Thursday, August 7, 2008

Motivations Behind Female Suicide Bombers

On Saturday, the New York Times had an op. ed. piece by Lindsey O’Rourke, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago who is studying female suicide bombers. (1) She looked at every female bomber from around the world since 1981. Her piece disputed some of the common ideas people have for why these attacks are carried out, and believes that they will only increase in the foreseeable future.

First, O’Rourke went through some of the conventional wisdom people have for why women carry out these bombings. She said that Islam, mental illness, rape, and force are not the motivations. Islamists were very reluctant to use women in attacks because of their interpretation of their religion. Most of them adopted the tactic after secular groups used them first. In fact, 85% of the female bombers since 1981 have come from secular, not religious groups. Second, there were many reports that Iraqi women have been raped and sexually disgraced to force them into these attacks. There was also a lot of press that two women that carried out market bombings in Baghdad in January 2008 were mentally ill. All of these stories proved to be false.

From O’Rourke’s analysis, women suicide bombers carry out their attacks for the same reasons men do. The three major similarities between all such attacks are a foreign military occupation, nationalism, and complaints about the local security forces and government. On a tactical level, women are used because it is easier for them to get through security because men do not see them as threats. Female attacks also generate much more publicity, which is always a goal of terrorist and insurgent groups.

In Iraq, O’Rourke believes that female bombers cannot be deterred and will only increase. The U.S. is trying to form a Daughters of Iraq program that recruits women to work security. The program is very small with only 30 women graduating from the first training course. They are also expected to only work part time. This is hardly a plan that will work in a country the size of Iraq. She also feels that as long as Iraq remains poor, there will always be disputes that will lead to violence. Finally, the Islamists have proven to be extremely adaptable, so even if women bombers can be stopped somehow, the insurgents will just change tactics to something else. Together, O’Rourke believes that there will only be an increase in such attacks until the Islamists come up with something else to use.

O’Rourke’s views fit in with what has been reported here, and by others. A common feature amongst Iraqi women bombers is that they had a family member killed or arrested by the U.S. or government forces. Their act was then part of revenge or maintaining family honor. All of the female attacks in 2008 have been against other Iraqis as well, which shows how the conflict has changed since the Surge. The insurgency has been greatly diminished by the work of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) and by the Iraqi forces. These are now the main targets of groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq that is believed to be behind the vast majority of female bombers, perhaps out of a sense of betrayal because many SOI fighters are former insurgents themselves. 27 known female attacks have been carried out this year compared to only 8 in 2007, so O’Rourke’s assertion that this trend will only increase in the near term is being proven right now. As insurgent attacks continue to decline throughout Iraq, it’s only logical that they turn to the one means that has proven effective. At the same time it is a sign of their decline because they can no longer carry out their traditional tactics with any frequency.


O’Rourke, Lindsey, “Behind the Woman Behind the Bomb,” New York Times, 8/2/08

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