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Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, by Mia Bloom

This week's devastating suicide bomb attack at Moscow's largest airport is a grim reminder that terrorist organizations around the world have embraced the suicide bomber.

The suicide bomber is a weapon of mass destruction, both in the language of criminal law and, sometimes, in the most literal sense. The 9/11 hijackers took suicide terrorism to unprecedented levels of meticulous planning and outrageous carnage, but every act of suicide terrorism forces us to confront the same sense of outrage, loss, bewilderment and fear. The bomb-toting suicide terrorist is not just engaged in self-annihilation, however difficult that might be to comprehend; he or she is also the wielder of some ugly contraption of explosives and crude shrapnel, intimately carried, designed to spray death in as wide a radius as possible among unknown innocents.

The 9/11 hijackers were sent on their mission by al-Qaeda with some final instructions, found among their recovered luggage. Exhortations to have unshakeable faith in their undertaking were coupled with an injunction not to mistreat the "animals" they were about to slaughter. The 9/11 team was all-male, led by Mohammed Atta, fastidious in his concern that no woman should be allowed to touch his dead body or appear at his funeral.

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But as Mia Bloom sets out to illustrate in Bombshell, a follow-up to her Dying to Kill, female suicide bombers have rivalled their male counterparts as death-dealers and were doing so long before 9/11. Female suicide bombers appeared in the mid-1980s, targeting Israeli military units and civilians. In 1991, a female bomber known only as Dhanu, operating for the Tamil Tigers, killed former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, shortly after handing him a garland of flowers. Her LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cameraman, sent to film the destruction for propaganda purposes, got too close and was killed, but some of his sequences survived and show a smiling young woman cradling the garland, and what looks like a pregnant belly camouflaging the belt of explosives. The last surviving frame shows Gandhi, with a hand on her arm, bending to receive the garland.

The Chechen conflict spread the use of the tactic of female suicide bombers to the Caucasus and into Russia itself. The Moscow airport bomber will probably prove to be yet another iteration of that terrible conflict. Bloom opens her account with a narrative of suicide attacks by two female bombers from the Dagestan region of the Caucasus on the Moscow underground in March, 2010, and goes on to devote a chapter to the Chechen "Black Widows," who first came to notoriety during the Moscow theatre siege in October, 2002. Only the female Chechen terrorists in that operation wore suicide belts; Bloom posits that their male counterparts may have planned to get away. None did: Forty-one terrorists were killed when Russian special forces used poison gas to break the theatre siege; 129 hostages died along with them. One of the Chechen women taking part in the theatre operation gave this rationale, as quoted by the BBC:

"People are unaware of the innocents who are dying in Chechnya. … This is for the freedom of the Chechen people and there is no difference where we die, and therefore we have decided to die here in Moscow. And we will take the lives of hundreds of sinners. If we die, others will come and follow us - our brothers and sisters who are willing to sacrifice their lives, in Allah's way, to liberate the nation."

Of the current plague of major terrorist groups, only al-Qaeda has appeared to be uncertain whether women should be permitted to engage in suicide operations and take the lives of "sinners." This has less to do with any religious doctrinal debate about whether the female suicide bomber is truly "Allah's way," and reflects more al-Qaeda leadership's staunchly conservative views on the appropriate roles for women in their vanguard organization.

Both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri found themselves trying to rein in their unruly lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose out-and-out bloodlust and sectarian targeting, often featuring suicide bombers, threatened to spoil what al-Qaeda regarded as an ideal theatre for operations against the "crusader" nations. Al-Zarqawi was subsequently killed in an American air strike in 2006. Al-Zawahiri found himself having to deal with criticisms of al-Qaeda's reluctance to allow women operational roles in the struggle against the great Satan during his famous online chat with his followers from December, 2007, to January, 2008.

Whether or not al-Qaeda admits women suicide bombers, one ugly truth about the 21st century is that suicide terrorism is on the rise. This has led authors such as Bloom, and a handful of others, to raise the alarm about the security threat they pose, to call for greater attention to the dangers of female bombers in particular, and to try to figure out what motivates women to join in this macabre form of slaughter.

The answer to this question, as with the broader issue of what compels people to engage in terrorism, proves elusive and is usually rooted in the specifics of individual lives and the strife they are caught up in. Bloom tries to find some general pointers, but they veer toward the trite. She gives us her four motivational R's: revenge, redemption, relationships and respect. To these she adds a fifth: rape. As Bloom tells the stories of female suicide bombers, the theme of rape as a driver of revenge, as a coercive tool, and as a delineator of hopelessness, sometimes looms large.

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The effort to understand motivation blends, in Bloom's book and other studies, with an effort to find a way to disarm the female suicide bomber and remove her from the nightmare tableau. This is not a gender issue, nor really a security issue. At the end of the day, the disarming of the suicide bomber, female or male, will come about only when the spurious religious and doctrinal claims for their right to slaughter innocents are refuted by oppositional forces within terrorist organizations or among their supporters, or when a significantly powerful societal backlash emerges to call into question the operational net benefits of the human artillery shell. Faint hope, but hope.

Wesley Wark is a terrorism and security expert who teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

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