Al Qaeda and the Taliban appear to have ordered their cadres to increasingly use women to carry out suicide and armed attacks, Pakistan's security officials and western defense officials have told CBS News.
Members of the security community looking at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region widely noticed reports this weekend that a couple armed with assault rifles and grenades raided a police station in the south Waziristan region along the Afghan border, and took hostage 12 to 14 policemen for several hours. Later, the couple blew themselves up when faced with an attack by Pakistan's security forces.
Reports in Pakistan's media described the man and woman as "husband and wife" though a senior Pakistani security official said the claim could not be independently verified.
"They were not carrying a marriage certificate so I don't know the reality for certain. But I do know, this indicates evidence of what I have heard for some time," the official told CBS News on condition of anonymity. "Using women is certainly becoming a more and more important tactic," he added.
The official said he and his colleagues had been alerted to the growing trend.
"We have been told women should not be taken for granted as unassuming targets. Increasingly, Al Qaeda and Taliban are prone to using women who raise fewer suspicions than men," he said.
Two Western defense officials stationed in Islamabad agreed that the trend was legitimate. However, one of the two officials said there was a danger that the news may prompt "unnecessary hype." The official told CBS News that "there is always a danger of people exaggerating a trend. Of course, Al Qaeda and the Taliban will want to use women because they are more difficult to detect. But this is not happening as a daily matter."
The Pakistani official said "there have been very few cases where women suicide bombers have been used. We have to be realistic. In a country like Pakistan where we have had scores of suicide attacks, I don't remember women being involved in more than a very few," adding that "it is imperative to take a good reality check."
But a second Western defense official also based in Islamabad said it was important to "realistically assess" the threat posed by women suicide bombers. "In a situation where you have had some cases of women being used as terrorists, the threat is very real," he said.
The Pakistani official conceded that the country's security forces were unprepared to deal with women suicide bombers. "Our troops simply do not have the necessary training to deal with this kind of a situation. Intrinsically, our people think of men as the enemy, not women," he said.