Pakistan Frets Over Femme Fatales
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
This article first appeared atAsia Times.
The tactic of the Pakistan Taliban to use veil-clad female suicide bombers to effectively strike their targets without being intercepted has set alarm bells ringing for the security agencies which are already finding it hard to nip al-Qaeda and Taliban-sponsored terrorism in the bud.
A female suicide attacker and a separate handcart bomb targeted the Pakistani police on August 11 in the Lahori Gate area of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killing seven people in the first deadly suicide attack during the holy month of Ramadan.
Peshawar is on the front line of a Taliban-led insurgency and borders the country's largely lawless tribal belt which is described by the United States as the global headquarters of al-Qaeda. The target of the female bomber, who was believed to be 17 years old, was a police check post that was completely destroyed in the attack.
The girl first threw a hand grenade on the check post, 20 meters from the site of the first blast, which had already killed seven people including five policemen, and then blew herself up. The bomber's vest failed to explode fully, resulting in one death only, that of an elderly woman. Witnesses were reported as saying that before the explosion they had heard the girl scream: "Allah-O-Akbar." (God is great).
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban - TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, with TTP spokesman Azam Tariq telling the media that the group has a large number of women suicide bombers ready to be used in future attacks against the security forces to avenge the Pakistani military for operations in the tribal belt.
TTP head in Mohmand Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Commander Omar Khalid, threatened further suicide attacks until Pakistani military offensives, which he said were being waged to appease the United States, come to an end.
"The suicide attacks were in reaction to the current military operation in the tribal areas," Khalid told Agence France-Presse by telephone from an undisclosed location. The TTP leader said that the use of female bombers was part of a new strategy.
Khalid has been active in the TTP's propaganda machine since the death of Osama bin Laden, and has been vocal in his support of al-Qaeda. He had vowed revenge on Pakistani and American security forces for the al-Qaeda founder's death, saying: "We will take revenge for Osama's killing from the Pakistan government, its security forces, the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and the Americans. They are now on our hit list."
The Peshawar suicide bombing was the third suicide attack carried out by a female in Pakistan since December 2010. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has condemned TTP for using women as human bombs, saying that it is a sign of their desperation in the wake of strict security measures that have made it difficult to strike targets at will. He agreed that the new ploy of using females to create havoc could complicate the government agencies' efforts to stem a growing insurgency by extremists given the fact that women in Pakistani culture, especially in a conservative society like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are rarely frisked or searched in security checks.
According to the security agencies responsible for dealing with suicide bombings, the emerging phenomenon of female bombers poses a bigger challenge to the law enforcement agencies in Pakistan since women in their all-enveloping burqas (veils) can easily breach security. They added that a veil is perfect for the concealment of explosive devices as well as suicide jackets.
Well-informed circles in the security agencies say both the TTP and al-Qaeda have established female suicide bombing cells in remote areas of north western Pakistan and north eastern Afghanistan. The existence of these cells was confirmed by a 12-year-old Pakistani girl, Meena Gul, who confessed in June 2010 to having been trained to be a human bomb. Meena Gul said she was brainwashed to kill Pakistani troops in one of several such training camps. She was detained by the police in the Munda area in Dir district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
According to Meena, female suicide bombers from Pakistan and Afghanistan are being trained in small cells on both sides of the border, to be eventually dispatched to their missions with a sermon, "God will reward you with a place in heaven." Meena said her cell was led by Zainab, her sister-in-law, who used to dress as a man and fought alongside the Taliban against Pakistani troops. Prior to the two suicide attacks in 2010 by female bombers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there was no recorded instance of any women bombers engaging in this deadly activity in either country.
Sources in the security agencies say the TTP training cells on both sides of border are working under the command of Qari Zia Rahman, the dual-hatted Taliban and al-Qaeda leader. Qari Zia is not only a top regional commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban but also an al-Qaeda member who operates in the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan as well as across the border in the Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
Qari Zia's private army has fighters from Pakistan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and various Arab countries. He commands a brigade in al-Qaeda's paramilitary Shadow Army, which is called the Lashkar-e-Zil (LeZ), previously led by Ilyas Commander Kashmiri, who was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in July 2011.
The Pakistani interior minister had claimed in March 2010 that Qari Zia had been killed in an airstrike, but Qari Zia later spoke to the media and mocked Rehman Malik for wrongly reporting his killing. Similarly, the CIA, which offers a $350,000 bounty for information leading to his death or capture, has targeted him in multiple drone attacks in Kunar province since January 2010, but failed to hunt him down despite repeated attempts.
The phenomenon of female bombers
Female suicide bombers are relatively new in South Asia. The first known suicide bombing by a female anywhere in the world came in 1985 when a 16-year- old girl, Khyadali Sana, drove an explosive-laden truck into an Israeli Defense Force convoy and killed two soldiers.
Since then, women have driven bomb-laden vehicles, carried bomber bags, and strapped huge explosives and metal implements on their bodies in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Israel, Turkey, Somalia and last but not the least, in Pakistan. Organizations worldwide which have publicized their use of female bombers include the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP), the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Chechen rebels, Al Aqsa Martyrs, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and, most recently, Hamas.
While the SSNP has the distinction of deploying the first ever female suicide bomber, the LTTE became the world's foremost suicide bombers and proved the tactic to be so unnerving and effective that their methods and killing innovations were studied and copied, most notably in the Middle East. The LTTE has committed the most attacks, close to 200, using female bombers in 40 percent of cases. The largest number killed (170) was in Moscow in October 2002 when Chechen rebels, including a high proportion of women, held hostages in a theater, eventually leading to a futile rescue operation in which 129 captives and 41 rebels were killed. Palestinian suicide bombers have carried out the largest number of attacks in the recent years.
The youngest female bomber so far is 16-year old Khyadali Sana (who detonated herself in 1985), followed by 17-year old Laila Kaplan, (who had blew herself up in 1996). The oldest female suicide bomber was 37-year old Shagir Karima Mahmud in 1987. The first LTTE female suicide bomber was Dhanu, who killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. The only pregnant female suicide bomber was from the Kurdistan Workers Party, killing six Turkish soldiers in June 1996. Her name remains unknown. The first Russian "Black Widow" was Hawa Barayev, who acted on behalf of the Chechen rebels in June 2000 and killed 27 Russian Special Forces soldiers by exploding her suicide vest.
The first female bomber in Israel, representing the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, was Wafa Idris, a paramedic who exploded herself in January 2002, killing an 81-year-old man and injuring over 100. The first female bomber who acted on behalf of the Palestinian Islamic Jehad was a 19-year-old student, Hiba Daraghmeh, who detonated herself in a shopping mall, killing three people. The first female Hamas bomber was 22-year-old Reem al-Reyashi, who blew herself up and killed four Israeli soldiers at an army checkpoint on January 14, 2004.
Reem was a mother who left behind a husband, a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. On June 11, 2011, a veiled female bomber detonated herself at the official residence of the country's Interior Minister Abdi Shakur Sheikh Hassan in Mogadishu, killing him on the spot. It is believed that the suicide attack could have been a retaliatory act by al-Shabaab insurgents in the wake of a sustained government push against them.
The first incident of suicide bombing carried out by a female in Afghanistan happened on June 21, 2010 in Kunar province, killing two American soldiers. The first suicide attack by a female bomber in Pakistan was carried out on December 24, 2010 at an aid distribution center of the United Nations World Food Program in Khar area of Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, killing 47 people.
The second attack was carried out on June 25, 2011 when a husband and wife team, said to be Uzbeks, attacked a police station in the Dera Ismail Khan City of Khyber Pakhtoonkhawa, killing seven policemen and a tea boy. The TTP had claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out to avenge the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.
The use of female suicide bombers by Taliban extremists has prompted the Pakistan media to demand that all suspected veil-clad women should be searched without exception. Pakistani English newspaper Daily Times stated in its August 13 editorial:
"The piety of holy warriors has shown its true colors - the sanctity of the holy month of Ramadan seems irrelevant to them as evidenced by the Peshawar suicide hit carried out by a female bomber.
Pakistan has witnessed a string of terror attacks following the May 2, 2011 killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad. It seems that the very culture that the terrorists claim to uphold - of keeping a woman untouched by male hands and covered in a veil as well - is exactly what these monsters are using against us. If women are the new lethal weapons against the citizens and the state then counter steps must be drawn up to face this threat. Women, especially those in the baggy burqa, should be searched without exception".