On the last Sunday morning in January 2019, a homemade bomb pierced through the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province in the southern Philippines. As parishioners scrambled toward the door for safety, a second bomb exploded near the church's entrance.
The twin suicide bombings left more than 20 people dead and more than 100 injured.
Philippine authorities later identified an Indonesian couple, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, as the suicide bombers. They were believed to have been members of the Islamic State-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, an extremist organization banned in Indonesia, and recruited by a male militant known as "Yoga." Authorities in Indonesia arrested Yoga several months later, in June, at which point he confessed to recruiting the couple for the bombings at the Roman Catholic cathedral.
While the country has seen suicide bombings before, the attack on the cathedral was in many ways the first of its kind, involving a couple linked to the Islamic State (IS), in a primarily Roman Catholic Southeast Asian country beset by decades of internal armed conflict --- even more so because it involved a woman.
And it wouldn't be the last: Twin suicide bombings in Jolo town on August 24, 2020, were believed to have been carried out by the widows of two prominent militants linked to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an extremist group that has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State.
The emergence of the woman suicide bomber
To explain the growing trend of women involved in suicide missions, Dr. Rommel C. Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, believes that their rise reflects "the failure of men to get the result they wanted."
Since men are seen as the default face of terrorism, they are more often searched or suspected. Women, on the other hand, are not, and often pass security barriers without arousing suspicion, said Dr. Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) via email. "It's a common error for security professionals, often men, to see women as passive actors without their own sense of agency and responsibility," said Speckhard.
Atty. Maria Cleofe Gettie C. Sandoval, former undersecretary for programs for the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process in the Philippines, agreed, saying that terrorists exploit the fact that law enforcement authorities are unlikely to check women at security checkpoints solely because they are women.
The image of a woman terrorist came as a shock to many in the Philippines, as its patriarchal society continues to perceive women as submissive and weak, whose role as caretakers is treated as secondary. But while many Filipinos are now challenging this traditional perception, terrorist organizations, meanwhile, have capitalized on it.
And the phenomenon is not unique to the Philippines
The Islamist terror group Boko Haram, which has devastated not only northeastern Nigeria but neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, was ranked the deadliest jihadi group in the world by 2016, seven years after its emergence. The group deployed its first woman suicide bomber in June 2014 --- long before the Islamic State did in 2017 --- and weaponized 469 women in 240 suicide bombings as of February 28, 2018, according to a 2018 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC).
The women and girls used by Boko Haram for suicide bombings were said to most likely have been forced, but some may have conducted the missions voluntarily. However, the CTC report stressed that the prevailing definitions of suicide terrorism --- which particularly underline the complicity of the bomber --- can't be easily applied, especially when minors are involved. It's important not to presume that the suicide bomber is "always complicit" or "self-aware" during attacks, it added.
While Boko Haram has the highest number of suicide attacks involving women among terrorist groups, they were not the first. According to the same report, in 1985, the secular Syrian Nationalist Army sent a 16-year-old girl, Sana'a Mehaidli, on a suicide mission to kill herself and two Israeli soldiers in Jezzine, southern Lebanon. Other groups employed "female suicide terrorism" (FST) in the succeeding decades, including the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the Black Widows of the Chechen rebels in Russia, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, among others.
Radicalization in the Philippine context
On the island of Mindanao, Christian Filipinos constitute 75 percent of the population; Muslim Filipinos, 20 percent; and the Lumads --- predominantly non-Christian and non-Muslim indigenous groups --- five percent.
Colonial policies, brought by more than 300 years of Spanish rule in the Philippines, have produced "deep-seated prejudices" among these ethnolinguistic groups on the island, specifically, to those who refused conversion to Catholicism, according to a 2013 case study on religious conflict resolution on Mindanao by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
"The historical process by which the Christians came to dominate the Moros (Muslims) politically, demographically, socially, economically, and to some extent culturally has created a legacy of bitterness that persists to this very day," the case study stated.
Many communities in Mindanao still struggle with poverty, hunger, unequal employment opportunities, discrimination, bad governance, violence, and physical insecurity, among others --- all of which factors analysts count among the reasons that push both men and women to join rebel and terrorist groups. Five of the poorest provinces in the country --- Sulu, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Maguindanao, and Basilan --- are in Mindanao, which has been home to several Islamist insurgent groups for decades.
Those victimized by these perceived injustices, Speckhard said, are often driven to engage in violent extremism. "Suicide bombing is often seen as a way of leveling the playing field, of causing pain [to] a much better-equipped government military, or to the society it is representing," she said. "When trauma is involved, suicide missions can offer a legitimate way (in the eyes of the terror group) to exit this life and the painful emotions involved with being a victim."
Some also seek the organization's glorification of suicide bombers, as well as the promise of "eternal rewards," she added.
Dr. Diana Therese M. Veloso, an associate professor of behavioral sciences at the De La Salle University in Manila, also pointed to the "extensive histories of marginalization and disfranchisement" of some communities as motivation, "which lead them to see the world as being in a state of cosmic war where they must choose between killing and being killed."
The gender divide
The same motivations that drive men into violent extremism can also court women, but this by no means constitutes a "bid for gender equality," said Speckhard, who argues that a woman's decision to join a terrorist group likely has very little to do with feminism --- especially when most are led by men --- and more to do with their own personal grievances.
Still, it would appear that flat gender stereotypes impact men and women's decision making differently.
For example, Banlaoi said it's easier for men because they know they have their wives to look after their children when they're gone. For women, who are viewed as nurturers and caretakers of the family --- and often the breadwinners as single parents --- "it takes braver spirit to really decide to commit suicide terrorism," Banlaoi said.
This is also how family terrorism comes into the picture. "Children get involved because their mothers convince them to join their parents in their act of martyrdom," Banlaoi said.
"You now maximize the stereotype," said Atty. Sandoval. "To influence the minds of children, we now capitalize on that primary role of mothers. Mothers now teach the children what terrorism is."
On February 23, government security forces arrested nine women said to be "potential" suicide bombers in separate military operations in Sulu. Among them were three daughters of ASG leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, referred to as the emir of the Islamic State in the Philippines. The ASG is notorious for kidnappings and beheadings in Mindanao.
"[But] who radicalized them --- the father or the mother?" Banlaoi asked, challenging the assumption that their father, given his status, must have recruited them.
On April 16, the Philippine military killed an Egyptian man --- suspected to be a suicide bomber --- and two ASG militants. Western Mindanao Command identified the Egyptian as "Yusop," allegedly the son of the Egyptian woman who carried out a suicide mission on a military detachment in Indanan town, also in Sulu province, in September 2019 --- pointing to another family affair.
"Anyone can be a terrorist," said Atty. Sandoval. "As long as you train them."
Unequal treatment under the law
On July 3, 2020, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (ATC), dangerously expanding the definition of terrorism and granting state forces more powers to surveil, arrest, and detain suspects. The new law replaces the Human Security Act of 2007 (HSA), which required that the court first conduct a full trial before anyone could be declared a terrorist.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, former chief of the Philippine National Police and a proponent of the ATC, said that the HSA had "proved to fail in terms of its efficacy as an anti-terrorism measure" because it was, in his view, restrictive for law enforcers but lenient for offenders. "Under the current Human Security Act, there are only four instances for terrorists to be prosecuted under the law. On the other hand, there are a total of 20 instances where law enforcers can be charged and penalized for violations of the Human Security Act," he said.
But many, including Amnesty International, have criticized the ATC, citing provisions they claim would undermine human rights in the country. "Under Duterte's presidency, even the mildest government critics can be labeled terrorists," said Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin. "The approval of this law grants the government excessive and unchecked powers. Legislation aimed at 'countering terrorism' must ensure respect for international human rights and humanitarian law and protect basic liberties."
Many petitioners have now contested the ATC in court. Oral arguments on the 37 petitions, which have encountered delays due to the current pandemic, were recently made virtually before the Supreme Court on April 27 and will resume again on May 4.
Banlaoi, who provided inputs as the law was drafted and continues to advise the government, shared that while the new law has a specific provision encouraging the role of women in counter-terrorism efforts and in addressing the roots of terrorism, he was disappointed by one controversial provision, which defined women and children involved in terrorism as vulnerable sectors and players who need protection.
"When it comes to the Sulu cathedral bombing, for example, where husband and wife performed the suicide missions, they look at the husband as suspect and perpetrator and the wife as victim," Banlaoi said. "And when they arrested [the ASG leader's] daughters in February, although they were accused of potential suicide bombing, the framing was still through their victimization, not active participation," which he finds problematic.
"Academic discourse is different from policy formulation," he said. "Academically, I can say they're not passive, they're not victimized; they're active. But policy-wise, our existing legislation and prevailing legal regime require protection for women and children in all aspects of violent activities, whether criminal or terroristic. That's the very nature of our system or arrangement in the Philippines," Banlaoi said. "I challenge that view, but it's not very popular, eh."
Banlaoi recommended amending the provision but was apparently dismissed. "They said the involvement of these sectors that I see are just isolated cases, not yet mainstream."
Brace for more women-led suicide missions
Expect more women performing suicide missions in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia, said Banlaoi.
The Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research has seen both foreign and Filipino women joining trainings for suicide terrorism, with more local fighters contributing to the growing number of recruits.
"[The Institute] gathered photographic and video evidence of their training and activities, and training for women and children to perform suicide terrorist attacks hasn't stopped, even after the Marawi siege," he said, referring to the five-month battle in the Islamic City of Marawi, in Mindanao, between IS-affiliated extremists and Philippine security forces. "[Training] has persisted even during the COVID-19 pandemic to now."
In fact, Banlaoi thinks the current pandemic has divided the attention of law enforcement authorities, which terrorist organizations have taken advantage to "further intensify their military activities, even describing the Covid-19 pandemic as a soldier of Allah."
If there's any impact this pandemic has had on militants, Banlaoi said, it's that quarantine has made it more difficult for them to travel. Social media, however, has been a reliable mode of communication for them.
Given the institute's research, Banlaoi sees the possibility of another woman-led suicide mission in the Philippines this year --- unless the government can deny extremists the opportunity. But the readiness and capability of both police and military forces to curb this growing threat continue to be challenged by the ever-evolving dynamics of the terror groups. At present, one thing is certain: Women leading suicide missions is here to stay.
*A spokesperson for The Armed Forces of the Philippines did not respond to our requests for comment before publication.