Female Suicide Bombers: Dying to Kill

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic Channel
December 13, 2004
As a spate of suicide bombings around the world in recent years has
shown, the face of terror is increasingly female. In 1991 a female Sri
Lankan separatist killed herself and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv
Gandhi. Since then similar bombings have occurred in Turkey, Pakistan,
Israel, Uzbekistan, and Iraq.

In Russia at least 11 female Chechen bombers have struck, including the women who, earlier this year, downed two Russian airliners and those who helped seize a Beslan middle school and kill over 330 hostages, many of them children.

This week, on a special edition of National Geographic Explorer (see details), host Lisa Ling travels to Russia's Chechnya region and to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in Israel to speak with families who female suicide bombers have left behind. Here, Ling shares her insights into why these women are dying to kill.

What did you learn about the women behind these terrible bombings?

What we found in talking to the [bombers'] families and people in the community—and I want to limit this to the women whose stories we looked into—all of them had very traumatic personal stories and issues. Those things, combined with the horrors of living under occupation, could have provoked them to act.

What kind of personal problems?

One [terrorist], for example, was the first female suicide bomber in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Wafa Idris. She was married off at a very young age and could not have kids. In that society a woman, a wife, who can't have kids is considered worthless. The husband [divorced Wafa and] married someone else and had kids with her.

Wafa also worked with a humanitarian organization on the West Bank where she saw a lot of carnage [from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. You might say that she was a very depressed person.

You report that her family felt those issues helped to drive Idris's decision to become a suicide bomber.

It was obvious that all of the families were devastated over their child's death, but they were also very careful in guarding what they were saying. Immediately they said, Our daughters did this because of the occupation. When we prodded, some people defiantly maintained that position. But Wafa's mother, for example, said bluntly that if Wafa had been able to have kids, she probably wouldn't have killed herself.

A number of pregnant Chechen women have done this. It's terribly disturbing, and one would think that something had to be horribly wrong for someone to do that. There were even some allegations that some of these women were having extramarital affairs, which are not acceptable in that society.

[The bombers we investigated] were vulnerable, broken women who saw no way out. They saw their lives on Earth as too difficult to handle, and when they reached that stage, in their minds, taking out the enemy was an opportunity to become a hero: Why not redeem myself and redeem my family's name?

Did you find religious belief to be a primary motive in the cases you investigated?

The perception in the West is that these people are religious fanatics who don't care about life. In the stories we examined we found that not to be true. The families we talked to told us that their daughters werent overly pious. Although they were very upset and distraught over occupation, they were normal girls.

How did these women become involved with terrorist groups?

The parents don't really know. But most felt that their daughters most likely volunteered. [In other cases] the ones who are vulnerable are the ones who are chosen.

A Chechen woman told us her daughter had tuberculosis and was literally dying when the rebels came and recruited her. In the Chechen conflict so many have gone to fight and been killed that in some cases the women are almost the only ones left in certain villages.

Did the parents know of their daughters' intentions beforehand?

None of the parents we spoke with had any idea—and I believe that. Most people, when they commit suicide, don't alert others of their actions. It begs the question: Were these bombers committing suicide for the sake of committing suicide? Or solely trying to use it as a military tactic?

Families of suicide bombers enjoy an increased status in their communities by virtue of their relatives' perceived martyrdom. But do families also benefit financially?

We asked a number of the families, and they said no, they didn't get any money. Whether that's true or not, we don't know. But they do enjoy a certain heroic status. Wafa Idris instantly became a hero. Huge parties were thrown—these funerals that are essentially like celebrations.

Despite the best efforts of security personnel, suicide bombing can be difficult to guard against. Does being female give these bombers an added edge?

I think it does. In the occupied territories [of Israel's West Bank and Gaza Strip], for example, the Israelis have really put up some formidable barriers. They check and scrutinize everyone who comes across the border. But women [suicide bombers] are much less detectable. They are like stealth bombers. [The Israelis] often don't check them as thoroughly.

One point we're trying to make is that you can't rule anyone out these days. The stereotype of the face of terror is negligible. The people we're least likely to suspect, the givers of life, might be people who are dying to kill.

Unfortunately, it seems that this issue will be with us for some time.

There isn't a day that goes by in America these days where we're not hearing about suicide bombers. We know that, so far, a number of women have killed themselves in Iraq, and you can't rule out the possibility that others will begin doing this in different parts of the world. The whole notion of conventional war has changed. How do you deal with individuals who aren't afraid of death, but are seeking it out? Maybe it would behoove us to try to learn more about who they are and what their motivations are. That's one of the reasons why we wanted to do this piece.

For more on this subject, watch Female Suicide Bombers, tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel (U.S. only). Additional airdates: Thursday, December 16, at 2:00 p.m. ET/PT, and Saturday, December 18, at 4:00 p.m. ET/PT

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