In conversation with Mia Bloom

On the rise in female suicide bombings, how women cause more damage and why they do it

by Kate Fillion

Maclean's Interview: Mia Bloom

Photographs by Mick Quinn/Getty Images

Mia Bloom, a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism, currently teaches at Penn State University. In Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, she explains why so many more women now play active, operational roles in terrorist movements.

Q: What do female suicide bombers bring to the table that male terrorists cannot?
A: The element of surprise. We’ve come a long way, baby—women are secretaries of state and prime ministers—but people still don’t expect women to be involved in violence. Second, women tend to infuse a movement with enthusiasm and a great deal of momentum. Third, a lot of movements use women’s involvement to shame men when recruitment is sagging. They say, “Your sisters are fighting for you.” Finally, acts perpetrated by women, particularly attractive women, get far more media attention.

Q: Are they as effective as male suicide bombers?
A: With a civilian target, female bombers tend to be more successful and cause more damage. When you have a soft target—a Shia mosque, a shopping centre, a restaurant, a disco—women are less likely to be stopped at the entrance. They get further inside, where they have a more deadly effect. It’s physics: the further you can penetrate an enclosed space, the more damage explosives do.

Q: Do terrorists resort to suicide terrorism when they’re desperate, or is it strategic?
A: We tend to think of terrorists as being kind of crazy because they kill people and put bombs in their underwear or, in one case, up their ass. But the leadership are very calculating. And when the other side increases the level of technology—using drones, aerial bombardments, aerial gunships—to protect their soldiers, the terrorists say, “How do we make this personal again?” Also, because the technology is far less precise than a targeted assassination, it increases the number of civilians who are killed, which usually results in an increase in recruitment. Now the movement has cannon fodder. Palestinian terrorists have repeatedly told me, “With Israeli bombs dropping from the sky, I feel I could die at any moment. If I choose to be a suicide bomber, at least I have a choice of time and place.” It’s a weird, take-back-the-night attitude.

Q: What are the strategic advantages of suicide bombing?
A: It’s cheap, and you have a thinking, breathing bomb that can adjust to circumstances and cross the street to hit another target if the original one doesn’t look good. If you think about the Madrid train bombings, where the bombs were under the seats, the trains were running late. A suicide bomber could’ve just waited those extra minutes until the trains were in the station, and thousands more people would’ve been killed. When the bombers are women—and children, which I predict we’ll see more of—the terrorists get more bang for their buck, because there’s more media attention. Plus, the use of women and children is much more distressing to the other side. I did a study of soldiers returning from Iraq, and their levels of PTSD were much higher if they had had to shoot a woman or child, even if they knew the person was a suicide bomber.

Q: On Dec. 25, a female suicide bomber killed more than 45 people in Pakistan. Why is suicide terrorism on the upswing there?
A: There’s been something like a 600 per cent increase in the number of attacks in Pakistan, because increasingly we’re seeing the Sunnis use it against the Shia. There have been fatwas within Pakistan saying, essentially, “The Shia are not real Muslims, we should get rid of every single one of them.” It’s justifying within a religious frame the killing of other Muslims, which is completely against the Koran. This misuse of the Koran to provide legitimacy for violence is common now, particularly in Europe, where terrorists tend not to be well-educated Muslims. They’re either converts or very secular Muslims, like the 7/7 bombers. So if a charismatic sheik tells them, “This is justified in the Koran,” they can’t say, “No, it’s not.”

Q: The female suicide bombers you’ve interviewed have been ones whose missions failed. Are they rejected by their communities?
A: No, because not succeeding could occur because someone informed on you, or you were pre-empted, or your device didn’t go off. The only time you get a rejection by the community is if someone changes her mind at the last minute. One Palestinian, a very religious Muslim girl, saw the tarted-up outfit they wanted her to wear to blend in in Israel, and said, “I can’t put that on, I can’t walk around looking like a hooker.” Another one got to her destination, a market, and saw a lot of other Muslim women and children, and couldn’t do it. I did a study for the [British] ministry of defence on why suicide bombers changed their minds, and we conveyed this last story to a number of international agencies, which then began an active recruitment of Muslim women. And now, in major American cities, inevitably at the airport you’re going to see a veiled woman.

Q: People think female terrorists have been coerced by men. Accurate?
A: It’s partially accurate in some places, and inaccurate in others. In the IRA, for instance, no men were making women do it. Women were involved because of what they felt they could do for their family, their community. This is a massive contrast to some of the women in Chechnya, who are forced into terrorism, whether it’s being married off to a jihadi so their family can make a few bucks, or being duped, or intimidated.

Q: Aren’t men also coerced?
A: The pressure on men is subtle community pressure: “You’re not doing enough for your people.” Men tend to join in groups or with a friend, and that relationship is almost as important as carrying out the operation. Whereas with women, the pressure is often not subtle. Many have no voice in their societies, so if a male family member decides they’re going to be a suicide bomber, it’s very difficult to extricate themselves.

Q: Do women with children do this?
A: The issue of motherhood is no longer salient. In fact, the very first female bomber for Hamas posed in her last will and testament video with her two kids. Especially in Iraq, some of the women who’ve been targeted to become bombers were mothers. It’s part of malevolent creativity, this ability to change to stay ahead of any kind of profile the counter-terrorists are using.

Q: You say that female terrorists who aren’t coerced are motivated by “the four Rs: revenge, redemption, relationship and respect.” Which is the most important?
A: Relationship. The best predictor of a woman’s involvement in terrorism, whether it’s a secular or religious group, is a relationship with a terrorist: her father, brother, husband or even her son. Terrorism becomes a bit of a family business. Redemption is also an important motivation. In many of these cultures, whatever a woman has done in her life, the slate is wiped clean by a suicide bombing and she can reinvent herself as a martyr and gain the respect of her community. In terms of revenge, both men and women talk about their experiences of seeing family members harassed or mistreated.

Q: There’s what you call “the fifth R”: rape, which across many cultures is often linked to terrorism.
A: When I was in Sri Lanka with the [Tamil] Tigers, there were editorials in the paper saying that soldiers really had to stop raping Tamil women at checkpoints because they were just creating more operatives. The [Tigers] were cognizant of this and exploited it: “Don’t be a victim, join the movement.” In places where you have the Muslim honour code, when women are raped, that’s basically it for them: they’re no longer marriageable because they won’t be virgins on their wedding night. They realize, “My options have dwindled severely. What can I do to fix this?” The terrorists provide an outlet where with just one action, a raped woman can go from being a source of dishonour to her family to being a source of pride in a culture of martyrdom.

Q: Which explains why one female recruiter in Iraq targeted 80 girls, had them raped, and then talked them into becoming suicide bombers for a group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
A: Exactly. When Samira Ahmed Jassim was arrested in 2009, she explained that after the rapes she’d seek out victims, pretend to be their friend and console them, and in the process suggest, “Well you know, there is something you can do.” We talk about propaganda, winning hearts and minds—we dropped the ball in this case by not letting people know more about this woman. Iraqis would be horrified.

Q: What do radical Islamists promise female suicide bombers?
A: You’ll have the perfect husband, you’ll be restored if there’s been any illness or disfigurement, and not only are you going to be with Allah, but 70 of your relatives are going directly to heaven. This idea of intercession for family members—even if they’ve drunk alcohol or eaten pork—is very powerful. It means this girl can do more for the family than any boy will.

Q: So it’s glamorous in a way?
A: The idea that with this action you can become famous, and there will be songs written about you, posters of you, parks and squares named after you—it’s a level of notoriety these women could never achieve through ordinary actions in a culture where they have very few options. So yes, there may be coercion, but there’s a payoff, too.




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In conversation with Mia Bloom

  1. Great interview! Female terrorism should be discussed more often.

  2. Great interview! Female terrorism should be discussed more often.

  3. Sad that these women are so indoctrinated in these superstitions (aka…religion) that they actually buy all this mumbo-jumbo about 70 relatives going direct to heaven and such…

    Sad…but I suppose we can chalk it up to a life time of successful brain washing via religion.

    There have been cases of children being taken away from neo-Nazi parents who were raising them steeped in hate… looks to me like the only way to break this cycle of religious-based violence is to find a way to stop the indoctrination of children and wait a generation or two for tangible results.

  4. interesting, no talk of the more likely reason: mental instability.

    we know that vast vast majority of muslims, both men and women alike dont turn to extremism, and even less turn to violent resistance. any examination of those few who turn to such extremes demands strong consideration to mental illness, not gender or perceived attitudes towards family honour.

    this interview is shallow and short on actual opinions outside of very palatable "hearts and minds" talk.

  5. interesting, no talk of the more likely reason: mental instability.

    we know that vast vast majority of muslims, both men and women alike dont turn to extremism, and even less turn to violent resistance. any examination of those few who turn to such extremes demands strong consideration to mental illness, not gender or perceived attitudes towards family honour.

    this interview is shallow and short on actual opinions outside of very palatable "hearts and minds" talk.

    • Unexpected or unwelcome behavior does not make it a mental illness. A person can make a perfectly rational decision based on an world-view alien to your own, which is a bit of what this article is demonstrating.

      I'd be curious to know why you believe mental instability is a likely reason.

  6. Unexpected or unwelcome behavior does not make it a mental illness. A person can make a perfectly rational decision based on an world-view alien to your own, which is a bit of what this article is demonstrating.

    I'd be curious to know why you believe mental instability is a likely reason.

  7. How can one can be a worldwide expert and yet be totally incapable of logical thought?.
    Mia: “It's justifying within a religious frame the killing of other Muslims, which is completely against the Koran”. Kate: Are they (female suicide bombers whose missions failed) rejected by their communities? Mia explains no, the community would understand if the prospective bomber were pre-empted or if the device failed to go off and would be rejected only if she backed out. Then she gives the example of a “very religious Muslim girl” who changed her mind because she didn't want to get “tarted-up”. So if this violence is not legitimate as ‘expert' Mia tells us, why do Muslim communities reject those whose conscience makes them back out of suicide bombing yet understand if circumstances beyond the prospective bomber's control lead to failure? And how could, (if “the Koran is completely against” this), “a very religious Muslim” girl consider bombing right up until the time she was asked to “tart-up”?

  8. How can one can be a worldwide expert and yet be totally incapable of logical thought?.
    Mia: “It's justifying within a religious frame the killing of other Muslims, which is completely against the Koran”. Kate: Are they (female suicide bombers whose missions failed) rejected by their communities? Mia explains no, the community would understand if the prospective bomber were pre-empted or if the device failed to go off and would be rejected only if she backed out. Then she gives the example of a “very religious Muslim girl” who changed her mind because she didn't want to get “tarted-up”. So if this violence is not legitimate as ‘expert' Mia tells us, why do Muslim communities reject those whose conscience makes them back out of suicide bombing yet understand if circumstances beyond the prospective bomber's control lead to failure? And how could, (if “the Koran is completely against” this), “a very religious Muslim” girl consider bombing right up until the time she was asked to “tart-up”?

  9. "It's justifying within a religious frame the killing of other Muslims, which is completely against the Koran." Granted she did not say "killing of disbeleivers" but I thought Mia might want to dust off her Koran if she insists on telling others what the Koran proscribes: 9:111 – “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain”.

  10. "It's justifying within a religious frame the killing of other Muslims, which is completely against the Koran." Granted she did not say "killing of disbeleivers" but I thought Mia might want to dust off her Koran if she insists on telling others what the Koran proscribes: 9:111 – “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain”.

  11. I would certainly agree with you that "stop[ping] the indoctrination of children" (of Muslim extremists) would be an effective way of breaking the cycle of Muslim suicide-bombing and violence, if ever such a thing could be done. That said, what with your comments about "religion" in the broadest possible sense, it seems to me that you do not differentiate between the "Islam" of the extremists and any other religion (whether that be Islam as practiced by peaceful and moderate Muslims or any other world religion). You're not comparing apples with apples when you lump a Muslim extremist together with any other religious person. As a "religious" (and educated, peaceful, law-abiding and tax-paying) person myself, I think you're treading dangerous ground in suggesting that all religious people are indoctrinating their children and we should find a way to stop it. Given your comments I would presume you are an atheist; I would not suggest that you are "indoctrinating" your children if you raise them to believe as you do… that's just part of parenthood.

  12. I would certainly agree with you that "stop[ping] the indoctrination of children" (of Muslim extremists) would be an effective way of breaking the cycle of Muslim suicide-bombing and violence, if ever such a thing could be done. That said, what with your comments about "religion" in the broadest possible sense, it seems to me that you do not differentiate between the "Islam" of the extremists and any other religion (whether that be Islam as practiced by peaceful and moderate Muslims or any other world religion). You're not comparing apples with apples when you lump a Muslim extremist together with any other religious person. As a "religious" (and educated, peaceful, law-abiding and tax-paying) person myself, I think you're treading dangerous ground in suggesting that all religious people are indoctrinating their children and we should find a way to stop it. Given your comments I would presume you are an atheist; I would not suggest that you are "indoctrinating" your children if you raise them to believe as you do… that's just part of parenthood.

    • Well…"Muslim extremists" is a relative term.

      Seems to me that Muslims do not hold exclusive rights to doing crazy things in the name of their god(s). Christians, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Inca….on and on…all have their history of bloodshed against other religious (and non-religious) groups who are not quite as "righteous" as they are.

      At the root of it all…raising children to believe in a fantasy world and omnipotent being who watches over, protects and looks after their well being in the "after life" (as long as they are slavishly obedient to "him" and his earthly representatives.) It is belief system "ripe for the picking" by people who use it as a means to subvert, enslave, control and (in the extreme cases) kill people.

      So yes…I suppose I do suggest that all religions "indoctrinate" their children…or try to…regardless of how "extreme" their beliefs are. The more extreme sects simply enforce their doctrine via a brutally simplistic means…believe this or I'll kill you. Other more "moderate, mainstream" religions generally leave it up to "the big guy" to mete out your punishment in the next life.

      Thankfully…as education and knowledge become more prevalent…the "mainstream" religious "explanations" for things previously unexplained tend to fall by the wayside. Increasingly leaving us (I suppose) with the more "extreme" religious views which rely on poor, uneducated masses and rigid…if not brutal…enforcement of doctrine as the surviving/thriving religions.

      • Religions all over the world have played their parts in wars; some have even been the root cause. However, a whole lot of wars in the western world over the last 350 years (Civil War, WW1, WW2, Plains of Abraham, all those times our southern friends invaded Canada, etc) happened without religion as a motivating factor. People can find any reason at all to go to war; and although it certainly is convenient to have a religion to invoke when ordering your people to kill and be killed, it does not follow that the religion itself is the cause of violence. Doing away with religion will not do away with war.

        You paint a very bleak picture of religion (and the intelligence of its adherents) as far as the reasons one chooses to practice the faith of their choice! :) More than 90% of the world's population believes in a supernatural being of one sort or another; are all five and a half billion of them deceived (or crazy), unintelligent drones believing in fairy tales? Most adults who continue to practice their faith beyond childhood do so because they sincerely believe – and becoming closer to their God brings them joy.

        However, in replying to you originally, my intent was not to debate religion itself; I simply take issue with the concept of your desire to stop the religious from passing along their values to their children. To truly and universally stop such a thing could only be effected by the state, in brutal means… to adapt what you wrote above, DON'T believe this, or I'll kill (or otherwise punish) you. The thing is, your lack of belief in God is as much a metaphysical belief system as that of the average Jew, Christian or Muslim. It is not possible to prove conclusively that God does not exist; that has to be taken on faith as much as the belief that he does. And so by indoctrinating all children of religious parents that God does not exist, you are simply exchanging one set of beliefs for another.

        I think you would appreciate state-enforced religion about as much as I would appreciate state-enforced atheism – there is a reason you do not live in Iran, and I do not live in China. You are free to believe that there is no God. But for us both to be free, I (and my children and those who come after us) must be free to believe that there is.

        • Well said!

  13. Well…"Muslim extremists" is a relative term.

    Seems to me that Muslims do not hold exclusive rights to doing crazy things in the name of their god(s). Christians, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Inca….on and on…all have their history of bloodshed against other religious (and non-religious) groups who are not quite as "righteous" as they are.

    At the root of it all…raising children to believe in a fantasy world and omnipotent being who watches over, protects and looks after their well being in the "after life" (as long as they are slavishly obedient to "him" and his earthly representatives.) It is belief system "ripe for the picking" by people who use it as a means to subvert, enslave, control and (in the extreme cases) kill people.

    So yes…I suppose I do suggest that all religions "indoctrinate" their children…or try to…regardless of how "extreme" their beliefs are. The more extreme sects simply enforce their doctrine via a brutally simplistic means…believe this or I'll kill you. Other more "moderate, mainstream" religions generally leave it up to "the big guy" to mete out your punishment in the next life.

    Thankfully…as education and knowledge become more prevalent…the "mainstream" religious "explanations" for things previously unexplained tend to fall by the wayside. Increasingly leaving us (I suppose) with the more "extreme" religious views which rely on poor, uneducated masses and rigid…if not brutal…enforcement of doctrine as the surviving/thriving religions.

  14. Religions all over the world have played their parts in wars; some have even been the root cause. However, a whole lot of wars in the western world over the last 350 years (Civil War, WW1, WW2, Plains of Abraham, all those times our southern friends invaded Canada, etc) happened without religion as a motivating factor. People can find any reason at all to go to war; and although it certainly is convenient to have a religion to invoke when ordering your people to kill and be killed, it does not follow that the religion itself is the cause of violence. Doing away with religion will not do away with war.

    You paint a very bleak picture of religion (and the intelligence of its adherents) as far as the reasons one chooses to practice the faith of their choice! :) More than 90% of the world's population believes in a supernatural being of one sort or another; are all five and a half billion of them deceived (or crazy), unintelligent drones believing in fairy tales? Most adults who continue to practice their faith beyond childhood do so because they sincerely believe – and becoming closer to their God brings them joy.

    However, in replying to you originally, my intent was not to debate religion itself; I simply take issue with the concept of your desire to stop the religious from passing along their values to their children. To truly and universally stop such a thing could only be effected by the state, in brutal means… to adapt what you wrote above, DON'T believe this, or I'll kill (or otherwise punish) you. The thing is, your lack of belief in God is as much a metaphysical belief system as that of the average Jew, Christian or Muslim. It is not possible to prove conclusively that God does not exist; that has to be taken on faith as much as the belief that he does. And so by indoctrinating all children of religious parents that God does not exist, you are simply exchanging one set of beliefs for another.

    I think you would appreciate state-enforced religion about as much as I would appreciate state-enforced atheism – there is a reason you do not live in Iran, and I do not live in China. You are free to believe that there is no God. But for us both to be free, I (and my children and those who come after us) must be free to believe that there is.

  15. the death cult broaches no contradiction, no mercy, no common sense. when I see a muslim stand up against these depraved maniacs then I might believe that there is such a thing as a good, civilized muslim. until that time I want a stop to all muslims immigrating to canada. these people appear to be nothing less than a bunch of psychopaths.

  16. the death cult broaches no contradiction, no mercy, no common sense. when I see a muslim stand up against these depraved maniacs then I might believe that there is such a thing as a good, civilized muslim. until that time I want a stop to all muslims immigrating to canada. these people appear to be nothing less than a bunch of psychopaths.

  17. Well said!

  18. A good muslim/ muslimah will condemn the suicide bombing act.
    So far…are we getting the news about it from the local muslim leaders? NONE.

  19. A good muslim/ muslimah will condemn the suicide bombing act.
    So far…are we getting the news about it from the local muslim leaders? NONE.

  20. Of course, the rational, functional solution to this dilemma will never be implemented. Arrest and swiftly kill in a horrific manner any and all Muslim religious leaders who do not condemn in the strongest terms any such attacks.

  21. Of course, the rational, functional solution to this dilemma will never be implemented. Arrest and swiftly kill in a horrific manner any and all Muslim religious leaders who do not condemn in the strongest terms any such attacks.

    • @ Paul
      Well good luck with that. They are still looking for Bin Laden.

  22. @ Paul
    Well good luck with that. They are still looking for Bin Laden.

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