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A Woman Descends into Suicide Bombing

A chillingly true story. The mind is a powerful force. This account of a suicide bomber speaks loudly of the urgency for dialogue among people of antagonistic backgrounds. By knowing one another as friends, as individuals, misunderstandings and negativity can be replaced with altruism by knowing that we are love & compassion are the only way to creating world peace.

"You will like Baida," Maj. Hosham al Tamimi, then director of the National Investigation and Information Bureau in the Diyala Police Command, said as he nodded at the file before him. It was a curious thing to say about someone who sought to kill people like him andlike me. He added, almost pensively: "I like Baida. She is" - he paused - "honest."

Baida is one of 16 female would-be suicide-bomber suspects or accomplices who have been captured by the police in Diayala Province since the begining of 2008; almost as many have blown themselves up.

When I first met Baida in February, she had already been in jail more than two months. She was in the same cell as another would-be suicide bomber, Ranya Ibrahim, who was 15 when she was caught on her way to a bombing, her vest already strapped on. Ranya's mother was also in the jail because she was believed to be connected to those inovlved in trying to organize Ranya's death.

Nowhere, it seems, have mroe women blown themselves up in so short a time as in Iraq, where there have been 60 suicide bombings attempted or carried out by women, the majority o fthem in 2007 and 2008, according to statistics gathered by the U.S. military and the Iraqi police. (The numbers, for men as well as women, are lower this year, though thte attacks continue.)

At least a third of those bombers came from Diyala - mostly from here in the provincial capital, Baquba, 64 kilometers, or 40 miles, northeast of Baghdad, or from a small stretch of land that lies in the Diyala River valley. Thick with datepalm groves, small rivers and lush fields, Diyala appears to be an oasis in the desert. But over the last four years, it has been home ot some of Iraq's most violent terrorist factions. It was here and in Baghdad that the extremists' most lethal weapons were honed. One of those was suicide bombers who were women.

It is difficult to learn much about suicide bombers, since there is rarely anything left of them. In Diyala, however, because there have been so many bombers who were women, the police have been driven to study the phenomenon, developing a nuancd and thoughtful picture of women who resolve to kill themselves and others.

Each woman's story is unique, but their journeys to jihad do have commonalities. Many have lost close male relatives. Many live in isolated communities dominated by extremists, where radical understandings of Islam are the norm. In such places, women are often powerless to control much about their lives; they cannot choose whom they marry, how many children to have or whether they can go to school beyond the primary years.

Becoming a suicide bomber is a choice of sorts that gives some women a sense of being special, with a distinguished destiny. But Major Hosham urged me not to generalize: "All the cases are different. Some are old; some are young; some are just criminals; some are believers. They have different reasons."

One thing stood out: The appearance in Diyala of suicide bombers who were women was entwined with the appearance of the Islamic State of Iraq - the local face of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the umbrella name used in Iraq for homegrown Sunni extremist gorups that have some foreign leadership.

"One of the differences between suicide bombers in Iraq and Palestine is that the Islamists have not been involved much" in recruiting women in Palestine, says Mohammed Hafez, an associate professor of national-security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate SChool in Monterey, California, who specializes in Islamic extremist movements and recently wrote a book on suicide bombings in Iraq. "The Islamists have been very involved in Iraq. Also, in general, there is a debate in the Islamic world about whether to use women and children, but in Iraq they have no hesitation about using women."

The rise in the number of female suicide bombers in Iraq coincided with the expanding ability of the security forces to defeat bombers who were men. As a result, insurgents turned to women, who could use to advantage their traditional dress: a voluminous, floor-length black abaya, made of folds of flowing fabric.

Tribal traditions and Arab notions of modesty make it unthinkable that the police or guards would search women. They could pass through even relatively robust security cordons as if they were invisible. They walked up the steps of government buildings, approached checkpoints and entered the offices and homes of people the militants wanted to assassinate.

Gradually, the police learned to look for telltale signs, Major Hosham told me. Women often wear doublt abayas to hide their suicide vests. And they apply heavy makeup, because they eblieve they are going to ehaven and want to look their best.

A Point of Pride
Major Hosham was right. I liked Baida immediately. She had an open face and pale skin, a medium build and an unassuming manner. She wore a traditional long black abaya whose only ornamental feature was a strip of black satin down the front. Her black veil was simple. A few strands of light brown hair strayed out, suggesting that while conservative she was not rigid. She seemed educated and told her story in a straightforward way.

She began in a soft voice: "My name is Baida Abdul Karim al-Shammari, and I am from New Baquba near the general hospital. I am one of eight children; five were killed. The police raided our home. It was a half-hour before ddawn during Ramadan. The Americans were with them."

She added with a touch of pride: "My brothers were mujahedeen. They made I.E.D.'s" The word "mujahedeen" means holy fighters and, in the context of Iraq, they are fighters against the infidels - the Americans. I.E.D.'s are improvised explosive devices.

"I knew we were fighting against the Americans, and they are the occupation," she told me. "We are doing it for God's sake. We are doing it as jihad."

When Baida was 17, her mother died, and a few months later, at her father's behest, Baida married. Almost immediately, she knew she had made a mistake. A week after her wedding, according to Baida, her husband threw a cup of cream at her head; soon, beatings became regular. She smiled sweetly and shrugged: "His hand got used to beating me."

For Baida, as for many Iraqi suicide bombers, violent insurgency was the family business. Shortly after the U.S. invasion, her brothers began to manufacture I.E.D.'s One was killed when his handiwork exploded as he was concealing it. She had cousins who were also insurgents. While they were paid for their work, she said, she was herself motivated mainly by revenge.

She told me she watched the Americans shoot a neighbor in 2005, and she replayed the image over and over in her mind: "I saw him running toward them, and then they shot him in the neck. I still see him. I still remember how he fell when the Americans shot him and I saw him clawing on the ground in the dust before his soul left his body. After that, I began to help with making the improvised explosive devices."

Executing a successful suicide bombing is rarely a lone act. I trequires preparing a suicide vest, teaching the would-be bomber how to use it and planning th emission. It means transporting the bomber close to the place where she will carry out the attack and, in some cases, setting up a camera nearby so that ethe event can be filmed. For women, who rarely drive in Iraq, except in Baghdad, it would be impossible to get ot the bomb site wihtout assistance.

Baida told me she felt much more helpless after her father died. "You see, when my father was alive, he loved us a lot," she said wistfully. "so when I quarreled with my husband, I felt safe because i had my father."

After brothers and father were killed, she began to work wiht some of her cousins; they were also fighters and even moer radical Islamists than her brothers. One of them died in a suicide attack, but not before introducing her to a group, run from Syria, that was connected to the Islamic State of Iraq.

The group dynamic seemed designed to make participants feel as if they were freely choosing their destiny. That sense of freedom was an important component of their metamorphosis into suicide bombers. It was certainly important to Baida, who felt she controlled little in her life, to feel in control of her death. Her goal was to take revenge on her brothers' killers - American soldiers. When I brought up the reality that the vast majority of suicide bombings in Iraq kill ordinary Iraqis, she would only saw that she thoguht killing Iraqis was haram, or forbidden.

A few weeks later, when I met Baida again, she tried to explain to me the line dividing when it is halal (permitted) to kill a person and when it is forbidden. Was there a difference, I wondered, between killing American soldiers and killing American civilians, like reconstruction workers? NO, she said: "I am willing to explode them, even civilians, because they are invaders adn blasphemers and Jewish. I will explode them first because they are Jewish and because they feel free to take our lands."

My interpreter, an Iraqi, asked where she stood: Was it halal to kill her?

"We consider you a spy, working with them," Baida said.

By the time I met Baida she was eager to get on with her mission, waiting for the day when she would be released from jail and able to pick up he vest. (She has yet to be charged with any crime.)

She appeared to have let go of most earthly ties. A mother of two boys and a girl, all under 8, she had not seen them since her arrest last year. When I asked if they missed her, she said, almost airily, "Allah will take care of them."

She spoke as if much of her life was already in the past. "As soon as I get out, I will explode myself against the invaders," she told me.

Caution Among Friends
One day in March, an interpreter told me that Baida had called several times from the psychiatric hospital where she had been transferred adn wanted to see us again. I felt we had gained her confidence. Maybe she would open up more. We called and told her we would come the next morning.

Baida looked tired and much less ebullient than when I saw her in jail. I could tell she found it difficult to live with people who were so strange. I had brought her a bag of mandarin organes. She accepted them with a weak smile and only asked: "When will you come back? Tomorrow?" I worried she needed the ocmpany of more normal people.

When we returned to The New York Times bureau, one of our other interpreters took me aside. A military interpreter before he switched to jounalism, he was streetwise; a Shiite who lived in a Sunni neighborhood; a survivor. He told me Baida had called the bureau many times in the last three weeks wanted to know when I would visit the hospital - a bad sign, he said. Our security adviser agreed. There are no sureties when dealing with insurgents, but one rule is not to tell them exactly when you will be in a particular place. If they know, they can plan an ambush or a kidnapping or detonate an I.E.D. under your car. "Don't go to see her again," the interpreter said.

For the next meeting with Baida, our secrity adviser set a time limit, estimating that as soon as we arrived at the hospital, she might make a phone call to her jihadist friends. Baida called us twice to see "exactly when you are coming." We lied, keeping it vague. Setting an ambush would be tricky at the hospital but manageable just outside the gate.

When we did finally go, we met with Baida alone, sitting together on a bed in the nurse's office because there were no chairs. I asked her gently, and as non-judgementally as I could, whether she wanted to kill me because I was a foreigner.

"Frankly, yes." Then she added, to soften it, "Not specifically you, because i know you."

Would she tell her extremist cousins or her friends about me? Would she give them my description and tell them enought that they could find me?

"I won't sacrifice my friendship," she said. A moment later she reversed herself. "But, if they insisted, yes, I would, yes. As a foreigner it is halal to kill you."

She smiled beatifically. As Major Hosham had said, "She is honest."

"Frankly, they called me when they knew I would meet a journalist and translator and they did their best to get your descriptions and the date you would come," she went on to say. "They know the way to the hospital. They would be waiting for you and would kill you. They said to me, 'If you will do that for us, we will help you escape from the hospital, even from prison.'"

She seemed excited now at the thoguht of our capture. "They do not want to kill you, but to torture you and make lunch of your flesh. I could not do anything to help you."

I looked at my watch; I worried we had stayed too long. I got up hurriedly, knocking my notebooks to th efloor. I adjusted my veil, thanked her for her time, for teaching me about jihad and for making me undertand how dangerous her world was.

Baida was smiling again. "If I had not seen you before and talked to you, I would kill you with my own hands," she said pleasantly. "Do not be deceived by my peaceful face. I have a heart of stone."

A few day later Baida was transferred back to the provincial jail in Baquba after doctors at Rashad hospital had determined that she had no psychological disorder. At this writing, she is stilli in jail. Fo rnow, she tells whoever asks that she is prepared to go out and kill the enemy; but if she were to start saying that she no longer would do that, I imagine she would be released quite quickly. And I have no reason to doubt that she would then carry out her dream of blowing herself up.

Article by Alissa Rubin. "A woman descends into suicide bombing". Copied from the International Herald Tribune Saturday, August 15-16, 2009

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