Female suicide bombers: What the state must do to prevent others from following in the KU attacker's footsteps
It is likely that women will play a larger role in the BLA’s military operations. Does the state have a counter-strategy?
Female suicide bombers: What the state must do to prevent others from following in the KU attacker's footstepsIt is likely that women will play a larger role in the BLA’s military operations. Does the state have a counter-strategy?
Yumna FatimaPublished May 6, 2022
Less than an hour after the explosion that killed three Chinese nationals and a Pakistani man in Karachi University, the proscribed Baloch Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade tweeted it was their doing. The sickeningly congratulatory message — on having killed four unarmed civilians — was accompanied by another announcement: This attack had been carried out by a woman — identified as Shari Baloch — a first for the militant outfit.
A second tweet was accompanied by a picture of the alleged suicide bomber along with her two children. The militants lauded her as the “first female fidayee of the Baloch nation”, adding that she had “set new standards of gallantry, sacrifice and awareness”.
The speculation regarding the attacker’s possible motives began immediately. Many simply couldn’t fathom how a mother of two young children could kill herself, besides taking so many innocent lives with her. There was no question about it, others said: someone in her family must have been killed, must have gone missing or must have been wronged in some way by the state — all of which have become rallying cries and recruiting points for separatist groups operating in Balochistan. Why else would she have done something so inhumane?
Murky detailsYet, as the details trickled in, they swept aside these assumptions. Thirty-year-old Shari Baloch was a secondary school teacher, the wife of a dentist, the mother of two children, tweeted journalist Kiyya Baloch.
Read more: Who are the perpetrators of the recent attack on Chinese citizens?
Born in Turbat in 1991, she was married and had two children. She herself was highly educated, with two Masters, her uncle, Ghani Parvaaz, told Dawn.com, adding that many members of her family had held high government positions. Her father, Mohammad Hayat, had retired as a registrar in Turbat University while Parvaaz himself was a retired professor and writer.
No one in her family appeared to be missing or slain at the hands of security forces, apart from a distant relative who was killed in a military operation in Kech in 2018, wrote Kiyya Baloch.
The BLA statement, meanwhile, indicated a deliberate, conscious decision made by her, saying Shari had joined the Majeed Brigade — a particularly lethal guerilla cell of the BLA — two years ago and ‘voluntarily signed up for self-sacrifice’.
They had given her time, they said, to revisit her decision and she reaffirmed her desire to carry out a fidayee attack six months ago.
There was seemingly nothing about her to suggest any cause for radicalisation or indoctrination, nothing that may have driven her to the extreme that is a suicide attack. So why?
If Balochistan's Parliamentary Secretary for Information Bushra Rind is to be believed, her detained husband has said Shari was “mentally ill”. He apparently made this revelation during interrogation.
As investigators try to piece together the puzzle and ascertain a possible motive, it is worth looking back at the accounts of some women who have chosen to take a similar path before her.
At the forefrontSixteen-year-old Sana Mehaidli, born and raised in the Lebanese village of Anquan, had been working at a video store when the Lebanese Civil War erupted. In March 1985, she left home, telling her parents she was going out to buy nail polish for her mother.
Three weeks later, she became the first female suicide bomber the world has known, earning herself the title, ‘the Bride of the South’, when she drove an explosive-laden Peugeot into an Israeli convoy in occupied south Lebanon.
In a letter her parents received after her death, Sana said she had long waited to do something about the oppression and felt it her duty to play her part.
An official from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which had organised the attack, said the bombing had been Sana’s own idea. “Some of our men tried to persuade her to change her mind,” he claimed.
Since Sana, women have carried out suicide attacks as part of militant campaigns from Chechnya to Palestine, and from Iraq to Sri Lanka. It was a female operative from the Tamil Tigers who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, detonating an explosive belt hidden under her dress as she bent to touch his feet at a political rally.
And while there have been few attacks involving female suicide bombers in Pakistan, Shari is certainly not the first we have seen.
In 2010, a veiled woman blew herself up at a food distribution centre set up by the World Food Programme in Bajaur, killing at least 45 people lined up for rations. The following year, a husband-and-wife duo raided a police station in Dera Ismail Khan, shooting five police personnel before killing seven more in a suicide bombing. Two months later, a teenaged girl approached a police checkpoint at Peshawar’s Lahori Gate, lobbing a grenade before pressing the trigger on her explosive vest.
In 2012, a female Uzbek bomber targeted then Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed in Mohmand Agency. The next year, a woman posing as a university student climbed into a Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University bus in Quetta — her bomb killed at least 25 people, most of whom were students. In another complex attack in 2019, a female suicide bomber struck outside a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan.
While Laskhkar-e-Jhangvi quickly took responsibility for the Quetta attack, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed several of the others, warning in the first incident that they had several more female suicide bombers waiting to be deployed.
Why choose womenFrom the point of view of the terrorist organisation, suicide bombings are possibly the most effective tactic in the terrorist arsenal — according to terrorism expert Dr Robert Pape, they’re 12 times deadlier than any other form of terrorism. And from a strategic perspective, studies show that women are considered more effective at it than men.
Arousing less suspicion than men, women are not as likely to be stopped by security personnel. Um Al Harith, a would-be suicide bomber in Iraq, had banked on this in her plan to strike US troops, remarking, "The guards just stare when a woman walks past, and they never search women. So I would go inside [the base] first wearing a suicide vest. And when they all gathered around me, I would blow myself up."
Militants use this to their advantage, seeking out recruits who don’t fit the ‘profile’. Moreover, it is easier for women to get around security checkpoints, predominantly manned by men — any invasive searches may draw outrage over harassment.
In Pakistan, few checkpoints are staffed by women and cultural and religious norms prevent male security personnel from patting down women. Burqas make it easy to hide explosives under clothing too — a bulky belt around the waist can easily be disguised, lulling security forces into complacency.
This ability of women to go deep into locations where men may be stopped at the entrance makes them more lethal too, especially when it comes to enclosed, crowded areas, where the explosive materials and shrapnel are even more destructive.
For terrorist organisations, it's about manpower too. A Hamas leader, justifying women's participation in the group's violence, rationalised, "Women are like the reserve army — when there is a necessity, we use them." And sometimes, it's simply that women are seen by the group as being more expendable. In the words of a former Boko Haram member, "using women [as suicide bombers] allows you to save your men."
And of course, a woman or a young girl blowing themselves up for a cause makes for a gripping symbol. Terrorism is all about the message it delivers, and the more dramatic the attack, the more publicity it gets — for the organisation, for the cause, for the demands.
The savagery and element of self-sacrifice at the heart of suicide attacks draws more media attention. An attack perpetrated by a woman garners eight times as much press attention on average than a similar attack by a man, according to political scientist Dr Mia Bloom, the author of Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists.
It's not just about the media either. An attack by a woman is more shocking, more unnerving. It gets society thinking about the desperation of the matter — what brought these mothers and wives and daughters to the point where they are willing to die to obtain what they perceive as justice? And in terms of recruitment for the group, too, it’s an especially effective way to shame men into action. If even your women are fighting for your community, why aren’t you?
MotivationBut what sort of person decides to become a suicide bomber? To date, scholars have largely been unable to sketch a real profile.
Suicide bombers are not more likely to be poor, or uneducated, or to have mental illnesses. Many, in fact, can have university degrees and be financially stable — like Shari, seemingly. "The profile of a suicide terrorist resembles that of a politically conscious individual who might join a grassroots movement more than it does the stereotypical murderer, religious cult member, or everyday suicide," says Robert Pape, in his book, Dying to Win.
When it comes to female terrorists, the knee-jerk reaction is to assume they were pushed into committing the heinous acts. Was it out of grief because her husband or child were killed? Was it revenge for some sexual assault she was subjected to? Was she brainwashed? Surely, a woman — someone who is ‘innately’ soft, non-violent, nurturing — surely she could not consciously have decided to become a terrorist on her own. She must have been a pawn or a victim — of men, of the state, of circumstances.
As Anne Speckhard puts it in her 2008 paper, titled, ‘The Emergence of Female Suicide Terrorists’, “journalists often refer to women bombers as life-givers and make analogies to carrying bombs instead of babies in their wombs". These references are never given to male terrorists, despite the fact that men also give life and nurture children as well.
It's true, says Bloom, that many women become terrorists to avenge the loss of a loved one — a husband, a child, a parent, a sibling. Rape is another strong motivator; it can sometimes leave women feeling that they have little choice but to join the terrorists to ‘reclaim’ their honour. For Tamil women raped at government checkpoints, there is little hope of a normal married life; for women in many other conservative societies, such assaults may lead to their own families killing them in the name of ‘honour’.
And so, they become suicide bombers, going from being a source of shame to the family to a source of pride. Family or peer pressure, too, can manipulate women to participate in clandestine activities. In fact, female terrorists are more likely to have a close friend or family member already being part of the group.
Yet motivations can be complex; there’s no single pathway to terrorism. Yes, coercion and personal victimisation can be a strong driver. But as Jessica Davis, author of Women in Modern Terrorism, points out, it is a disservice to the agency of women if we believe they are involved solely because of their families and friends, because of coercion, or for personal revenge.
“We often see reporting of women’s motivations personalised, whereas men’s are politicised. For everyone, it’s usually a combination of motives,” she tweeted. “Why do women join terrorist groups? In short, for the same reasons as men.”
Many women are committed to the cause voluntarily — although some may be coerced — making deliberate decisions that they believe will serve their community and redress their political grievances. Even when the family is involved, says Bloom, when it has joined the organisation together, women can be just as committed as the men in their lives. And while the men may play the leadership roles, particularly in conservative societies, suicide bombing can be a demonstration of the women’s dedication, showing they are just as devoted to the struggle as the men are.
In fact, the strongest motivation for most suicide bombers is simply believing in a cause. In the Palestinian resistance and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, it is the desire for an independent homeland. Religious terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the TTP seek the overthrowing of corrupt apostate regimes and replacing them with ‘true’ Islamic governance. Others dream of relief from oppression and the restoration of their basic rights. In each of these cases, though, those committed to the cause have utter faith in it. For them, their lives — and those of unarmed civilians — are a price they are willing to pay if it will serve their community.
A collective history of injustice — whether perceived or real — can also feed into the belief in the cause, even if one has not personally been harmed. For Palestinians, as Bloom points out, the First and Second Intifada along with massacres at the hand of the Israelis shape a history or grievance. For the Irish Republicans, memories of British abuses inspired generations to give up their lives for the cause of freedom. Shared experiences and shared humiliations, especially under military occupation, play a role in this too.
Many Palestinians recall their fathers’ humiliation at Israeli checkpoints as the precise moment when they decided to join the resistance, according to Bloom. When an entire community experiences similar incidents of repression, terrorist messages and propaganda resonate far more easily. Not everyone may join the terrorists — but some will.
Several prominent terrorist organisations encourage what terrorism expert Dr Assaf Moghadam labels a ‘cult of martyrdom’ as well. The Tamil Tigers would hand out booklets glorifying suicide bombers who had died for the vision of freedom.
Proud Palestinian families would distribute sweets if a child became a ‘martyr’ in this way, publishing notices in the weddings sections of newspapers rather than the obituaries. Instead of putting up posters of actors or rockstars, children would plaster their walls with the photos of Hamas’ master bombmaker Yahya Ayyash or Wafa Idris, the first female Palestinian suicide bomber. In Northern Ireland, writes Bloom in Bombshell, playing cards with the photos of Irish martyrs would pass from child to child, while their images were painted in murals on the walls of Belfast. Knowing that death will bring such outpourings of respect and admiration from the community can be a powerful enticement.
In the case of someone like Shari, understanding why she would carry out a suicide attack means understanding that it does not have to be a result of direct personal suffering, of grief or assaults. It may have simply been the experience of growing up with the perception that your community was facing injustice.
State’s responseNone of this can ever justify the killing of innocent civilians. But it is a reminder that countering militancy requires winning over the population. In any irregular conflict, gaining the support of the people and addressing their grievances is what gives one the upper hand.
The KU attack is a horrifying wake-up call that Baloch militancy is alive, and its tactics may be evolving. Pointing out that women make up around 23 per cent of terrorist groups, Davis believes there are “probably plenty of women in the BLA with ‘invisible’ roles like recruiters, financial facilitators, etc.” Given the tactical benefits, it is not unlikely that women may play a larger role in the BLA’s military operations in the future too.
There are reports already of Baloch students being targeted at universities in the aftermath of the KU attack. This could have devastating long-term ramifications in the shape of radicalising more men and women and widening the recruitment pool for militants.
This is a tactic that has backfired in the faces of other governments in the past, in Chechnya, in Sri Lanka, in Iraq. It is not a mistake Pakistan should make.
Header illustration: Prazis Images/ Shutterstock.com
Cover photo: Shari Baloch, the woman who allegedly carried out the KU attack.