In conversation with Mia Bloom

On the rise in female suicide bombings, how women cause more damage and why they do it

Maclean's Interview: Mia Bloom

Photographs by Mick Quinn/Getty Images

Mia Bloom, a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism, currently teaches at Penn State University. In Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, she explains why so many more women now play active, operational roles in terrorist movements.

Q: What do female suicide bombers bring to the table that male terrorists cannot?
A: The element of surprise. We’ve come a long way, baby—women are secretaries of state and prime ministers—but people still don’t expect women to be involved in violence. Second, women tend to infuse a movement with enthusiasm and a great deal of momentum. Third, a lot of movements use women’s involvement to shame men when recruitment is sagging. They say, “Your sisters are fighting for you.” Finally, acts perpetrated by women, particularly attractive women, get far more media attention.

Q: Are they as effective as male suicide bombers?
A: With a civilian target, female bombers tend to be more successful and cause more damage. When you have a soft target—a Shia mosque, a shopping centre, a restaurant, a disco—women are less likely to be stopped at the entrance. They get further inside, where they have a more deadly effect. It’s physics: the further you can penetrate an enclosed space, the more damage explosives do.

Q: Do terrorists resort to suicide terrorism when they’re desperate, or is it strategic?
A: We tend to think of terrorists as being kind of crazy because they kill people and put bombs in their underwear or, in one case, up their ass. But the leadership are very calculating. And when the other side increases the level of technology—using drones, aerial bombardments, aerial gunships—to protect their soldiers, the terrorists say, “How do we make this personal again?” Also, because the technology is far less precise than a targeted assassination, it increases the number of civilians who are killed, which usually results in an increase in recruitment. Now the movement has cannon fodder. Palestinian terrorists have repeatedly told me, “With Israeli bombs dropping from the sky, I feel I could die at any moment. If I choose to be a suicide bomber, at least I have a choice of time and place.” It’s a weird, take-back-the-night attitude.

Q: What are the strategic advantages of suicide bombing?
A: It’s cheap, and you have a thinking, breathing bomb that can adjust to circumstances and cross the street to hit another target if the original one doesn’t look good. If you think about the Madrid train bombings, where the bombs were under the seats, the trains were running late. A suicide bomber could’ve just waited those extra minutes until the trains were in the station, and thousands more people would’ve been killed. When the bombers are women—and children, which I predict we’ll see more of—the terrorists get more bang for their buck, because there’s more media attention. Plus, the use of women and children is much more distressing to the other side. I did a study of soldiers returning from Iraq, and their levels of PTSD were much higher if they had had to shoot a woman or child, even if they knew the person was a suicide bomber.

Q: On Dec. 25, a female suicide bomber killed more than 45 people in Pakistan. Why is suicide terrorism on the upswing there?
A: There’s been something like a 600 per cent increase in the number of attacks in Pakistan, because increasingly we’re seeing the Sunnis use it against the Shia. There have been fatwas within Pakistan saying, essentially, “The Shia are not real Muslims, we should get rid of every single one of them.” It’s justifying within a religious frame the killing of other Muslims, which is completely against the Koran. This misuse of the Koran to provide legitimacy for violence is common now, particularly in Europe, where terrorists tend not to be well-educated Muslims. They’re either converts or very secular Muslims, like the 7/7 bombers. So if a charismatic sheik tells them, “This is justified in the Koran,” they can’t say, “No, it’s not.”

Q: The female suicide bombers you’ve interviewed have been ones whose missions failed. Are they rejected by their communities?
A: No, because not succeeding could occur because someone informed on you, or you were pre-empted, or your device didn’t go off. The only time you get a rejection by the community is if someone changes her mind at the last minute. One Palestinian, a very religious Muslim girl, saw the tarted-up outfit they wanted her to wear to blend in in Israel, and said, “I can’t put that on, I can’t walk around looking like a hooker.” Another one got to her destination, a market, and saw a lot of other Muslim women and children, and couldn’t do it. I did a study for the [British] ministry of defence on why suicide bombers changed their minds, and we conveyed this last story to a number of international agencies, which then began an active recruitment of Muslim women. And now, in major American cities, inevitably at the airport you’re going to see a veiled woman.

Q: People think female terrorists have been coerced by men. Accurate?
A: It’s partially accurate in some places, and inaccurate in others. In the IRA, for instance, no men were making women do it. Women were involved because of what they felt they could do for their family, their community. This is a massive contrast to some of the women in Chechnya, who are forced into terrorism, whether it’s being married off to a jihadi so their family can make a few bucks, or being duped, or intimidated.

Q: Aren’t men also coerced?
A: The pressure on men is subtle community pressure: “You’re not doing enough for your people.” Men tend to join in groups or with a friend, and that relationship is almost as important as carrying out the operation. Whereas with women, the pressure is often not subtle. Many have no voice in their societies, so if a male family member decides they’re going to be a suicide bomber, it’s very difficult to extricate themselves.

Q: Do women with children do this?
A: The issue of motherhood is no longer salient. In fact, the very first female bomber for Hamas posed in her last will and testament video with her two kids. Especially in Iraq, some of the women who’ve been targeted to become bombers were mothers. It’s part of malevolent creativity, this ability to change to stay ahead of any kind of profile the counter-terrorists are using.

Q: You say that female terrorists who aren’t coerced are motivated by “the four Rs: revenge, redemption, relationship and respect.” Which is the most important?
A: Relationship. The best predictor of a woman’s involvement in terrorism, whether it’s a secular or religious group, is a relationship with a terrorist: her father, brother, husband or even her son. Terrorism becomes a bit of a family business. Redemption is also an important motivation. In many of these cultures, whatever a woman has done in her life, the slate is wiped clean by a suicide bombing and she can reinvent herself as a martyr and gain the respect of her community. In terms of revenge, both men and women talk about their experiences of seeing family members harassed or mistreated.

Q: There’s what you call “the fifth R”: rape, which across many cultures is often linked to terrorism.
A: When I was in Sri Lanka with the [Tamil] Tigers, there were editorials in the paper saying that soldiers really had to stop raping Tamil women at checkpoints because they were just creating more operatives. The [Tigers] were cognizant of this and exploited it: “Don’t be a victim, join the movement.” In places where you have the Muslim honour code, when women are raped, that’s basically it for them: they’re no longer marriageable because they won’t be virgins on their wedding night. They realize, “My options have dwindled severely. What can I do to fix this?” The terrorists provide an outlet where with just one action, a raped woman can go from being a source of dishonour to her family to being a source of pride in a culture of martyrdom.

Q: Which explains why one female recruiter in Iraq targeted 80 girls, had them raped, and then talked them into becoming suicide bombers for a group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
A: Exactly. When Samira Ahmed Jassim was arrested in 2009, she explained that after the rapes she’d seek out victims, pretend to be their friend and console them, and in the process suggest, “Well you know, there is something you can do.” We talk about propaganda, winning hearts and minds—we dropped the ball in this case by not letting people know more about this woman. Iraqis would be horrified.

Q: What do radical Islamists promise female suicide bombers?
A: You’ll have the perfect husband, you’ll be restored if there’s been any illness or disfigurement, and not only are you going to be with Allah, but 70 of your relatives are going directly to heaven. This idea of intercession for family members—even if they’ve drunk alcohol or eaten pork—is very powerful. It means this girl can do more for the family than any boy will.

Q: So it’s glamorous in a way?
A: The idea that with this action you can become famous, and there will be songs written about you, posters of you, parks and squares named after you—it’s a level of notoriety these women could never achieve through ordinary actions in a culture where they have very few options. So yes, there may be coercion, but there’s a payoff, too.

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