The arrests of at least two women out of the 24 suspects initially held in the recently foiled plot in London highlight the potential threat posed by radical Muslim women (al-Jazeera, August 21). While little is known about the recent female detainees, women have played a central role in providing ideological and logistics support to al-Qaeda and local jihadi terrorists. The role of female suicide bombers is still relatively new and could shift over time, should al-Qaeda and like-minded groups increasingly recruit Muslim women for future attacks.
In the few cases known about Muslim female suicide bombers, most were related by family to the male suspects and terrorist leaders. For example, an Iraqi woman, Sajida al-Rishawi, appeared on Jordanian television in November 2005 confessing her intent to bomb a Western hotel in the capital city of Amman together with her husband (Khaleej Times, November 13, 2005). Having failed to release her explosives belt, her husband pushed her out of the ballroom and detonated his explosives. In recent years, several Palestinian female bombers, including Sana’a Shahada, Iman Asha, Abir Hamdan and Thawiya Hamour, had familial and personal links to male terrorists (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 3, 2003).
Other examples of female suicide operatives include a 19-year old Uzbek girl, Dilnoza Holmudora, who was married to the leader of the Islamic Jihad Movement of Uzbekistan, and two Egyptian women, who shot at a tourist bus in Cairo in April 2005. Both women were in their 20s. One was the fiancée, and the other the sister of the male perpetrators (RCA No. 278, April 20, 2004).
Most recently, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq issued a communiqué claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing on August 16, executed by a female member of the group’s suicide brigade, targeting a combined patrol of U.S. forces and Iraqi National Guards in al-Muqdadiyah (Associated Press, September 28, 2005). According to the message, more than 15 soldiers of the patrol were killed and others injured. Media reports indicate that the woman, wearing an explosives belt, detonated herself on the U.S.-Iraqi patrol near a bus stop, killing seven and wounding 20, including civilians and military members.
Despite the recent participation of Muslim women in attacks, a Muslim woman’s primary role in the al-Qaeda family has been to offer moral and ideological support to male jihadis. The wives of male militants demonstrate their support for their husbands, sons, brothers and other fighters through their communiqués and statements in jihadi magazines. Um Muhammad, the wife of the deceased al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, posted a letter last month on a jihadi website urging Muslim men to hold steady in jihad and warned the Iraqi government that the “great death is coming” (Mujahideen Shura Council website, July 2006). In the al-Khansaa magazine, the propaganda arm of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, articles focus on the role of women in jihad. Even on the internet, websites for Muslim women such as www.mojahdat.jeeran.com encourage them to support male jihadis in various conflicts worldwide.
In short, women are increasingly being called on for jihad. No longer invisible, Muslim women are able to utilize modern technology, with support from a new generation of male terrorists, to proclaim their voices on the global jihadi landscape.
Farhana Qazi is a Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an internationally recognized public speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. She is the author of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley (Pharos, 2016). She is the recipient of the 21st Century Leader Award, presented by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) for her service to the U.S. government. This article was initially published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on Aug. 23, 2006.