The Mind of a Female Suicide Bomber

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Essam Al-Sudani / AFP / Getty

Women walk past patrolling Iraqi police personnel in the southern city of Amara.

No one remembers Hasna Maryi ever opening her family's Koran. She rarely attended her village mosque and told others she regarded the Imam there as a lech. So it was not religious extremism that made this villager from Anbar province blow herself up at an Iraqi police checkpoint last summer, killing three officers and injuring at least 10 civilians.

Religion may not have been her motive, but Hasna was an early, willing casualty of the latest jihadi trend: the use of women on the frontlines of the Holy War. Although fewer than 30 of the nearly 1,000 suicide bombings since the end of the war have been attributed to women, American and Iraqi officials say jihadi groups are deploying female bombers far more frequently to slip past the heavy security cordons that are the backbone of the U.S. military's surge strategy. On Sunday, a female bomber killed 16 people and wounded at least 35 in Baquba. Just a few days before, two men and four women detonated a car bomb in a densely packed marketplace in northwest Baghdad, killing 63 people.

In every instance, female bombers have been able to get to their intended target despite multiple layers of security. In a culture that forbids male policemen or checkpoint guards from frisking women — yet also frowns on women joining the security forces — many have easy passage to high-value targets like police stations and markets. They can go unchecked where no man would dream of passing.

Suicide bombers may end their lives in the same way, but it would be foolish to draw any conclusions about their motivations from a single story. Still, how Hasna came to blow herself up sheds some light on the cycle of hopelessness some Iraqi women find themselves in.

TIME learned of Hasna from her sister Sadiya and their mother Shafiqa, who now live in hiding in Syria. (The names of the bomber and her family have been changed at their insistence.) Although aspects of their story are impossible to verify, important details tally with the version of events provided by Iraqi officials in Anbar. (The U.S. military will only confirm that a woman suicide bomber attacked the checkpoint at Kilometer 5 on July 23.) Sadiya and Shafiqa also allowed TIME to view, but not to record, two DVDs given to them by an Al-Qaeda fighter; one is Hasna's last statement, the other is a recording of her suicide mission. The picture that emerges is of a once strong woman driven mad with sorrow following the death of her brother, Thamer.

Thamer volunteered for his own suicide mission in early 2007 and Hasna — who doted on her brother — helped him prepare obsessively. On a February morning Thamer was being driven to the Kilometer 5 security checkpoint by some fellow jihadis when one of their belts exploded prematurely, killing everyone in the car.

Hasna was distraught — not because her brother was dead, but because he had not completed his mission. "She had been ready to hear about his death," says Sadiya. "But the idea that he would not be a martyr was too much for her to bear." Hasna locked herself indoors for a week, until the neighbors called Sadiya, certain her sister was dead. They broke down the door and found her, comatose and surrounded by feces. Under Sadiya's care, she regained some of her health, but she continued to be haunted by the shame of Thamer's failure — she referred to it as his "incomplete martyrdom." It wasn't long before she concluded that the only way to redeem her brother was to complete his mission.

Soon after, Hasna approached her brother's former colleagues with a proposal. If they could get her a belt, she would bomb Kilometer 5 herself. The group was initially skeptical — they had never worked with a woman, and felt certain she would lose her nerve at the last moment. But Hasna wore them down with her insistence, and they sent her to Syria to be vetted by senior jihadi commanders and fitted for a bomb belt. (Iraqi officials in Ramadi say she made several training visits to Syria.)

The next time Sadiya saw her sister, Hasna was almost giddy with anticipation. She told funny stories about her experiences in Syria. The jihadis' religious beliefs forbade them from touching her so, she said, they had no idea how to measure her for the belt. She offered to give them her brassiere, but they had to first check with an imam whether Islam allowed a man to touch a woman's underclothes.

On the morning she blew herself up last July, there were 40 policemen, and no women, on duty at the checkpoint. At 9:30 in the morning, a light-colored Opel Saloon drove to within 100 yards of the checkpoint, dropped off a female passenger and turned back toward Ramadi. The woman was short and stout, wore a billowing black gown known as an abaya, and her face was veiled.

As she drew close to the blast walls of the checkpoint, she seemed to trip over her abaya and fall. According to eyewitnesses, the woman called out to the nearest policemen, "Come and help me up, I'm hurt." When two policemen approached, the woman reached into her tunic and pulled the trigger on her bomb belt, instantly killing the two cops and fatally injuring a third. A huge fireball slammed into a car parked at the checkpoint, and the five civilians inside were badly burned.

A week after Hasna's death, Sadiya received two DVDs. She says she can scarcely recognize the woman in the recordings. "It is Hasna, but without Thamer," she says. "When he died, she became half of herself, and you can see half a person on the video." It is common for suicide bombers to videotape a wasiyeh or will; many are posted on jihadi websites. In the recordings, the bombers, usually masked, are shown praying from the Koran, extolling the virtues of martyrdom and damning their enemies (typically the U.S.) to hell.

On Hasna's wasiyeh, her face is uncovered, her long dark hair is loose. She stares straight at the camera and speaks in a low, unchanging voice. Although she doesn't seem to be consulting any notes, the speech seems rehearsed — she never pauses to collect her thoughts. The 15-minute monologue is entirely about her little brother — about how he was an obedient child who grew up to be a respectful young man, one who loved his family and would do anything for their happiness. Hasna relates anecdotes about Thamer's precociousness in school, his skill at drawing, his talent for fixing household electronics."When anybody in the neighborhood had a problem with their fridge, or their TV, they always came to my brother," she says. "He was so happy when he was mending things."

There's not a single religious or political utterance in the entire monologue, which may explain why it has not been posted on the usual jihadi websites. There's only one passing reference to U.S. presence in Iraq. "When the Americans first came to the village," Hasna says, "my brother made a sketch of their Hummers and gave it to their commander. He was very impressed by how quickly Thamer was able to make such an accurate drawing."

Hasna ends with a simple declaration: "Now I am going to join him in Paradise."

The other video, shot by one of the men who drove her to the checkpoint, shows Hasna looking impassively out of the window until they approach Kilometer 5. Then she pulls a veil over her face and adjusts the belt around her waist before stepping out. One of the men in the car whispers, "God is great!" She doesn't respond or look back. As the car drives away, the video, shot through the rear window, shows her approaching the checkpoint. She is quickly obscured from view by the dust trail behind the car. Nearly a minute later there's a flash, a muffled boom and a column of black smoke. "God is great!" says the cameraman. "The stupid woman did it."

—With reporting by Charles Crain/Baghdad