Here, al-Qaeda is exploiting the injustices of Sharia law — including the subjugation of women, and the danger of reporting a rape without four witnesses — and the culture it creates to trap women into doing their bidding to advance the cause of imposing Sharia in Iraq.
A woman pretending to be pregnant walks up to a hospital in one of Iraq’s most dangerous regions and blows herself up.
Minutes later a man, also laden with explosives, attacks the rescue workers who rushed to the scene in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. Thirty-two people are killed and 52 wounded.
The co-ordinated bombings that ripped through the town of Baladruz in May are one of twelve attacks involving thirteen women suicide bombers to strike Diyala so far this year — a huge jump, signalling a new tactic by insurgents. US officials suspect that al-Qaeda has built a network of cells that recruit women and turn them into killers.
Women are the perfect weapon in a country where it is frowned upon culturally for a man even to approach a woman without her husband or father in tow, let alone frisk her for weapons at one of the many checkpoints that are the bombers” favourite targets. In addition, it is easy to hide a vest packed with explosives under the traditional Islamic robes worn by women in Iraq without drawing suspicion.
In total, there have been 24 attacks involving women suicide bombers since January, including four on Monday in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk that left scores dead. Al-Qaeda is “a very adaptive enemy”, a US Special Forces captain based in Diyala said. “They will try to use whatever works best for them to attempt to exploit whatever political or cultural restrictions we have.”
In the past, al-Qaeda fighters have used mosques to hold meetings and hide weapons, knowing that the US military will not raid religious buildings. “Now they”ve adapted to try to use female suicide bombers.”
The military believes that al-Qaeda employs a variety of tactics to get women to become suicide bombers. Some are easy prey because their husband or children have been killed or detained by US forces, said Captain Matthew Shown, the intelligence officer for “Sabre Squadron”, 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, which is based in southeast Diyala.
Another method is for a member of al-Qaeda to marry a woman and then dishonour her in some way, such as letting someone else rape her. “This would leave her with no choice but to end her life,” Captain Shown, 34, said.
There are also reports of women being told that their husband or child will be killed unless they agree to become suicide bombers.
Eliminating the threat of female suicide attacks in Diyala is a priority for US and Iraqi forces, who began a large offensive yesterday across the province against al-Qaeda and pockets of Shia militias.
There have been a few successes. Last month Iraqi police arrested the alleged leader of the suicide cell that orchestrated the twin blasts on May 2 in Baladruz. Video footage of attacks on US forces was found at his home. Officers believe the material was used to indoctrinate female recruits.
The US military is also hiring women to stand alongside male guards at checkpoints to ensure that all women get a full body search.”It is not possible for males to search females. It is a cultural thing,” said Staff Sergeant David Schlicher, who works in civil affairs at Forward Operating Base Caldwell, a US camp in the middle of a much larger Iraqi army base in the desert in southeast Diyala. “So this closes that loophole.”
The woman guards will complement a workforce of about 80,000 men who are paid by the US military to protect their neighbourhood under a programme that encouraged many former Sunni insurgents to turn against al-Qaeda.
There are few female volunteers, however, just as there are not many women in the police and Army because it is not part of their culture.
The female bomb threat appears to be changing attitudes. In Baladruz, twenty-five women are due to start civilian guard duties this week, and an appeal has been made for another ten.