Small Wars Journal

Female Suicide Bombers - The New Threat in Afghanistan

Sat, 07/24/2010 - 1:58am

Female Suicide Bombers

The New Threat in Afghanistan

by Matthew P. Dearing

Amidst the disarray following General McChrystal's interview with Rolling

Stone, a much less reported but profound event marked the course of the

insurgency in Afghanistan. The recent female suicide operation in eastern

Afghanistan reveals not only a paradigm shift in Taliban insurgent tactics, but

also a mutation of the organization's founding ideology.

On June 20, dressed in a long-flowing burqa, Bibi Halima walked up to

American and Afghan soldiers on patrol in the Sheltan area of Shegal district in

Kunar province with the intention of detonating explosives attached to her body.

In recent months, soldiers have had reason to be skeptical of burqa-clad

pedestrians. Many of the Haqqani Network's fedayeen tactics in eastern

Afghanistan have included men disguised in burqas, allowing them to approach or

breach heavily cordoned buildings and district centers prior to opening fire or

detonating explosives.  But as NATO and Afghan counterinsurgency experience

heightened, security forces became well adept at reading bodily gestures and

cues that distinguished a man from a woman underneath the large Afghan dress.

Until June 20th, this was a valuable force protection measure since not one of

the over 430 suicide attacks in Afghanistan since 2001, was perpetrated by a

woman.  In comparison, women have executed nearly one in ten suicide attacks in

Iraq.  Until June 20th, NATO troops could rest assured that of the many

insurgent tactics adapted from Iraq to Afghanistan, female suicide bombings was

one that would likely never emerge. 

But as in all insurgencies, there is little a counterinsurgent can be

certain. The element of surprise is probably the greatest tool an insurgent

holds over the parties attempting to glue together the fragile pieces of an

orderly society in Afghanistan.  However, in the midst of what many skeptics

argue is a repeat of Vietnam (be it increasing violence and corruption

throughout the country, a change in leadership, or a muddled strategic policy)

there is reason to be hopeful over this new paradigm of violent tactics in

Afghanistan.  The Taliban have just thrown down one of their wild cards by

sponsoring and implementing their first female suicide bomber.  Not only have

the Taliban opened themselves up to a new range of criticism by moderate and

fence-sitting Pashtuns, whom the Afghan government increasingly seeks to win

over, but they will also likely find cleavages develop within their own ranks

that see the inclusion of women in the insurgency as dishonorable and outside

the realm of acceptable jihad. 

There are plenty of practical reasons the Taliban would want to use women as

suicide bombers. Like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish insurgency in

Turkey or Chechen separatist movements in the Caucasus, the Taliban have used

the tactical elements of the burqa as a disguise since at least 2007—dressing

many of their male martyrs in this garb as a way to evade detection.  More than

disguising a male under a burqa, the female bomber can actually allow insurgents

to penetrate deep within hardened security structures where men would otherwise

be unable to pass through undetected and unsearched. Given cultural constraints,

men are forbidden from searching women, leaving insurgents a gap in security

measures that they can exploit.  In a recent graduating class of cadets from the

Kabul Police Academy, only ten of the over 1,600 graduates were women, thus

ensuring that few women will be searched in at least the near future.  Thus,

women provide a convenient tactical advantage in terms of suicide attacks,

because they are unlikely to be suspected or searched.

Until recently, the Taliban and associated groups such as the Haqqani Network

and Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, have largely avoided implementing women in the

insurgency for several reasons.  First, there are larger social and historical

considerations such as norms and collective memory within Afghanistan that have

prevented Taliban tacticians from utilizing women in insurgent operations. 

Female involvement in jihad has largely been absent in Afghanistan throughout

history.  Some examples exist that serve as motivating stories for male

combatants such as the tale of the Pashtun heroine Malalai who rallied Afghans

to defeat the British at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. Like Lady Liberty or the

French Marianne, Malalai served more as an iconic image of motherhood and

national pride.  Few women participated in the anti-Soviet jihad beyond the

important, but less combative supportive roles, such as serving as couriers,

conditioning weapons, or preparing the dead for burial. Ever since the Taliban

ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, women have been relegated to second-class

citizenship.  Today's young insurgent has grown up inculcated with the beliefs

and value systems espoused by ultra-conservative mullahs.

Second, until recently, the Taliban have resided in a fairly permissible

environment, controlling large swaths of territory including urban district

centers and rural villages throughout the country.  They also had considerable

cross-border access in Pakistan where they could plan operations, train

jihadists and indoctrinate future martyrs. Today, in many respects due to the

success of counterinsurgency operations run by General McChrystal and his team,

the Taliban have lost vital areas of sanctuary, elements of command and control

have been infiltrated and broken down, and operations have been successfully

countered and prevented due to a transfer of much needed assets from Iraq to

Afghanistan.  Thus, whereas deferment of female suicide bombers as a tactic was

easier one year ago when insurgent were in much better strategic position, today

they look more appealing as the organization becomes increasingly threatened.

Compare this environment to 2008 in Diyala Province, Iraq.  U.S. Special Forces,

under the command of Lt. Gen. McChrystal became exceedingly efficient at

liquidating mid-level Al Qaeda commanders, breaking apart the structural

alignment of the organization to the point that female combatants became a

logical conclusion for a squeezed organization seeking to create space against

an offensive U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign.  By the end of 2008, female

suicide attacks reached 32 in Iraq, as this tactic became a necessary adaptation

for insurgents.

Third, a culture of martyrdom has been a powerful aspect of the Taliban

insurgency.  Martyrdom has been a convenient rhetorical strategy that wraps a

variety of economic, political and social grievances around the all-inclusive

narrative of jihad.   The Taliban jihad has evolved to include narratives of

Macedonian, British and Soviet defeat at the hands of warrior Pashtuns. This can

be seen through war ballads, poetry, and personal testimonies distributed via

21st century technology—passed from Afghan to Afghan via mobile telephones,

compact discs chanting martyrologies, as well as developed websites and monthly

publications.  A significant difference between the Taliban insurgency and the

anti-Soviet jihad has been the absence of women in the martyrdom mythology. 

Women have always played a significant role in Afghanistan as poets espousing

the heroics of their men in combat and as defenders of a family's honor. 

However, under Taliban tyranny, women were noticeably absent in resistance

literature, oral narratives or the Taliban movement in general.  Thus, the

choice to engage women in violent jihad will soon test the viability of the

organization's ideology that has long positioned women as outsiders.  If

inclusion of women occurs, the Taliban will be forced to evolve and adapt its

strict fundamental beliefs to less restrictive standards. 

We may never know who the real Bibi Halima was, nor why she chose to kill

herself for an organization that would rather hold women in a position of

permanent servitude. But the act she participated in will undoubtedly stand as

an unrecognized changing point in the Afghan conflict.  Will more women follow

her lead or resist the temptation of asymmetric violence?  U.S. and Afghan

forces would be wise to capitalize on this moment to lower that risk and build

partnerships with a broader segment of society.  First, it presents a

significant opportunity to characterize the violent, inhumane nature of the

Taliban.  Second, it shows there is a deep ideological divide between the

Taliban's foundational ideology and what the organization adopts as legitimate

conduct today.  When approaching options for reconciliation, this can be a

notable point of contention between "moderate" Taliban and irreconcilables. 

Third, there must be a doubled effort to train female Afghan police and

intelligence operatives in order to be the eyes and ears preventing future

female suicide bombers.  Finally, the West should continue to pressure

Afghanistan's government to ensure women have a viable voice and opportunity in

the new Afghan society. While some women may feel pressured to work with the

Taliban, if viable options exist, such as an amnesty or call-in program for

potential suicide bombers, the few female bombers who emerge may think twice

about ending their life in such a tragic fashion.

Matthew P. Dearing is a PhD candidate at the Naval Postgraduate School and

member of the Center for Emerging National Security Affairs.


Me (not verified)

Sun, 07/25/2010 - 6:03pm

Women in North fought Taliban numerous times before the collapse of their regime in 2001. Women were police, soldiers and intelligence used against Mujahideen during the communist regimes.

JC (not verified)

Sun, 07/25/2010 - 4:20pm

Just a note that this blog post made it on the 1st Marine Division (Forward) Public Affairs news summary. First time in three months that I have noticed a SWJ/SWJB piece get picked up, but kudos!

Eric Chen

Sat, 07/24/2010 - 4:32pm

I don't understand why this is a surprise - Chechen islamic insurgents have successfully used women. The tactic is proven and established. The surprise would be for the Taliban in Afghanistan not to use women. We aren't willing to win victory at all costs, but they are willing to do whatever it takes to win. We would be wrong to project our weaknesses and biases onto the enemy.