May 24, 2020
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Man Implodes

A suicide bomber is the deadliest weapon. What makes him—or her—tick? Who makes them? How?

Man Implodes
Man Implodes
When four British Muslims stepped out from their cocoon of conservatism and blew themselves up deep inside London's bosom, their deaths and those of their victims became woven into an intricate tapestry of contradictory themes. London's 7/7 was as much an assault on Power as it was on Life; it was as much a self-sacrifice as it was homicidal; and it was an explosion of anger against the West as it was a brutal manifestation of militant Islam targeting the innocent.

In a succession of four loud bangs, the suicide bombing entangled in its web the city of London, as it had before Jerusalem, Beirut, Colombo, Srinagar, Falluja, Baghdad, Riyadh and Islamabad. Beyond these scarred cities, the suicide bomber's most spectacular image: the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center in New York on TV. The cataclysmic 9/11 attacks insinuated the suicide bomber into popular consciousness as never before, and prompted US President George Bush to invade Afghanistan and Iraq as part of his war against terror.

Ironically, Bush's war has only made suicide bombing rampant. Scott Atran, director, National Centre for Scientific Reasearch, Paris, says between 2001-2004 there were 472 suicide attacks. Last year alone witnessed 158 such incidents, more than any previous year. Of these 104 were in Iraq, which witnesses on average one suicide bombing daily, demonstrating an inexhaustible supply of young men willing to die in the fight against America's occupation.

Long before America discovered the ferocious passion of jehadis, modern suicide bombing—unlike acts of self-sacrifice in theatres of war involving nation-states (for instance, Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II)—had its precursor in an incident at Tel Aviv's Lod Airport in 1972. Then Japanese Marxist Tsuyoshi Okudaira and two of his comrades from the Japanese Red Army (JRA), which espoused the cause of liberating Palestine, sprayed bullets and tossed grenades. Their ammunition exhausted, Okudaira blew himself up to evade arrest. Analysts say JRA activists subsequently became instructors at Hezbollah camps in West Asia, imparting to the Arabs their expertise in suicide operations.

The consequence of this deadly partnership was experienced in Beirut in 1983: American and French barracks were targeted through suicide bombings, prompting the US and France to pull out from Lebanon. From these big-bang successes, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka adopted suicide bombing as a technique in its armed struggle for a separate homeland (see V. Sudarshan's story). Palestinians turned to this during their first intifada, or rebellion, against Israeli occupation in the 1990s.

Despite the history of suicide bombing, it's the trauma of 9/11 which inspired a burst of research into the phenomenon. A series of questions have been asked: what's the psychology of the suicide bomber? Is the cult of martyrdom an outcome of desperate poverty and arrant hopelessness? Is Islam to blame for the phenomenon? (That the LTTE, post 9/11, halted military operations to negotiate for peace only bolstered the link between Muslims and suicide bombing.)

All these questions are dismissed by author Robert A. Pape, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, in his startling new book, Dying To Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. He says nearly all suicide attacks are committed for a secular, strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory which suicide bombers view as their homeland. Pape told Outlook, "This has been a major—or the central—goal of every suicide terrorist campaign from Lebanon to Israel to Chechnya to Sri Lanka.Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is used as a recruiting tactic in service of the broader strategic goal."

Pape's argument, succinctly, is that suicide terror is the most effective tactical option of the militarily disadvantaged. Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who was killed by Israelis in 2004, justified the phenomenon: "Once we have warplanes and missiles, then we can think of changing our means of legitimate self-defence." This sentiment finds an echo in the last testament of Saeed Hotari, who blew himself up in a Tel Aviv disco in 2001 (see Profiles).

Culture theorist Terry Eagleton of Manchester University compares the suicide bomber and the hunger striker, whom he calls the martyr. In a piece in The Guardian, Eagleton wrote, "Martyrs die not because they see death as desirable in itself, but in the name of a more abundant life all around." He says the principle of altruism inspires the suicide bomber as well. But, Eagleton points out, there is one major difference. "The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber your life on it. But both believe that a life is only worth living if it contains something worth dying for." And both, he argues, score a "spiritual victory" over their tormentors. "The ultimate freedom is not to fear death. If you no longer fear it, political power can have no hold over you."

Suicide bombing may be a favoured tactical option in a country under occupation. But it's as much a story about the human mind under 'occupation', of being under the fatal spell of dark ideologies, of a paranoid psychology susceptible to perceiving the entire world arrayed against it. Take Pakistan, for instance. From fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan, the jehadis have directed 'sacred explosions' against their own countrymen: Shias, Christians, and alleged supporters of America's war on terror. Both its president and prime minister have at least once survived the destructive passion of suicide bombers. There are also instances of the LTTE turning its famed expertise in suicide bombing against Tamil dissenters.

Atran agrees, saying suicide attacks were once organised campaigns against occupying forces of the attackers' homeland, but are now mostly religiously-motivated actions of small, loosely-knit groups to exorcise cultural humiliation. "Military occupation may just be one manifestation of this cultural humiliation," Atran told Outlook, arguing it could include just about anything, from globalisation and tourism to daily insults. Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri says that globalisation (including tourism) degrades Islam. "I knew one Iraq official who was supporting US troops but became a mujahid when he was sitting in a friend's house and the US forces broke down the door and knocked down the father in front of his children," Atran says. Such sentiments cut to the core of a person's culture-family-personal being and identity in West Asia, he says.

The theory of military occupation can't also explain incidents of suicide bombing among the Muslim diaspora, which is mostly middle class and secularly well-educated. Instead, Atran argues, the born-again radical Islamists in the Muslim diaspora become suicide bombers because they embrace "apocalyptic visions of violent cultural change over the worldwide web." For instance, the idea of nuclear attack is now an accepted standard among Islamists.

The embracing of apocalyptic vision isn't confined to the Muslim diaspora alone. As Atran says, "I've been interviewing Jamaat Islamiyah commanders and footsoldiers in Indonesia. They all say that nuclear attack would be justified even if millions more Muslims would be killed in retaliation than enemies killed in Muslim attacks because 'if Islam is dishonoured one must attack the enemy in any way possible, the highest obligation of life is to die for jehad'." Partly, the Muslim's sense of strong identification with his brethren arises from the Islamic concept of Umma, or one nation of Islam. Consequently, cultural humiliation in Iraq can enrage an African or Indonesian Muslim.

Such sentiments have been nurtured because of the ideology of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Greg Austen of the Foreign Policy Centre, London, told Outlook, "Osama has done two things: bring a belief that Islam is so threatened that Muslims must now take the most extreme action. Two, help build a frame of mind where individuals personally believe the only form of extreme action possible is to take to suicide bombing."

But this "frame of mind" doesn't exclusively belong to the impoverished and the illiterate, as the popular wisdom would have it. Pape studied 315 suicide bombers beginning 1980, and concluded, "Study after study shows that suicide attackers are rarely ignorant or impoverished." Similar was the finding of Nasra Hassan, a Pakistani international aid worker who studied nearly 250 people in militant Palestine camps, would-be bombers and their families during her posting in the Gaza Strip between 1996 and 1999. Hassan, too, concluded, "None of them were desperately poor, uneducated or depressed. Many were middle-class and held paying jobs. Two were the sons of millionaires." Yet there are regional variations. Most of Pakistan's 20 suicide bombers belonged to underclasses and hadn't completed their school education. (see V. Sudarshan's story).

None of these suicide bombers, though, would have accomplished their mission without the logistical support of militant organisations. It is under their aegis that unjust circumstances, or perceptions of it, militant ideology, Islam and existential angst are fused together in the would-be suicide bomber. No wonder, there's as yet no known case of a 'lone wolf' suicide bomber who individually planned and executed his or her self-destruction. (London's 7\7 may prove to be an exception.)

As Audrey Kurth Cronin, terrorism analyst at the Congressional Research Service, Washington, told Outlook, "The rituals in which the prospective attacker typically engages are designed to make it virtually impossible to back out of an attack without losing honour and a place in society." Indeed, the ritualistic communion of the extremist groups to which the suicide bomber belongs, along with his strongly held beliefs, helps motivate him.

A startling account of the process of preparing a suicide bomber has been provided by Nasra Hassan in a recent article in London's The Times. Usually, she writes, a "martyrdom cell" (suicide cell) comprises a leader and two or three men. The secrecy is iron-clad. "Even if two members are known to each other in normal life, they are not aware of the other's membership in the same cell. (Only the leader is known to both)," Hassan writes. Hamas and the Islamic Jehad do not recruit those who are below 18 years, who are the sole wage-earners of their families, or who are married and have family responsibilities. But such qualifications were relaxed because Israel's security apparatus began to keep tabs on the young, prompting Palestinian to recruit minors and women as bombers.

The potential bomber is scrutinised for his motives. As one Islamic Jehad planner told Hassan that this scrutiny, above everything else, is aimed at clarifying "for the boy himself his real reasons and strength of his commitment. He needs to be very clear that in such an operation there's no drawing back. Preparation bolsters his conviction, which supports his certitude. It removes fear."

The preparation follows a regimen. He goes through spiritual exercises, including the recitation of the Quran, particularly those chapters which dwell upon jehad; he takes to lengthy fasting and prayers. A Hamas trainer told Hassan, "We focus his attention on Paradise, on being in the presence of Allah, on meeting Prophet Muhammad, on interceding for his loved ones so that they, too, can be saved from the agonies of Hell, on the houris (the 72 virgins), and on fighting the Israeli occupation." Doesn't the potential bomber experience fear? She quotes the trainer saying, "The fear is not for his own safety or his impending death.It is anxiety over the possibility of something going wrong and denying him his heart's wish."

Before the suicide operation the candidate prepares a will, often videos, emphasising the voluntary nature of his decision and urging others to emulate him. Often, he's made to watch the tapes regularly and those of his predecessors, consequently exerting tremendous moral pressure against any last-minute withdrawal. And though Hassan doesn't mention it, other researchers claim the potential bomber is made to lie for long hours in graves, covered under white shrouds.

Before the 'living martyr' sets out on his last journey, he performs a ritual ablution, wears clean clothes, and says the traditional Islamic prayer customary before a battle. Before he steps out, "the planner bids him farewell, 'May Allah be with you, may Allah give you success that you achieve Paradise.' The would-be martyr responds, 'Inshallah, we will meet in Paradise,'" writes Hassan.

The suicide bomber's death and those of his victims instantaneously become TV headlines. As police count the dead, friends congregate at the bomber's house to offer congratulations to the family; the guests are served juices and sweets. "Often, the mother will ululate in joy over the honour that Allah has bestowed upon her family," Hassan notes.

A mother celebrating the death of her son? How deep is her misery, how dark the world in which she lives? Atran says during the Cold War there was an attempt to comprehend Communism's appeal to counter it. But about jehadism, he says, "We still hear it appeals to the destitute, depraved, craven and criminal, or those who 'hate freedom'. Once we understand that jehadism is not that, we may really start to better our futures."

By Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington and Mitch Potter in Jerusalem with Amir Mir in Lahore, Pinhas Inbari in Jerusalem and Sanjay Suri in London
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