Female Suicide Bombers: Dying to Kill

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?

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