This week in terrorism history: Jan. 27-Feb. 2

Reem Salah Riyashi, mother of two, and Palestinian suicide bomber. (Credit: Getty Images)

Sometimes, when I look at the possible incidents that I could include in this feature, interesting commonalities pop out. This is one such week.

Suicide bombings are nothing new in the mix of incidents for any given week. But for this week, three such cases (and their may in fact be more) involve female suicide bombers. While there is a long history of women involved in terrorism, as scholar Mia Bloom has pointed out in her groundbreaking work on the subject, the average person is often still surprised when women perpetrate acts of terror. This is especially true for suicide bombing.

While historically women had mostly played supporting roles in terrorist movements and campaigns, Bloom in 2007 writes:

Women are now taking a leading role in conflicts by becoming suicide bombers – using their bodies as human detonators for the explosive material strapped around their waists. …

Out of the approximately seventeen groups that have started using the tactical innovation of suicide bombing, women have been operatives in more than half of them. Between 1985 and 2006, there have been in excess of 220 women suicide bombers, representing about 15 percent of the total. Moreover, the upsurge in the number of female bombers has come from both secular and religious organizations, even though religious groups initially resisted using women.

Their participation in suicide bombings starkly contradicts the theory that women are more likely to choose peaceful mechanisms for conflict resolution than men are — that women are inherently more disposed toward moderation, compromise, and tolerance in their attitudes toward international conflict.

As with men, Bloom writes, the motives for women to become suicide bombers vary. Some, like Tamil and Chechen suicide operatives, are driven by a desire to seek revenge, either for the oppression and suffering of their people, or more personally, to avenge the death of loved ones at the hands of their own government. Others may seek to change their society’s gender norms through their involvement in terrorism. In short, Bloom argues, gender empowerment through violence, in these cases, suicide terrorism.

Groups, she writes, choose women to carry out suicide missions for very practical reasons. First, it can be a tactical response to the need for more manpower. At the same time, in many settings, women are also less likely to be stopped and searched by security forces than men, making it easier for them to reach their preferred targets. Finally, Bloom notes, groups have found that attacks carried out by women often generate greater media coverage, multiplying the publicity effects of an attack.

This discussion helps us think about something that I try to get across to my students. In understanding terrorism it is important for us to consider not just the strategic and tactical choices that groups make, like the decision to adopt suicide methodologies at all, but also the motivations of the individuals who become terrorists. While both sets of motivations can be described as rational, that rationality stems from very different sets of calculations.

And now on to this week’s examples:

  • Jan. 27, 2002 — Jerusalem: An attack carried out by female suicide bomber from Fatah kills one and injures more than 150.
  • Jan. 29, 2982 — Belfast, Northern Ireland: Gunmen from the Irish National Liberation Army assassinate John McKeague, a protestant political activist.
  • Jan. 30, 2010 — Kahr, Afghanistan: A female suicide bomber kills 14 civilians and three soldiers. No group claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 1, 2009 — Baghdad: A female suicide bomber kills 46 Shia pilgrims.
  • Feb. 2, 1992 — Mahima, Bangladesh: Fourteen people are killed and 10 injured in the bombing of a ferry by the group Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, a political organization agitating for greater rights for the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

This week in terrorism history: Feb. 12-18

(Credit: BBC)
(Credit: BBC)

 

The BBC has created a visually stunning and heartbreaking report on the phenomenon of female suicide bombers in Nigeria, many of whom were abducted by Boko Haram or other militant groups.

The report, illustrated in the style of graphic novel, leverages the narrative of a young Boko Haram abductee to describe the strategy and highlight the dynamics that have led Boko Haram to adopt the use of this weapon in its struggle against the Nigerian state. It is based, in part, on the work of terrorism researcher Elizabeth Pearson, who has studied the use of female suicide bombers by Boko Haram.

From the BBC report:

Sanaa Mehaydali is thought to have been the first female suicide bomber in modern history.

The 16-year-old killed herself and two Israeli soldiers in a suicide attack in southern Lebanon in 1985.

Since then, militant groups such as Hezbollah, the Kurdish PKK, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Hamas and Black Widows in Chechnya, have all used women and girls to carry out suicide attacks.

But Boko Haram has outstripped any one group by far in the scale of its brutality, according to Elizabeth Pearson, associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institute in London.

She estimates that hundreds of young girls have been forced to carry out attacks in the past three years, in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

In the report Pearson notes that the organization gained far more publicity from using young girls as suicide bombers compared to earlier operations carried out by boys or men. This, in part, has encouraged Boko Haram’s continued use of girls.

Now on to this week’s look back.

  • Feb. 12, 1974 — Latimer, Buckinghamshire, England: The Irish Republican Army detonates a bomb at the National Defense College, wounding 10.
  • Feb. 13, 2003 — Pennsylvania: Federal agents arrest David Wayne Hull, imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and an adherent to Christian Identity theology, alleging that he had arranged to buy hand grenades in order to attack abortion clinics.
  • Feb. 14, 2011 — Bahrain: The 14 February Youth Coalition forms, growing out of ongoing political unrest. It is later suspected of involvement in a series of firebomb and attacks against Western interests.
  • Feb, 15, 1999 — Turkey: Abdullah Ocalan, the fugitive leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is arrested in Kenya with the assistance of U.S. intelligence and returned to Turkey.
  • Feb. 16, 2013 — Hazara, Pakistan: A bomb kills 84 and injures more than 190 near Quetta. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni supremacist organization which has carried out sectarian attacks against Shiite Muslims, claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 17, 2012 — Washington, D.C.: Amine El Khalife is arrested in an undercover FBI operation, accused of planning to cary out a suicide bombing at the Capitol building. The Moroccan citizen was in the country illegally, having entered the U.S. on a visitor’s visa at the age of 16 and then staying after his visa expired.
  • Feb. 18, 2010 — Austin, Texas: Joseph Andrew Stack, who had been associated with radical anti-tax groups, flies his single-engine airplane into a building housing offices of the IRS. Stack and an IRS manager are killed and 13 are injured in the attack. Prior to the attack Stack had posted online a lengthy manifesto criticizing the IRS, the tax code, politicians, and corporations.