This piece first aired in November, 2008, as part of the show, “Sisters in Arms”
- HOST: This is War News Radio. On April 4th, 2003, just 17 days after the US-led invasion of Iraq began, two women exploded a car bomb at a checkpoint northwest of Baghdad, killing themselves along with three U.S. Marines and wounding two civilians. It was a shocking act — suicide bombings were unheard of in Iraq, female suicide bombings doubly so. Now, that once unthinkable act has become almost commonplace. There were eight confirmed reports of female suicide bombers in 2007, over thirty so far this year. In response to the growing threat, this spring the U.S. military created a program to train Iraqi women as security personnel able to search other women at checkpoints. Elizabeth Threlkeld brings us more on these so-called Daughters of Iraq and the growing numbers of female suicide bombers they are working to stop.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: In early August, the world caught a rare glimpse into the inner-workings of terror networks in Iraq with the capture of a would-be suicide bomber, a 15-year-old girl named Rania. She told conflicting stories to authorities, but they were able to piece together the basic outlines of her history. She has only a fifth grade education, and is from a very poor family in Diyala province, an al-Qaeda stronghold. Both her father and brother were killed during the height of sectarian violence in 2006. Her husband, whom she married at age fourteen at her mother’s urging, is believed to be a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Dr. Mohammed Hafez, an Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, says Rania is a typical example of the kind of women al-Qaeda in Iraq seeks for suicide attacks.
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Recruitment usually takes place through familiar networks and familiar faces. Women that are being recruited are probably sisters or daughters or wives of jihadists, including jihadists that may have been killed, and these women would then have an incentive to engage in revenge attacks.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Rania says that it was a woman named Umm Fatima who strapped her in the explosive vest before it was discovered and removed by a suspicious police officer. Umm Fatima was arrested a month after the incident, and revealed to investigators that she is one of a group of women — many of them widows of martyrs — who support al-Qaeda by recruiting other women for suicide missions. Farhana Ali, an Associate International Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation and a Terrorism Analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, highlights the role that women played in readying Rania for the attack.
FARHANA ALI: Through her capture, we learned that it was her mother, it was her aunt, it was the involvement of her sister in law. And then you also saw that there was this network of women. Because remember, in a patriarchal society such as Iraq, women recruit women.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Most analysts say the rise of female suicide bombings in Iraq indicates that tighter security has forced al-Qaeda to improvise. Raad Ali Hassan, a former Special Forces Colonel in the Iraqi Army and one of the leaders of the Sons of Iraq in West Baghdad, explains that insurgents have discovered a hole that Iraqi culture created in the country’s defences.
RAAD ALI HASSAN: Now, if any man tries to come close to a military checkpoint, the Army would be alert and ready, especially if that person was alone in his car, or carrying something suspicious. Due to who we are, as people from the East, we have a special place for women. Men tend to be less suspicious of women. That is why al-Qaeda started to focus on this issue. They began to recruit female suicide bombers.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Not only are men less suspicious of women, they’re also less able to search them — cultural sensitivities prevent men from checking for explosives hidden under women’s traditional garments. To confront this problem, the U.S. military created the Daughters of Iraq program, which provides training and monthly salaries to female Iraqis who search other women at checkpoints. The program is modeled on the widely-praised Sons of Iraq movement, and like it originated in al-Anbar province, originally under the name the Sisters of Fallujah in late 2007. Beginning in May of this year, women in Baghdad and later in other areas of Iraq including Diyala province began screening women entering schools, hospitals, and government building. The Sons of Iraq leader Raad Ali Hassan says there are nearly 40 women working at checkpoints in his neighborhood. He supports the Daughters of Iraq program, but he wants to see the women take on a broader role in maintaining security.
RAAD ALI HASSAN: We should be on the offensive. The daughters of Iraq should be working in the neighborhoods, they could be used as sources of gathering information, so we could actually be able to stop the female suicide bomber before she carries out her mission.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Farhana Ali believes the program should be expanded – for the sake of Iraq’s security and for the women the program employs.
FARHANA ALI: There are some reports that indicate these women have no other way of providing for their children because of the loss of a male family member so they’ve become part of this program because it’s a sustaining income for them.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Millions of Iraqi women have been widowed or lost close relatives in the last thirty years of devastating war and violence. Now, they’re facing the consequences. In fact, it’s an issue that affects both many of the women working as Daughters of Iraq and those turning in desperation to suicide bomb attacks. What distinguishes the two groups are often variables like education level and contact with the outside world. Farhana Ali recognizes the similar circumstances these women must confront, but she says there is a fundamental difference between them.
FARHANA ALI: Those who are taking up guns to defend their country being part of Daughters of Iraq and other programs are doing so because they want to live. And those who are becoming suicide bombers are actually doing this because they want to die.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The Daughters of Iraq program is at the center of an argument over female suicide bombing that hinges on cultural differences. No one in Iraq truly supports the use of female suicide bombings. Even al-Qaeda only turned to them as a last resort, and Mohammed Hafez explains such attacks are creating ideological contradictions for the radical group.
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: A lot of times jihadists would say we are fighting to protect not only our faith but our women, our honor, our decency. And the use of women in suicide attacks subjects these women to being increasingly frisked, potentially by foreigners or male security guards. And in that respect it may turn the argument on its head and now rather than defending the decency of women you are actually jeopardizing them.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Winning the Iraqi Government’s support for the Daughters of Iraq program is considered a crucial step, but Farhana Ali explains that some in power oppose the program. They think women shouldn’t be out working dangerous jobs, but should be at home, looking after their families.
FARHANA ALI: What’s happened now under these religious institutions and religious leaders that have come into the Iraqi government, they’re trying to reverse the family law that existed in Iraq for many years. And what that means is that the tribes and the religious authorities now will impose their legislation on women. And that is something that women in Iraq today are fighting against.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Farhana Ali believes improving women’s economic and social opportunities is key to preventing suicide attacks.
FARHANA ALI: What we need to create, and there is an effort to do this, is a women’s trauma center, because there are women who are psychologically effected by this war that don’t have the basic necessities. They don’t have medical care, they don’t have good sanitation, there’s no security for the children to go to school — there’s a plethora of reason that exist. And once we fill that vacuum and provide for women’s necessities, you’re actually sustaining a very important member of society. If we fail to do that and we don’t give support and resources to female NGOs, what happens traditionally is that Islamist organizations then fill that role.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The Iraqi government has begun to take charge of the Sons of Iraq program, but women’s advocates fear Iraqi politicians won’t be supporting or paying the Daughters of Iraq, especially without prodding from the U.S. That leaves the program’s women vulnerable economically and fearful for their own safety — without protection they would likely be targeted by extremist groups. And without the Daughters of Iraq checking women for explosives, the threat of female suicide bombings in Iraq would only get worse. For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Threlkeld.