has witnessed just one woman suicide bomber. Dhanu or Thenmozi Gayatri Rajaratnam of the LTTE blew herself up along with Rajiv Gandhi and several others in Tamil Nadu in 1991.

But India, international experts warn, cannot ignore the global trend of women suicide bombers. “All Islamic terror groups across the world except the hardcore Al Qaeda have been using women in suicide operations these days unlike in the past when they believed that Muslim women should not be warriors. It would be foolish to believe that India will be spared,” cautions Alani.

Bloom too feels that terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Indian Mujahideen, which are active in India, might use this tactic in the future. “After 26/11, if male members of the terrorist groups find it difficult to get into high security zones, they might use their women force,” Bloom says.

Women have already been operating as militants in India — whether in the northeast, the east or in Kashmir. But experts don’t believe that Kashmir will see such fidayeen attacks by women. “The use of women suicide bombers is highly unlikely in Kashmir,” says former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat.

The reason, former Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval points out, is that most terrorist groups operating in Kashmir are traditional hardliners who refrain from using women in deadly operations, although many women have been a part of militant groups. “Women have provided a safe house for terrorists and they have been used to brainwash young men. They also throw sharp missiles at security forces during protests,” says Dulat.

But no one can ignore the role of women in suicide bombings in many parts of the world. The first woman suicide bomber was 16-year-old Sana’a Youcef Mehaidli who blew herself up near an Israeli convoy in Lebanon in 1985. Twenty years later, eight people were killed in Tal Afar in Iraq by a woman suicide bomber. In between there were several such incidents spearheaded by women.

Suicide bombers are not limited to a region or religion. In February 2009, a woman LTTE suicide bomber killed 29 people in Mullaittivu in Sri Lanka. In 1999, four people were killed when a female suicide bomber blew herself up on the outskirts of Colombo.

So what is it that drives women to kill themselves and others? The cause, for one, which can move women as easily as men. Ideological and religious reasons, Bloom stresses, are strong motivators.

Alani says some women had been persuaded to join the cause by the men in their lives. “Often, women take up jihad influenced by the men they love,” he says.

Some women, as the Black Widows demonstrate, become bombers for vengeance. Investigations suggested that Dhanu became a militant because her mother was allegedly sexually abused by members of the Indian Peace Keeping Force deployed in Sri Lanka, says Bloom. “This could be a reason. But the other reason is that her brother was a well-known cadre member who had died and she was carrying on the family tradition,” she says. Bloom adds that women who suffer a personal loss are easy to recruit.

The experts point out that though men suicide bombers far outnumber their women counterparts, more and more women are willingly joining the suicide brigade. “If a woman can fly an aeroplane, why can’t she be a suicide bomber,” asks Delhi-based social scientist Partho Ghosh, dismissing the argument that women are traditionally characterised as nurturers as “chauvinistic”.

Some argue that when women have played a significant role in insurgencies and revolutions in the past, their participation in suicide operations is not surprising. “Only the nature of conflict and the tactic of combat have changed,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management, Delhi.

The training that is imparted to them is rigorous. Apart from physical training, they are groomed psychologically, says Alani. “They are repeatedly told about the purpose of death,” he says.

Suicide bombers are also made to feel special within an organisation. “A night before carrying out the operation, a woman suicide bomber used to have dinner with (LTTE) leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran,” says Bloom. He would even wash the dishes after the meal.

But the experts point out that the involvement of women in suicide attacks does not necessarily elevate their status within a terrorist organisation. “Women are used as human detonators but they barely get leadership roles. In Chechen, it was rebel commander Movsar Barayev who had long boasted of his regiment of Black Widows. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, it was Prabhakaran who led the rebels,” points out Alani.

But for many women, their bodies are the weapons against what they believe is a war. And more and more of them are willing to join the battle. As a woman mourner said at the funeral of Palestinian suicide bomber Wafa Idris in 2002: “This woman will not be the last. We will all booby trap our bodies and blow ourselves up.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: