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Pakistan Faces A New Threat -- Female Suicide Bombers

An army soldier stands near the World Food Program distribution point hit by a female suicide bomber in Khar, Pakistan.
An army soldier stands near the World Food Program distribution point hit by a female suicide bomber in Khar, Pakistan.
The December 25 suicide bombing of a United Nations food-distribution facility in Khar, Pakistan, marked the first time (or second, depending on who one asks) a woman suicide bomber struck in the country.

An eyewitness in Peshawar's Lady Reading Hospital, Yusuf Khan, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the bomber was a woman of around 30 years of age, dressed in a burqa to conceal the bomb used in the blast. “I saw her face, she was not that young nor too old, dressed in green and with long hair," he said.

Khan explained how had seen the woman come out of a destroyed building and attack the people gathered at the distribution point. “This attack has left so many questions,” he said. “The most important question is: who was this lady and where did she get training for such a dangerous act?”

It’s very rare in the Bajaur region near the border with Afghanistan -- and especially in the conservative tribal belt -- for a woman to leave home without a male escort, let alone to be trained for suicide attacks, and then blow herself up to serve the interests of insurgents.

On December 26, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack. “You saw a woman carried out the attack yesterday and it’s our responsibility to take stern actions against those who are behind such heinous acts,” he said.

Local authorities confirmed that they had found women’s body parts at the blast site -- notably hands colored with henna -- and that they are still collecting evidence from the blast area in an attempt to confirm where she came from and how she carried out the attack.

Reports say that Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed the responsibility of the Bajaur blast.

Locals told Radio Mashaal reporters that they were especially angry because the government and military had claimed that the area was clear of militants. The government had even been asking internally displaced persons to return to their homes in the tribal belt.

Despite government claims of progress, such attacks are happening in Mohmand, Bajaur, Waziristan, and in Bannu districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

On January 12, 2010, Meena Gul, a 12-year-old Afghan girl and suspected would-be suicide bomber, was presented to the media by the local police in Swat. The girl lived in the Bajaur agency in Charmang village and was supposed to target a prison in Afghanistan, “The News International” reported.

During that media session, Meena Gul claimed that another girl, Farida, who had escaped with her from militants’ custody in Bajaur, was the granddaughter of jailed Tehreek-e Nefaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi leader Sufi Muhammad. Muhammad was arrested after the military operation in Swat against the local Taliban.

In Swat, some women have supported militants by giving them their gold and other valuables. Then they started to give their sons to serve the interests of the Taliban. Now it appears they are willing to give their own selves. The fact is that women in these remote rural areas can be unaware of the facts and can be easily trapped and manipulated by militants.

“It’s very unusual to hear about a woman suicide bomber killing scores of people,” Peshawar-based journalist Ifthekhar Firdos told Radio Mashaal. Officials said it was the first time a female suicide bomber had struck in Pakistan. But “The New York Times” has reported a woman detonated explosives in Peshawar in 2007, killing herself. Either way, female suicide bombers are a rarity in the conservative tribal regions.

Since 2002, suicide attacks have become near-regular occurrences in the tribal areas of Pakistan. When suicide blasts started happening in the country many people were taken aback, as the prevailing view was that ethnic Pashtuns living in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be good in guerrilla war, but would be reluctant to carry out suicide attacks.

For Pakistan, considered by some to be the most dangerous place on the face of the Earth, the use of women suicide bombers by militant organizations may present its most dangerous security threat to date.

Per local traditions, it is not easy for security forces to remove a woman’s burqa for security checks, and women can easily move from one place to another with the traditional veil. Going forward, it will be difficult to differentiate between civilian women and those who are assigned to carry out suicide bomb attacks.

Now yet another challenge lies before ordinary Pakistanis and internally displaced persons as they venture out to collect food and other necessities for their loved ones.

-- Farkhanda Wazir