U.S. Authorities Worried About Female Suicide Bombers

U.S. national-security officials say that that in Al Qaeda and its affiliates' efforts to figure out ways to circumvent security measures imposed by American and allied governments, they may be considering, and even plotting, using female suicide bombers.

The possibility that female terrorists could be part of a future, or even the next wave, of Al Qaeda plots against American targets inside or outside the United States is a live one, said three U.S. officials familiar with current threat reporting and analysis, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. One of the officials said that in the weeks since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to bring down a U.S.-bound transatlantic flight with a bomb hidden in his underpants, investigators in Detroit, where Abdulmutallab's plane was headed, have been particularly worried about the possibility of a follow-up attack by a female suicide bomber. An ABC News report last week alleged that American law-enforcement officials have been told to be on the lookout for female suicide bombers who may attempt to enter the United States. The network quoted one official saying that at least two such women are believed to be connected to Al Qaeda in Yemen and may have a non-Arab appearance and be traveling on Western passports.

Another official told NEWSWEEK there is no intelligence reporting indicating any specific date, time, place or method for an imminent attack inside the U.S. by female attackers. But given the ingenuity and innovation Al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate demonstrated in crafting and deploying the kind of well-concealed, nonmetallic device carried by Abdulmutallab, the official said investigators have to be concerned that Osama bin Laden and his followers and imitators are brainstorming ever more exotic methods of foiling Western security precautions and that using female suicide bombers is one tactic that U.S. authorities certainly cannot rule out.

A third official noted that "the enemy will keep testing our defenses in new and creative ways," adding that female suicide bombers have been used by Islamic militants in the past. According to one U.S. government assessment of terrorism trends in 2008, 9 percent of suicide bombers worldwide were female and 15 percent in Iraq were female. Among the first terror groups to use women as suicide bombers was the Sri Lanka-based Tamil Tigers, who recent abandoned their campaign of violence. But experts say female suicide attackers have figured in attacks in places ranging from the Middle East to Iraq and Russia.

In 2003 and 2004, Chechen female suicide bombers nicknamed Black Widows were implicated in numerous deadly attacks against Russian targets, including subway and airplane bombings. Particularly worrying to U.S. and European investigators is that terrorist groups might succeed in recruiting American or European female suicide attackers. Officials point to the example of a Belgian woman who married a radical jihadist, converted to Islam, and then blew herself up in a suicide attack in Baghdad in 2005. For U.S. and European authorities, a woman attacker of Western ethnicity and European or U.S. nationality would be a nightmare, since such a person would have easy passage through both European and American border controls and might be unknown to Western intelligence agencies.