Do women make better suicide bombers than men?

Do women make better suicide bombers than men?

Burcu Pınar Alakoç
On Aug. 10, 2015, the U.S. consulate in Istanbul was attacked by two female terrorists, one of whom – shot and captured by authorities during the confrontation - was connected to the terrorist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). Just a month before this attack, two young girls, suspected to be affiliated with Boko Haram, blew themselves up in two different neighborhoods of Cameroon, killing at least 20 people. According to the authorities, one of the girls, who was only 9 years old, was disguised as a beggar before she detonated her explosives. In Nigeria, there were 27 suicide attacks from January to May 2015, three-quarters of which were carried out by female suicide bombers. In addition to these, some of the most notorious terrorist groups including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and al-Qaeda have formed all-female cadres to conduct their deadly attacks. Why are female suicide bombers, including teenage girls and young children, suddenly in such high demand when it comes to suicide terrorist attacks?  

Based on burgeoning academic research on female suicide bombers, women have distinct advantages for carrying out suicide missions mainly because of their gender. Lindsey O’Rourke attributed the increased recruitment of women by terrorist organizations to women’s effectiveness in suicide operations. As Liz Sage properly addressed it, women make “the impossible terrorists” since they are perceived to be the least likely perpetrators of violence. This is partly because in patriarchal and conservative societies, gender-based differences are firm and inflexible. Women belong in the privacy of their homes, whereas men belong in the public sphere, which reinforces the female-skewed gender advantage in suicide operations. In many instances, given these religious and cultural barriers, women go through multiple layers of security unchecked, which makes it easier for female suicide bombers to reach their intended targets undetected. When 27-year-old apprentice lawyer Hanadi Jaradat blew herself up in the middle of Maxim Restaurant in the Israeli city of Haifa in 2003, almost nobody suspected that she could be a suicide bomber deployed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization. Before her suicide mission, Jaradat took off her head covering and changed into a shirt and jeans, looking just like any other Israeli woman having lunch at the restaurant. 

Second, women can hide bombs and explosives under their dresses or abayas and fake pregnancy to evade security forces and thereby avoid detection. “When an improvised explosive device is strapped around a woman’s midsection, it gives the impression that she is pregnant, throwing off security forces who don’t expect a woman - let alone one who is pregnant - to be carrying a bomb,” said Mia Bloom. In other instances, security guards wait for a female police officer to arrive in order to do body searches at checkpoints, in which case female operatives often choose to blow themselves up before that officer arrives. This shows how gender-based stereotypes can impede counter-terrorism efforts since terrorist organizations take advantage of such stereotypes and security forces have been slow to adapt to the “veiled threat.” 

Third, with the advancements in plastic surgery and medical technology, the female body offers terrorist organizations a safe haven to conceal explosives and chemical agents in the most unusual of places - women’s breasts and buttocks. While research is yet to demonstrate if this actually is the case, according to Joseph Farah, inserting the explosives in women’s breasts makes the threat grow in size, first, because if injected with another liquid, explosives in implants can be extremely destructive, and second, because explosives hidden in breast implants makes them virtually impossible to detect. 

Finally, terrorist organizations often prefer female operatives because when attacks are perpetrated by women, they attract greater media attention than male-perpetrated missions. Media attention is primarily important for terrorists’ causes because it extends the psychological impact of these attacks beyond the immediate targets. When female suicide bombers carry out lethal attacks, the effect is more dramatic and the message is stronger. 

For all these reasons, female suicide bombers have a strategic, gender-based advantage in carrying out suicide attacks - women can approach soft targets without arousing suspicion, they can hide explosives by faking pregnancy, covering themselves from head to toe, or by using breast implants, all of which make women less detectable and therefore, more formidable suicide bombers. Researchers and practitioners alike should place greater focus on understanding the motivations of female suicide bombers and the specific strategies used by terrorist organizations to allure female recruits to their ranks. The better we comprehend the underlying motivations of female suicide bombers and the organizational strategies tailored to attract women, the more practical solutions we can produce to target the female face of terrorism. 

Burcu Pınar Alakoç is an assistant professor of international relations at Webster University in St. Louis, U.S.