Women of Al Qaeda; Jihad Used to Have a Gender: Male. the Men Who Dominated the Movement Exploited Traditional Attitudes about Sex and the Sexes to Build Their Ranks. They Still Do That, but with a Difference: Even Al Qaeda Is Using Female Killers Now, and Goading the Men

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Byline: Christopher Dickey (With Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in Kabul, Scott Johnson and Kevin Peraino in Baghdad, Joanna Chen in Jerusalem, Mark Hosenball and John Barry in Washington, Anna Nemtsova in Moscow, Stefan Theil in Berlin, Eric Pape and Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Emily Flynn Vencat in London and Michael Hastings in New York)

Very little is known about the first woman to become a suicide bomber for Al Qaeda in Iraq, except that she dressed as a man. Two weeks after a U.S.-backed operation to clean out the town of Tall Afar near the Syrian border in September, she put on the long white robe and checkered scarf that Arab men commonly wear in Iraqi desert towns. The clothes disguised her gender long enough for her to walk into a gathering of military recruits with no one taking much notice. The clothes also concealed the explosives strapped around her womb. "May God accept our sister among the martyrs," said a Web site linked to the organization of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. She had defended "her faith and her honor." No name was given. But the bomb that blew apart that anonymous woman killed five men, maimed or wounded 30 more, and opened a new chapter not only in the war for Iraq but in the global struggle against terror.

Never before had any branch of Al Qaeda sent a woman on a suicide mission. Since female bombers first appeared in Lebanon two decades ago, their ranks have come mainly from secular Arab nationalist groups, from Kurdish rebels in Turkey and the non-Muslim Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fighting the government of Sri Lanka. Only in the past few years did the Palestinian "army of roses" carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis, and the "black widows" strike at the enemies of Chechnya's rebels. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda and its offshoots around the world held back. But as he has before, Zarqawi broke the taboos. His strategy is to create images of horror, "to look like he has more capability than he truly has," says Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the

Coalition forces spokesman in Baghdad. Zarqawi recruits where he can, he exploits whom he can and he attacks the softest of targets to get the peculiar kind of publicity he craves. Women are his new weapon of choice.

In October, Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed that a second female bomber, this time accompanied by her husband, killed herself attacking an American patrol in Mosul. And last week the world learned of the third: Muriel Degauque, 38, a fair-skinned Belgian from the grim rust-belt city of Charleroi near the French border. As a girl, she often ran away from home. As a woman, she had a succession of failed relationships with Muslim men: a Turk, an Algerian and finally a Belgian of Moroccan descent who followed the teachings of radical Salafists, similar to those of Al Qaeda. They went to live for at least three years in Morocco, and when she returned home she was fully veiled: alienated, lonely, in the thrall of a husband who consumed her entire world. Muriel--now calling herself Myriam--"couldn't have children," a spokesman for the Belgian prosecutor's office said last week. Even when she was near her parents, she rarely spoke to them. The last they heard from her was during the summer. On Nov. 9, she blew herself up attacking Iraqi police near the town of Baqubah. American troops gunned down her husband shortly after Myriam was killed.

That same night, Nov. 9, bombers hit three hotels in the Jordanian capital, Amman. As scores of dead and wounded were still being counted, Al Qaeda in Iraq announced that a woman had been among the suicide attackers there, too. Zarqawi, once again, was publicizing his new approach. But what Zarqawi did not know was that the woman had failed to detonate her bomb.

Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, 35, hid out for three nights in the Jordanian town of As-Salt, never removing the dud suicide belt concealed around her waist, until security agents tracked her down. …