Pakistan Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah
It is after a hiatus of six years that the TTP has resorted to its unconventional tactic, using a female fidayeen (suicide bomber) to unleash terror in the country.
The country's first recorded case of a suicide attack by a female fidayeen was reported on December 25, 2010, when a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a distribution centre of the World Food Programme (WFP) at Khar town in the Bajaur Agency of the erstwhile Federally Administer Tribal Areas (FATA), killing 45 persons. Another 80 persons were injured.
Since December 25, 2010, Pakistan has recorded seven terror attacks by female fidayeen in which 107 persons have been killed and another 164 suffered injuries (data till July 22, 2019).
Before the first female fidayeen attack in 2010, there were intelligence inputs within the security agencies that TTP and its allied groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), had been preparing female fidayeen. On February 8, 2010, quoting intelligence sources, the Daily Times claimed TTP had sent eight female suicide bombers to attack high-value targets in Punjab. Similarly, on September 30, 2010, intelligence sources claimed that three female students of Jamia Hafsa had been trained to carry out suicide attacks on allegedly anti-Islamic groups who were 'misguiding the people' across the country.
The then Deputy Inspector General of KP Police, Muhammad Ali Babakhel, had stated on May 17, 2013, that TTP was luring more women to become suicide bombers: "Terrorists are exploiting psychologically fragile women, motivating them to execute attacks in the name of religion."
Meanwhile, to put pressure on the Government during the proposed peace talks with TTP in 2014, the latter sought to blackmail the Government in the name of female fidayeen. In an interview at his Islamabad seminary, where some 1,300 female students were studying, Maulana Abdul Aziz had warned on February 10, 2014, “You should know that at the moment they (TTP) have at least 400 to 500 female suicide bombers in Waziristan and other tribal areas”. However, Muhammad Amir Rana, Director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, categorically stated that the number mentioned by Maulana Aziz was “a very exaggerated figure”.
Though the exact, or even approximate, number of female fidayeen at the disposal of TTP is difficult to estimate, the TTP released the first edition of a magazine for women on August 1, 2017, apparently aiming to convince them to join their jihad.
Apart from home-grown terrorist groups, transnational terrorist formations such as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Islamic State (IS) have also been spreading their networks across Pakistan, and have raised female fidayeen squads. AQIS, led by commander Asim Umar, in January 2015, launched a women squad of 500 female members, including fidayeen, to operate from the Pak-Afghan tribal belt, to target security installations and personnel.
The involvement of women in a range of other activities to further terrorist causes is also in evidence. For instance, reports indicate that a religious organisation called Al Zikra Academy, a network of upper middle-class women in Karachi, carried out fundraising and matchmaking activities for IS. On December 18, 2015, Raja Omar Khattab, the Karachi Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in-charge, uncovered a group of women tasked by the terrorist group to arrange marriages for their operatives and also raise funds for their activities. Though there are around a dozen women in this group, six of them were particularly active in collecting funds from different parts of the city.
Unlike the TTP who generally pick their recruits from among the women madrassas (religious seminaries), transnational groups like AQIS and IS recruit middle and upper-middle class educated women from urban centres, such as Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore. For instance, Noreen Leghari (19), a second-year medical student in the Jamshoro District of Sindh reportedly ran away from Hyderabad (Sindh) to Lahore to meet Ali Tariq, a resident of Baidian Road, Lahore, and an IS operative, in order to join IS in Syria. Noreen had contacted him through social media and was radicalised. On reaching Lahore they got married and started living in a rented a house in the Punjab Society. However, a shoot-out took place in Lahore on February 10, 2017, in which Tariq was killed and Noreen was arrested.
In a conservative society like Pakistan, where veil clad women often have an easier time at security checks, their use as suicide bombers adds a new dimension to the terrorist threat. If this trend augments significantly, it could potentially impact drastically on social mores, and create dramatic new challenges for the Security Forces.