Whilst cradling her young child in Mosul, a suspected ISIS female suicide bomber detonated a trigger, killing both herself and the child, and injuring several civilians. Over the past two weeks alone, over 20 ISIS female suicide bombers hidden among civilians are believed to have also detonated explosives.
The fact that women have been used in suicide attacks by ISIS represents a noteworthy shift for the group.
The perverted ideology that the group adheres to ordinarily maintains that women must be constrained to domestic isolation. They have to remain in the home, raising the next generation of jihadi children and supporting their fighting husbands. ISIS propaganda clearly propagates women as vital components of the ‘state’, but stipulates that they cannot engage in combat, unless attacked. This image of a woman in ISIS has led to a broad-brush portrayal of them as individuals with little agency, passively partaking in the ‘state’ to become ‘jihadi brides’.
Although ISIS previously stated women cannot commit attacks, it appears to have made an exception to its rule, and recent events reveal the group recognises the benefit of sending apparent female attackers. Female attackers generally have a greater ability to evade security services and are able to conceal weapons under loose fitting dress. This was exploited when the group sent male attackers dressed as women to carry out ISIS’ first attack in Iran. It was not long after this attack on Iran’s parliament that ISIS reportedly began to deploy women themselves.
In other contexts, women have long perpetrated attacks both in the name of Islamist extremism and otherwise, ranging from female suicide bombers from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus that were so common they became known as “black widows”, to girls as young as 10 years old carrying out suicide attacks on behalf of Boko Haram. Other examples include the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in Lebanon in the 1980s, and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka in the early 1990s. Most famously, it was a female suicide bomber, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, who assassinated the Indian prime minister in May 1991.
Female suicide bombers are no stranger to Iraq. In 2005, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by then-leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, carried out four suicide bombings involving female operatives. Several years later in 2008, 39 female suicide bombers killed at least 363 individuals and wounded 974 others in Iraq, the majority of which were US and Iraqi military personnel. It is worth noting that this increased use of female suicide bombers coincided with a time when AQI was on the back foot following increased military operations against the group.
Although female suicide bombers are not new to Iraq, they are new to ISIS under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So why the shift? Just as AQI was over a decade ago, ISIS is under pressure from a targeted and coordinated militarily approach. It has lost significant territory in Iraq with analysts suggesting ISIS will now revert to launch an insurgency, again reminiscent of AQI’s approach. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently visited Mosul to congratulate Iraqi forces for their “victory” in the city. Whilst pockets of ISIS control remain in Mosul, the self-declared caliphate is shrinking and its image of ‘utopia’ is being drowned out by the reality of a disastrous defeat. The surge of foreign fighters has dwindled, civilians who were formerly trapped are fleeing, and the group’s finances are less bountiful. ISIS has to get its sustenance from wherever possible and the jihadis have used everything in their arsenal to fend off the troops in the final throes of the nine month-long offensive in the city.
This ongoing reality has led to the group using women in attacks, in essence, demonstrating the group’s increasing desperation.
As such tactics of using females are in clear opposition to the group’s stance on the role of women, there has been timidity in acknowledging their use. The very nature of a war zone makes it hard to assess developments with complete assurance, but the issue of female attackers has almost had an increased caution. Whispers of a matriarch in ISIS’ branch in the Philippines have emerged, but the newness of female jihadi leadership means there is reticence to fully confirm it. If it is the case, whether female leadership is a new trend in jihadi militancy or just an aberration from normality remains to be seen.
Whether it is that men are encouraging women to commit attacks, or that ISIS’ imposed understanding of ‘modesty’ and ‘femininity’ is no longer succeeding in restricting women’s roles in a way it did before, there is no doubt a change in tactics. For ISIS in Iraq to break its own strict code on the role of women reflects the group’s weak position. Given our experience and understanding of AQI and other groups that have employed female suicide bombers, their use by ISIS should have been viewed as an inevitability rather than a remote possibility.