Very little is known about the first woman to become a suicide bomber for Al Qaeda in Iraq, except that she dressed as a man. Two weeks after a U.S.-backed operation to clean out the town of Tall Afar near the Syrian border in September, she put on the long white robe and checkered scarf that Arab men commonly wear in Iraqi desert towns. The clothes disguised her gender long enough for her to walk into a gathering of military recruits with no one taking much notice. The clothes also concealed the explosives strapped around her womb. "May God accept our sister among the martyrs," said a Web site linked to the organization of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. She had defended "her faith and her honor." No name was given. But the bomb that blew apart that anonymous woman killed five men, maimed or wounded 30 more, and opened a new chapter not only in the war for Iraq but in the global struggle against terror.
Never before had any branch of Al Qaeda sent a woman on a suicide mission. Since female bombers first appeared in Lebanon two decades ago, their ranks have come mainly from secular Arab nationalist groups, from Kurdish rebels in Turkey and the non-Muslim Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fighting the government of Sri Lanka. Only in the past few years did the Palestinian "army of roses" carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis, and the "black widows" strike at the enemies of Chechnya's rebels. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda and its offshoots around the world held back. But as he has before, Zarqawi broke the taboos. His strategy is to create images of horror, "to look like he has more capability than he truly has," says Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the
Coalition forces spokesman in Baghdad. Zarqawi recruits where he can, he exploits whom he can and he attacks the softest of targets to get the peculiar kind of publicity he craves. Women are his new weapon of choice.
In October, Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed that a second female bomber, this time accompanied by her husband, killed herself attacking an American patrol in Mosul. And last week the world learned of the third: Muriel Degauque, 38, a fair-skinned Belgian from the grim rust-belt city of Charleroi near the French border. As a girl, she often ran away from home. As a woman, she had a succession of failed relationships with Muslim men: a Turk, an Algerian and finally a Belgian of Moroccan descent who followed the teachings of radical Salafists, similar to those of Al Qaeda. They went to live for at least three years in Morocco, and when she returned home she was fully veiled: alienated, lonely, in the thrall of a husband who consumed her entire world. Muriel--now calling herself Myriam--"couldn't have children," a spokesman for the Belgian prosecutor's office said last week. Even when she was near her parents, she rarely spoke to them. The last they heard from her was during the summer. On Nov. 9, she blew herself up attacking Iraqi police near the town of Baqubah. American troops gunned down her husband shortly after Myriam was killed.
That same night, Nov. 9, bombers hit three hotels in the Jordanian capital, Amman. As scores of dead and wounded were still being counted, Al Qaeda in Iraq announced that a woman had been among the suicide attackers there, too. Zarqawi, once again, was publicizing his new approach. But what Zarqawi did not know was that the woman had failed to detonate her bomb.
Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, 35, hid out for three nights in the Jordanian town of As-Salt, never removing the dud suicide belt concealed around her waist, until security agents tracked her down. It turned out that she had lost three brothers in the fight against the Americans, and had married her fellow bomber less than a week before she went on her suicide mission. The man was less a groom than a chaperone: according to Jordanian government sources, the marriage was never consummated. In a brief televised confession, al-Rishawi recounted how her bomb failed--but her husband's did not--amid a Jordanian wedding party. "There were women, men and children," she said. "My husband is the one who organized everything. I know nothing else."
There will be more women launching more attacks, a fact that is provoking new and growing concern among U.S. officials. Until recently, many analysts in American government agencies saw the threat of women suicide bombers as a largely theoretical problem. Their best judgment was that "Al Qaeda Central"--the close-knit organization around Osama bin Laden and ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri--would resist any effort to use women as homicidal martyrs. But after the incidents of the past few weeks, they are taking the threat of female Islamic terrorists, particularly suicide bombers, much more seriously, according to two U.S. counterterrorism officials who asked for anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters.
Having seen the phenomenon spread suddenly to Iraq and Jordan, the U.S. officials worry that the plague will move still farther, with women suicide bombers carrying out attacks in Western Europe or the United States. The agencies are particularly concerned about the threat posed by "married couples," either real long-term partners or couples who have been joined together for no other purpose than a suicide mission.
If there's consolation, it's that the terrorist assets now known to exist were not used as effectively as they might have been. The Belgian woman Degauque, with her European Union passport and her northern European looks, could have gained easy access to soft targets in many Western countries. Instead, she blew herself up in Iraq.
But the real lesson of the Degauque bombing is to expect the unexpected. "The terrorists are quite aware of the profiles that exist, and they always change things just enough to throw them off," says Prof. Mia Bloom, author of "Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror." They also aim to provoke. American soldiers in Iraq may become ever more suspicious about women, particularly pregnant women. But in traditional Muslim societies, the need to search women meticulously--"invasively," as Bloom puts it--is sure to create popular anger. "It's a win-win proposition for the terrorists," says Bloom.
Yet the increasing use of women as weapons of holy war also challenges the view of the world that many jihadists thought they'd set out to defend.
II. Knights & Maidens
"Chivalry" is not a word normally associated with terrorism, at least not in the West. But the world in which Osama bin Laden would like to live, and the vision that inspires so many of his followers, is literally about days of old when knights were bold--and fair maidens were kept behind veils, their virtue protected, their lives entirely controlled by men. Since the 1990s, bin Laden has cast his fight as one against "crusaders," and the most important ideological tract by his right-hand man, Zawahiri, bears the title "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner."
While gender roles are evolving in many of today's societies, Al Qaeda has hoped to freeze them in a time of feudal traditions. Many of the organization's leaders have been intellectuals, doctors, lawyers and engineers who are perfectly at home with other aspects of modernity. But they differ violently with the West about the way women should be allowed to participate in daily life, viewing females as chattel in some cases, as revered mothers in others and almost always as icons to be protected from outside influences.
In jihadist propaganda, the invasion and violation of Muslim lands is intimately tied to the violation of Muslim women, either directly or through the corrupting role of Western values and attitudes. In its 1988 covenant, the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas laid out its view of "the Muslim woman" as "the maker of men" and the educator of future generations--the person who prepares future fighters. "The enemies have realized the importance of her role," says the fundamentalist manifesto. "They consider that if they are able to direct and bring her up the way they wish, far from Islam, they would have won the battle."
In fact, many Arab and Muslim men, not just jihadists, see foreign occupation as a form of emasculation. (Just weeks after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, Qasim Alsabti, the cosmopolitan owner of a Baghdad art gallery, told NEWSWEEK the U.S. occupation was "part of a plan to steal our souls--to castrate us.") Years under Israeli rule have broken down the structures of Palestinian families. "The image of the strong, providing father who can protect his women and children has been badly damaged and the male role has been eroded away," says Dr. Eyad Sarraj, director of Gaza Community Mental Health. That opens the way for radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to teach young boys that the way to be real men is to be religious--and to be ready to die.
The recruitment of men and boys for radical Islamic groups exploits not only their anxieties and fears but their basic sexual needs and desires. For years, well before anyone had heard of Osama bin Laden, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood exploited the frustrations and confusion of people whose patriarchal societies were being challenged by urbanization and the inroads of Western ideas. In Cairo, where middle-class tradition demands that a man offer his wife a fully owned and furnished apartment before a marriage can be performed, or consummated, men often have to wait until they are in their 30s. The brotherhood preaches that piety is far more important than kitchen appliances, and couples can wed earlier if they follow the proper teachings. When the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia started the systematic recruitment of holy warriors to fight the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s, its mullahs approved so-called mut'aa marriages, involving contracts of matrimony that could be almost as short as one-night stands.
Muslim men who come from traditional conservative backgrounds, or yearn for them, find themselves surrounded by the temptations of Western media. Increasing numbers actually find themselves living in the West, but on the margins of society and out of sync with its mores. The young men in the outer-city ghettos of France who recently rampaged for three weeks of nihilistic violence were, for the most part, brought up amid a confusing mix of their immigrant parents' conservative traditions, the casual sex of the hip-hop culture they see on the streets and in school, and denigrating pornography on the Internet. A women's organization called Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Passive Victims) has fought for years against a plague of gang rapes and horrific "honor crimes" in these neighborhoods. Last month, when a girl from a Muslim background in a Paris suburb refused to go out with a Pakistani immigrant, he doused her with gasoline and set her aflame. She remains in an induced coma with burns over 60 percent of her body.
The pressures of sexual frustration in this life and the lure of sexual as well as spiritual rewards in the next are exploited as part of a cynical spiel by jihadist recruiters looking for boys and men to be suicide bombers. Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians, and the various incarnations of Al Qaeda have all played on Muslim teachings that promise 72 houris--virginal beings with black eyes and alabaster skin--to attend the martyr's desires in paradise.
The directions for physical and spiritual cleansing that Muhammad Atta gave out to his fellow hijackers before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States advise them to "feel complete tranquillity, because the time between you and your marriage [in heaven] is very short." Atta's own personal will, written in 1996, is a study in obsessive carnality. "Women must not be present at my funeral or go to my grave at any later date," he wrote. "He who washes my body around my genitals should wear gloves so that I am not touched there." In the mind of such a man, suicidal sacrifice is a path to ecstasy. There would have been no place in Atta's Qaeda for the women suicide bombers of today.
III. Killers & Virgins
What changed? The simplest answer is that al Qaeda's core organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan and its avant-garde in Iraq need more recruits. Jordanian researcher Hassan Abu Hanieh, who knew Zarqawi personally, says the terrorist leader is goading Muslim men. Before the attacks by women began, a Web site often linked to Zarqawi posted a message signed by him. "Are there no men, so that we have to recruit women?" he asked at the conclusion. "Isn't it a shame for the sons of my own nation that our sisters ask to conduct martyrdom operations while men are preoccupied with life?"
Zarqawi's sense of urgency may be fueled by the fact that he's on the run. "Since the first of this year, we have taken out 117 members of the leadership of the Zarqawi network, tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3," General Lynch told the press last week. But the need for recruits could also reflect a movement that is expanding, or aiming to expand, in both size and scope.
Of course, Zarqawi is also meeting a demand--by women. "The recourse to women doesn't happen at the start," says Haizam Amirah Fernandez, a Madrid-based analyst. "It comes when the battle escalates to all sectors of society. It happens after men become activists in guerrilla groups, fight and die, perhaps in suicide attacks. Then the widows or family members --seek vengeance, or want to give their life in the same cause."
Al-Rishawi, the failed suicide bomber in Jordan, had lost three brothers and her sister's husband to the war with the Americans. Some women who first shocked and terrified Israel in 2002 were motivated by the deaths of family and friends. But the most striking cult of vengeance, setting an example for other jihadist organizations, is the "black widows" of Chechnya. Although they have attracted relatively scant attention in the West--their targets are mostly Russian--their example among heroines of jihad is an important factor in the spread of suicidal terror.
The tales of these Chechen women are as much about tawdry victimization as battlefield heroics. They come from a rugged society where an old tradition, made worse after years of gunslinging war and anarchy, allows men to kidnap the bride of their choice. The kidnappers can settle disputes with the woman's family in cash, or with violence, according to Lida Yusupova of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Grozny. But once she's been taken, she's unlikely to find another husband. "No intelligent, nice young man in Chechnya would marry a nonvirgin girl," says Yusupova.
Some Chechen women who have lost husbands or sons in the war want to live only long enough to take revenge. The first attack by a "black widow," in the summer of 2000, killed 27 members of the Russian Special Forces. Then the spectral, silent presence of 18 "widows" during the deadly hostage siege of a Moscow theater in 2002 heightened their mystique. Over a four-month period in 2003, Chechen women carried out six out of seven suicide attacks on Russian targets, killing 165 people. Women bombers allegedly brought down two Russian airliners last year, killing all 90 passengers and crew.
Yet it's hard to say these Chechen women, whatever their grim accomplishments, have won respect in their own brutal world. The one detailed chronicle that exists of how a would-be martyr was trained is the confession of Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, who was 23 when she was caught two years ago. She had been kidnapped by a man 20 years older than she, a metal trader, and was pregnant with her first child when he was shot. ("Something went wrong between him and his competitors.") After some petty thievery, Muzhakhoyeva became a disgrace to her family. Her child was taken away. She volunteered for a suicide mission and was given training, a target and a bomb--but decided in the end that she didn't want to die, and gave herself up. In a long prison interview with the newspaper Izvestiya, Muzhakhoyeva talked about her male handlers almost like a streetwalker talking about her pimps: "Rustam treated me well, always told me jokes, never talked about death with me. On the one hand, he trained me to be a suicide bomber. On the other hand, we laughed like crazy when we saw each other. Because of that I was under the impression that maybe I wouldn't even have to blow myself up, that somehow I would survive. Rustam's wife hated me."
In the Middle East, Palestinian women have been among the ranks of fighters and terrorists attacking Israel since at least the 1970s, but the first to become a suicide bomber was Wafa Idris, a 27-year-old ambulance worker, who killed an Israeli civilian and wounded 140 in January 2002. In death she became a celebrity. More women and girls volunteered to die for a branch of Yasir Arafat's secular Fatah organization. He talked of an "army of roses," and the leadership of the radical religious organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were taken by surprise. Sheik Yassin, the crippled spiritual leader of Hamas, opposed the use of women as bombers. There were more than enough men, he said.
Still, Palestinian women clamored to fight and die to try to free their homeland. They argued that since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, women warriors have battled for the banner of Islam. Yassin and other religious scholars eventually gave ground, but only after debating how long a woman on a suicide mission could be away without a chaperone--before she died.
Not until January of last year did a woman from Hamas carry out an operation. Reem Riashi, a mother of two, recorded a videotape before her mission, saying she hoped her "organs would be scattered in the air" and her soul "would reach paradise." Would there be 72 houris to greet her there? No. The religious scholars who endorse suicide attacks have described an alternative paradise for women. Thauria Hamur, a 26-year-old captured by the Israelis before she could set off a bomb in May 2002, told NEWSWEEK in a prison interview that women martyrs would "become the purest and most beautiful form of angel at the highest level possible in heaven."
IV. The Hunt For Answers
In a letter written from hiding by Ayman Al-Zawahiri last summer, and meant for Zarqawi to read in Iraq, the Egyptian physician paused to talk about the women in his life. His "favorite wife," he wrote, was crushed by the concrete of a collapsed ceiling in an American bombing. "She went on calling for aid to lift the stone block off her chest until she breathed her last, may God have mercy on her and accept her among the martyrs," Zawahiri wrote in the letter, which was intercepted and disseminated by American intelligence. "As for my young daughter, she was afflicted by a cerebral hemorrhage, and she continued for a whole day suffering in pain until she expired. And to this day I do not know the location of the graves of my wife, my son, my daughter."
Such is the price of war, said Zawahiri. Yet the core leadership of Al Qaeda remains divided, it seems, about whether women should enter the struggle against the "satanic power" of the United States as combatants, much less as suicide bombers. Zarqawi has made his own decision. But a U.S. counterterrorism official, who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters, says that until authorities begin to see Saudi women sacrificing themselves in attacks, they will remain skeptical about the extent to which Al Qaeda Central has embraced the idea of female bombers. NEWSWEEK's investigation suggests, however, that those barriers are gradually falling.
Ataliban source, who for his own protection did not want to be further identified, says Zawahiri is an ardent supporter of both the education of women and their participation in military activities. Before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Zawahiri tried to persuade Afghan leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to allow girls to have some basic schooling and combat training. The Taliban leader would not hear of it. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, Zawahiri raised the subject again. He even brought up the example of a famous Afghan woman named Malalai who fought against the British in the 19th century. But Mullah Omar --dismissed the idea once more, saying that the presence of women at the front or among soldiers would lead to a breakdown in discipline. After the meeting, the Taliban leader's private secretary warned Zawahiri not to raise the matter again, but Al Qaeda continued to hold military training for women at bases near the Jalalabad and Kandahar airports, according to this source, and kept it secret from the one-eyed leader of the Taliban.
Then, in late 2001, an aging mujahed named Sufi Abdul Aziz Baba was given the task of caring for the widows of 22 Qaeda fighters. As casualties mounted among the men, the number of women in the group continued to grow. On the run from the Americans, they hid out in a compound in the southeastern province of Paktika. The women--Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs were given Kalashnikovs to defend themselves, and soon began training within the compound walls, out of sight of the men. Forced to flee again across the border into Pakistan, they fought a three-hour gun battle against the forces of an Afghan warlord who had gone over to the American side. A year later, to avoid an offensive by Pakistani troops, the women fled again to a new hideout near the Afghan border, Baba told NEWSWEEK. All the while, they continued military training. Last year a new Pakistani offensive forced these women, now well versed in the arts of killing, to disperse again along the Afghan frontier. There, says Baba, they are supported by a tightly woven network of jihadist organizations and family ties.
Indeed, in these remote lands Al Qaeda's fighters and their wives and widows often seem to be part of one extended family. Frequently the sisters and daughters of a holy warrior will marry one of his comrades in arms. The widows of slain guerrillas commonly wed one of their late husband's jihadist relatives. Although these networks appear isolated, they could form the enduring core of Al Qaeda in the future, or a new incarnation of it. And some of the women among them are now more than ready to take up arms, or to carry bombs, whenever the organization needs them. Or whenever the men are gone, or get out of the way.
As Mia Bloom writes in a forthcoming book, "The underlying message conveyed by female bombers is: Terrorism has moved beyond a fringe phenomenon and insurgents are all around you." But that is only the message for their enemies. In their own world, their willingness to carry out suicide attacks means something different. Among Palestinians, for instance, "the idea of violence empowering women has spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip," writes Bloom. Suicide bombing is changing the rules of deference and subservience that have dominated the traditional society--a strange path to liberation for women hidden behind veils and burqas.
Can the west offer something better? Something to defuse the explosive anger of jihadist widows bent on vengeance, or young women craving freedom from foreign occupation for themselves and their people? In the comfort of Wash-ington, the answer would seem an obvious yes: education, jobs, equal rights. But in the dusty alleys of Tall Afar, the arid hills of Waziristan, the rubble of Grozny, the walled-off villages of the West Bank and maybe even the dilapidated rows of factory housing in Belgium, the answer may not always be so clear. In a television interview last week, after the people of Belgium learned to their horror that their Muriel had died as a suicide bomber in Iraq, Glenn Audenaert, director of the federal police, said he was not surprised to find such a woman in the ranks of people who "embraced the ideology of Al Qaeda." "It's a new generation, and, perversely, emancipation allows women to aspire to martyrdom," he said.
Finding another answer that is right--a variety of answers, in fact, for many unique societies--will help make the difference between an endless war of terror with "insurgents all around" and a fight that is won, with a peace that endures.
With Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in Kabul, Scott Johnson and Kevin Peraino in Baghdad, Joanna Chen in Jerusalem, Mark Hosenball and John Barry in Washington, Anna Nemtsova in Moscow, Stefan Theil in Berlin, Eric Pape and Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Emily Flynn Vencat in London and Michael Hastings in New York