The long and winding journey from her terror-torn hometown in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency to Peshawar, capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, has drained Durdana. She sits, clad in a pale yellow burqa, in a soulless and rundown, tube-lit room anxiously awaiting her turn to see a counselor for her insomnia and depression. “I am an ill-fated woman,” she tells Newsweek, wishing neither to specify her full name nor to identify her town. “To have to collect the pieces of your loved ones…” she says, sobbing.
Last year, a U.S. drone strike killed two of her cousins and a beloved 14-year-old nephew. The young boy’s daily recitation of the Quran, she says, was a thing of soothing beauty. The words of the holy book that poured through him and the violent whirring of that drone play in a torturous loop in her head, over and over and over, she says.
“My nephew was innocent,” says the 33-year-old farmer’s wife and mother of three. “I dream of one day entering the base of the infidels and ripping apart their limbs.” Her anguish has her seething. “If I ever run into an American soldier, I will eat his flesh.”
Durdana says that she has been trying to get through to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan for some time now, to join them in their campaign against the foreign forces next door in Afghanistan. She is prepared to leave her family to enlist in unholy war in a bid to do justice by her dead nephew and cousins. She has tried sending messages to the militants in her town, but she isn’t sure whether these ever reached them or if the messengers were lying simply to pacify her.
“They are there in the mountains,” she says of the militants. “If it weren’t for the purdah and these restrictions, I would have gone there myself.” Determined to signal that her desire for vengeance and martyrdom is not a flickering feeling in search of an excuse, she adds: “I assure you, one day I will break the social norms and carry out jihad.”
Durdana has not yet been embraced by the Taliban. This is not because the Taliban don’t want women warriors, but because they are increasingly choosy about their cannon fodder, wary of unwittingly inducting potential spies or informants who come cold-calling. In fact, evidence suggests that the militants are keen to recruit women for both tactical and propaganda purposes—and that an increasing number of women traumatized by Pakistan’s internal wars, like Durdana, are begging to sign up.
“A women’s wing of the Tehreek-e-Taliban does exist,” says Mansur Khan Mahsud, a director at the FATA Research Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. But contrary to the Taliban’s claims of having an army of “hundreds” of women bombers, Mahsud’s sources in the militant organization tell him that their operation is far more modest. “This is maybe why female suicide bombers are used only sparingly,” he says, adding that little else is known about this all-female death squad except that it comprises “largely of Pakistanis and a few Uzbeks.”
According to data from the New Delhi-based South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least six of the 371 suicide attacks that occurred in Pakistan between May 2002 and last month were carried out by women. The first confirmed suicide bombing by a woman took place three years ago. It’s a small number, but each attack by an anti-heroine garners global attention that often proves invaluable to the militants’ recruitment drive for men.
“Terrorist organizations know that female bombers generate eight times more media attention than male ones,” Mia Bloom, author of Bombshell: the Many Faces of Women Terrorists, tells Newsweek. “Women bombers are basically used to get publicity,” adds an analyst at the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad think tank. “None of these women is ever sent out to attack a high-profile target,” he says, asking not to be named, “These attacks are basically making the unnerving statement that an attack can come from anyone. It also gets people talking and thinking about the desperation of the situation, where mothers and wives and daughters are willing to end their lives for some sort of justice.”
The Taliban reportedly run at least two training camps for women bombers, and one of their associates, Maulana Fazlullah of Swat, had recorded impassioned video and audio messages exhorting women to join the jihad. A senior Pakistani Taliban commander tells Newsweek that their women bombers are rarely utilized since the group “has enough youngsters and men to do the job.” He gives the distinct impression that the Taliban view male bombers as much better operatives, who are always able to reach their targets without getting delayed or lost.
‘If I ever run into an American soldier, I will eat his flesh.’
But where they think a bearded man with wild eyes could be a dead giveaway, the Taliban will dispatch a female reservist as a last resort. This owes in part to the not-amiss calculation that burqa avengers can get around inadequately-equipped Pakistani security checkpoints—which are almost always staffed exclusively by men—without the risk of being patted down since cultural and religious norms prevent male security personnel from frisking women. (Having women also man these roadside checkpoints is unworkable because security agencies believe these women can be taken hostage more easily and because there are no separate toilets for them.) “If some targets are difficult to reach” because of security obstacles, says the Taliban commander, “we assign the duty to the most eager woman.”
Women bombers also appeal to militant organizations because they offer more opportunities for hiding explosives. Last month, British intelligence warned that London’s Heathrow Airport could be targeted by a woman with explosives implanted in her breasts. The alert was issued after a series of jailbreaks in Pakistan, Libya, and Iraq. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a threat assessment about “pregnancy prosthetics,” warning law-enforcement agencies about female suicide bombers who could use devices “that mimic the look of a pregnant woman.”
Plus “using an attractive female might be an excellent distraction,” says author Bloom. But more pertinently, like the infamous, black-dressed vigilantes of Lal Masjid, women warriors can help shame men into action. Attacks by women are a recruitment bonanza, says the author. “These say, ‘your sisters are fighting for you, so why aren’t you?’”
Of course, female suicide bombers are not a phenomenon peculiar to Pakistan. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, the first female suicide bomber may have been Sana’a Mehaidli of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. On April 9, 1985, she drove her explosives-laden vehicle into an Israeli security convoy in Lebanon, killing two soldiers and injuring another two. She was 16 years old. The attack by Mehaidli, who was dubbed the “Bride of the South,” inspired five other suicide bombings by women during the Lebanese civil war.
Since then, women—some of them even pregnant—have blown themselves up in Chechnya, Palestine, Turkey, Uzbekistan. In Iraq, Al Qaeda actively sought out women to aid the insurgency there against occupying U.S. forces: women bombers are claimed to have been responsible for some 50 suicide attacks since 2003. In 2009, Iraqi forces captured Samira Ahmed Jassim, known as “Umm-al-Moumineen” (“Mother of the Believers”). Jassim confessed on tape to preying on psychologically and financially weak women, turning them into breathing bombs. She even had some of the recruits raped in order to convince them that martyrdom was the only way to escape their shame. Jassim may have recruited as many as 80 women and is believed to have been involved in at least 28 terrorist attacks. (To overcome cultural impediments without compromising on its security imperatives, the U.S. set up the so-called Daughters of Iraq program to stop and search women.)
Women bombers aren’t just a Muslim-world phenomenon. India and Sri Lanka have also suffered their carnage. In May 1991, a female suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers, assassinated India’s former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on the campaign trail. At least 30 percent of the Tamil Tigers’ 200-plus suicide bombings are believed to have been conducted by women.
Pakistan’s first female suicide attack came in December 2010 and claimed 46 lives.
“There is no real, physical profile of a female suicide bomber—or a male one for that matter,” says Bloom. Bombers vary in age, race, and motivation. Confirmed suicide bombers have run the dangerously diverse gamut from teenage girls to even a grandmother, from single women to those who abandoned their children for some greater cause. In 2009, police in Philadelphia arrested Colleen Renee LaRose, then 46, on terrorism charges. The American blonde used the handle “Jihad Jane” on YouTube, and, according to the authorities, had been emailing fellow Islamists proclaiming her desire to attain martyrdom for Islam and Allah. In 2011, she pleaded guilty to all charges.
The first confirmed female suicide bombing in Pakistan occurred on Dec. 25, 2010, in the Bajaur tribal agency. At least 46 people who had been lined up for rations from the U.N.’s World Food Programme in Khar town were killed by the teenage bomber. Another 105 were injured. (A suicide attack in December 2007, initially blamed on a woman bomber, was the handiwork of a man in a burqa, according to the Associated Press.)
The next recorded attack came on June 25, 2011, when a husband-and-wife team blew themselves up, killing 12 policemen in Dera Ismail Khan.
After this, there was Peshawar. Early morning on Aug. 11, 2011, police at the city’s Lahori Gate encountered a young woman “dressed like a bride with golden highlights in her hair and henna on her hands,” according to one of them. Given the time and the fact that she appeared unaccompanied, the sight was unexpected. What happened next was even more so. The girl, said to have been about 16, shouted “God is Great,” hurled a grenade at the men, and then reached under her shirt to press down on a trigger. This attack, the second of three to hit the city that day, killed two people and injured 17. “Her vest did not fully detonate,” says police officer Syed Imtiaz Shah. “Her upper body was relatively intact and there were still live explosives strapped to her body. These were discovered and defused at the hospital.”
Then, on Nov. 19, 2012, Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed was targeted by an Uzbek female bomber in the Mohmand tribal agency. Ahmed was unhurt, but may have succumbed to the stress. He died on Jan. 6 from cardiac arrest.
On April 20, a female bomber blew herself up at the main gate of a government-run hospital in Khar, Bajaur, killing four people. All that remained of her were her legs and head.
The most recent female suicide bombing took place on June 15. A burqa-clad woman climbed aboard a Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University bus in Quetta posing as one of the students. Her bomb killed at least 14 young women. The Shia-killing Lashkar-e-Jhangvi organization quickly claimed responsibility for this attack and the one that followed just hours later at the Bolan Medical College, also in Quetta.
The problem posed by terror’s homicidal women worried the Pakistan Army enough to try and do something about it. It has helped set up deprogramming facilities in militant-infested places like Swat, promising vocational training and an economic future. But Pakistan’s losses from suicide bombers, male and female, continue. “The only solution,” says police officer Faisal Kamran, who witnessed the August 2011 Peshawar suicide attack, “is better intelligence, and more women in the services. There is no other way to deal with this.”
From our Sept. 13 & 20, 2013, issue.