Why ISIS Female Suicide Bombers Mean The End of The Caliphate Dream

The woman in the picture holds a small child and a bag. In her hand, what appears to be a handle is in fact a detonator. Moments after the image is captured this woman blew herself up, an Iraqi Counter-Terrorism officer tells reporters. This is the battle for Old Mosul, a battle of weapons and propaganda. Even as the fighting reportedly still rages, the Iraqi army declares it's recaptured Mosul. Islamic State fought for this city for months, sending wave upon wave of male suicide bombers onto its streets to repel Iraqi forces. Not until June 2017 though has it sent women bombers to join them.

If reports of—at least—32 female bombers on the streets of Mosul are true, it is a turning point in Islamic State’s commitment to the Caliphate project. Islamic State ‘Central’ has never before used female bombers. While female bombers are increasing in some overseas Wilayat, or provinces—the number in West Africa alone now exceeds 300 according to my data, and there have been arrests in Indonesia and Bangladesh—Islamic State has been careful to ensure that female violence is prohibited in Syria and Iraq. This was not a random exercise of power over women. It was a strategic censorship aimed at maximizing the success of the State.

Female violence is not widely endorsed by Islamist scholars. The most prolific Al-Qaeda proponent of female suicide attack was the renegade Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who launched a female offensive against the Americans in Iraq in the mid-2000s. His approach was not in synch with Al-Qaeda Central philosophy, but deviance from Al-Qaeda norms—as well as media-friendly brutality—were his trademark. The same can be said of Abu Bakr Shekau, the former Boko Haram leader, now heading one of its main factions. He has styled himself on Zarqawi and from 2014 has led unprecedented numbers of female bombers, many children, to attacks on civilians, markets, and the internally displaced across West Africa. 

Other Islamist movements have used female bombers, the so-called ‘Black Widows’ fighting for Chechen independence for example, and Palestinian militant groups in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Their reasons were varied. Palestinian women had clamored for the ability to bomb, and competition between groups eventually gave them this role. In Chechnya, the back-stories of female attackers, tales of rape and mistreatment at the hands of the Russians were a powerful propaganda tool. Using female bombers often signals desperation over losses, whether to the morale of a people, or more pragmatically, male fighters. As well as being a powerful symbol of defiance, female bombers offer tactical advantages. Women and girls do not normally fight, so they are not normally suspected and have freer rein to targets that might be inaccessible to men or boys.

In the case of the Islamic State group, the use of female bombers is more significant still. Their deployment signals the end of commitment to the core defining feature of their movement: the State project. The backbone of that project was what can be thought of as a "gender binary," in which male and female roles are promoted as polar opposites. This binary pushed male violence, and excluded female violence, which was seen as deeply transgressive. My analysis of English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq gives us three key representations of women: mothers, victims, and ideologues. All of these uphold the binary, supporting the principle of men as fighters who are needed to protect women as stay-at-home propagandist state-makers.

Mosul Old City Members of the Iraqi forces advance toward the Old City in western Mosul on March 13, during an offensive to retake the city from ISIS. Several female suicide bombers attacked the Old City as ISIS made its last stand for the center of Mosul. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty

This clear demarcation of roles was the foundation of the State project because it served three functions not relevant to groups where the building of a successful State was not key.

Firstly, recruitment: the symbolic elevation of male violence was crucial to the recruitment of the thousands of foreign fighters making the journey to Iraq and Syria with the aim of becoming "Jihadi warriors." Just as Osama bin Laden put martyrdom at the heart of Al-Qaeda’s philosophy, ISIS has elevated the suicide attacker to the point where eager young men reportedly pay to push their name to the top of waiting lists to bomb. The high status of this role relies on it remaining the preserve of men only.

Secondly, unification: with fighters, state-builders and women streaming in from countries across the globe, the State required unifying principles around which people from across cultures, backgrounds and languages could cohere. These principles are drawn from a strict interpretation of gender roles put forward in the Koran, with women restricted to private space and men to the public.

Thirdly: regulation. Street billboards publicized rules on clothing and behavior to make these shared values clear. An Islamic police, or hisbah—alongside the infamous female Al Khansaa Brigade—was tasked with the enforcement of Islamic State law. Restrictive norms for women were matched with similar norms for men. These norms policed women into modesty and domesticity as men were shamed into fighting for the expansion of the State.

Both men and women enforced these norms, and they were as evident in online propaganda as in the offline space of the group's territory. This does not mean that women did not want to join the fight. The group's English-language magazine Dabiq has posted numerous rebuttals to the idea of female violence, putting women 'in their place.'

The eleventh edition includes the lines, "My Muslim sister, indeed you are a mujāhidah, and if the weapon of the men is the assault rifle and the explosive belt, then know that the weapon of the women is good behavior and knowledge." This reminder to female readers suggests the need to counter a female pushback against their ban on violence, and a ready pool of female ‘fighters’ waiting for the moment when their action is required.

This moment may have come. Reports of female attackers come mainly from Iraqi state security forces and propaganda motives for claiming female bombers cannot be ruled out. But if the reports are true, Iraqis are right to flag this as a sign of the ‘end.' But this is not just because female bombers suggest the need for ‘all hands on deck.' Female violence signals the erosion of the gender binary that upheld the principles of the Islamic State project. It is a sign that the leadership no longer sees that project as viable.

This is not to say that the battle for Mosul is the end of the conflict. Followers of the militant group are sincerely committed to a global Islamic Caliphate. The Islamic State is—for the time being—still functional in other parts of Syria and Iraq. And there are already nods in propaganda outlets to its viability from other starting points—for example, the Philippines.

But the significance of the Mosul female bomber is in transgressing the founding principle of the Islamic State: that violence is a high-status male preserve, one in which women may not participate. 

Elizabeth Pearson is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a PhD candidate at King's College London, researching gender and cumulative extremism.

This piece is expanded on in the forthcoming article “Wilayat Shahidat: Boko Haram, Islamic State and Female Suicide Bombers” in a special Combatting Terrorism Center volume on Boko Haram entitled “Boko Haram Behind the Headlines.”

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