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In the Middle East, Palestinian women have been among the ranks of fighters and terrorists attacking Israel since at least the 1970s, but the first to become a suicide bomber was Wafa Idris, a 27-year-old ambulance worker, who killed an Israeli civilian and wounded 140 in January 2002. In death she became a celebrity. More women and girls volunteered to die for a branch of Yasir Arafat's secular Fatah organization. He talked of an "army of roses," and the leadership of the radical religious organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were taken by surprise. Sheik Yassin, the crippled spiritual leader of Hamas, opposed the use of women as bombers. There were more than enough men, he said.
Still, Palestinian women clamored to fight and die to try to free their homeland. They argued that since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, women warriors have battled for the banner of Islam. Yassin and other religious scholars eventually gave ground, but only after debating how long a woman on a suicide mission could be away without a chaperone—before she died.
Not until January of last year did a woman from Hamas carry out an operation. Reem Riashi, a mother of two, recorded a videotape before her mission, saying she hoped her "organs would be scattered in the air" and her soul "would reach paradise." Would there be 72 houris to greet her there? No. The religious scholars who endorse suicide attacks have described an alternative paradise for women. Thauria Hamur, a 26-year-old captured by the Israelis before she could set off a bomb in May 2002, told NEWSWEEK in a prison interview that women martyrs would "become the purest and most beautiful form of angel at the highest level possible in heaven."
IV. The Hunt For Answers
In a letter written from hiding by Ayman Al-Zawahiri last summer, and meant for Zarqawi to read in Iraq, the Egyptian physician paused to talk about the women in his life. His "favorite wife," he wrote, was crushed by the concrete of a collapsed ceiling in an American bombing. "She went on calling for aid to lift the stone block off her chest until she breathed her last, may God have mercy on her and accept her among the martyrs," Zawahiri wrote in the letter, which was intercepted and disseminated by American intelligence. "As for my young daughter, she was afflicted by a cerebral hemorrhage, and she continued for a whole day suffering in pain until she expired. And to this day I do not know the location of the graves of my wife, my son, my daughter."
Such is the price of war, said Zawahiri. Yet the core leadership of Al Qaeda remains divided, it seems, about whether women should enter the struggle against the "satanic power" of the United States as combatants, much less as suicide bombers. Zarqawi has made his own decision. But a U.S. counterterrorism official, who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters, says that until authorities begin to see Saudi women sacrificing themselves in attacks, they will remain skeptical about the extent to which Al Qaeda Central has embraced the idea of female bombers. NEWSWEEK's investigation suggests, however, that those barriers are gradually falling.
Ataliban source, who for his own protection did not want to be further identified, says Zawahiri is an ardent supporter of both the education of women and their participation in military activities. Before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Zawahiri tried to persuade Afghan leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to allow girls to have some basic schooling and combat training. The Taliban leader would not hear of it. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, Zawahiri raised the subject again. He even brought up the example of a famous Afghan woman named Malalai who fought against the British in the 19th century. But Mullah Omar —dismissed the idea once more, saying that the presence of women at the front or among soldiers would lead to a breakdown in discipline. After the meeting, the Taliban leader's private secretary warned Zawahiri not to raise the matter again, but Al Qaeda continued to hold military training for women at bases near the Jalalabad and Kandahar airports, according to this source, and kept it secret from the one-eyed leader of the Taliban.
Then, in late 2001, an aging mujahed named Sufi Abdul Aziz Baba was given the task of caring for the widows of 22 Qaeda fighters. As casualties mounted among the men, the number of women in the group continued to grow. On the run from the Americans, they hid out in a compound in the southeastern province of Paktika. The women—Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs were given Kalashnikovs to defend themselves, and soon began training within the compound walls, out of sight of the men. Forced to flee again across the border into Pakistan, they fought a three-hour gun battle against the forces of an Afghan warlord who had gone over to the American side. A year later, to avoid an offensive by Pakistani troops, the women fled again to a new hideout near the Afghan border, Baba told NEWSWEEK. All the while, they continued military training. Last year a new Pakistani offensive forced these women, now well versed in the arts of killing, to disperse again along the Afghan frontier. There, says Baba, they are supported by a tightly woven network of jihadist organizations and family ties.
Indeed, in these remote lands Al Qaeda's fighters and their wives and widows often seem to be part of one extended family. Frequently the sisters and daughters of a holy warrior will marry one of his comrades in arms. The widows of slain guerrillas commonly wed one of their late husband's jihadist relatives. Although these networks appear isolated, they could form the enduring core of Al Qaeda in the future, or a new incarnation of it. And some of the women among them are now more than ready to take up arms, or to carry bombs, whenever the organization needs them. Or whenever the men are gone, or get out of the way.
As Mia Bloom writes in a forthcoming book, "The underlying message conveyed by female bombers is: Terrorism has moved beyond a fringe phenomenon and insurgents are all around you." But that is only the message for their enemies. In their own world, their willingness to carry out suicide attacks means something different. Among Palestinians, for instance, "the idea of violence empowering women has spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip," writes Bloom. Suicide bombing is changing the rules of deference and subservience that have dominated the traditional society—a strange path to liberation for women hidden behind veils and burqas.
Can the west offer something better? Something to defuse the explosive anger of jihadist widows bent on vengeance, or young women craving freedom from foreign occupation for themselves and their people? In the comfort of Wash-ington, the answer would seem an obvious yes: education, jobs, equal rights. But in the dusty alleys of Tall Afar, the arid hills of Waziristan, the rubble of Grozny, the walled-off villages of the West Bank and maybe even the dilapidated rows of factory housing in Belgium, the answer may not always be so clear. In a television interview last week, after the people of Belgium learned to their horror that their Muriel had died as a suicide bomber in Iraq, Glenn Audenaert, director of the federal police, said he was not surprised to find such a woman in the ranks of people who "embraced the ideology of Al Qaeda." "It's a new generation, and, perversely, emancipation allows women to aspire to martyrdom," he said.
Finding another answer that is right—a variety of answers, in fact, for many unique societies—will help make the difference between an endless war of terror with "insurgents all around" and a fight that is won, with a peace that endures.
With Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in Kabul, Scott Johnson and Kevin Peraino in Baghdad, Joanna Chen in Jerusalem, Mark Hosenball and John Barry in Washington, Anna Nemtsova in Moscow, Stefan Theil in Berlin, Eric Pape and Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Emily Flynn Vencat in London and Michael Hastings in New York
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
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