Women Suicide Bombers Have a Hard Time Quitting

The women are outcasts in Duluiyah, an Iraqi town an hour's drive north of Baghdad. Everyone knows they once belonged to Al Khansaa—an all-female suicide-bomber wing of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—and their neighbors have had plenty of trouble in their lives already without getting mixed up with extremists. "All the people know who they are," says a local official, asking not to be quoted by name. "I told my wife not to go near them."

Months have passed since the women publicly renounced Al Qaeda, but townspeople still ostracize them. The women are forbidden to veil their faces, so they can always be recognized on the street. One day not long ago, four of them went outside at the same time, and the police switchboard was swamped with frantic calls. When the teenage daughter of one former Khansaa member was expelled from school, the girl wept at having to pay for her mother's sins.

In Iraq's long, slow march back to some semblance of normalcy, the story of the women bombers of Duluiyah is a cautionary tale. Certainly U.S. and Iraqi officials are hoping the remnants of the insurgency will follow their example and quit the jihad. But while former insurgents in many places have switched sides and returned to normal life, the wounds of Iraq's civil war are not easily healed. Few refugees have returned to their original homes. Former fighters in Anbar province have been murdered by victims' relatives. And all too often, as the Khansaa women have discovered, fear trumps forgiveness.

The Duluiyah network began to unravel when Sana Alwan blew herself up. Like many other Khansaa women, she relied on the men in her life for guidance. Most Khansaa members joined because their fathers, husbands or brothers suggested it. Some were married off to foreign jihadists who ordered them to sign up. Others enlisted voluntarily, seeking revenge for the deaths of loved ones. In Alwan's case, several of her male relatives were recruited by Al Qaeda and then killed or captured by Coalition forces or pro-government Iraqis.

One day in late September Alwan walked up to a security checkpoint manned by local Iraqis and asked the way to the hospital. One of the guards froze. Alwan's face was veiled, but he recognized the voice as belonging to his niece. Members of the family had warned him she was having "bad thoughts." "Get away from her!" he shouted. The other guards scrambled for cover as he shot Alwan with his AK-47. Crumpling to the ground, she screamed, "God is great!" and set off her suicide vest. The checkpoint's blast walls trembled, but no one else was badly hurt.

Many in town think Alwan was out to get the town's religious leader, Mullah Nadhum al-Jabouri, when she was stopped. She'd complained that the preacher had lured her brothers into the insurgency and then had them arrested after he joined up with the Americans. Soon after the bombing, security forces captured a woman who confessed to leading the Duluiyah cell. Nine other suspected members were picked up, and authorities uncovered a cache of suicide vests as well.

Al Khansaa was disintegrating, and not only because of the arrests. Many of the remaining members could no longer endure the way their neighbors ostracized and shamed them. Four of the women (escorted by male relatives) went to Mullah Nadhum. "They came to me because I am very powerful. I am the master," says Nadhum. "They asked me to find a way to let them come back into society. The young ones could not marry anyone in the tribe, the old could not go out to the markets and the middle-aged could not find jobs."

Nadhum talked the women into reconciling, and in late November, 18 turned themselves in; 23 others soon joined them. This cleared their slates. But the real beneficiaries have been Nadhum and local tribal leaders—some of whom probably helped recruit the women into the Qaeda network in the first place. "I think that some in the Jabouri tribe recognized that, as a tribe, this has bettered their standing," says Lt. Col. David Hodne, battalion commander, 3rd Squadron 4th Cavalry regiment, which covers Duluiyah. "Now they can claim, 'We've turned in an AQI [network]'." The women themselves aren't so lucky, Hodne admits: "The minute they associated themselves with Al Khansaa, they were in a lose-lose situation ... At least they're alive."

True enough, but one neighbor, who lives down the street from some of the women, spends his time filing police complaints in hopes of forcing them to move. Other women have had trouble claiming social-welfare payments. A go-between recently told Iraqi officials the women were "afraid that out of desperation, need and financial trouble, they will return back to the same path." This isn't the death Al Qaeda promised the women of Al Khansaa, but it's not much of a life, either.