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November 18, 2005

Jihad's Cheapest Weapons


Making sense of Female suicide bombers

by Loretta Napoleoni

Last Sunday, a shocked world watched the televised confession of Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, wife of one of the Amman suicide bombers. The Iraqi woman, who failed to detonate her explosive belt in the Radisson Hotel on Nov. 9, appeared cold, detached, and unemotional. At a certain stage she stood up and paraded in front of the camera with her belt of explosives. "I sat there watching and couldn't understand how she could be speaking so coldly," said Adel Fathi, a 29-year-old Jordanian.

"What are these people made of?" asked Fathi, who closed his women's accessories shop early on Sunday and joined millions of others watching the confession.

In October 2002, similar comments of disbelief echoed across the world when male and female jihadists from Chechnya took control of the Dubrovka theater in Moscow. Several hostages, when released, commented that the women, all very young, were more terrifying than the men. There is something sinister about wives, mother, daughters, and sisters becoming instruments of death. Dressed in black chadors, with only their eyes visible, the "black widows" of the Dubrovka theater, as they came to be known, wore their suicide belts over their clothes and constantly held the detonators, reminding the hostages that they would not hesitate to blow themselves up if their instructions were not followed. They were by no means the first female suicide bombers from Chechnya to kill Russians. Neither were they the youngest. In 2001, a 12-year-old orphan became one of the first chahidiki, as the Russians call the female Islamist martyrs. She threw her body holding a bomb against a military road block in Grozny to avenge the gang rape of her 15-year-old sister by a group of drunken Russian soldiers.

Rishawi is the second Iraqi woman suicide bomber (the first was an unmarried student who blew herself up in a market place in Baghdad a few months ago); however, she is the first one to be exported to Jordan to kill innocent Jordanians, and it is unlikely that she will be the last. Many more will die to fulfill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's jihadist dream: to destroy Iraq's "democracy" and bring down the Jordanian kingdom.

Since the Moscow siege, an army of Chechnya's female suicide bombers has been exported to Russia and deployed in Chechnya. In February 2004, a Chechen chahid blew herself up on a Moscow subway train during the morning rush hour, killing 41 other commuters. On Aug. 21 of the same year, 21 people lost their lives in a similar attack in Grozny. Three days later, two Chechen "black widows" smuggled bombs onboard two planes, killing 90 passengers in the skies over Russia.

For the jihadists, female suicide bombers are weapons. "We use martyrs because we do not have the F-16s, Apache helicopters, tanks, and missiles used by the Israelis," explained Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi in the early 1990s. In the economic galaxy of terror, women and even children make excellent shaeed (martyrs) because they occupy the lowest level in the hierarchy of the Islamic fundamentalist armaments.

According to Ayman al-Zawahiri, number two in al-Qaeda and the ideological voice behind suicide missions, the use of suicide bombers is "the most effective weapon, the one which is able to obtain the maximum of damage with the lowest cost in terms of deaths of mujahedin." Women are not allowed to become warriors, to fight in battle next to their men, but they are welcomed as suicide bombers. No Kalashnikovs for them, only explosive belts. For the jihadist organizations, their "martyrdom" spares male warriors for other tasks. It follows that attacks carried out by females are the most effective and "cheapest" type of suicide missions.

Economic considerations are, therefore, at the root of the proliferation of chahidiki in Chechnya. The life of men is precious because they can be deployed in the guerrilla struggle; utilizing them in the Moscow subway would be a waste of resources. Iraqi men are equally valuable. At the end of the 1990s, Shamil Basayev and Amir al-Khattab, the leaders of the Islamist insurrection in Chechnya, saw in the female population of the region a valuable reservoir of suicide bombers. An entire generation of women became human weapons. "They grew up during the Russian wars, without any education; women, adolescents, and children for whom the war became life, and life is a constant source of fear and terror," explains Zuleikhan Bagalova, who runs the Chechen Cultural Center in Moscow. The war in Iraq may provide Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with an equally valuable human reservoir.

Zarqawi was a great admirer of Khattab. In 1999, when he was released from prison in Jordan, thanks to an amnesty granted in honor of the coronation of King Abdullah, he wanted to join Khattab in Chechnya and fight the Russians. Arrested in Pakistan because of an expired passport, he was unable to travel to Chechnya and fulfill his dream. While in Herat, Zarqawi ran a camp whose purpose was to produce suicide bombers. He has spent the last five years perfecting the use of suicide missions as the most powerful and effective tool of the Islamist armed struggle. As Iraq slides into a permanent state of war, a condition sure to create a dehumanized generation of war children, Zarqawi will not ignore the economic and military advantages of female suicide bombers there.

But before an army of female Iraqi suicide bombers hits the Middle East, women will have to be ready to become martyrs. Zuleikhan Bagalova admits that the chahidiki are always women who have been deeply traumatized and who, as a result, seek in death the peace they were unable to achieve in life. These are women who have been raped in front of their family members; kidnapped and sexually assaulted; children who have seen their parents killed in front of their eyes. "After such an experience, they die inside, go mad, or become kamikaze," she explains. "For them, life has no meaning."

In "democratic" Iraq, similar atrocities are committed by the ethnic terror gangs, by the militias, and even by the regular army. A weblog from Baghdad called Baghdad Burning often posts terrifying stories of crimes against Iraqi women. A mother of three daughters, escaping Fallujah before the attack last fall, was stopped at a checkpoint by a group of Iraqi soldiers; they took the girls and left her alone. When they returned the daughters, the girls were traumatized and could not stop screaming. The kidnap and rape of women happens daily in Iraq, often as punishment for male members of the victim's family. Moreover, women who are raped are often subsequently killed by male relatives to "cleanse" the family honor. Many women are stolen from their families and sold as sex slaves. The profits of Iraqi criminal gangs are booming thanks to this business.

War is war everywhere in Iraq as well as in Chechnya. History tells us that if the Iraqi war becomes chronic, a state of permanent conflict as happened in Chechnya, Iraqi women may seek to share the same terrifying destiny as their Chechen peers.

 

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Born and raised in Rome, Loretta Napoleoni was a Fulbright scholar at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., and a Rotary Scholar at the London School of Economics (LSE). She has an M.Phil. in terrorism from LSE, a master's in international relations from SAIS, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Rome.

Napoleoni is an expert on the financing of terrorism and is well known internationally for having calculated the size of the terror economy. She is the author of the best-selling book Terror, Incorporated (Seven Stories Press), which was translated into 12 languages.

Visit her Web site.

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