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The Faces of Female Suicide Bombers | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- It no longer comes as a shock when one hears that a woman has carried out a suicide bomb attack. Lately, the media has made frequent reports of suicide operations, both successful and failed, that were carried out by women. Today, females are rivaling men in a field that was once regarded by Jihadi literature and fiqh to be strictly a man’s job.

But who were the first women to actually sacrifice themselves for the sake of a cause? What do we know about the psychological motives and the political and social backgrounds surrounding these women and which are responsible for transforming them into ferocious female ‘jihadists’?

A look at the information available through the press reveals little about these women, however it is useful in defining an outline that may answer some questions. These limited sources reveal that female suicide bombers can be split into two groups, generally speaking, in terms of social profiles and motives behind their involvement.

In the first group women, venture into ‘martyrdom’ driven by a dedication to the cause, or as a means of expressing their resentment of the gross injustice for which there remains no other resort except sacrificing their own lives. Moreover, these women are encouraged by the fact that their brothers or relatives have been killed in circumstances related to this unjust reality and as such, that loss becomes the decisive factor in undertaking a suicide operation.

And yet according to reports on Palestinian female prisoners detained in Israeli prisons with charges of attempted suicide bomb attacks, most of these attempts, whether successful or failed, were marked by a hesitation or retreat in the last moment.

According to the details of these reports, the mechanism of execution for these suicide operations is confused since it appears to be impassioned, predominated by a strong desire to express vehement resentment and yet generally lacks organization.

The second group is comprised of newly recruited al Qaeda female members who have joined the Jihad convoy without really knowing whether their affiliation is but a representation of al Qaeda’s deeply-rooted trend of recruiting women to carry out suicide missions. These women are more like ghosts than humans, as we know nothing about them except their execution or attempted execution of operations that take place with no reference to their identities.

But who are these women? And why do they carry out suicide bomb attacks? How are they connected with the organizations that plan such operations? Do they belong to a particular social background that may have facilitated their involvement, or put pressure on them? Can their execution of such attacks be attributed to resolute decisions, submission to groups, or a yielding to overwhelming pressures?

One of the most striking examples was that of the Chechen women who were veiled and dressed in black and strapped with explosive belts. They were among the Chechen separatists who stormed the Bislan school [located in Ossetia, near the border with Chechnya] and before it the Moscow theater, and who took hostages in both attacks.

But the circumstances surrounding Palestinian female suicide bombers are quite different. According to the Palestinian ‘al Najah’ media office, based in Nablus; the common factors among the women detained for suicide bomb attacks were that the majority were between the ages 20-30, and were from families that had a connection with fighting against Israel. Furthermore, the report revealed that the shift from intentions into action mostly takes place via an intermediary who provides them with the explosive device and who is frequently an activist in one of the factions that launches attacks against Israel. This person may also be a close relative, or an acquaintance, or even a friend.

For example, Thuraya Mahmoud, a 26-year-old woman, was arrested in her aunt’s home at Tulkarm before heading out to execute an operation in Jerusalem. She admitted her connection to Fatah movement in Tulkarm and Nablus. Although the explosive device was ready for use, “she backed out at the last moment and expressed regret.”

Arrested by Israeli intelligence, 24-year-old Tahani al Teyati disclosed that she had “met an activist from Fatah and was determined to carry out a suicide operation,” she said. In 200l, an explosive charge that was carried by 27-year-old Abir Hamdan, the fiancée of a Fatah activist in Nablus, accidentally detonated during her journey from Tulkarm to Nablus as a result of a technical fault, according to the report.

Most these female suicide bombers are single; however, some of them have children and some have even attempted to carry out suicide bomb attacks upon the request of their families. In 2001, Iman Aisha, a 28-year-old married woman with two children in Nablus, was arrested while trying to plant an explosive device in Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Her husband was suspected of collaboration with Israel and had wanted to ‘clear’ up his name by her actions. According to the report, he was detained later.

Similarly, Qahera Saadi, a 26-year-old married woman with four children from the Palestinian town of al Ram, was said to “have been in a relationship with a member who was among the al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades leadership and who facilitated the entry of suicide bombers into Israel,” the report stated.

The involvement of female suicide bombers, from housewives to school and university students is characterized by a romantic sentimentality, such as leaving messages that explain the motives of their suicide missions, using words that are replete with the literature of combat and resistance.

In 2002, 16-year-old Noura Ghanem from Tulkarm headed towards an Israeli checkpoint with the aim of stabbing a soldier after having left behind, “a ‘will’ that expressed her solidarity with the heroes of the resistance.” She was killed during the attempt.

Areen Mohammed, a 20-year-old from Beit Sahour who had planned to carry out a double suicide bombing operation with a male Fatah activist, retreated at the last moment after her associate had already blown himself up.

Aside from suicide bombers, women play a secondary yet vital role in these operations, such as transporting suicide bombers to the desired location, in addition to helping with covering up. For example, Doaa al Jayussi, a 21-year-old, was asked to carry out a suicide operation and although she refused, she agreed to help a suicide bomber enter Israel. She disguised herself as a tourist and asked him to wait until she was gone to blow himself up.

A similar example was Sanaa Shahada, a 27-year-old from Kalandia refugee camp who back in 2002 helped a suicide bomber enter into Yafa St. where he detonated the bomb. A year prior, Ahlam Altamimy, a 20-year-old of Jordanian descent who was a journalism student at Berziet University, helped transport a suicide bomber from Nablus to Haifa St. where he detonated his device.

However, despite the variations in the experiences among Palestinian women, still, the common thread that binds their situations together is their desire to express resentment over an extremely unjust situation, as well as in solidarity with the victims of this oppression.

This may be epitomized in the case of 28-year-old Wafaa Idris, a 28-year-old nurse who carried out a suicide operation in 2003. Her mother later explained her daughter’s act by saying, “she was moved by the scores of wounded she witnessed during her duties.”

These are the examples of the named women; however those working with al Qaeda, in addition to being faceless, also remain simply known as figures that are mentioned in a few brief lines in the media.

On September 2005, eight people were killed in Tal Afar in Iraq at the hands of a female suicide bomber who was likely sent by al Qaeda. On June 11, 2007, the Iraqi army announced that the police had arrested four female suicide bombers who were strapped up with explosives. Two of them had intended to attack the court building, while the others had planned to attack an Iraqi army checkpoint. According to the brief information mentioned in relation to these four female suicide bombers, they were hesitant while executing the operation and confessed they were working for Jaish al Islami in Iraq.

On December 12, 2005, the US army in Iraq stated that at least 24 US volunteers were killed in a suicide bomb attack carried out by two women who were wearing explosive belts.

But this phenomenon is not limited to Iraq alone. The media had reported that according to sources who were working closely on the investigations of last April’s suicide operations in Casablanca that, “new findings confirm the recruitment of females to undertake suicide operations.” The same sources added that, “the Moroccan authorities are searching for female suicide bombers in possession of explosive belts, whom it was feared could blow themselves up at any point in time.”

However, the uncontested symbol of female suicide bombers is Sajida Mubarak al Rishawi, 35 years old. She had taken part in the shocking attacks on three hotels in Amman in which 60 people were killed in November 2005. Since then, she has become a main concern for the media and an obsession for the people. Perhaps the picture that was most engrained into the minds of the public was the image of a stony-faced woman who appeared on Jordanian television [to make a confession that she later retracted] where she was shown taking off her black cloak to expose an explosive belt underneath it. She said that it had failed to detonate at the wedding hall of the Radisson SAS hotel, which lay in ruins. She appeared to be nervous and confused, recounting her story in a largely incoherent manner. Her difficulty in speech suggested that her mental capabilities were limited further suggesting that she could have been manipulated and implicated into this without fully apprehending the consequences.

According to security sources, she first confessed that US forces in Iraq had killed three of her brothers, including Thamer Mubarak [Al Hajj] who is one of al Zarqawi’s close aides operating in the western Iraqi governorate of al Anbar. Sajida was convicted of two charges; plotting to carry out terrorist acts and the possession of explosives intended for illegal use. She had been selling vegetables for a living in Fallujah, al Anbar. She lived with her family and used to go out after the dawn prayer every day to buy vegetables from the farmers.

Sajida was recruited by al Qaeda network in Iraq after expressing her desire to execute a suicide mission for her brother, who was one of the combatants in al Qaeda. The most interesting aspect to her story, however, is her flight from the site of the explosion to the city of al Salt, Jordan, where she sought refuge in Mohammed Salem Orabiyat’s house. She said that her sister was married to Mohammed’s son, although he revealed that his son was martyred in the war in Iraq earlier in 2003.

The obsession with Sajida reached such heights that her existence was doubted by some. Various internet sights published the story that was circulating among the public that the real Sajida was a suicide bomber who had blown herself up in the hotel. Evidence of a woman’s torn body and intact head found at the site backed this story.

The Jordanian Court of Cassation acceded the State Security Court’s decision to hang Sajida Al Rishawi last January 27, after the State Security Court had sentenced her and six other people to death for their convictions related to the triple bomb attacks in Jordan. She pleaded ‘not guilty’, however execution of the sentence remains subject to ratification by the Jordanian King Abdullah II, who upholds the right to approve or commute the penalty.

Hussein al Masri, the lawyer appointed by the State Security Court, said that he had met with Sajida several times in prison after her initial refusal to appoint a lawyer.

“I though she was a simple women,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat, “it later transpired that she was aware of the situation and understood what has taken place.” He added that her account of the event was that her cousin, Nihad al Rishawi, introduced her to Ali al Shamari with the intention of marriage and that they had gotten married three days before traveling to Jordan. Al Masri maintained that the story was largely fictitious as there were no documents to prove her claim.

Following her arrest, Sajida had received no contact from her family or relatives, he said, also adding that her involvement was predominately with the intention of backing others. According to the lawyer, Sajda stated that she had entered Jordan without knowing where to head, and that she was wearing an explosive belt before the attacks took place. She said that she had not been informed of the details.

“I asked her why she did not object but she made no reply,” al Masri said.

According to the lawyer, one cannot speculate if indeed she was a member of an organized network and whether she was coerced into carrying out the operation but he said that her behavior indicated her conviction [regarding the act].

“She is educated, as her neatly-strung and accurate words indicate. She invariably discusses religion and showed no signs of remorse. She even refused to recite the ‘fatiha’ [opening chapter of the Quran] for mercy over the lives of those who fell victim in the bombings,” disclosed al Masri.

“She just said this is what happened and that she wished she had died. She was always speaking about death. She would say, ‘Hang me or take me back to my family,’” he said.