The increasing threat of female suicide bombers took on greater urgency Monday when two women believed to be Chechen rebels blew themselves up in Moscow's metro during morning rush hour, killing at least 35 people and injuring 100.
The attacks at Lubyanka and Park Kultyty stations came on the heels of a recent threat assessment from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. That sensitive, but unclassified, assessment, “Female Suicide Bombers,” puts the attacks in the context of a broader threat.
The primary threat is that al-Qaida “terror cells have trained a group of female suicide bombers to attack Western targets including airlines. These women may have a non-Arab appearance and may be traveling on Western passports."
These "bombshells" are part of an evolving threat challenging U.S. law enforcement to reassess not only the physical and psychological characteristics of terrorists but also the methods for concealing explosives.
The report ties Moscow bombings to a long line of attacks by female suicide bombers, saying, "Since 1985, there have been in excess of 262 women suicide bombers.”
The first known female suicide bomber may have been 16-year-old Sana'a Youcef Mehaidli, a member of the secular Syrian Social Nationalist Party. On April 9, 1985, Mehaidli drove an explosive laden truck into an Israeli Defense Force convoy, killing two soldiers and injuring two.
On May 21, 1991, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a female militant with the Tamil Tigers, carried out a suicide bombing that resulted in the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Of interest, the Tamil Tigers have used more female suicide bombers than any other militant group.
In July 1996, the Kurdistan Workers Party used a female suicide bomber to attack a military parade marching through the eastern town of Tunceli, Turkey. As Turkish soldiers were walking by, an apparently pregnant woman stepped from the crowd, revealed that she was carrying a bomb and not a baby under her dress, and detonated it, killing nine and injuring 20 others.
Between 2000 and 2004, female Chechen rebels, known as "black widows
," repeatedly attacked Russian military targets on subways, at concerts and on airlines. For example, two women, dressed head-to-toe in black, carried out an attack on an annual music festival in July 2003, killing 14 people. Both bombers tried to enter the concert but were denied entry, and instead detonated the explosives at the venue's entrance.
Similar incidents have killed and injured hundreds. After reviewing these and other cases, the border protection agency's Office of Intelligence and Operations Coordination identified the following commonalities among female suicide bombers:
- Most are young, primarily between 17 and 24, although some have been as young as 15 and others, up to 64.
- Female suicide bombers come from various educational, religious, social, and personal backgrounds.
- Education plays a role, with the "more educated" females such as lawyers, paramedics, or students accounting for the greatest percentage of suicide attacks.
- Most tend to be of average economic status and are rarely impoverished.
- Some may be "dishonored" through sexual indiscretion, or unable to produce children.
- Some appear motivated by revenge or grief from losing husbands or children.
Although their socioeconomic background and motivations may vary, one thing is clear: Terrorist groups have been more than happy to welcome female militants into the fold. Both Osama bin Laden and Egyptian radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi have endorsed the recruitment of women to attack U.S. and Western interests. Even Hamas, which initially forbade the use of female operatives, sponsored female suicide attacks
, acknowledging females suicide bombers as fellow martyrs.
With female suicide bombers becoming more and more common, it is important to realize not only that females have different — or possibly greater — access to particular locations but also they can conceal bombs in different ways.
The threat assessment noted “the advantage that female suicide bombers have over male counterparts in their ability to conceal explosives as well as their capacity to approach their targets with less scrutiny."
Nowhere are these benefits clearer than in a recent story detailing how terrorists could use exploding breast implants
to blow up airplanes. In the past, terrorist groups used primarily many of the same mechanisms that were available for male suicide bombers.
But now, terrorist groups are taking advantage of the "benefits" of using women to carry explosives. A recent news account revealed that MI5 discovered that doctors have trained at Britain's leading hospitals and have returned to their own countries to fit individuals with surgical implants filled with explosives.
Monday's attack in Moscow wasn't the first example of female suicide bombers, and as the threat assessment reveals, it is not likely to be the last. U.S. law enforcement officials recognize that the deadly tactic one day may make its way to America.
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