The Rising Number of Female Suicide Bombers in Iraq

Terrorists recruit women who can slip through security checkpoints.

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A pair of suicide bombings in Iraq on Monday underscores the continuing challenge of attempting to identify and stop female suicide attackers.

In the Karada district of the Iraqi capital, three female bombers struck a Shiite pilgrimage at 8 a.m., killing 32 and wounding 102, according to Iraqi officials. Meanwhile, in Kirkuk, a bomber killed 25 and wounded 185 during a rally protesting a draft provincial election law. Authorities believe the Kirkuk attacker also was a woman.

Suicide attacks in Iraq are increasingly conducted by women, who can more easily pass through checkpoints without being searched. Typically clad conservatively from head to toe, women are rarely stopped and even more rarely subjected to body searches, because it is considered improper in Muslim culture for a male to scrutinize (much less pat down) a woman. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq are now exploiting this fact to evade security measures.

Moreover, experts say, the use of women in attacks offers a greater psychological impact against the target population and offers greater publicity to the attackers.

Using women in attacks also increases the number of potential combatants that a militant group can draw from. "The success of suicide bombers considerably depends upon surprise and accessibility to targets," writes Debra Zedalis, a graduate of the Naval War College who studies female suicide bombers. "Both of these requirements have been met by using women."

But placing female soldiers or policewomen at checkpoints to conduct searches has also proven problematic in Baghdad, American commanders say, as the guards themselves become targets. Nevertheless, Iraqi security forces had deployed some 200 female searchers this week to help protect the estimated 1 million Shiite pilgrims converging on the capital. The precautions proved insufficient.

Female suicide bombers have been a troubling development as the war has progressed. In February, two mentally impaired women were used as suicide attackers, killing 73 in Baghdad. And in March, a female suicide bomber killed a tribal chief in the volatile Diyala province. Nearly 50 women have conducted suicide attacks in Iraq since 2003, and of these, more than 20 have attacked this year.

The motivations of suicide attackers in general are not well understood, what prompts women to strap on explosives and target crowds, for instance, is equally vexing. Like male suicide bombers, women who do attack tend to be younger and more educated than their peers. Some reports indicate that certain women are motivated by revenge for male relatives or spouses killed in the continuing violence, while other anecdotal evidence suggests that others are unwittingly used to transport explosives that are remotely detonated.

Nor are female suicide attackers unique to Iraq. There is a long history of such attacks by Sri Lankan, Chechnyan, Palestinian, and Turkish terrorists. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have used women most frequently, conducting some 200 suicide attacks of which 30 to 40 percent involved women.