In a desperate bid to hold onto its final stronghold in eastern Syria, the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has been using women to carry out suicide attacks against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF have been closing in on ISIS in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders Iraq, with air cover from the international coalition.
Their goal is to expel ISIS from the sole remaining sliver of the proto-state it declared in 2014 across Syria and Iraq.
As the SDF gains ground, thousands of people have flooded out of the so-called "al-Baghouz pocket" in recent days, both civilians and suspected ISIS fighters.
"Remaining ISIS elements are cornered in a very small area on the edge of eastern rural Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi-Syrian border," SDF officer Farhad Khoja told Diyaruna.
ISIS elements are hunkered down in this area, entrenched among the civilian population to avoid being targeted or staying out of sight in underground tunnels they dug beforehand to protect themselves from airstrikes, he said.
Women used as 'human bombs'
While many ISIS fighters cower in tunnels, however, the group is "actually forcing women to fight by turning them into human bombs", Khoja said.
These women are strapped with explosives and sent through the tunnels "to blow themselves up among advancing SDF units", he said.
Most of these attacks have been unsuccessful, as the SDF was on guard for them, Khoja said, so they "resulted in only few losses in lives and equipment".
But women suicide bombers are difficult to apprehend because "they could be anywhere", he said, including among the streams of civilians fleeing ISIS areas.
"It is possible that ISIS would insert a female suicide bomber among them to blow herself up once she reaches SDF forces," he said. "Hence, the fleeing civilians are dealt with very cautiously."
Female SDF units have been tasked with searching the fleeing women and verifying their identities, Khoja said.
"It was expected that the group would resort to using suicide bombers in view of the heavy losses it suffered in the recent fighting," terror group specialist Yahya Mohammed Ali told Diyaruna.
ISIS has turned to women as it has few remaining male fighters capable of carrying out such attacks, he said, noting that the group has used this tactic before, when it came under pressure in its former strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS threats and manipulation
"The tactic is not limited to the use of women only but also children," Ali said, explaining that women and children or youth often are threatened or manipulated by ISIS leaders to carry out such crimes.
Civilians fleeing ISIS-controlled areas are reporting that most ISIS women have either fled or have taken up arms alongside the men, activist Ammar Saleh said.
Most of these women have lost their husbands in the recent battles and are now forced to carry out the group's orders, which include fighting or becoming suicide bombers, he told Diyaruna.
Saleh said many of the civilians he met at al-Hol displacement camp told him "all ISIS elements, men and women, have totally disappeared".
They are hiding in tunnels they dug under houses in areas that are still under their control, he said, adding that "some of these tunnels reach other areas that have been liberated from them".
"This enables them to escape or carry out suicide attacks," he said.