ISIS Is Deploying More Women Suicide Bombers
Women have long supported the group's violent jihad
ISIS is losing ground. And as the group retreats, it’s sending women through the front lines to blow themselves up among enemy soldiers and civilians. In July 2017, an Iraqi news network captured on video a female suicide bomber holding a baby moments before detonating her explosives in Mosul, killing them both and injuring several Iraqi soldiers.
Women suicide bombers befuddle us. The idea that a woman would kill herself in the service of some radical ideology violates a host of Western norms and expectations. In fact, women martyrs make sense in ISIS’s ideology — and clearly help the group advance its narrative.
Despite a profound expansion of Western women’s rights and privileges in recent decades, we still strongly associate women with the act of giving life. A Western journalist once described a female suicide bomber as having an explosive belt wrapped around “her womb.” The reporter obviously meant to emphasize the supposed unnaturalness of a woman becoming a killer instead of a mother.
Terrorism is performative. The actual victims are in some ways less important than the audience is. For ISIS, the audience is both local Iraqi and Syrian forces and the broader, American-led coalition. ISIS wants us to see the people we think of as most vulnerable in war zones — the people we are purportedly fighting ISIS to protect — literally self-destruct in an attack against our forces.
The terrorists weaponize the vulnerable in order to inflict greater psychological damage on their audience.
Of course, female bombers possess a direct tactical advantage, as well. Because of women’s presumed vulnerability and victimhood in war, soldiers are less likely to search them at security checkpoints. Male soldiers searching women is a risky move in counterinsurgency, as it risks alienating the local populace.
ISIS’s own ideology is another reason women bombers so startle and confuse Western observers. Islamic State claims to protect women’s “purity.” You’d think the group would keep women as far from the fighting as possible.
In that context, the seemingly increasing incidence of female suicide-attackers could be evidence of ISIS’s desperation. The group’s territory has been steadily shrinking. It’s lost Mosul in Iraq and could soon lose Ar Raqqa in Syria. Administering population centers allowed ISIS to argue it was a state. With no cities to govern, the group risks losing some of its relevance in the Middle East — even if it still is the right’s favorite bogeyman in the West.
In truth, ISIS has long welcomed female recruits. As of 2015, as many as 15 percent of Westerners traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS were women. While many were following male husbands or relatives, others were going alone — some seeking to marry and others looking to fight.
The question of women’s role in jihad — when jihad is interpreted as physical, violent struggle — predates ISIS. Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban and Palestinian, Chechen and Kashmiri militants have all wrestled with the question … and come to different conclusions.
They all pretty much agree that women play important supporting roles in violent jihad. Women have often been recruiters for these groups, tasked with reproducing, educating and encouraging future generations of fighters.
An ISIS suicide bomber holding a baby before detonating her bomb in Mosul in July 2017. Al Mawsleya T.V. capture
Likewise, militant groups agree that women can justifiably provide medical care, cook and perform other domestic tasks in support of fighters, often as wives of fighters.
Terror groups differ on whether women should take up arms — or offer themselves up as martyrs. Many clerics extol the concept of “defensive jihad” — a woman fighting to defend her homeland against invasion. In this line of reasoning, women possess a right to self-defense — one that trumps societal norms.
Some clerics have argued that women can engage in jihad with the permission of their male guardians. Others have said that jihad is a duty so integral to the faith that women don’t need permission to engage in it, just as they don’t need permission to pray or to give to charity.
The question of women’s participation in jihad became a key point of contention between the Al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda in Iraq. Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, one of the leaders of AQI until his death in 2006, argued that women could take on more active roles in jihad. Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan, disagreed.
Interestingly, the men’s debate sparked a backlash among some female adherents of Al Qaeda, with women expressing disappointment in Al Zawahiri’s statements and even saying that he wasn’t the final authority on the question. Meanwhile, female suicide bombings in Iraq spiked.
That seemingly paradoxical form of empowerment isn’t new for the women of ISIS. Before the recent bombings, the group created the Al Khansaa brigade, a group of women in ISIS’s capital Ar Raqqa who essentially function as morality police. They patrol the streets, punishing anyone breaking ISIS’s strict rules regarding public morality. They also perform an essential security function — searching other women passing through security checkpoints.
Deploying women may reflect the caliphate’s desperation, but it’s also a deliberate act of propaganda. A woman bomber holding her child before blowing herself up sends a message. We are capable of greater psychological and physical violence than our enemies are.
Deploying women behind the front lines to enforce moral strictures communicates another narrative, one that pushes against Western claims of oppression by showing women as active participants in — and not just victims of — the caliphate.
As always in the war on terror, it’s not just about specific tactics. It’s about the narrative.