Thomas R. Mockaitis, Ph.D. is Professor of History at DePaul University. He is the author of The "New" Terrorism: Myths and Reality (Stanford, 2008).
Emergency responders at the site of the 2010 Moscow Metro bombing.
Editor's Note: This article was originally titled "Female Suicide Bombers are Nothing New." The Moscow Metro bombing detailed in the article was the second most recent Chechen terrorist attack in Moscow -- the most recent was the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people.
American readers registered surprise, if not shock, at the news that a pair of suicide bombers had struck the Moscow subway. In an attack reminiscent of the July 2005 London Underground bombings, the two detonated their bombs on different trains during the height of morning rush hour, killing 40 people and leaving 100 more injured. Surprise came not from the attack itself. Moscow has, after all, been a popular target since the desultory conflict with Chechen separatists began in the mid-1990s. Russian authorities quickly identified the bombers with a group in Dagestan, part of an arc of instability in the North Caucasus, where Islamic radicalism has infused ethnic nationalism with new energy. The surprise came instead from gender of the perpetrators. These terrorist bombers were women.
A first glance, female suicide bombers would appear to be a new phenomenon. Years of experience with terrorists in the Middle East has conditioned us to focus on a narrow terrorist profile. We expect terrorists to be angry young men, ages 18-25, who grew up in squalid refugee camps in an atmosphere of hopelessness and helplessness. The 9/11 attacks and the July 2005 London bombings forced reconsideration of the socio-economic component of this profile. The perpetrators were on average older, better educated and of higher class than had previously been the case. They were, however, still men.
Looking at a broader range of terrorist organization could have taught us that violent extremism does not respect gender any more than it respects other distinctions. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil/Elam (LTTE) pioneered the use of suicide bombers and found women to be particularly effective at this deadly task. Feigning pregnancy, they could carry more explosives than men, and security guards were more reluctant to search them thoroughly. In May 1991, a woman from the “Black Tigers,” the suicide corps of LTTE, assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Tigers continued to use female suicide bombers until Sri Lanka Forces overran their last sanctuary in 2009, killing their charismatic leader Vilupillai Prabhkaran.
Female suicide bombers also played a significant role in the terrorist campaign accompanying the Chechen Wars. The first conflict erupted in 1994 as the former Soviet republic sought independence. The Russian Federation fought a desultory war marked by over-reliance on firepower, widespread atrocities, and general military incompetence. It ended with a ceasefire in 1996, but the conflict reignited in 1999, when Chechen forces invaded neighboring Dagestan, and continued for another decade. A revitalized Russian Federation now led by Vladimir Putin fared better than it had during the first Chechen War, employing some effective counterinsurgency tactics, though still relying on brute force when it saw fit. By 2009, the Russians had broken the back of the insurgency and installed a pro-Moscow president, though separatist elements still exist in Chechnya.
Where insurgency starts, terrorism soon follows. The second Chechen War included an extensive terrorist campaign. Foreign mujahedeen trained by al-Qaeda in its Afghan camps journeyed to Chechnya to support the cause. Its majority Muslim population had never been particularly observant, but the war radicalized some, and the separatist movement desperately needed help. The foreign fighters probably encouraged the Chechens to carry the war into the heart of the Russian Federation, which they did with a series of devastating attacks. Americans became more conscious of this campaign following 9/11, which heightened our awareness of terrorism as a worldwide phenomenon. In one dramatic episode, terrorists took 800 hostages in a Moscow Theater, 120 of whom died in a botched rescue, attempt along with 33 terrorists, including several women. This wave of terror introduced the world to a new meaning of an old term, “black widow.” Chechen black widows volunteered to be suicide bombers because their husbands, and perhaps their entire families, had been killed by Russian security forces. Revenge, rather than religious zeal, may have been their primary motive.
A similar pattern has emerged among Palestinian suicide bombers. While religious fanaticism motivates men, woman volunteer for suicide attacks after experiencing personal loss or trauma. They may have lost a husband or child (not necessarily to enemy action), have no marriage prospects, or been unable to have children. In a society that relegates women to traditional roles, such losses may instill a sense of worthlessness or at least expendability. Like their male counterparts, female suicide bombers come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and education levels. As a rule, they have no criminal records and suffer from no psychological disorders.
The United States has yet to suffer a terrorist attack by a female suicide bomber, but that may change in the foreseeable future. Following its failed Christmas day attack on a Northwest Airlines jet headed for Detroit, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced that next time it would use western-looking female suicide bombers, whom it assumed would fit in better and thus be subject to less scrutiny by airport security. The terrorist group seems not to have considered that announcing their intentions might seriously jeopardize operations.
Given the history of female suicide bombing, it comes as no surprise that the perpetrators of the recent Moscow subway attack were both women. If past trends continue, we can expect to seem more women strapping on bomb vests, though probably not as often as men. There will, sadly, be no shortage of zealous young male or traumatized female suicide recruits. They await only terrorist organizations willing to recruit and train them. Depressing as this knowledge may be, it also points the way to countering the pervasive threat of suicide terrorism. As we wear down terrorist organizations, we must remove the causes of unrest that motivate people to join them.
On Topic: Boston Marathon Bombing
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- Daniel Martin Varisco: No, Senator Graham, Domestic Drones are NOT a Good Idea
- Elliot Young: Don't Let the Boston Bombing Roll Back the Rights of Immigrants
- Historians React to Chaos in Boston
On Topic: Chechnya