BAGHDAD, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- A female suicide bomber killed 54 people, mainly pilgrims, in an al-Qaida attack on a Shiite shrine near Baghdad Monday.
Days earlier, U.S. officials warned that female kamikazes, possibly linked to al-Qaida in Yemen, may attempt to attack American cities.
The jihadist sisterhood of death is not new, but it seems to be getting deadlier.
The bloodbath in Iraq passed a chilling milestone on Nov. 9, 2005, when a Belgian woman who converted to Islam blew herself up in a suicide attack on a U.S. military convoy in Baghdad.
She didn't kill anyone but herself, but she was the world's first European female suicide bomber.
The woman was identified as Mureille Degauque, 38, a former bakery assistant from a middle-class family in Charleroi, in the industrial belt south of Brussels.
She converted to Islam after marrying a Belgian of Moroccan descent who became a militant. He took her to Iraq to fight the Americans.
Both appeared to have volunteered for suicide missions. A few days after Degauque blew herself up, U.S. authorities said her husband blew himself up in a commando assault on an al-Qaida hideout.
Terrorist organizations in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Morocco, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have recruited scores of women for suicide bombing missions in recent years.
Some clearly volunteered for "martyrdom," while others may have been manipulated or duped.
The use of female terrorists such as the notorious "Black Widows" of war-torn Chechnya, mostly women seeking revenge against the Russians for the death of loved ones or mass rapes, is spreading.
According to U.S. analyst Mia Bloom, who conducted an analysis of suicide bombings across the globe, 34 percent of such attacks in 1985-2005 were carried out by women.
Degauque and her partner may have marked another milestone in the annals of modern terrorism -- the first husband-and-wife team to perish in action, even if they died separately.
The same day that Degauque blew herself up, an Iraqi couple took part in suicide attacks on three hotels in Amman by al-Qaida that killed 60 people and wounded hundreds.
Ali Hussein Sumari, 35, detonated his explosives in the ballroom of the SAS Radisson Hotel during a wedding reception.
His wife, Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, also 35, was supposed to blow herself up, too. But the trigger on her explosive belt failed and she was arrested.
On Sept. 28, 2005, in the northern Iraq town of Tal Afar, a woman, an unmarried student, disguised in traditional male robes and headdress, detonated an explosive belt packed with ball bearings in a crowd outside a police recruitment center, killing seven people and wounding 40.
She was the first known female suicide bomber in the insurgency that began in April 2003. Al-Qaida claimed her as its "blessed sister."
These women were all Muslim and fired by religious fervor. But nationalist groups have also used women suicide bombers.
The Tamil Tigers, who fought for the independence in Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lanka from 1987 until 2008, regularly sent women on such missions.
The most dramatic was the May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Ideology has often been the motivation. One of the first suicide bombings was carried out in Lebanon against Israeli forces in April 1985 by a 19-year-old Christian woman, Loula Abboud, for the Lebanese Communist Party.
Hezbollah adopted the tactic with ferocious zeal, eventually forcing the Israelis to end a 22-year occupation of South Lebanon in 2000.
The growing use of women on suicide missions by Islamist groups is significant because it flies in the face of deeply held religious beliefs that Muslim women should not be warriors.
It's not clear whether the use of mujaheda, or female martyrs, will spread in jihadist conflicts, but these operations appear to be expanding geographically, as the recent U.S. warning of female suicide bombers indicates.
In August 2004 al-Khansa, the first Arabic-language Internet magazine aimed exclusively at women, was launched. In its first edition it called on Muslim women to volunteer for suicide attacks.
The magazine is named after a revered Arab poetess who was close to the Prophet Mohammed. Her four sons all perished as warriors carrying Islam to the four corners of the known world in the 8th century.
In one edition, it declared that "martyrdom for the sake of Allah" and gaining "the pleasure of Allah and His Paradise" should be the goal of Muslim women.