Behind the Surge in Iraqi Female Suicide Bombers

While overall levels of violence in Iraq have significantly dropped from their peak in 2006, every day seems to bring news of yet another ghastly suicide bombing, only now the bomber often comes in a black abaya, the full-length robe worn by many Iraqi women. For the one deadly number that has risen substantially since the U.S. military “surge” and widely touted adoption of a new “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategy in early 2007 has been the dramatic increase in suicide bombings carried out by Iraqi women.

According to U.S. military figures, women were bombers in only a few dozen attacks before 2007. But since then, at least 35 women have carried out suicide bombings, eight in 2007 and at least 27 suicide bombings so far in 2008 alone.

These attacks include two women carrying out a double suicide bombing in a pet market in Baghdad that killed 73 Iraqis, a suicide attack on a wedding procession by a woman posing as an expectant mother, and a shocking attack by a female bomber on an exuberant crowd celebrating the victory of the Iraqi national soccer team. More recently, three women undertook a triple suicide attack against Shia pilgrims at a Baghdad shrine, killing 25, while another woman detonated herself amid a crowd of protesting Kurds in Kirkuk, all on the same day.

The escalation in female suicide bombings across Iraq has led to a flurry of media efforts to identify a specifically gender-based motivation for this increase, resulting in a bewildering array of psychological and cultural explanations about what is allegedly driving the “mind of the female bomber.” The rise in Iraqi female bombers, we have been told, is the result of depression, despair, revenge, cultural subordination to men, sexual abuse, and a host of other factors largely attributed to their gender. For example, a long New York Times article alleged that most female suicide bombers suffer from depression or a lack of purpose in the wake of a male family member’s loss, whether due to death or detention by the U.S. military. The article also referred to the influence of “oriental culture” and sexual abuse on women’s choices, suggesting that the subordinate role of Sunni women in rural, conservative families is what drew them to undertake suicide attacks.

The relentless search for a gender-based explanation to account for the increase in Iraqi female bombers, however, is fatally flawed for two important reasons.

In the first place, the journalistic search for a gender-based motivation for Iraqi female suicide bombers has done little more than illustrate that there is simply no single demographic or psychological profile for them. According to various accounts, some are single and some are married, and while some have expressed depression over lost loved ones or relatives, others have simply expressed a desire for revenge, and still others have expressed strong nationalist or religious reasons for taking such desperate actions against a foreign occupier.

Such diverse motivations among Iraqi female bombers affirm the growing consensus among scholars of suicide bombings more generally that there is simply no single profile for suicide bombers of any gender, except for the fact that suicide bombings are largely undertaken in a context of foreign military occupation, where the primary individual motivation for both men and women is opposition to occupation combined with a variety of personal grievances. While pointing out that “95 percent of female suicide attacks occurred within the context of a military campaign against occupying forces,” one student of female suicide bombings, Lindsey O’Rourke, concluded in a largely corrective op-ed in the New York Times that “the main motives and circumstances that drive female suicide attackers are quite similar to those that drive men.”

But secondly, and more importantly, the search a gender-based motivation for female suicide bombers ultimately tells us very little about why there has been such a dramatic upsurge in Iraqi women committing suicide bombings now, and only since the U.S. military adopted its “surge” strategy in 2007. The question of timing and context is paramount. It is highly doubtful that Iraqi women only began confronting depression or despair over lost family members, let alone conservative cultural norms, after 2007.

A Tactical Shift

Recent scholarship on suicide bombings has clearly demonstrated that focusing narrowly on the supply side of suicide bombing – the motivation and psychology of individual bombers themselves – tells us very little about when and why they happen. The University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, in his highly regarded book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, contends that suicide bombing “is mainly a demand-driven, not a supply-limited, phenomenon.” Suicide bombings are primarily organizational acts of violence driven by the demands of strategic and tactical opportunity in the context of asymmetric warfare against foreign military occupation. Without organizations, aggrieved or distressed individuals cannot act out their violence in a sustained manner. And without acutely asymmetrical foreign occupation, organizations would not have the strategic incentive to find ways to surmount their militarily superior opponents through unconventional weapons like suicide bombings.

Thus, a focus on the demand side of Iraqi suicide bombing points to an obvious conclusion largely overlooked in the narrow focus on the psychology of the female bomber: the rise in Iraqi female suicide bombers since 2007 is primarily a tactical innovation by Sunni-based Iraqi insurgent organizations in response to the recent tactical shifts of American occupation forces. It is tactical allure and strategic context, not psychology or culture, that best explains the rise in Iraqi female bombers.

The tactical desirability of using female suicide bombers in Iraq by insurgent groups is largely a demand driven response to the central tactical feature of the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq drawn up by Gen. David Petraeus and implemented in 2007: the erection of massive concrete walls, razor wire fences, and checkpoints that have enclosed Iraqi neighborhoods and towns within tightly controlled enclaves. In Baghdad alone, 12-foot-high walls now separate and surround at least 11 Sunni and Shi’ite enclaves. Broken by narrow checkpoints where soldiers monitor traffic via newly issued ID cards, these walls and checkpoints have turned Baghdad and Iraq more generally into dozens of replica Green Zones, dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off normal commerce and communications.

Hence, like Palestinians, Lebanese, Chechens, and even the Algerians before them, who all faced similar counterinsurgency tactics by occupying powers to dramatically restrict and control population circulation, Iraqi insurgent groups are now increasingly using women to evade detection and deliver their deadly ordinance. The insurgents are clearly learning to navigate the new human terrain. One need only recall the famous scene of Algerian women altering their attire to plant bombs among French colons in the astonishingly prescient 1966 film The Battle of Algiers to understand the historical precedents.

On one level, the impetus for insurgent groups to recruit women, and the increasing use of suicide-belted bombers on foot more generally, arises from the fact that the labyrinthine array of blast walls and checkpoints have made it more difficult for insurgents to assemble and deliver larger bombs, especially those that previously had been packed into cars and vans and detonated in public areas. In early 2008, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, the incoming commander of U.S.-led multinational forces in Baghdad, self-servingly warned against precisely this development. “I think al-Qaeda has discovered that because a great job has been done, they just cannot drive their VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devises] like they used to … we see an adjustment that is the suicide vest attack.”

But more specifically, the deployment of female bombers is also the product of the tactical demand for the need to evade the ever more invasive presence of checkpoints and body-searches across Iraq, because women can hide the bombs under robes and take advantage of less-stringent security protocols for women at checkpoints. “Women have the tactical advantage of evading arrest, of disguising the bomb,” said Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) analyst Will Hartley.

In response, the U.S. occupation authorities are now seeking to match this tactical innovation with some of their own. The U.S. military has created a program called the Daughters of Iraq, analogous to the new U.S. backed self-defense militias known as Sons of Iraq, across the Sunni regions of the country in order to train Iraqi women to conduct searches of other Iraqi women. Nevertheless, even in the recent triple suicide bombing attack on Shia pilgrims in Baghdad, the deployment of 200 policewomen to conduct body searches of all female pilgrims entering the Khadimiya shrine still failed to prevent the grisly attack.

The desperate search by the U.S. military for new tactical responses to the rise in Iraqi female bombers, however, only underscores more fundamental strategic and political problems with the “surge” and U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq at this time.

Iraq is unquestionably the world’s leader in suicide bombings, with over 1,000 estimated suicide bombings having taken place since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to both U.S. military and independent sources. Yet prior to 2007, a great number of these bombers were foreign born, smuggled in through safe houses across Iraq’s porous borders from destinations throughout the Middle East.

Yet the dramatic rise in Iraqi female suicide bombers indicates the increasingly indigenous and undeniably homegrown nature of these attacks, portending a new phase in the insurgency. U.S. military officials and various terrorism “experts” continuously stress that the rise in female bombers simply illustrates the desperation of insurgents in the face of a successful U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. Yet the story of desperation is hard to square with the fact that overall levels of suicide bombings in Iraq in 2008, whether by men or women, is also on the increase: there has been an average of 18 suicide attacks a month in Iraq in 2008 compared to 10 a month in 2007, according to a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad in April 2008.

Thus, one can argue that the rise in Iraqi female suicide bombers demonstrates that the military “surge” has done little to tamp down the most fundamental demand-driven aspect of suicide bombing, namely a threatening foreign occupation with no end in sight.

As Robert Pape has argued, since the root cause of suicide bombing is foreign military occupation, offensive military action against insurgent organizations that employ suicide bombing and even improved counterinsurgency measures will mean very little unless the U.S. addresses the fundamental issue of foreign military occupation itself. The pioneer of modern suicide bombings, Hezbollah, only ceased suicide bombings when Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, and Palestinian militant organizations have largely ended their use of suicide bombings since Israel withdrew its occupation forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005, despite the fact that Gaza is still under an intensive Israeli siege.

The rise in Iraqi female suicide bombers ultimately illustrates the hollow nature of the widely touted U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq; at best, it is simply a set of short-term pacification tactics that has simply enclosed Iraq within miles of blast walls and razor wire, but it remains a failure politically. In this respect, despite important reductions in violence one must conclude that the military surge of 2007 has been a failure at the most important level. According to the newly minted U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, to lose politically is to lose. The U.S. is no closer to success in Iraq than it was before the surge – and even the security progress that exists is extremely fragile and reversible, because it has not been matched by any significant political progress.

In the end, it is the foreign occupier’s inability to control terrorism and violence, which requires the political control and compliance of most of the population, that is the central problem in Iraq. The tactic of suicide bombings cannot win wars or drive out a foreign occupation, no matter how innovative or vicious, but they can create a sense of fear, uncertainty, and doubt among a battered populace so that the efforts by state authorities or U.S. forces to win them over is increasingly futile and distant.

The war can and will last as long as the insurgents don’t run out of potential bombers and innovative tactics, and above all else, the motivation to fight for their cause. As long as the U.S. remains in Iraq with troops on the ground, this is not likely to happen.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Steve Niva

Steve Niva, a professor of International Politics and Middle East Studies at The Evergreen State College, is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between Israel's military violence and Palestinian suicide bombings.