For the first time in the war on terror, the FBI has issued a be-on-the-lookout bulletin for a woman, a Pakistani neurological expert, wanted for questioning in connection with Osama bin Laden's terror network. Analysts also are examining claims another woman made in an Arab newspaper that she was asked by bin Laden to open training camps for female terrorists.
Female attackers, successfully used by other terror organizations such as the Palestinian Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, would represent a major tactical shift for al Qaeda after years of being aligned with the Afghan Taliban regime that oppressed women and considered them unworthy to participate in an Islamic holy war, officials said.
"The FBI and our partners in the intelligence community are analyzing information around the clock for trends or any indicators that would help us prevent the next terrorist attack," FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said.
Several U.S. intelligence officials said they have no credible information suggesting an imminent attack plan to be carried out by women, but analysts are wary of the possibility.
"We're aware it is an option and one that was used recently against the Israelis and could easily be adapted by al Qaeda," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several factors have led the FBI to prepare in the last month for the possibility that al Qaeda might recruit women.
U.S. officials learned of an interview in mid-March in an Arabic-language newspaper in which a woman claimed al Qaeda was setting up training camps to train women to become martyrs. The woman identified herself as Umm Osama, which translates "mother of Osama."
"We are building a women's structure that will carry out operations that will make the U.S. forget its own name," the woman claimed in the interview with the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, based in London. The woman said her job was "to oversee the training of the female mujahedeen affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban," using the Arabic word for "holy warriors."
The woman cited the success of Palestinian female suicide bombers against Israel and Chechen women against Russians as an impetus for al Qaeda's planning. "The organization thought about this before, but interest increased after the female martyr attacks in Palestine and Chechnya," the woman was quoted as saying.
U.S. officials said they had some suspicions about the interview because it was carried out across the Internet using chat rooms and e-mail, but it illustrated that women are considered a viable option for future al Qaeda attacks.
The FBI recently put out a global alert for 31-year-old Aafia Siddiqui, as well as her estranged husband, Dr. Mohammed Khan, 33. It was the first time an FBI bulletin sought a woman since the war against terror began, officials said.
The FBI said Siddiqui, who has a doctorate in neurological science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, might be in Pakistan. She lived in Boston while attending MIT, however, and recently traveled to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, the agency said.
FBI officials said they were not alleging she "is connected to specific terrorist activities," but they wanted to question her about possible contacts with people suspected of terrorist activities.
A third reason to suspect a tactical shift, FBI officials said, is that bin Laden's network has suffered several losses in its senior ranks over the last few months and is aware documents and interrogations have yielded substantial information about its planning and tactics.
In testimony last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller divulged that more than 212 suspected terrorists have been charged with crimes since Sept. 11, 2001, and convictions have been won against 108 of them. Several were on U.S. soil and in position to launch attacks, officials said.
FBI officials said al Qaeda has prided itself on devising attacks that catch authorities off guard and may be increasing pressure to turn to women.
The use of women in terrorist attacks is rare but not new.
A handful of young Palestinian women carried out four suicide bombings in Israel last year, foiling the military's security profiling and shaking both the Palestinian and Israeli populations.
In 1991, the Tamil Tigers group fighting for independence in Sri Lanka used a woman, who detonated explosives strapped to her body, to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during a 1991 campaign rally.
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said if al Qaeda should begin recruiting women, it "clearly expands their possibilities" but would be ironic given al Qaeda's alliance with the Taliban. The Taliban would not allow women to be educated or to work outside their home during its hard-line rule of Afghanistan.
Telhami said such a shift would illustrate further that many terrorist groups he has studied are affected more by secular pragmatism than religious beliefs.
"I think these groups use Islamist theology to justify whatever they think would work," Telhami said. "If they do in fact find women useful in their operations, I think they will find a rationalization."