Women dying to kill – the rise of female suicide bombers

Zeinab Abu Salem (left) was 18 and had passed high school graduation exams when she blew herself up, killing two Israeli police,wounding 17 others, in order to liberate Palestine.

Fatima Omar Mahmud al-Najar (right) was a 57-year-old mother of 9 and grandmother of 41 when she detonated explosives around her waist, killing herself and wounding 5 Zionist soldiers, while also fighting for the same cause.

There has even been a European suicide bomber, Mirelle, who converted to an extreme form of Islam and blew herself up in a car bomb attack aimed at American troops near Baghdad.

In 1991 a female Sri Lankan separatist killed herself and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Since then similar bombings have occurred in Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Iraq. There are also Chechen female bombers who have committed atrocities.

Women terrorists make the perfect decoy by arousing less suspicion, they can easily conceal explosives under their bulky clothes and, of course, guards don’t conduct body searches on them. This is one reason why more women are being recruited as female suicide bombers, why psychoanalyst Nancy Kobrin, who lectures on counter-terrorism, believes numbers will continue to rise.

It is the controversial topic of her latest book, The Sheikh’s New Clothes, The Naked Truth About Islamic Suicide Terrorism, which her publishers Looseleafe Law sensationally pulled the plug on in September following comments made by the Pope concerning Islam as they feared for their safety against Islamist violence.

It is powerful stuff and describes “the enemies deepest fears and terrors”. The text is used as a reference guide by the US Army, according to Nancy, who I met in Cambridge this week. Nancy is meanwhile looking for a new publisher for the book, which concludes:

  • Suicide bombing is not martyrdom, it is the imposition of the will on others through brute force.
  • Terrorists harbor a profound fear of being abandoned.
  • They must commit both suicide and mass murder in order to fend off their fear of dependency.

Like others who commit atrocities, Nancy firmly believes a traumatic and/or abused childhood makes a person susceptible to indoctrination by terrorists, who regard them as the weakest link because they are indispensable. In fact, Nancy’s theory goes back even further to the prenatal mother, who is over-idealized, while at the same time denigrated. Women in this culture believe the only way to obtain power is by giving birth to a male baby.

This extract explains her views:

My theory is not meant solely to provide a psychological profile for the suicide bomber, rather to provide understanding how the rise of suicide bombers has spread throughout diverse cultures and now at the global level.

“It is also not meant to blame the mother but to understand how she finds herself and her baby in a hostile social environment. The imagery holds a clue to a predominant psychological problem concerning maternal attachment, its pathological suffocating bond and its attendant psychological fusion which causes developmental arrest, called neotenation, i.e. not being permitted to grow up.

“For a certain segment of this population, the only way one can liberate him or herself from such bonding is through murder, suicide or becoming a suicide bomber whereby paradoxically one seeks a reunion in death and the fantasy of rebirth.

“In psychological terms re-bonding through bombing is the only way one liberates oneself. Sadly murder, suicide bombing, terrorism becomes the replacement for normal separation individuation from mother, blowing oneself up paradoxically is far less’s painful than having to leave the mother and to suffer the pain of separation.

“The suicide bomber finds consolation in knowing that death provides a reunion with mother in her purest state.”

Nancy describes how terrorists plug into a charismatic leader or a gang in order to feel excitingly alive and stabilized as a way of compensating for traumatic bonding with her mother.

“The female suicide bomber speaks to such bonding. Accompanying her image is the myth of the womb’s pure, blissful paradise. She is a concrete hallucination of the terrorists’ fantasy about their maternal love-hate relationship at first presented in an idealized way as heroine and then blown to hell.

What Nancy and others do not know is why some women who have experienced trauma as a child go on to commit these atrocities and others do not, what is the tipping point. It is clear that these suicide bombers do have a “weak link” which is ripe for exploitation/indetermination. Nancy believes it will get worse before it gets better.

Does her theory help you understand the mind of the female suicide bomber? Do you agree with her reasoning? Is it too easy to blame a traumatic childhood, or is there some other cause?

Here are two more Palestinian freedom suicide bombers, Reem Salih al-Rayasha (left), a 21-year-old mother of two young children who detonated a bomb at a check point between Israel and the Gaza Strip killing four Israeli soldiers, and Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat, 29, a lawyer who detonated a bomb in a restaurant killing herself, 19 Israelis and injuring 50 others. Her family assumed she had left home as normal to go to work.


  1. Nancy emailed me this additional info which is really interesting too about serial killers and suicide bombers:

    “I had an email exchange with Michael Newton who authored The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers: A Study of the Chilling Criminal Phenomenon, from the “Angels of Death” to the “Zodiac” Killer, New York: Checkmark Books, first edition 2000 and second edition 2006. In fact I reviewed the latest edition at I asked Newton if he thought that Islamic suicide terrorism could be considered serial killing by proxy – he said yes. In his encyclopedia he mentions the medieval Islamic Ismaeli-Nizari sect called Assassins who were Shiite as engaging in serial murder. Plus he considered Charles Mason and his group of killers as the proxies. In addition, the U.S. Army in Afghanistan has been using the software called The Notebook Analyst which is used by law enforcement to track serial killers; it was put to use to map out the terrorist networks of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Also there was one other terrorist group called The Thugs who lived in India and engaged in serial killing, creating a tableau of body parts. There is much more cross over between criminal violence and political violence than we like to admit. On the one hand we need categories but on the other hand, the categorical boundaries are human constructs which can limit how we view the material and can cause a blind spot like thinking that it is a white male. There have also been female serial killers too. We must think outside the box with regard to suicide terrorism and demystify the phenomenon. The media loves both the suicide attack and serial killing because of its perverse erotic sadomasochistic allure but we never talk about how we learn eros at the breast of our mothers. That is our first human physical contact. It’s too taboo but it is playing a huge role in the communicative circuit.”

  2. I believe the use of women in suicide bombings may well be used by terrorist organistions as a way of drawing in more of the media spotlight to thier cause. The point that it is women that are doing it is probably meant to show us that even those that are normaly predisposed to nurture can be pushed too kill in an indiscriminate fashion.

  3. Nancy, Many thanks for this very detailed response, your comment on the payments, pimps and our serial killer is very thought provoking.

    There was so much more info I could have included too, it was such a fascinating meeting. What a sad world we live in.

  4. Nancy Kobrin

    I have read with great interest the thoughtful comments to Ellee’s story about my work. A couple of things to keep in mind that I was not able to tell Ellee when I was interviewed. Few people are aware that Freud had a tremendous identification with the Golden Age of Spain – he is not very western in his thinking and this was the reason that Jacques Derrida in particular took to his work and why psychoanalysis was essentially coopted by western thought. Therefore his work pertains to Arab Muslim culture. In fact Abdelwahhab Bouhdiba and Malek Chebel, both Muslims have applied psychoanalytic thought to this culture. The Oedipal complex is more extreme and it is called the Jawder complex.

    The next point that cityunslicker makes is right on — that the families are paid money. I now have in draft a scientific paper raising the question if the Islamic suicide attack can be considered a form of serial killing by proxy. The suicide bomber is the proxy and in Israeli lingo they are often referred to as being pimped. You also have body parts in serial killing and in suicide attacks. Furthermore serial killers have very disturbed relations with their mothers. It is not women who have let them down but the killer’s pathological dependency on the mother and the inability to accept the fact that he or she is born from the body of a denigrated female. Murder is a way of ‘cleansing’ the obsession. I heard about the serial killer who is on the loose and I hope that this human being is captured soon but there are many striking similarities including the idea that prostitution is considered a crime without victims where there is an exchange. The money which is paid to the families of suicide bombers is a similar kind of exchange — the handler says to the bomber — you give me dead infidels, I give you sharaf=honor and I give your family — money. The real victims are erased from the picture.

    In a BBC report the serial killer profiling also referred to his mind as having a religious obsession and murder as a way of cleansing the world. So here is another potential commonality. I hope that the profilers don’t stick to white males — it is a diverse world.

    One last point — ironically I went to high school in Skokie Illinois and graduated with the largest number of kids who were children of holocaust survivors in the U.S. The Holocaust was so traumatic when I was going through school that it wasn’t even taught. It is imperative that we continue to educate and my work is meant not as a complete explanation but only one piece of a thousand piece puzzle as to what is going on in the suicide attack. We need to look at the nonverbal behavior of these killing organizations. Violence is violence and it does not care what kind of linguistic category we put it in — be it domestic violence, criminal violence or political violence.

  5. Well written, Ellee. As you say, women bombers are harder to locate as guards are reluctant to search.

  6. Cityunslicker. In addition to heavy religious indoctrination, there’s also pan-arabism and anti-semitism.

  7. Too many of these suicide bombers have come from seemingly “normal” — even middle class — backgrounds.

    We should not give these persons the dignity of being called “freedom fighters.” They are fighting for no one’s “freedom;” the most that can be said is they are trying to impose their peculiar brand of oppression on everyone else. They are not even fighting; they are detonating themselves in an effort to kill others.

    And where — please — is the condemnation of these acts from Islamic scholars? If it is happening it is not being reported — even on Aljazeera — which I look at, from time to time, in forlorn hope. The Koran condemns suicide no less than does the Bible — and the Koran condemns attacks on noncombatants. Why isn’t the Arab street rioting at the hijacking of their religion? (But, no, the Pope gives a speech to a bunch of other academic theologians and all Hell breaks loose because his use of a Medieval quotation is twisted completely out of context….)

    You’re aware, I’m sure, that Iran is hosting a conference of Holocaust deniers — brilliant “scholars” from all over the world are participating — like the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke — and yes I’m being sarcastic.

    Is Skokie, Illinois on fire this morning? Are Jews rioting in Brooklyn?

    We must stop standing for this double standard.

  8. What a thought-provoking and informative post, Ellee. I didn’t know there had been a European female suicide bomber, by the way. I think there is something in what Nancy says but also that we have to admit that, as cityunslicker says, “religion” in a twisted form is a large part of it. I also agree about the large payments to the families being a factor. As for the tipping point, well, if you’ve got someone who is already disturbed, plus poverty plus indoctrination, I suppose that’s the equation. But all sorts of crimes are blamed on disturbed childhoods, and of course the vast majority of people with disturbed childhoods do not become criminals [or go about blowing other people up]. So, as Gracchi says, there is a lot to explore here. Going to read your take on it now, Gracchi.

  9. I agree with cityunslicker that there are other factors present but I do think its interesting that some individuals commit suicide and others don’t- I’ve long thought the economic argument didn’t work, its not normally the poorest that commit atrocities- there is some quite interesting stuff written by Ellen Willis which goes along the same trajectory- I wrote about it myself here and there is obviously something going on in terms of the way that we deal with religion as well. I do think this psychological angle is worth pursuing- good work.

  10. I don’t agree with much of this reasoning. It smacks of Freudian obsession with parental relationships and sex.

    Surely the obvious cause for female suicide bombing is the same as men’s, i.e. heavy religous indoctrination and a desire to be a matry to twisted religon.

    Also the money paid to families now acts as a large economic incentive.

    Nancy, who clearly is in possesion of a huge amount more information that I am, seems to have starte with a hypothesis and worked to flesh this out alone. She may well have a point on certain levels; but there are other factors at play here too

  11. Correction. It’s homicide bombers.

    One day the Middle East will be rid of extremism and terror.

  12. The answer (he says joking) is to ban the burkha which so easily disguises the bombs…


  1. Ellee Seymour - MCIPR, PRESS CONSULTANT, JOURNALIST, POLITICAL AND PR BLOGGER. » Nancy’s profile of the Suffolk serial killer - [...] Women dying to kill - the rise of female suicide bombers [...]

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