Female suicide terrorism in Pakistan in the context of the Karachi University attack
The April 26 suicide attack by a female Baloch militant, Shari Baloch, targeting Karachi University’s Confucian Centre surprised many in Pakistan. Undoubtedly, this is the first-ever incident of female suicide terrorism by Baloch separatists in Pakistan. However, the use of female suicide bombers by the Baloch separatists marks the continuity of an old trend instead of representing an aberration or the start of a new phase in Pakistan’s militant landscape. Nevertheless, the re-induction of female suicide bombers by terrorist networks points to the intensification of Pakistan’s asymmetric conflicts.
In and of itself, female suicide terrorism in Pakistan is as old as the phenomenon of terrorism. Various terrorist networks such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Daesh-Khorasan have employed female suicide bombers to carry out attacks in different parts of Pakistan. Paradoxically, the use of female suicide bombers represents both the strength and weakness of terrorist groups. On the one hand, it generates the impression of desperation within these groups, i.e., unable to achieve their targets through conventional terrorist methods they deploy female suicide bombers. On the other hand, it also underscores a higher level of commitment and devotion by female operatives of the terrorist groups to their self-imagined goals and objectives.
From an operational standpoint, suicide terrorism is 12 times more lethal as compared to traditional terrorist attacks and women are considered more effective suicide bombers than men. In traditional religious societies like Pakistan, where gender segregation is a norm, women are presumably subjected to less stringent security checks. Hence, women militants can reach deep into built-up crowded areas where their male counterparts may be stopped at the entrance, rendering the former more effective and lethal. Furthermore, female militants can hide suicide vests underneath their burqas (head-to-toe religious clothing for females). When terrorism was at its peak in Pakistan in the 2000’s, several terrorists wore burqas as a cover to pass through security check-posts.
It is assumed that females resort to suicide terrorism in subordinating roles to their fathers and husbands out of obedience. Likewise, it is argued that women are drawn to suicide terrorism to avenge the loss of their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons. Sometimes, in asymmetric conflicts, rape or sexual assaults can also be a potent push factor for females to participate in suicide terrorism. In doing so, they try to reclaim the family honor by going from a so-called source of shame to a source of pride. At the same time, women also exercise their agency while choosing to go down the path of suicide terrorism. Several women are genuinely committed to the ideological causes, and they volunteer for this role believing it will serve their communities.
Women militants can reach deep into built-up crowded areas where their male counterparts may be stopped at the entrance, rendering the former more effective and lethal.
Abdul Basit Khan
The first-ever female suicide attack in Pakistan was recorded in 2010 when a TTP-affiliated woman militant targeted the World Food Program’s food distribution center in the Bajaur tribal district, leaving 45 people dead. Likewise, a husband-wife duo blew themselves up in front of a police station in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Dera Ismail (DI) Khan district in 2011. Similarly, a female suicide bomber hit a security check-point in Peshawar the same year. In 2012, then Jamaat-e-Islami Qazi Hussain Ahmed was targeted by an Uzbek female suicide bomber in the Mohmand tribal district, which he escaped unhurt. In 2013, a woman terrorist posing as a university student entered the bus of the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University in Quetta, killing 25 students. The last suicide attack involving a women bomber in Pakistan was witnessed in 2019 when a hospital in DI Khan was hit.
Keeping the above in view, Shari Baloch’s participation in suicide terrorism represents a continuity of a decade old trend in Pakistan rather than something novel. The Baloch Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade embraced suicide terrorism as a weapon of choice in 2018. In various videos, the Majeed Brigade has claimed having male and female suicide bombers in its ranks. Hence, the participation of a female suicide bomber should not come as a surprise: it was a matter of when, not if.
Female suicide terrorism is hard to detect and difficult to deter. The incentive structure of suicide terrorism is so strong that if the bomber hits the intended target, he or she becomes an icon. On the contrary, if he or she fails to achieve the original goal, he or she is still perceived as a martyr. Women suicide bombers are used as a recruiting tool to attract new volunteers. There is a strong symbolism attached to female suicide terrorism. Generally, women are assumed to be life-givers, not life-takers. However, by taking their own lives, they are perceived to pave the way for the betterment of their communities.
The revival of suicide terrorism in Pakistan, in general, and female suicide bombing in particular, should alarm security institutions. Suicide terrorism is directly proportional to conflict escalation and vice versa. It is a clear indication that the internal security situation in Pakistan is deteriorating. While some immediate remedial measures are needed such as kinetic operations to dismantle the re-emerging cells of terrorist networks, the state will have to investigate deeper causes pushing women towards suicide terrorism in Pakistan to mitigate its threat.
- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher.