Thenmozhi “Gayatri” Rajaratnam more famously known as ‘Dhanu’ blew herself on 21 May 1991 in a suicide bombing attack to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 14 others were also killed in the south Indian town of Sriperumbudur near Chennai. She was known to have been a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). Female suicide bombers have been employed in many, predominantly nationalistic, conflicts by a variety of organizations against both military and civilian targets. Between 30 and 40% of the LTTE’s suicide bombings were carried out by women. In April 1985, Sanaá Mehaidli, a member of Syrian Social National Party detonated an explosive-laden vehicle in Lebanon killing two Israeli soldiers. The Chechen Shahidkas have attacked Russian troops and civilians repeatedly and were part of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis. Women of dreaded Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been engaged in suicide bombings against Turkish Armed forces. They sometimes strapped explosives to their abdomen pretending pregnancy. Wafa Idris of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was the first female Palestinian suicide bomber when she imploded herself in 2002 in Central Jerusalem. On February 27, 2002 Darine Abu Aisha executed a suicide bombing at a checkpoint of Israeli Army in Jerusalem. Hamas religious leader Yassin issued a Fatwa the same day authorising women to participate in more suicide attacks with promise of reward during after-life in heaven. Hamas formally deployed its first female bomber in January 2004 when Reem Riyashi blew along with seven targets at a check post. Two Iraqi female terrorists attacked US troops in Iraq in August, 2003. The two Moscow Subway station incidents of March 2010 where 38 people were killed was handiwork of two Chechen female terrorists. The Taliban has used at least one female suicide bomber in Afghanistan. On December 25, 2010, a first female suicide bomber in Pakistan detonated her explosives-laden vest, killing at least 43 people at an aid distribution centre. On December 29, 2013, a female Chechen suicide bomber detonated her vest in the Volgograd railway station killing 17 people. In addition to the Red Army Faction and its sister organization, the Second of June Movement, Women have also been central figures in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, Indian Naxalite movement, Italy’s Red Brigades, Spain’s Basque ETA, the Japanese Red Army, Chechen terrorism, Middle Eastern and African terrorism. Women also play other supporting roles such as acting as getaway drivers or safe house custodians, smuggling contraband for men in prison, and instigating assaults and murders.
What Drives Women Terrorists?
Women terrorists have had crucial impacts on history. For example, the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 was organized by a woman, and many nineteenth-century revolutionaries were female. More than half the suicide bombers seen around the world since 2002 have been women. In places like Chechnya and Sri Lanka, women constitute at least 30 percent of the fighting force. By current estimates, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has over 300 in its special unit of female suicide bombers. Terrorist groups around the world actively seek women converts (from other ethnicities) because such people can carry European passports and evade checks. Women have been involved with terrorism for a long now. What motivates their involvement?
Motives Similar to Men
Motives for women to join terrorist groups are not significantly different from their male counterparts – hopelessness, fight for a cause and poverty are the common causes. In cultures where they are oppressed and considered as lower beings the chances of their joining are much higher. The Chechen “Shahidkas” also known as “Black Widows” or “Brides of Allah” are either young widows of terrorists or have strong hatred for Russians and have been trained by psychologists and religious preachers. On the other extreme was rich American heiress Patty Hearst who was abducted, abused, raped and brain washed to becoming a terrorist. Ulrike Meinhof was famous German terrorist with leftist values who founded Bader-Meinhof group and engaged in bombings against Americans or pro-West Germans. Leader of the Japanese Red Army Fusako Shifenobu has been engaged in attacks against American consulates. “Palestinian Woman Fighters” want to fight Israel alongside the men. Dead ‘terror heroines’ like Dalal El Mughrabo is admired by all and acts as role models. Great advantage for women is that they are much less suspected. In a traditional dress they can mingle in a crowded place and commit a suicide attack. Their children are later taken care of and are taught that their proud mothers were martyrs for a ‘Great cause’.
Versatile, Eager to Learn and Prove
Criminologists call them “able” criminals — smart, proficient, versatile, and eager to learn. If their excitement can be channelled toward terrorism, it delivers efficient results. “Recruiting women works for the terror groups, as in most cases it is found that a woman draws less suspicion from security agencies. But the bigger plus is that women terrorists have been found to get the job done nine out of 10 times”, says analyst Vicky Nanjappa.Terrorist outfits have often deployed women to carry out strikes, as the female of the species is considered to be extremely lethal due to their dispassionate attitude towards their own lives that they display at the time of an attack. In the case of Dhanu killing Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, she was avenging her brother who was killed by the Indian Army’s military operation in Sri Lanka. Israeli Anat Berko, an authority on terrorism, says Palestinian women terrorists have quoted sex in paradise as a factor in becoming a fidayeen. Indian Intelligence officers also feel that promise of good sex has been a major factor during terrorist recruitment drives. Women are also considered easier to motivate and brain wash. There have been some cases where women were given the task of convincing their relatives to take to arms. Unlike men, the women are found to go about their deadly task without much fuss and questioning. A woman terrorist is often found to be dispassionate towards life which makes her a deadly weapon, indicate studies.
Advantage Over Men
Terrorism experts say they have a huge advantage over men when it comes to infiltrating security checkpoints.”They can carry things internally and most security people aren’t going to inspect your breasts,” said Anne Speckhard, author of “Talking to Terrorists,” a study of suicide bombers. Most important check-posts are manned by male soldiers and women are best at distracting men with conversation and by other ways. Female terrorists are definitely fascinating. Besides the sexual mystique of female terrorism, there is also a certain public fear and insecurity that surrounds their mystique. Terrorist groups know this, and use it for psychological advantage. Use of women in terrorism also helps to make the group look less evil. Gender alone is enough to evoke public sympathy. In Ireland women fought more courageously than men. They stood their ground, often firing their automatic weapons in a more unflinching manner.
Status and Background
The majority of female suicide bombers are young, primarily between the ages of 17 and 24; however, the overall range in age for female suicide bombers is from 15-64. Female suicide bombers come from various educational, religious, social, and personal backgrounds. Education places a role, with the “more educated” females such as lawyers, paramedics, or students accounting for the greatest percentage of suicide attacks. Most tend to be of average economic status and are rarely impoverished.
Purpose and Position
Ethno-nationalist terrorism and religious movements appears to be a common attractor for females. It may be the case that left-wing terrorism attracts more women interested in leadership positions or leadership decision-making, since those leftist groups are more likely to tolerate female leadership. Right-wing groups, on the other hand, may attract more women followers. Analyst Mia Bloom summarizes the incentives into the four R’s: Revenge, Redemption, Respect, and Relationship. In 2011, al Qaeda launched an online magazine, al Shamikha (the “Majestic Woman”), which encouraged women to participate in violent jihad as well as providing beauty tips. The following year, al Qaeda formed a Burka Brigade, trained female terrorists with a mandate to attack Western targets.
According to a US Army intelligence report of 2011, “Although women make up roughly 15% of the suicide bombers within groups which utilize females, they were responsible for 65% of assassinations; 20% of women who committed a suicide attack did so with the purpose of assassinating a specific individual, compared with 4% of male attackers.”
LTTE formed its formal Women’s wing Suthanthirap Paravaikal or Birds of Freedom in 1983. LTTE had mastered the art of indoctrination and has orchestrated more suicide attacks using women than any other terrorist organization in the world. According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, from 1980 to 2000, the LTTE performed 168 suicide attacks, 30 percent of which were by women cadres.
Noted author Singha Roy says that there has been a high degree of participation of women in the Naxalite-Maoist Insurgency. Naxalites defy the constraints placed upon women by conventional Indian Society. On the lines of most Maoist movements women are over 30 percent of the cadre and hold high ranking positions. Being agrarian and leftist in origin, they support gender equality. Naxal women act as spies, carry supplies, act as informers, lay mines, and even detonate explosives. They are considered to have better commitment. Naxal clinics take over their household chores and commitments. The ambush in which 17 policemen were killed in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra was led by Tarakka, a woman who later married CPI (Maoist) Central Committee member Bhupathi. With no formal education, she started as a Naxal in 1985. Other women Naxal commanders include Jyoti (Tipagadh), Raneeta (Chatgaon), Sujita (Deori) and Ranjita (Surjagarh). Radhakka is a senior Naxal working in Bastar for many years. Narmada, a 52-year-old from Andhra Pradesh said to be fluent in seven languages including English. All are credited with multiple blasts/killings.
Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Al Qaeda reportedly use dedicated handlers who go about recruiting women. Woman of ‘bad character’ are easier to induct playing on their sense of guilt and the condemnation by society. Terror act, they are told will wash all sins. Poverty and deprivation is another factor helping enrolment in Indian sub-continent. Widows who find it extremely difficult to make two ends meet are targeted in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Anger of those who have lost their near and dear ones in counter-terror operations is used to recruit them. Women also make good handlers. The Indian Army has been saying that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has raised a group of 21 female terrorists at its training camps in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) for carrying out sabotage activities in India. A new group, Dukhtareen-e-Taiba, is active in the Kashmir Valley with support of LeT. Many more are under training. Infiltration is normally though Uri sector or through Nepal and Bangladesh. Induction of the female terror group was brainchild of LeT senior functionary and mastermind of Mumbai terror attacks Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi.
For about a decade women have been in some part of coordinating Indian domestic terrorist attacks. Initially they were mostly as glamorous molls of crime dons. Ibrahim has been linked to failed Indian actress Mandakini. Abu Salem was arrested in Portugal along with Monica Bedi, a small-time actress. New Delhi based journalist Siddhartha Srivastava wrote that the 19-year-old college girl, Ishrat Jahan, was shot dead by Gujarat police along with three others with suspected links with the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba involved in a plot to assassinate the then Gujarat chief minister and now PM of India, Narender Modi. Nobody could imagine that a pretty, lower-middle class, Mumbai college girl could have anything to do with the world of terrorism. She had been the chief of operations for underworld dons Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel. Ibrahim was later declared a “global terrorist” by the U.S. government. Shakeel is the prime suspect in the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai.
For the December 2003 attack on the Indian parliament, Navjot Sandhu (named Afsan after marriage) provided lodging to militants. Jammu and Kashmir terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed operates a camp near Kotli in PoK training women to act as human bombs. They have moved beyond women just being logistic conduits, and today undergo religious indoctrination to take part in deadly strikes. Similar training is being given by Lashkar-e-Jabbar’s women cadre – Anjuman-e-Khwateen. Women are being equipped with smaller and lighter guns, such as the Israeli Uzi sub-machine gun and the 9mm Mauser, instead of heavy machine guns. In India, women terrorists do take up cudgels on behalf of their men, and the phenomenon is linked to crackdowns on male terror operatives.
Policy Constraints and the Future
During Sochi Olympics, when Russian security forces began a more stringent search of women suspects, it backfired, according to Mia Bloom, author of “Bombshell: Women in Terrorism.” When Russian parliament passed a law allowing women wearing traditional clothing to be strip-searched, many Islamic communities were upset. “When you use women, it’s a win-win proposition,” Bloom said. “It’s a great way to sneak in weapons or bombs, and if they are searched, it outrages the population.” “People grab our veils, call us terrorists and want us dead” says a Muslim woman in Britain. Islamophobic attacks against women have been on the rise across Europe ever since 9/11.
“It is something I have got used to since 9/11. From being called Osama Bin Laden to Paki-terrorist I have heard it all,” Zab Mustefa, a British Muslim journalist, who specialises in women’s rights and culture, said. Journalist Eva Vidal says that Islamophobia brings derogatory comments on their style of dress, their beliefs, and their way of life. It is not denied that there are countries where the predominant religion is Islam where women are treated badly. But patriarchy is the problem, not Islam, claim supporters. Many policies are framed on the pretext of defending Muslim women from abuse in today’s society but are seen essentially as anti-Muslim tirade. Policy makers contend that it is part of getting Muslims to integrate in the society. “When I get on the plane, I first check no-one looks like a terrorist. They could have anything under those veils. I’m not going to get killed in the name of political correctness” say many. With so much Islamophobic rhetoric being used, including by politicians looking to score points by feeding people’s fears, this problem may get even worse.
Ground reality is that world is becoming angrier and things are becoming worse. Some organisations are indoctrinating “child terrorist”, also called “baby bomber” or “baby Jihadi.” Better connectivity and social media are making it easier for flaming fires at short notice, and indoctrination and coordinating of terror acts. One hopes better sense will prevail one day and ‘Beauty will no longer be the Beast’ -Inshah Allah.
This Article was written for Defence and Security Alert (DSA) and has since been updated
Picture Credit: english.manoramaonline.com