WASHINGTON – FBI officials are concerned that Al Qaeda, with its ranks thinned and tactics exposed by a series of arrests, may turn to women to carry out or facilitate surprise terror attacks, officials say.
For the first time in the war on terror, the FBI has issued a be-on-the-lookout bulletin for a woman, a Pakistani neurological expert, wanted for questioning in connection with Al Qaeda. Analysts are also examining claims made by another woman in an Arabic newspaper that she was tasked by Usama bin Laden to open training camps for female terrorists.
Female attackers, successfully used by other terror organizations like the Palestinian Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, would represent a major tactical shift for Al Qaeda after years of being aligned with the Afghan Taliban regime that oppressed women and treated them as second class citizens unworthy of participating in the Islamic jihad, officials said.
Several U.S. intelligence officials said they have no credible information suggesting there is an imminent attack plan to be carried out by women but that analysts are wary of the possibility, especially in light of recent developments.
"We're aware it is an option and one that was used recently against the Israelis and could easily be adapted by Al Qaeda," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But we have nothing to suggest it is about to happen right away."
FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said the bureau was constantly looking for trends to help prevent terrorist attacks.
There are several factors in the last month that have led the FBI to prepare for the possibility that Al Qaeda might turn to women.
U.S. officials learned of an interview in mid-March in an Arabic newspaper in which a woman claimed Al Qaeda was setting up training camps to train women to become "martyrs." The woman identified herself only as Umm Usama, which translates "mother of Usama."
"We are building a women's structure that will carry out operations that will make the U.S. forget its own name," the woman claimed in the interview with the Asharq al Awsat newspaper based in London. The woman said her job was "to oversee the training of the female mujahedeen affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban."
She cited the success of Palestinian female suicide bombers used against Israel in recent months as an impetus for Al Qaeda's planning. "The organization thought about this before, but interest increased after the female martyr attacks in Palestine and Chechnya," the woman was quoted as saying.
U.S. officials said that while they had some suspicions about the interview because it was carried out across the Internet using chat rooms and e-mail, it illustrated that women are considered a viable option for future Al Qaeda attacks.
The FBI recently put out a global alert for 31-year-old Aafia Siddiqui, as well as her estranged husband, Dr. Mohammed Khan, 33. It was the first time an FBI bulletin sought a woman since the war on terrorism began, officials said.
The FBI said Siddiqui, who has a doctorate in neurological science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may be in Pakistan, but lived in Boston while attending MIT and recently traveled to the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
FBI officials said they were not alleging she "is connected to specific terrorist activities" but that they wanted to question her about possible contacts with people under suspicion of terrorist activities.
A third reason to suspect a tactical shift, FBI officials said, is that bin Laden's network has suffered several losses in its senior ranks over the last few months and is aware documents and interrogations have yielded substantial information about its planning and tactics.
In testimony last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller divulged that more than 212 suspected terrorists have been charged with crimes since Sept. 11, 2001 -- 108 who already have been convicted. Several were on U.S. soil and in a position to launch attacks, officials said.
FBI officials said Al Qaeda has prided itself on crafting attacks that catch authorities off guard and may be increasing pressure to turn to women.
The use of women in terrorist attacks is rare but not new.
A handful of young Palestinian women carried out four dramatic suicide bombings in Israel last year, completely foiling the military's security profiling and shaking both the Palestinian and Israeli populations.
In 1991, the Tamil Tigers group fighting for independence in Sri Lanka used a woman, who detonated explosives strapped to her body, to assassinate Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandi during a 1991 political rally.
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and a fellow at the Brookings Institute, said if Al Qaeda begins recruiting women it "clearly expands their possibilities" but would be ironic given Al Qaeda's alliance with the Taliban. The Taliban would not allow women to be educated or to work outside their home during its hardline rule of Afghanistan.
Telhami said such a shift further would illustrate that many terrorist groups he has studied are affected more by secular pragmatism than religious beliefs.
"I think these groups use Islamist theology to justify whatever they think would work," Telhami said. "If they do in fact find women useful in their operations, I think they will find a rationalization."