The number of attacks carried out by female suicide bombers in Iraq has increased sharply in 2008, causing observers to probe more deeply the motivations of the women involved and review policies that might be prompting the surge. Others are trying to determine whether this new tactic signals Al Qaeda's innovation or desperation in its fight against Iraqi and US forces.
Just last month, female suicide bombers made headlines by carrying out multiple attacks in Iraq's Diyala Province, where they have been most active. On June 22, a woman carried out the deadliest of four strikes across Diyala that left 15 people dead, The New York Times reported.
Earlier in the month, CNN reported that another female suicide bomber had targeted Iraqis celebrating their national team's victory in a soccer match against China. She killed 29 people in a marketplace in Qara Tappa, a town in Diyala Province.
According to the New York Times report, it remains unclear why recent suicide bombings carried out by women have occurred in the province.
Attacks by women earlier in the year sparked some confusion about Al Qaeda's strategy with regards to deploying female suicide bombers. On February 1, two mentally disabled women who had been "wired with explosives that were detonated remotely" killed 73 Iraqis in two popular pet markets in Baghdad. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the deployment of women was a departure from Al Qaeda's usual tactic of car bombings – one that sought to take advantage of less-stringent security protocols for women.
After that bombing, it was believed that women were being coerced by Al Qaeda operatives, or that they were unaware of what they were doing. However, an attack in March dispelled those assumptions. Reuters reported the deliberate manner in which a female suicide bomber killed a Sunni tribal chief who oversaw a neighborhood security unit in Diyala Province.
Another report in The New York Times emphasizes that this trend of female suicide bombers gained momentum only last year.
Previously, The Christian Science Monitor compiled a list of suicide bombings carried out by women in Iraq through August 2006.
The reasons why the number of female suicide bombers is on the rise remain hotly debated. A CNN report suggests that the attacks are an extension of ongoing efforts by women to support the Iraqi insurgency. It adds that security lapses with regard to women are facilitating female suicide bombings.
On the other hand, The New York Times argues that most female suicide bombers are women suffering from depression or a lack of purpose in the wake of a male family member's loss, whether that be due to death or detention.
An article published by Islam Online suggests that women are becoming suicide bombers to avenge the death of their loved ones and cites the example of Um Mustafa, a 41-year-old woman training to become a bomber.
Such attempts to consider the broader sociopolitical implications of female suicide bombings are a departure from earlier studies, reported on by Ynetnews, an Israeli English-language news website, that suggested that women carried out attacks to atone for previous sins or wrongdoings by one of their family members.
Female suicide bombers are not unique to Iraq. Women have previously carried out deadly attacks in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian, Russian-Chechen, and Sri Lankan-Tamil conflicts, as documented by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.