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*Editor’s Note: This is the eighth installment in ‘Setting The Record Straight,’ the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD 

Women have been involved in terrorist activities in a number of countries including Algiers, Germany, Italy, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Nigeria, West Africa, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Peru, Jordan, Pakistan, Japan, Syria, Russia, and Turkey. Terrorist organizations, including ISIS, began using women once they realized they were far better able to evade detection than men. Palestinian Arabs believed women would be less likely to be stopped at checkpoints, and be subjected to meticulous security searches, and their participation increased the ability of terrorist organizations to succeed in mounting an attack. [1] In an attempt to deceive the Israeli military, some terrorists initially used fake ID cards, particularly Red Crescent IDs.[2] 


Sana Mekhaidali, who became known as “The Bride of the South,” was the first woman homicide bomber in the Middle East. She was dispatched in 1985 by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP/PPS) to attack an IDF convoy in Lebanon, murdering five soldiers. Five other women followed in Lebanon on behalf of a secular pro-Syrian agenda.  During earlier outbreaks of hostilities in Israel, Palestinian Arab men were the principal attackers. [3]   

Why Engage in Such Insanity 

Paul Berman, a leading public intellectual, asks why do “people who are not clinically insane” engage in this sort of “insanity?” He claims “they do so because the apocalyptic dreams and the cult of hatred and murder and the yearning for death are fundamentals of modern culture. They enlist because they are unhappy, and the eschatological rebellion against everyday morality satisfies them. The Islamist idea, in its most extreme version especially, offers every solace that a mopey young person could desire. It proposes an explanation of unhappiness. It ascribes the alienation to a conspiracy. Its stipulation of Jewish evil justifies the joys of loathing and murder. It promises a radiant future.” [4]   

 No Single Motivating Factor 

Ariel Merari, a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, provides a different perspective. He concluded that there is no single motivating factor in the decision for someone to blow themselves up in order to murder Jews. Those he tested during the Second Intifada (between December 1987 and 1993), who had failed in their mission, claimed “humiliation of the Israeli occupation” had inspired them. “It’s not that there is one cause and that’s it — like incitement,” Merari said. Incitement certainly plays an important role. “Even a person who really wants to die for personal reasons could do it several different ways.” But the fact that Islam forbids suicide is key, Merari pointed out. “If someone commits suicide, his family becomes outcasts. If he really wants to die… it is very convenient to do it this way, to commit suicide by police. Because then the entire society will say, ‘How wonderful, he is a shahid, he is a hero. They will not say he committed a religiously forbidden act.’” Most tended to be marginal, unpopular, easily led youngsters who saw themselves as failures. “They weren’t highly ideological; instead they tended to be people who thought they had disappointed their parents. This act [of killing] allowed them to achieve social prominence.” [5]  

Merari found 40 percent of them to be suicidal. Twenty percent had attempted, but failed, to kill themselves prior to becoming a suicide bomber. He rejected the idea that Arab society would not lionize anyone who became a suicide bomber if they killed another Muslim or a child. He did not find anyone who evinced any sign of remorse for the harm that had been caused.[6]  

An analysis of the female suicide terrorists’ social background and motives reveals a common characteristic prior to perpetrating the attacks by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center: “most of them were pushed to the fringes of society having violated the strict code of moral conduct obligatory for women in the conservative Palestinian Muslim society. By perpetrating the attacks, such women atone for their sins, thus becoming martyrs and attaining glory and eternal life in paradise.” [7]  

Fear of Death and Dying 

It should also be noted that the fear of death and dying in Muslim culture is much less frightening than it is in Western cultures. According “to the Islamic view, death is a positive entity. The moment of death is a moment of rebirth of man and a moment of his hastening out from a confined region of this world into a world, which is wide, expansive and rapturous. A world, wherein, man is not troubled by anxieties, sorrows and the material and natural limitations.” [8] The extremely intense and violent war being waged against Israel serves as a fertile ground for Islamic terrorism. For this potential to be realized, however, there must be an organization that persuasively advocates this form of martyrdom as righteous whether using religious, nationalistic or ethnic terminology. [9] 

Women and Children as Human Shields 

Fathi Hammad, Hamas Minister of the Interior and National Security, boasted of using women and children as human shields on, Al-Aqsa TV: “[The enemies of Allah] do not know that the Palestinian people has developed its [methods] of death and death-seeking. For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, in which women excel, and so do all the people living on this land. The elderly and the mujahideen and the children excel at this. This is why they have formed human shields for the women, the children, the elderly, and the mujahideen, in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine. It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: “We desire death like you desire life.”  [10] 

When Hamas used women and children as human shields in Operation Cast Lead, (December 27, 2008 – January 18, 2009) Michael Posner, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, urged the UN Human Rights Council to demand an end to this practice. The “conflict in Gaza is emblematic of a new kind of conflict in our world,” he said, “where some of those engaged in combat use civilian spaces – schools, hospitals, and religious institutions – to store weapons and as staging grounds for rocket attacks and armed combat.”  Such “actions by terrorist groups…put enormous pressures on militaries that are trying to protect civilians and their own soldiers, an issue faced by many militaries today.” Posner urged the Council to ask the Palestinian Authority to carry out its own investigation into Hamas’ violations of international law….” [11] 


[1] Edna Erez and Anat Berko, “Palestinian Women in Terrorism: Protectors or Protected?” Journal of National Defense Studies, Number 6, (May 2008): 83-84;“Father shocked by teenage daughter suicide bombing,” The Jerusalem Post (September 22, 2004); Russ Read, “ISIS Uses Women To Fight On The Front Lines After Suffering Heavy Losses,” The Daily Caller (May 28, 2017); Abigail R. Esman, “Women Form A Growing Threat To West In New ISS Strategy,” Investigative Project on Terrorism,” (December 10, 2016); Jack Moore, “Female Jihadis Give ISIS New Avenues for Attacks” Newsweek (October 31, 2016); Brenda Stoter, “As IS loses power, will group tap women jihadis to fight?” Al-Monitor (November 16, 2016); Soeren Kern, “Germany: Surge in Stabbings and Knife Crimes,” Gatestone (June 6, 2017); Amy Waldman, “Masters of Suicide Bombing: Tamil Guerrillas of Sri Lanka,” The New York Times (January 14, 2003). 

[2] Amos Harel and Arnon Regular, “Bomber, 18, volunteered for suicide attack,” Haaretz (September 23, 2004). 

[3] Yoram Schweitzer, “Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?” The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) Memorandum Number. 84 (August 2006); Jessica Stern, “When Bombers are Women,” The Washington Post (December 18, 2003). 

[4]  Paul Berman, “Why Is the Islamist Death Cult So Appealing?” Tablet (January 28, 2015); Ariel Merari, Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5; Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003) 85-87, 90-91,104-105, 112; Mordechai Kedar, “Gap of Values: Gender and Family Issues as Source of Tension between Islam and the West,” Institute for Policy and Strategy, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. (2007):5-12; Ivan Sascha Sheehan, “Are Suicide Terrorists Suicidal? A Critical Assessment of the Evidence,” Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience 2014 Sep-Oct; 11(9-10): 81–92. 

[5] Simona Weinglass, “Are Palestinian teens committing ‘suicide by soldier’?” The Times of Israel (January 31, 2016). 

[6] Ibid; Ilene R. Prusher, “As life looks bleaker, suicide bombers get younger,” The Christian Science Monitor (March 5, 2004);) Ariel Merari, Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 83-102, 103-146); James Bennet, “In Israeli Bed, Failed Bomber Tells of ‘Love of Martyrdom,’” The New York Times (June 8, 2002); Anne Speckhard, “Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs’ (McLean, Virginia: Advances Press, 2012); Suzanne Goldenberg, “A mission to murder: inside the minds of the suicide bombers,” The Guardian (June 10, 2002); Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin, The  Banality of Suicide Terrorism: The Naked Truth about the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing (Washington, D.C. Potomac Books, 2010); Adam Lankford, “Requirements and Facilitators for Suicide Terrorism: an Explanatory Framework for Prediction and Prevention,” Perspectives On Terrorism  Volume 5, Issues 5-­‐6 (December 2011). 

[7] “The involvement of women in suicide bombing attacks,” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies (C.S.S) (Special Information Bulletin (March 2004.); “The Culture of Palestinian Shaheeds: On the anniversary of Fatah’s founding, the movement’s official Facebook page commemorated five female Fatah terrorists involved in deadly suicide bombing and ‘self-sacrifice’ attacks,” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (July 1, 2018). 

[8] Part 2 “Death or Another Birth The Reality And The Philosophy Of “Departing From The World,”” 

[9] Ami Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism (Malden, Massachusetts: Polity, 2005), 154, 164. 

[10] “Hamas MP Fathi Hammad: We Used Women and Children as Human Shields,” Al-Aqsa TV (Hamas/Gaza) (February 29, 2008) MEMRI TV. 

[11] Michael Posner, “U.S. Response to the Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” (September 2009). 




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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.