We might think of the prototypical suicide bomber as a young man radicalized to the point where he decides to detonate an explosive to blow himself up and kill others in the process. Yet not only can suicide bombers be of different ages and espouse different ideologies, they can be of different genders too. This past February, three young women entered a refugee camp in northeastern Nigeria. Two of the three, girls between the ages of seventeen and twenty, detonated explosive vests, killing themselves and at least fifty-eight others and injuring seventy-eight. The third, upon realizing her family was in the camp, refused to carry out a similar suicide attack. The girls were allegedly sent by Boko Haram, a jihadist group fighting to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic state in its place. But while Boko Haram is by no means the first group to employ female suicide bombers, these girls were rumored to have been captured by the group in recent years and ordered, against their wills, to carry out the attacks. It is not the group’s use of females that is particularly shocking, therefore, but its use of coercion: historically, suicide bombing has been known to be voluntary.
This is not the first time Boko Haram has employed female suicide bombers. The group, which surpassed the Islamic State as the deadliest terror group last year, has employed suicide tactics since 2011 and female suicide bombers since June 2014. (Boko Haram has also pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State.) While it is not always possible to definitively attribute attacks to Boko Haram, up until last September there have been at least thirty-nine suicide attacks within Nigeria carried out by females which have killed at least 516 people. Many have been carried out by teenage girls, and witnesses have reported girls of ten years of age and even seemingly as young as seven carrying out suicide attacks.
While the use of female suicide bombers by Boko Haram has spurred some to claim that the group has entered a more “ruthless phase,” the use of female suicide bombers is not unique to the group. The first known female suicide bomber was a sixteen-year-old who drove a vehicle into an Israeli Defense Force Convoy in 1985 during Israel’s eighteen-year occupation of southern Lebanon, killing two soldiers. One of the most infamous suicide attacks ever was carried out by a woman in 1991, when a female member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka, blew herself up along with fourteen others, including Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India. The LTTE was notorious both for using suicide attacks and for having female fighters. In 2004, it was estimated that 30-40 percent of almost 200 suicide attacks carried out by the LTTE were executed by women. The Chechen insurgency has made use of a special group of female suicide bombers nicknamed “Black Widows”; 66 percent of Chechen suicide bombers before 2008 were women. Female suicide attacks have also been carried out in large numbers by Palestinian militant groups against Israeli targets and by Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkish targets—in 2008, it was reported that 73 percent of PKK suicide bombers had been female. The Taliban have also utilized female suicide bombers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as have Sunni militant groups in Iraq affiliated with al-Qaeda. While the Islamic State has not yet employed female bombers, its precursors al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq reportedly did. Clearly, using female suicide bombers is not a new phenomenon, nor one that appears to be in decline.
Data taken from the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) suicide attack database shows the increasing prevalence of female suicide bombers across a variety of militant groups. The CPOST statistics are slightly lower than those reported by other media outlets, but the database is one of the prominent sources for militant group activity. The graphs below detail the percentage breakdowns by gender of suicide bombers by militant group.
Aside is a graph showing all suicide attackers from 1982-2015 from attacks carried out by the LTTE against Sri Lankan and Indian targets (although the campaign itself ended in 2009). At least 16.2 percent of attackers were confirmed to be female, a number that could potentially be higher given that the gender was unconfirmed for 38.1 percent of attackers.
Aside is a graph showing all suicide attackers from 1982-2015 from attacks carried out by Chechen separatists against Russian targets (although suicide attacks in this campaign did not begin until 2000). At least 28.7 percent of attackers were confirmed to be female, a number that could potentially be higher given that the gender was unconfirmed for 18.8 percent of attackers.
Aside is a graph showing all suicide attackers from 1982-2015 from attacks carried out by the PKK against Turkish targets (although suicide attacks in this campaign did not begin until 1996). At least 34.8 percent of attackers were confirmed to be female, a number that could potentially be higher given that the gender was unconfirmed for 34.8 percent of attackers.
Although the Islamic State has not yet used female bombers, there were occasions on which its precursors, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq, did. During Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s existence between 2004-2006, 2 percent of its suicide attackers were female, and 59.9 percent were of unconfirmed gender.
During the Islamic State of Iraq’s existence between 2006-2013, 6.4 percent of its suicide attackers were female, and 44.8 percent were of unconfirmed gender.
Through 2015, however, there have not yet been any confirmed female suicide attackers employed by Islamic State itself.
The phenomenon of female suicide attackers is not one that appears to be in decline. This graph from CPOST displays all suicide attacks reported to be carried out by females between 1982 and 2015.
It is obvious from the data that many groups do choose to employ female suicide bombers, and this may be because there is a clear tactical advantage to employing female suicide attackers over males. Female attacks have actually proven to be “deadlier and more effective.” Unlike a timed bomb that can be discovered and disabled, suicide attacks in general are equivalent to precision-guided weapons able to detonate at a precise moment and location, with no escape plan needed: in short, “the body has become [the] most potent weapon.” Female bombers in particular provide increased access to targets. Not only are women less suspect than males, but suicide vests and belts can be more easily concealed under women’s clothing, such as the loose gowns typically worn by women in Nigeria or in their burqas; in fact, the Nigerian state police have issued warnings about women in hijab. Explosives strapped around a woman’s midsection can make it appear as if she is pregnant, a technique used by the PKK and Sunni groups, and the simple taboo against invasively searching a woman, especially a pregnant woman, ensures her ability to carry out the task. This tactic is so effective that some groups, including the Islamic State, the Taliban, and now Boko Haram, have even used men disguised as women to carry out suicide attacks. Al Shabaab would aim to create the illusion of a couple on a date, minimizing suspicion especially at “soft” civilian targets like hotels and restaurants. In a Muslim country, a face covered with a veil will typically attract a lower level of attention than an exposed face, which proves useful for potential attackers; women’s status as second-class citizens in many Muslim countries also renders them less suspect.
Perhaps because women are stereotypically thought to be more peaceful, or at least historically less involved in suicide bombing, there is something to be said simply for the shock value and psychological effect produced by female suicide bombers. After all, terrorism is generally thought to be partly effective because it “violates norms of warfare”: it shocks, scares, and kills innocents at random in an aim to influence not only its immediate victims but a wider political audience. Naturally, the use of women bombers compounds this psychological effect, and also unnerve us by making it plausible that literally any person, no matter their demographic, could perpetrate such a horrifying and deadly attack. After all, asking why there are specifically female suicide attacks implies that there is something unusual and particularly shocking about the idea.
Yet not all groups that employ suicide attacks employ female bombers. Some researchers suggest that groups will only employ females as an emergency measure when at their weakest—when men will no longer volunteer or when strategic “hard” (military) targets cannot be easily accessed, forcing them to use women to instead attack “soft” (civilian) targets. On average, the tactic of employing female suicide bombers is not used until over thirteen years into a campaign, suggesting that they are generally a last resort. Boko Haram, for instance, has been greatly weakened over the past year, to the point where the Nigerian president declared in December that Nigeria had “technically won the war” against the insurgent group. Thus it is possible that Boko Haram’s use of female suicide attackers over the past few months means that it is lashing out in desperation. However, in 2014, when the group first employed female suicide bombers, it was not yet notably in decline. Given that the group only began using suicide tactics in 2009, others have suggested that Boko Haram used the disproportionate attention garnered by female attackers to distract the media and allow itself to act and consolidate gains in other areas. Furthermore, some secular groups like the PKK and LTTE have used female bombers from the outset of their campaigns. In short, one cannot assume that the employment of female suicide bombers is only a desperate last resort.
There are various explanations for why groups might choose to employ suicide terrorism in general, ranging from attempts to outdo other groups in violence to Islamic fundamentalism. University of Chicago professor Robert Pape has argued that perceived foreign occupation of a national homeland is the key motivator of suicide terrorism; attacks are seen as acts of altruistic sacrifice performed in the hope of preserving a traditional or desired way of life from the threat posed by the occupying power. As of 2008, 95 percent of female suicide attacks occurred in countries occupied by a foreign power. An occupying power might mean US troops stationed overseas, or, from the perspective of Chechen or Tamil insurgents, the Russian or largely Sinhalese Sri Lankan governments. Nigeria also fits into this framework: according to Pape, a surge of Christians in the past forty years living predominantly in the south of the country who have played an increasing role in politics “has led to fears by Muslims in the North that they are being internally occupied,” in the sense that they cannot control things like their own legal and economic systems. Boko Haram, an Islamic group whose name roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden,” emerged around ten years ago amidst increasing tensions. It opposes Westernization and seeks to overthrow the Nigerian government and implement an Islamic state in its place. Nigerian land was under the control of Islamic states until annexed by the British and French into their colonial empires in the early twentieth century; opposition to Western education and values is therefore rooted in anti-colonial sentiment. Boko Haram seeks to escape an increasingly Westernized government and to return to Islamic rule and an Islamic way of life in Nigeria.
If this logic is correct, suicide bombers are driven by a deep sense of loyalty to their communities and homelands. This is not to say that there cannot be other motivations too, as in the case of the Black Widows who decide to commit attacks after the combat deaths of their husbands or male relatives. Whatever the logic, “claims of coercion are largely exaggerated” and suicide attacks have overwhelmingly proven to be voluntary, and seem to be motivated by more than a misplaced belief held by those with few life prospects that the act will send them to heaven. Groups tend to paint suicide attacks as acts of martyrdom and offer the attackers’ families substantial material rewards: promises of honor and material rewards often help to mobilize voluntary recruits. Chechen Black Widow martyr videos, female LTTE suicide bomber statements that invoke “sacrifice” and “honor,” and failed suicide attacker Sajida al-Rishawi’s accounts corroborate the notion that female suicide attackers too, are dying for a cause, or at the very least acting voluntarily. Indeed, the reasons motivating females in particular to carry out suicide attacks have so far been identical to the reasons that motivate men: there is little evidence of “uniquely feminine motivations driving suicide attacks.” Groups that generally do not employ female fighters (such as the Islamic State) will also generally not employ female suicide bombers.
But the girls sent by Boko Haram to carry out the suicide attacks in February do not appear to have been willing to carry out voluntary attacks out of loyalty to their community; they were evidently among the girls kidnapped by the group in recent years and held captive. Some have speculated that the 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014 are being used as suicide attackers. One possibility is that these girls could become suicide bombers because of “brainwashing, or because Boko Haram has humiliated them sexually […] so that there’s no option but to become a suicide bomber because of the honor code in place in traditional Nigerian societies.” Other possibilities are that Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers are relatives of male members, helpers in the group as part of an alleged “female wing” who have been likewise indoctrinated, or simply poor girls lured into the group’s ranks. It therefore remains unclear whether these girls have been traumatized, coerced, or genuinely radicalized and indoctrinated. Many suicide bombers, male and female alike, have been teenagers, but children, such as the alleged seven- and ten-year old girls Boko Haram has employed, simply cannot consent to carry out suicide attacks.
It nonetheless seems likely that, in contrast to other groups that have used female suicide bombers, Boko Haram has coerced its attackers. A thirteen-year-old girl arrested last December reportedly claimed that her father, who supported Boko Haram, coerced her into carrying out a suicide attack. A ten-year-old attacker last July was accompanied by her older sister and an older man and an attacker last November was accompanied by two men, suggesting that family members or others were sent to ensure that they would indeed carry out the attacks. The girl who refused to detonate her bomb in February reported not only her unwillingness to blow up her family in the camp, but also she was frightened of “going against the instructions of the men who brought her to the camp and deployed her.” If her family was in the refugee camp, clearly they did not support Boko Haram but were instead forcibly displaced because of it.
Clearly, the logic of suicide terrorism in this instance cannot be explained purely in terms of a voluntary sacrifice for one’s community to fight foreign occupation, the promise of honor or a material reward, or even the conventional explanations of radical religion or poor life prospects. Deploying female suicide bombers is not a novel tactic by any means, and what should be particularly shocking is not the use of females in and of itself. Instead, what is novel and particularly unnerving in Boko Haram’s case is the alleged coercion of these females, especially young girls, to carry out suicide attacks. Although Pape suggests that this is only a “secondary part of its campaign of violence that would likely continue otherwise” and reports that there have been unconfirmed reports of coerced suicide attacks in the past, he confirms that Boko Haram’s female suicide attackers are in fact the first case where there is substantial evidence of coercion. Perhaps Boko Haram’s “last resort” strategy involves not only using females, but actually coercing them. Perhaps the group has run out of volunteers, but, inspired by its past success with female suicide bombers, is striving to employ them using other means: using kidnapping and coercion in order to force girls to blow themselves up and continue employing what is one of the least suspicious yet most accurate and deadly precision-guided weapons in existence. Traditional explanations for suicide terrorism, or at least those that have held up until now, need to be questioned: new dynamics are at play in Nigeria.
The data and charts featured in this article are from the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons and the original image can be found here.