From Black Tigers to Black Widows

Female suicide-bombers epitomize the horrors spawned by the ideology of Islamic jihadis. But they were not a jihadi innovation. The politics of the first female suicide-bombers were decidedly secular and jihadis only began using them after their effectiveness had been demonstrated by non-Islamic terrorists …..

….. editorial from Paul D Kennedy

Genuinely suicidal attacks – in which the attacker has no chance of survival – have been known for hundreds of years. We all remember (from the movies, at least) the Kamikaze pilots Japan employed to crash fighter-planes full of explosive into American war-ships in the Pacific during World War II.

The Kamikaze pilots demonstrated the effectiveness of the suicide attack. Most of these attacks nowadays are in the form of suicide bombings, ie they are carried out by people who strap explosives on their bodies and blow both their targets and themselves up at the same time. Suicide-bombers are a comparatively recent development.

Suicide-bombers have several advantages over conventional attackers. They are able to circumvent security measures and place themselves close to their targets – small bombs up close do far greater damage to a target than larger devices detonated further away. Small suicide bombs are also more economical. They don’t require a delivery vehicle, such as an airplane or a truck, and use much less explosive. Indeed the amount of explosive needed for a single truck-bomb can be more effectively used to make dozens of suicide bombs that can be used for multiple simultaneous attacks or a series of attacks.

Kamikaze pilots were invariably male and so were the first suicide-bombers. Female suicide-bombers only began making an appearance about 20 years ago. Initially they were secular terrorists, and it wasn’t until about five years ago that the jihadis began sacrificing Muslim ladies as suicide-bombers.

Female suicide-bombers first began appearing (as far as I can recall) around the mid-1980s when members of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party carried out suicide car bomb attacks against the Israeli military and the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army. The SSNP was a communist party so, though its members were Muslim, they were hardly jihadi.

The next female suicide bomber I remember was the one who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, in 1991 by blowing herself up as she was putting a garland around his neck at a political rally. In 1993 another female suicide-bomber killed Ranasinghe Premadasa, the president of Sri Lanka, in a similar manner. Both of these bombers were members of the Black Tigers, a special suicide-attack unit of the nationalist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, in which most members are Buddhist or Hindu. Again these suicide-bombers could not have been jihadis.

During the second half of the 1990s the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) used female suicide-bombers to carry out a series of attacks against Turkish security targets. While the vast majority of its members are probably Muslim, the PKK is a secular nationalist organization, so the motives of its suicide-bombers are unlikely to have been jihadist.

Jihadi organizations did not begin using women as suicide-bombers until 2000. From 2000 to 2004 Black Widows, female Chechen militants, carried out suicide-attacks against Russian military targets in Chechnya and civilian targets, such as concerts, airplanes and subways, in Russia. They also tried to kill the president of Chechnya.

The second intifada or uprising by Palestinians militant groups in the occupied territories began in 2000. In this campaign for freedom, the suicide-bombers were initially always males. When Israel responded with security measures that prevented male bombers from reaching their targets, the Palestinians discovered that female bombers have several advantages over their brothers.

Females do not fit the common notion of a terrorist and seem less suspicious to security forces and lay people alike, especially in the paternalistic Middle East where it is socially unacceptable for a man to look at a woman with more than a brief glance unless they are related. This makes it difficult for male security personnel to examine and search women adequately.

In the Arab world the abaya, a cloak that covers the body from head to toe, can be used to conceal an explosive device which, if worn around the waist, may make it seem that a woman is pregnant. When a woman wears a niqab, the traditional Bedouin face-covering, the non-verbal clues shown by a person’s facial expression are lost.

In 2002 a female member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (affiliated to Arafat’s Fatah movement, a secular organization) blew herself up in Jerusalem. It was only after the secular AMB lead the way that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad began deploying female suicide-bombers in attacks against Israel.

Female suicide-bombers were also late in arriving in Iraq. They were first used by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (QI) on the 9th November 2005 in an attack on three hotels in Amman, Jordan, and on the same day in Baghdad against a US motorcade. The latter attack was also notable in that it was the first in which a European female suicide-bomber – a Belgian-born convert to Islam – blew herself up.

That female suicide-bombers are a fairly recent innovation in Islamic-tinged terrorism is not surprising because jihadi ideology is very male-chauvinistic and its concept of martyrdom seems focused mainly on men – the big prize is going straight to heaven and into the company of thirty virgins.

But Islamic jihadis are very practical people. The success of the secular Black Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Black Widows in Chechnya, and, especially, the AMB’s female suicide-bombers, induced Hamas, QI and others to follow suit by rewriting their jihadist ideology to include women suicide-martyrs.

© Paul D Kennedy, January 2008

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