BAQOUBA, Iraq – When the first few women in Iraq's Diyala Province began blowing themselves up late last year, I registered a shift in the insurgents’ tactics.
When the number of female homicide bombers was still in single digits, I began planning a trip to the province to find some answers for myself. I filed a story for FOX News that addressed some of the questions I had. That was back in March.
Since then, the number of women in and from Diyala who have used their bodies as a weapon has reached at least 20. This week, I sat next to a young woman who nearly became No. 21.
It was about four hours since she had been captured. I had been in the office of the governor of Diyala in central Baqouba when the news came through on the security reports. That building — and its occupants — have been the target of more than one female suicide bomber attack in recent months.
We begged a ride on a U.S. military convoy to get to Iraqi police headquarters. When I reached the office of the police chief, the frenzy was only starting.
We were the only Western media present. Over the course of the next two hours, the room filled with Iraqi journalists, photographers and video cameras.
She was sitting on the sofa, holding her disheveled clothes around her body, flanked by Iraqi police commanders I knew, deflecting a barrage of questions with a mixture of stubbornness and incredulity. The officers did not look particularly indulgent. It’s Iraqis more than U.S. forces who have suffered the most from this extraordinary run of violent homicide bombings in Diyala — Sunni and Shia have both been targets: forces like the Sons of Iraq and the police.
Beautiful, scenic, lush Diyala, which used to be famous for its endless groves of oranges and dates, is now notorious for its exploding women.
The present circumstances, as they had been described to us, were intriguing. The young woman had been caught in the vicinity of a large police checkpoint. She had not actually given herself up, but she had been behaving suspiciously long enough to prompt the police to shout at her to stay right where she was.
They eventually handcuffed her to a window grate, and then they proceeded to strip her half-naked to disarm and remove the explosive vest she was wearing.
We knew about this not only from eyewitness accounts, but because the acting Diyala police chief, Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, produced a video shot by an Iraqi police cameraman that showed all of this happening in almost painful detail. Khalaf played it on his enormous office TV, emphasizing details with a long metal pointer.
Her name was given to us as Rania, and there were many things about her that were startling. She gave a date of birth that suggested she was 15, but she certainly didn’t look that young and she said she'd had a husband for nearly a year. But it's true that many girls in the Middle East mature early and marry early.
She was not remorseful for what she had nearly done, but neither was she defiant. In the course of long, rambling, almost incoherent exchanges with Iraqi police interrogators, with me and my interpreters, and then finally with a scrum of local media, she told a contradictory tale.
She said she really didn’t know what it was she was being asked to wear. Well, she knew it was a suicide vest, but the fact that it was packed with explosives didn’t really register with her until long after she had walked out of the place where she was living with her husband’s sisters.
She said these two women had tied her into the vest and adjusted the final wiring, including a detonator. The wires alarmed her, she said, and she asked her in-laws more than once if she was being coaxed into something dangerous. The women just told her to take the suicide vest “to her mother’s.”
And that, she said, was what she was doing when she wandered into the checkpoint, wearing clothes that didn’t fit and behaving in a fashion almost certain to draw attention.
“So,” needled a female police officer, “you were taking it to your mother's so she could blow herself up, where you?” Rania took little notice of her.
Rania was clearly uneducated — she told us her schooling had finished at around the age of 10 — but she was not stupid. She had a streetwise wiliness, and a self-possession beyond her years. She was nervous, but not especially so. She chewed her bottom lip. But she met your gaze strongly and managed a wry smile or two.
She handled a pack of Iraqi media in the police chief’s office with some dignity, and when pressed by her various interlocutors, she pushed back crossly. Still, she gave little away — and even less that would implicate her in the planned murder in which she was intended to play a central role.
Others — principally her sisters-in-law, she explained — were the instigators. She was merely the unquestioning passive compliant agent of their mysterious plans. She was just ‘”transporting” the vest. She had hoped, she told us, that her mother would sort out the problem for her — perhaps by taking the vest to that very same police checkpoint and turning it in.
She hadn’t intended to blow herself up, she told us. But when I asked her what had made her change her mind, she said it was because she hadn’t wanted “to hurt innocent people."
Most female homicide bombers don’t live long enough to explain themselves to journalists. I know now from much reading and discussion with people researching the issue that there can be many reasons behind the act: Hopelessness, despair, coercion, fear, revenge, brainwashing.
We know that the recruiters go looking for vulnerable women, recently widowed or orphaned, or who have lost brothers who were insurgents. These women have little economic or social capital left in this post-conflict society. Some are married off repeatedly to militants, so that by the end they have become "disposable" in the eyes of the people around them.
In Iraq, these women are — so far — almost exclusively from Sunni communities, and the insurgency networks affiliated with Al Qaeda are training them and sending them to their deaths.
But Rania seemed to me to belong to another category. She was, after all, only just married. While her husband had “gone to Kirkuk to have a hernia operation” (she later told me he’d fled the district that morning, and as of today he is still on the run), there did seem to be a functioning family of sorts. She certainly wasn’t religious; I asked her about that. She said she’d “tried praying, but quit.”
She said she wanted her and her husband to “rent a house and live together.” It was only after she married him that she was told by a local "Sahwa" group that her husband worked for Al Qaeda and had a track record of planting IEDs.
It sounded to me that she had grown up in an environment where the dividing line between what you lived for and what you died for had become very blurred. She was living in a house with more than one suicide vest lying around (police who went there told us they arested the “very defiant" sisters-in-law and found another vest). Death had been "normalized."
She told us that both her father and older brother had been kidnapped and murdered by militiamen in the past year. “That was when it all began to fall apart”, she said.
It was clear that at some point that morning, she had decided she could not go through with the detonation. She waited to be “found out.” But she could not go the whole distance of admitting her guilt.
At this moment, Rania is precious. The size and gruesome effectiveness of the Al Qaeda female homicide bomber program in Iraq has surprised and appalled everyone here. There is a report that there are another four "on the loose" somewhere in Diyala province. For both Iraqi and American forces desperately working to crack the homicide network and find the ringleaders, any first-hand "lead" — and future witness — like Rania is extremely useful.
Nevertheless, there will be no going back for her. Her failure to carry out what she had been ordered to do, followed by a very public unmasking, has undoubtedly made her a target for her own family. And she is unlikely to be treated well in jail; few Iraqi women survive incarceration unmolested.