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Female suicide bombers and the importance of cultural discourses in operational tactics

31 May, 2021

By Mette Kaalby Vestergaard – Research Assistant

Women in war

In 2002, an Al-Shabaab leader in Egypt stated the following in the wake of an attack: “It was a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about women’s weaknesses, submissiveness, and enslavements.” Additionally, former leader of Al-Qaeda Osama Bin Laden has directly called for Muslim women to join the war on the West. While this article concerns the effects of female suicide bombers, many of the points come down to women in war and associated perceptions in general.

The usage of women in war is not new, and especially not when it comes to intelligence operations. Traditionally, their role has primarily been on the home front until the nursing role became prominent in the 19th century. Over the past 20 years, women have found their way to the battlefields as regular combatants in militaries worldwide, but also as part of more asymmetrical warfare strategies.

Since the first publicly known attacks identified in 1985, there has been a rise in usage of women as suicide bombers, especially by groups such as Boko Haram, the Tamil Tigers and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). What started in Lebanon, when the Lebanese pro-Syrian organization The Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) used a 17-year-old girl in a suicide attack on an Israeli convoy, became a regular operational tactic during the 1990s, spreading globally. Today, suicide bombings perpetrated by women are utilised by several groups worldwide. The countries where this has been seen the most are Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Israel and Iraq.

Cultural context and how it matters

Looking into research within the discipline of international relations, results show that women have a tendency of reaching for more peaceful and nonviolent solutions than men do. This does to a significant degree match the common discourse of women’s personality traits and subsequently how these are perceived by their surroundings. As the quote first set out in the article mentions, these myths regarding women are now being exploited in order to affect the threat perception. As such the cultural perceptions of women are applied as a conscious warfare strategy, with specific regards to the usage of female suicide bombers. This is subsequently described in the following:

 “Terrorists have successfully exploited gender stereotypes and the

conventional wisdom that women are gentle, submissive and nonviolent.”

These stereotypes are often deeply rooted in our understandings of the world and intrinsically also how we engage in it. When it comes to the effects that the usage of women as suicide bombers have on the enemies and victims of the attacks, these are both cognitive and practical in terms of identifying the threat. In other words, there are both the perception of the threat, but also some physical and cultural set-ups that allow women to be better hidden and appear neutral.

First, more often women are perceived as the victims of war rather than fighters. This will often affect the perception of the threat when operating in a tactical environment, despite training aimed at neutralizing these cognitive patterns. Therefore, there will be a tendency to perceive a woman as less of a threat than a male.

Second, this awareness is important when it comes to Body Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (BBIED) where the women have an advantage. Often a pretended pregnancy is used to hide the explosives. This is a clear example of applying women strategically, as the idea of a pregnant woman in almost every cultural context indicates innocence and a non-combatant – she appears as a non-combatant while having the advantage of hiding an improvised explosive device (IED). Female clothing can also provide an advantage. For example, concealing the explosives in a hijab has often been seen in the case of Boko Haram attacks. Furthermore, terrorists groups are aware of some degree of restraint to do intimate searches on females in some cultures, which can also be exploited. In consequence it creates very practical advantages in planning attacks.

These different examples of some physical and cultural contexts that provide opportunity for the attacker, are only some among several others. When putting together the cultural context and the right tactical decisions, it does indeed provide an advantage for the group behind the suicide attacks. In that sense, the groups do have a tactical superiority in many ways, especially when it comes to targeting civilian populations.

High-value propaganda

A fact that confirms this difference in the perception of the attack depending on the gender is statistics, which are showing that female suicide attacks get eight times the media attention as those ones carried out by men. Even in the West, where some might argue that we do not carry the same cultural perceptions, female suicide bombers are still given more media attention than male suicide bombers. As such there is also an advantage when it comes to propaganda material for terrorist groups. This goes both for external attention from the world in general, but especially also when it comes to material for internal recruitment of new female suicide bombers or fighters in general.

When a woman is used, it is in general good basis for internal further recruitment as it can inspire other women to join combat, especially when it comes to jihadist groups. It is so as jihad is not mandatory for women as it is for men – therefore, the symbol of sacrificing oneself in holy war can seem even more significant.

How are the women convinced?

When considering prevention of women being driven into these actions, it is important to examine the push factors. The motives for the women can differ. First, there is the one of ideology or religion, which is often connected to a more collective ideal, and second, in itself also pressure to take action to change things in the way that is wished for. Here the role of social duty and obligation can also play a large role as concluded by scholars.

They might also want to restore a feeling of repression, loss or earlier experienced humiliation. This can derive from rape, sexual abuse or loss of family members in the conflict of concern. Moreover, scholars have also presented the rape factor as being one of the prominent aspects of motivation. The ‘rape factor’ concerns that women are more likely to carry out a suicide attack if the perceived enemy towards whom the attack is targeted has raped them. In cases where orphans are kidnapped and brainwashed or simply human trafficking, proxy-bombings are also an option – that is where the woman is not aware of the action that she is carrying out. In these latter instances, the attacker cannot be said to be convinced by the causes for carrying out the attack.

Approaching the threat

A study has shown that using women as suicide bombers can indicate a decline in the capacity of the organization, but many of the issues taken forward in this article underline exactly the opposite and points towards a conscious strategy. In essence, today there is an awareness of this threat and the conscious abuse of the ‘women as non-combatants’ mindset. Even so, it is still being used as a tactic and it does still work. Despite the knowledge, there are cultural preunderstandings that are deeply rooted in our way of interacting. Therefore, forces facing this threat should accordingly consider this strategy, in order to incorporate it into operational tactics, when it comes to threat assessment during operations in areas, where the groups of concern operate.

Suicide bombers rarely act on their own. Extensive intelligence analysis and awareness of the factors that are present, when women engage in these actions, are therefore crucial. As already used in intelligence analysis, network analysis of the groups taking responsibility for the attacks is very important. By identifying their placing and relations of the women in these networks, there is a better chance of putting together the pieces of knowledge on their motivation and potential enablers around them.

About Mette Kaalby Vestergaard

Mette Kaalby Vestergaard holds a MSc. in International Security and Law from University of Southern Denmark and an undergraduate degree in Market and Management Anthropology. She has basic military training, acquaintance with teaching and experience from a peace building NGO in Ghana, where she worked with early warning systems in West Africa. Her research focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa and cross-border conflict dynamics and subsequent risk analysis. Additionally she provides research on topics such as genocide prevention, peace building, R2P, cultural conflicts, civil-military collaboration and military operations.