In 2005, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) unveiled its newest weapon: the female suicide bomber. Armed with an explosive device, a young female jihadi walked through an army recruitment centre in Tal Afar, Iraq, and detonated. The attack killed eight and symbolised a new homicidal role for women within the Islamist organisation.
Fourteen years after their first appearance in Iraq, female combatants continue to be used by AQI’s successor, the Islamic State, confirming a shift in the terror group’s strategy. Despite their increasing numbers, security services have struggled to anticipate the regular presence of ‘mujahed women’ to their detriment.
Since establishing a so-called caliphate in 2014, the Islamic State has been notorious for their oppressive treatment of women. At the same time, the Islamic State’s encouragement of female fighters illustrates a quiet change from its early years where women were exclusively supporters of the caliphate and only men were afforded the privilege of conducting suicide missions.
Throughout different stages in the organisation’s history, the use of female suicide bombers reveals crucial lessons about the Islamic State’s strategic evolution and provide clues to the future trajectory of the insurgency.
Although the Islamic State appears to be on the verge of defeat, attacks by female combatants indicate a tactical shift from offensive to defensive jihad.
Following the withdrawal of US forces in 2011, female suicide attacks waned. More recently, facing the impending fall of Mosul, the Islamic State commissioned teenage girls to attack Iraqi army forces.
Historically, female-led suicide attacks have occurred in response to increasing operational pressures. When the US-led military surge of 2007 overwhelming targeted male AQI operatives, this was compensated by a surge in female-led suicide attacks reaching a peak in 2008 with women responsible for 39 attacks.
Female suicide bombers have been successful largely because Coalition forces have assumed the Islamic State’s strict gender roles prohibit women from waging violent jihad. The Islamic State, and AQI before, have recognised this weakness in counterterrorism operations and deployed female combatants to subvert checks by opposition forces
Female participation in suicide missions has been encouraged as part of a pragmatic decision following declining numbers of male fighters.
The Islamic State’s shift to include female combatants was alluded to in a 2015 manifesto released by the Islamic State’s all-female al-Khansaa Brigade. The manifesto outlined specific conditions under which women were permitted to act violently within ‘the framework of defensive jihad’.
Similarly, after the first female suicide attack in Iraq, AQI leader Abu Muss’ab al-Zarqawi released a message used to shame men into action by detailing the women as ‘pleading for martyrdom operations’. A culmination of increased military pressure and a lack of male recruits led Zarqawi to allow female participation under ‘special circumstances’.
The necessity for female suicide bombers has been synonymous with territorial losses, as a means to restore strength to the insurgency through tactical surprise.
Ideology as rhetoric
The Islamic State has made a point of changing its rhetoric to conform with changing tactics. With the organisation losing influence, the Islamic State has weaponised its available female population to meet its needs.
Though, the Islamic State has underestimated the agency of its own women wanting to pursue martyrdom operations.
Whilst appearing to accommodate more equality amongst its combatants, this is mere rhetoric compared to any substantial change in ideology. And though Islamic State leaders foresee female suicide bombers as a temporary fix, there are already instances where Western women, sympathetic to the Islamic State’s cause, have seen this new role as a sign to mobilise.
The future is female?
It’s no secret that the Islamic State has relied on women for survival of the caliphate. Though, a brief history of female suicide operations reveals more about the terror group than first thought.
The use of female suicide bombers, from AQI to the Islamic State, has exposed a complex relationship with women and jihad, one based more on necessity, than ideological revolution.
As long as certain conditions apply (lack of male recruits, territorial losses and increased military pressure), we can expect a female wave of violence.
With this stark reality in mind, policymakers and security services would be wise to reconsider the female threat as a redirection in the Islamic State’s long game. And with the Islamic State permitting female jihad, the enemy can no longer be designated by gender.
Indeed, as the group would have it, the enemy has become increasingly indistinguishable.
Olivia Adams is a Research Assistant at the Lowy Institute.