The rise of a jihadi suicide culture
Saturday's bombings in Egypt come as more terrorists adopt a tactic that is now commonplace in Iraq.
Sharm el-Sheikh. London. Casablanca. The men who carried out the terrorist bombings in each of these cities came from dramatically different backgrounds.Skip to next paragraph
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In London, the attackers were lower middle-class Britons. In Casablanca in 2003, they were all from one of the city's poor neighborhoods. And in Sharm el-Sheikh Saturday - although the investigation into the deadliest terror attack in Egyptian history is just getting under way - local officials say there are indications the attackers have links to an attack here last October carried out by a cell of working-class Egyptians.
While some counterterrorism experts say evidence may eventually link all of these attacks to the core of Al Qaeda's leadership suspected of hiding along the Pakistan-Afghan border, the diverse backgrounds of the presumed attackers underscore a shift: The culture of Islamist suicide bombers is becoming more commonplace, as is the defining of civilians as "enemies."
Even in the wave of Islamist terror attacks that destabilized Egypt for much of the 1990s, suicide bombers weren't used. Now the country has seen two major attacks of this kind in eight months, with the latest death toll now at least 88.
What concerns counterterrorism experts is that tactics that once prompted fierce ideological debates within radical circles - suicide and attacks on civilians are both classically defined in Islam as sins - are now more likely to be embraced by young men. A decade or two ago, Muslim males might have been willing to take up a rifle and risk death fighting against the Soviets in the mountains of Afghanistan, but many would have balked at making the ultimate sacrifice or at blowing up civilians in a Moscow train station.
While the attacks on London and Egypt in recent days have dominated the headlines, Iraq appears to be playing a central role - in shifting views and as ground zero in a new wave in of suicide attacks.
"You can probably average it out to about one a day almost,'' says M.J. Gohel, a terrorism researcher at the Asia Pacific Foundation in London. (In June, the peak month in June 2004, there were 18 suicide bombings. This June, there were 30). "They're using them like confetti for what are frequently minor attacks, and what this shows is they have a virtually endless supply [of bombers] at this point. In the old days, suicide bombing was a rare event."
The tactical logic of the suicide bomber hasn't changed: He's difficult to stop, and equalizes the power differential between the militarily weak and the strong. But it appears, say some analysts, to have developed a momentum of its own. As it has become more common among the circles of supporters of the global jihad, taboos have been broken down creating a greater willingness among young men to take their own lives, which in turn feeds the cycle.
The Shiite group Hizbullah, which pioneered modern suicide bombings against Israel during its occupation of Lebanon, used the tactic fewer than 40 times. Palestinian militants, who adopted the tactic from Hizbullah, used suicide attackers 100 times in the 10 years until the end of 2002. Since, there have been 35 suicide attacks. And in Iraq, where suicide terrorism was virtually unknown before the US invasion, there have been 188 suicide bombings since August 2003, according to the Brookings Institute Iraq Index (although some research puts the tally as high as 400.)
That compares to 315 total suicide attacks carried out worldwide between 1980 and 2003, according to data compiled by University of Chicago professor Robert Pape in his book "Dying to Win."
Mr. Pape argues in his book that suicide attacks are far from exclusive to Muslims or religious radicals.
He points out that 76 of the attacks in the period he surveyed were carried by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, a secular separatist movement, while others point to the Japanese kamikazes of World War II.
"It's a tactic of desperation, of people who feel they're weak and have to take a stand against what they see as their enemy, so it's not just an act of fanaticism,'' says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and a retired senior official for the State Department's office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia.
But while he says it would be wrong to identify suicide terrorism with Islam, he says that a radical subculture has emerged within Islam that has created a spreading problem.
"Let's face it, there's an intersection of two factors here, a significant rise in the past two decades of Islamic piety which sometimes extends to radical Islamic piety and feelings of hopelessness, a sense of helplessness in the face of what's seen as Western imperialism or aggression," he says.
While many Muslim preachers are speaking out against these terror tactics, the core beliefs of Al Qaeda and other groups that favor attacks on civilians are broadcast around the world every day. "You get many clerics who say it's haram [forbidden] to do this, but they have their own clerics that will justify whatever that they want to do,'' says Mr. White.
Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant and author of "Al Qaeda's Jihad in Europe" says that on militant websites, stories of the bravery and heroism of suicide bombers in Iraq, Israel, and elsewhere are traded in ways that can prompt imitators.
"In the US there are young men who look up to sports stars, and in radical Muslim circles the heroes are these guys fighting in Iraq" and carrying out other attacks, he says.