Two recent attacks by female suicide bombers have put the world on notice that Muslim women are playing an increasingly important role in this form of terrorism. Understanding what motivates such women is a vital first step in seeking ways to combat this deadly trend.
Authorities recently determined that Muriel Degauque, a Belgian who married a Muslim and converted to Islam, blew herself up in Iraq on Nov. 9 while trying to attack U.S. troops. Only she was killed. The attack marked the first time a Western woman had been successfully recruited for a jihadist suicide operation.
Earlier, the world was startled by the confession by Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who tried and failed to blow herself up alongside her husband in one of the suicide bombings at three hotels in Jordan that killed more than 60 people. Those bombings occurred on the same day that Ms. Degauque detonated herself in Iraq.
About 50 women have carried out suicide attacks in the past five years, and the frequency of such attacks is growing. Muslim female bombers, known as the mujaidaat, have now hit Iraq, Israel, Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Jordan. Though the overall number of female jihadists is small in comparison to men, an attack by a woman in one location could have a rippling effect and serve as a motivator for other women.
The suicide attack by another Iraqi woman in late September may have set the stage for follow-on strikes in the same way the first Palestinian suicide operative, Wafa Idriss, helped spark a series of suicide attacks by Palestinian women. After Ms. Idriss' attack in Jerusalem in January 2002, four women carried out suicide bombings in four months, setting a precedent and creating a culture of female martyrdom that is still honored today in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza.
Why the recent jump in female suicide bombers?
Some women see joining the jihad not as a reaction to their lack of equal rights but as an affirmation of the new freedoms they enjoy in some Muslim societies to take part in traditionally male activities. These women believe they have an obligation to act on their political, nationalist and religious beliefs in the same way some men act on these beliefs - by becoming warriors.
Terrorist groups have stepped up their recruitment of women because women are often more effective suicide attackers. Women arouse less suspicion from police and soldiers and are not searched as frequently or as thoroughly as men.
Women are useful to gain media attention that is valuable for propaganda purposes. This has led some terrorist groups to manipulate and heavily recruit women.
Terrorist groups are persuading some women to view suicide attacks as an obligation to dead, wounded or imprisoned relatives. When husbands or other relatives are killed in suicide bombings, or wounded or imprisoned in attacks, some female relatives want to follow in their footsteps to honor their sacrifice and seek revenge.
Some women see carrying out a suicide attack as a selfless expression of love for their families - an extension rather than a rejection of their traditional nurturing role. If a woman believes a suicide attack can lead to the defeat of the forces she believes are making life hard for her family, she can see such an attack as the act of a good mother, wife or daughter.
In addition to increasing our understanding of the motivations of female bombers as part of a campaign against them, one step that the United States and other nations can take is opening a new dialogue with Muslim women. This would help us better understand their grievances and work with them to make their lives better.
The dialogue can begin with Muslim women's groups and institutions around the world. If this can lead to actions that will improve educational, employment and societal conditions for women in Muslim nations, these women will find suicide less attractive.
Another important step would be to recruit more Muslim women in the United States and other Western nations to help their governments better understand and deal with women in Muslim nations. Women who understand the languages, cultures and religion of their Muslim sisters outside the United States can provide invaluable help to Western governments.
Women can also be influenced by the actions of other Muslims, male and female.
For example, a pronouncement in July by 18 Muslim scholars in North America said that "targeting civilians' lives and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram" - or forbidden under the Quran and Muslim law. If more Muslim scholars start conveying this message, the religious appeal of suicide bombings will diminish for both sexes.
In the case of Iraq, it is too soon to predict the number of female bombers in the coming year. But so long as the conflict persists and the conditions under which Iraqis live are unresolved, more women could decide that they will be the new face of terror in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere.
Unless U.S. and Iraqi authorities help curb the appeal of the insurgency, more lethal attacks by women could upset near-term opportunities for lasting peace in the heart of the Arab world.
Farhana Ali is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on December 13, 2005.