A series of raids in Iraq's troubled Diyala province last weekend included the arrest of a woman purportedly in charge of recruiting female suicide bombers. If true, the detention of Antisar Khudair could provide the United States and Iraqi forces with clues about how women are trained for "martyrdom operations."
The good news is that Iraqi authorities have finally got the message: women can be as deadly as men. The bad news is that the international community should not be surprised that al-Qaida is using female suicide bombers.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the intelligence community recognized the roles women play in groups like al-Qaida and shared that knowledge with policy makers through the formal assessment process. There were few female suicide attackers at the time, and the issue drew scant attention.
The fact is that policymakers were slow to recognize the growing role of female suicide bombers in Iraq. A significant emphasis has been placed on the female bombers' tactical success, and efforts to determine why they kill focus on al-Qaida's recruitment of women. But little attention is paid to the personal motivation women have for killing themselves and dozens of innocents around them.
Getting such information is not easy, as women are difficult to reach in Iraqi society. But after the double bombing at a pet market in February of this year, one Iraqi woman who lives in Baghdad said to me: "We are suspicious of other women. We don't know who to trust."
Security forces highlight the near-impossibility of searching women in a society that respects cultural, traditional and patriarchal norms. Patting down a Muslim woman dressed head to toe in traditional garb is not acceptable. So in most cases, the female bomber is rarely identified, even after she successfully commits murder.
With these barriers, how can U.S. and Iraqi authorities prevent future attacks by women? Far too little research and interest is placed on understanding the environment that enables women to seek violent action. For decades, the terrorism and intelligence communities sought to profile terrorists. Today, this strategy is ineffective, inconsequential and impractical. Profiling tells us very little about who the next female bomber might be.
In Iraq, as is true in other conflicts in the Muslim world, the female bomber is not limited to a specific demographic, such as age, educational background, marital status, and religious or sectarian affiliation.
But data provided by U.S. military commanders in Iraq reveals certain characteristics. A preliminary assessment made by one officer suggests that a certain kind of woman is vulnerable to active recruitment by al-Qaida and other insurgents. According this officer's assessment, would-be female bombers are young (ages 18 to 25), childless widows, who are deemed unable to "succeed in society."
The statement highlights al-Qaida's advantages in seeking female suicide bombers, and all are related to a woman's ability to use deceit and disguise.
Earlier research I had conducted for the U.S. government sheds light on the personal losses Muslim women experience – the death of a family member, the dissolution of a community and the crumbling of a nation, all of which directly affect their emotional state.
One young woman, after being arrested in a safe house earlier this spring, said during her interrogation that she had lost 16 members of her family. Her interpreter added, "She had a sadness when talking. She had nothing. Her life is over."
That arrest included a second, older woman who may have been driven to suicide terrorism for similar reasons, suggesting that a woman's inability to cope with personal suffering and loss – compounded with hate for the American "occupiers" – makes them suitable candidates for suicide terrorism.
Both women professed not to be afraid of being detected. The older woman reportedly said, "Send me to jail. I don't care."
First-hand information provided by U.S. commanders indicates that the two women were not alone. As is true in most cases, they were led by a male insurgent – their handler – who instructed them to carry out the operation, which this time was foiled by authorities.
In most press accounts, women choose suicide terrorism to avenge the loss of their nation, family members, or individual honor.
In interviews I've conducted with Iraqi women, the loss of a son – an Iraqi mother's prized possession – is enough to drive a woman to suicide. The need to protect one's children or future generations of children is consistent with statements made by Muslim women in other conflicts and organizations, including in the Palestinian territories and within secular, nationalist movements.
What is perhaps less clear is why most Iraqi women who have lost a family member do not choose suicide terrorism, but instead grieve silently. A likely explanation is the material support provided to aggrieved women by Sunni and Shia militias, including by Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Basic social services such as housing, food and security in a society threatened by instability allow women to continue living a functional, if not comfortable, life.
Without this support, women are susceptible to terrorist recruitment. Insurgents offer them money to support their families. Importantly, the same support is offered to Iraqi women to train with U.S. forces to conduct search operations of women and help detect would-be female bombers.
According to one U.S. Army officer in Iraq, al-Qaida's use of women shows the organization is running low on manpower.
"It is reasonable to assume a man who is willing to blow himself up will also make a good fighter," the officer told me, "and with the decline of al-Qaida's popularity it seems that women and children make more sense as suicide bombers."
What's more, a U.S. commander in charge of Diyala Province told me, there is a stigma with being a widow in Iraq that contributes to al-Qaida's successful recruitment of women.
The only way to truly understand the bomber behind the veil is to talk to the women of Iraq – a strategy that will help explain why some women kill while most do not. Best of all, engaging the women of Iraq will help us understand the rationale for suicide terrorism in a country where women were once the pinnacle of the Arab world.
Farhana Ali, who has studied women in al-Qaida for nearly a decade, is associate international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This commentary originally appeared in Middle East Times on August 7, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.