What Pushes Women to Become Suicide Bombers?

In a chilling article for the New York Times magazine, reporter Alissa J. Rubin speaks to would-be suicide bomber Baida. The roots of her scorn? The American occupation, isolation, and an unwavering belief that she is a warrior for God.

Each woman's story is unique, but their journeys to jihad do have commonalities. Many have lost close male relatives. Baida and Ranya lost both fathers and brothers. Many of the women live in isolated communities dominated by extremists, where radical understandings of Islam are the norm. In such places, women are often powerless to control much about their lives; they cannot choose whom they marry, how many children to have or whether they can go to school beyond the primary years. Becoming a suicide bomber is a choice of sorts that gives some women a sense of being special, with a distinguished destiny. But Major Hosham urged me not to generalize: "All the cases are different. Some are old; some are young; some are just criminals; some are believers. They have different reasons."

One thing stood out: The appearance in Diyala of suicide bombers who were women was entwined with the appearance of the Islamic State of Iraq - the local face of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the umbrella name used in Iraq for homegrown Sunni extremist groups that have some foreign leadership. While many insurgent groups operate in Iraq, those with links to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia are associated with suicide bombings. In Diyala, the Islamic State of Iraq was particularly strong. It was also brutal and organized. It orchestrated mass kidnappings, mass executions, beheadings and ambushes. No one was spared: women or children; Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds. Whole villages were forced to flee; others fell under extremist control. Many of the women who became bombers were from families immersed in jihadist culture.

Rubin's piece paints a bleak scene for women in Iraq, in an area that has seen a sharp rise in female suicide bombers from 2007-2008. More and more women, disillusioned with their lives and under the influence of twisted religious rhetoric, have come to believe that the best way out of their miserable existence is to sacrifice themselves - and to take others with them. Women, Rubin explains, were actually a good choice for bombers - the coverage of the abaya allows for greater concealment, and until recently, women were spared searches, even at heavily guarded check points.

Last September, the Iraqi government completed training for 27 policewomen in Diyala. The effort came too late to save at least 130 people and probably more who have died in the province in suicide bombings carried out by women.

When Rubin arrives at the prison where Baida is detained, she sits with rapt attention, taking notes on her story, looking for the answer to the persistent question: why? Why would someone do this?

She began in a soft voice: "My name is Baida Abdul Karim al-Shammari, and I am from New Baquba near the general hospital. I am one of eight children; five were killed. The police raided our home. It was a half-hour before dawn during Ramadan. The Americans were with them."

She added with a touch of pride: "My brothers were mujahideen. They made I.E.D.'s." The word "mujahideen" means holy fighters and, in the context of Iraq, they are fighters against the infidels, the Americans. I.E.D.'s are improvised explosive devices.

She told me she helped make such devices, going to the market to buy wire and other bomb parts and working at putting bombs together. Men are routinely paid for such work; women are generally paid too, but less. Baida was proud to be a volunteer. "I knew we were fighting against the Americans and they are the occupation," she told me. "We are doing it for God's sake. We are doing it as jihad."

While Baida credits her leanings to her family, she also admits she is motivated by revenge:

Later it would be revenge for the deaths of her father and four brothers in what she said was a joint American-Iraqi raid on their home, but at first it was more general. She told me she watched the Americans shoot a neighbor in 2005, and she replayed the image over and over in her mind: "I saw him running toward them, and then they shot him in the neck. I still see him. I still remember how he fell when the Americans shot him and I saw him clawing on the ground in the dust before his soul left his body. After that I began to help with making the improvised explosive devices."

However, Rubin cagily illustrates other reasons why Baida may have been so ready to check out of this existence with hope of a better one in the next:

Baida grew up shuttling between Baquba, which is the provincial capital of Diyala, and Husayba, a town on the Syrian border. She went to school through eighth grade, she told me, and had ideas of becoming an architect, but her mother wanted her to stay home. When Baida was 17, her mother died, and a few months later, at her father's behest, Baida married. Almost immediately she knew she had made a mistake. A week after her wedding, according to Baida, her husband threw a cup of cream at her head; soon, beatings became regular. She smiled sweetly and shrugged: "His hand got used to beating me."

However, Baida seems completely disconnected from these events, as well as her husband:

She appeared to have let go of most earthly ties. A mother of two boys and a girl, all under 8, she had not seen them since her arrest last year. When I asked if they missed her, she said, almost airily, "Allah will take care of them." She spoke as if much of her life was already in the past. When she mentioned her husband, whom she actively hated, she used the past tense. She was living for that moment that some might see as an ending but for her would be a moment of transformation.

"As soon as I get out I will explode myself against the invaders," she told me.

As the interview continues, Rubin starts noticing an interesting deployment of logic Baida uses to fell okay about the murders she is about to commit. In a complicated discussion of what is haram and what is not, Baida explains how she reconcile the deaths of some, but not others:

It was certainly important to Baida, who felt she controlled little in her life, to feel in control of her death. Her goal was to take revenge on her brothers' killers - American soldiers. When I brought up the reality that the vast majority of suicide bombings in Iraq kill ordinary Iraqis, she would only say that she thought killing Iraqis was haram, or forbidden.

Baida explains:

You could choose whether you wanted to do it. They wanted me to wear the explosive belt against the police, but I refused. I said, ‘I will not do it against Iraqis.' I said: ‘If I do it against the police I will go to hell because the police are Muslims. But if I do it against the Americans then I will go to heaven.' "

A few weeks later, when I [Rubin] met Baida again, she tried to explain to me the line dividing when it is halal (permitted) to kill a person and when it is forbidden. She said she followed the rules of her group, but her cousins had different rules: they would kill anybody. Was there a difference, I wondered, between killing American soldiers and killing American civilians, like reconstruction workers? No, she said: "I am willing to explode them, even civilians, because they are invaders and blasphemers and Jewish. I will explode them first because they are Jewish and because they feel free to take our lands."

My interpreter asked where she stood: Was it halal to kill her?

"We consider you a spy, working with them," Baida said.

Baida did not believe it was halal, however, to kill members of the Iraqi security forces if they were working on their own, only if they were in a convoy with the Americans.

As the Rubin's narrative gets darker and darker, she also illuminates how the idea of a "choice" is one that is difficult to apply in these situations:

Her choice of suicide was not entirely hers to make. The suicide vests the cell gave to participants were outfitted with remote detonators so that someone else could explode the would-be bomber if she somehow failed to do it herself. This was a relatively new aspect of suicide bombing in Iraq. A second person, with a second detonator, would go on the mission to ensure against changes of heart. "One day this woman, Shaima, said, ‘I am ready.' I saw Shaima when they put the vest on her. It was very heavy. With Shaima, they exploded her, she did not explode herself. There were five or six killed."

At some point in the story, Baida is transferred to a mental hospital for evaluation. In the meantime, Rubin travels to other areas with high levels of women bombers. Extreme adherence to even the smallest points of religious dogma creates an environment where it is almost as if the people live in a time warp:

Until 2007, it was too dangerous for the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police to enter the area. When they finally did, they found a strange community. "When we entered Makhisa we didn't find a TV because it's forbidden," Col. Khalid Mohammed al-Ameri, who was in the army under Saddam Hussein and has served all over the country, told me. "And no ice, no cigarettes and no tomatoes and cucumbers mixed together at the same shop."

The strictest Sunni extremists believe that people should not have anything that did not exist in the early days of Islam. Since there was no electricity in the seventh century, there could be neither refrigeration nor ice and no television. The aversion to mixing tomatoes and cucumbers is because cucumbers are viewed as a male vegetable and tomatoes are female, and mixing them in a box is seen as lascivious, Colonel Khalid said, shaking his head.

When Rubin returns, she finds that Baida has been calling, looking for her. Under advisement from military and local police that Baida may possibly be plotting to murder her as well, Rubin elects to keep future meetings short. The author's nervousness is palpable here - we have previously been informed that Baida had access to a cell phone while in prison and the mental hospital, and she stays in close contact with the members of her group. In addition, military operatives had warned that other journalists had died in similar ways, around the time when Baida began pressing for exact time and locations of Rubin's visits.

When we did finally go, we met with Baida alone, sitting together on a bed in the nurse's office because there were no chairs. I asked her gently, and as nonjudgmentally as I could, whether she wanted to kill me because I was a foreigner.

"Frankly, yes." Then she added, to soften it, "Not specifically you, because I know you."

Would she tell her extremist cousins or her friends about me? Would she give them my description and tell them enough that they could find me?

"I won't sacrifice my friendship," she said. A moment later she reversed herself. "But, if they insisted, yes, I would, yes. As a foreigner it is halal to kill you."

She continued: "If they kill Americans they will do a big huge banquet for dinner."

She smiled beatifically. As Major Hosham had said, "She is honest."

Rubin offers no conclusions or further analysis at the end of her piece, instead looking to capture the environment. Perhaps this is because there ultimately is no rhyme or reason for undertaking these horrific acts, that violate most religious principles and moral obligations. Baida's last words confirm this point:

I looked at my watch; I worried we had stayed too long. I got up hurriedly, knocking my notebooks to the floor. I adjusted my veil, thanked her for her time, for teaching me about jihad and for making me understand how dangerous her world was.

Baida was smiling again. "If I had not seen you before and talked to you, I would kill you with my own hands," she said pleasantly. "Do not be deceived by my peaceful face. I have a heart of stone."

How Baida Wanted to Die [New York Times Magazine]