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IRAQ: Suicide Attacks

Author: Lionel Beehner
August 1, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What are the motivations of Iraq’s suicide bombers?

They vary, experts say. While some, like the Jordanian head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are longtime terrorists who have carried out attacks before Iraq, others have no prior history of religious extremism, terrorist activity, or criminal behavior. These bombers have been radicalized by the war in Iraq itself, according to a July study by the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA), an Israel-based think tank. While a hardened Qaeda associate might see Iraq as a battleground in the larger struggle for fundamentalist Islamic rule, a recently radicalized bomber might have in mind the more immediate goal of ousting U.S. troops from a Muslim country. Religious conviction, however misguided from the perspective of mainstream Islam, is playing a role for both types of bombers, most experts say.

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What are these suicide bombers’ backgrounds?

Experts agree there is no prototypical suicide bomber, and because only around 10 percent of the bombers in Iraq have been identified, data remains scarce. Most of the bombers who have been identified appear to be young males, marginally wealthy and well-educated, with families and normal jobs left behind in their native countries, experts say. They are generally "not loners with suicidal symptoms," but rather well-adjusted and well-liked in their communities, says Scott Atran, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Many are married. Nearly all of them, says Atran, are "born-again," newly religious Muslims, or converts to Islam with minimal training or combat experience.

Where are most of them from?

Reuven Paz, an Israeli terrorism expert, profiled 154 jihadis killed over the past six months. His study found that Iraq's suicide bombers have hailed from fifteen different Muslim nations in the Middle East and North Africa, with the majority from Saudi Arabia. A small but growing number of foreign jihadis in Iraq appear to be Muslims from Europe, says JessicaStern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University. Recent news reports also suggest that Sunni Arabs from Iraq are increasingly participating in suicide attacks, though Brigadier General Donald Alston, a top spokesman for the U.S. military, told the Financial Times July 15 that a trend was not yet evident.

How are these suicide bombers recruited?

Some are recruited by activists or clerics in their native countries. In Saudi Arabia, for example, several imams have issued fatwas­­Islamic legal pronouncements--calling all Muslims to fight the foreign occupiers of Iraq. Across Europe, universities have become fertile recruiting ground for terrorist groups. Still, most of the suicide bombers in Iraq, inspired by images on television or encouraged by friends or family, are not recruited but voluntarily link up to a terrorist network themselves, experts say. A large number enlist via the estimated 4,000 jihadi websites and chat rooms that have emerged over the past five years, which feature heroic profiles of past martyrs. Other suicide bombers are assisted by jihadi veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia, Atran says. 

Are suicide bombings in Iraq increasing?

Yes. The number of car bombs (which are mostly suicide attacks) in Iraq has increased from roughly twenty per month last summer to 135 per month in April and May this year, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index. The frequency of suicide attacks has picked up since the end of April, when Iraq’s new government was formed; more than ninety suicide bombs occurred in May alone, according to the Washington Post. The worst suicide attack took place July 16 when a bomber blew himself up under a fuel tanker in Mussayib, a small town south of Baghdad, leaving at least 90 Iraqis dead and 156 wounded.

What explains this recent surge in suicide attacks?

Experts point to several factors. The obvious answer is their effectiveness, says Mia Bloom, author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. "[A suicide attack] kills six times as many people as regular terrorist tactics. It wounds twelve times as many. And it really gets a lot more press," she said in a CNN interview July 18. There's also a clear linkage between the suicide bombings and the strategic success of Iraq's insurgency, says Peter Bergen, Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden. Suicide attacks have hobbled reconstruction efforts in Iraq, as exemplified in 2003, when bombings of the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations prompted both organizations to pull most of their personnel out of Baghdad. Suicide bombers are also efficient. "It doesn't take as much training as, for example, putting a bomb on a subway car in such a way that nobody will notice," Stern says. A secondary explanation, says Atran, is that kidnappings and beheadings, both commonplace last year, have fallen somewhat out of favor. "Suicide bombings have a religious and ideological aura that beheadings never did," he says, adding that beheadings were "not seen as a legitimate means of slaughter or sacrifice for God."

How do these suicide bombers justify their actions with their faith in Islam?

Suicide is forbidden by the Quran, experts say. Yet some Islamic extremists argue that suicide bombings, particularly those carried out against "infidels," do not qualify as acts of suicide but rather as acts of martyrdom. "Although God punishes the suicide, he rewards the martyr," Stern writes in Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. The Quran is also full of various justifications for war, Bergen says, among them waging jihad to defend Islam against nonbelievers. One of the Quran's most controversial lines about nonbelievers, as revealed by Allah to the Prophet Mohammed, is: "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors. And kill them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out" (al-Baqarah 2: 190-194). Islamic law scholars, however, say passages like this are taken out of context by terrorist leaders and do not excuse violence. These words merely reflect a different era, they argue, when Muslims in Mecca were regularly slaughtered by non-Muslims. In addition, they argue the term jihad refers more to personal struggle and striving for spiritual purity than to Islamic holy war.

Do most Muslims support the use of suicide bombings in Iraq?

A recent poll shows that Muslim support for suicide bombings targeting civilians is waning, but that majorities, or near majorities, in most Muslim countries surveyed--including Morocco, Jordan, and Lebanon--continue to see attacks against American and other non-Muslim forces that occupy Iraq as justified. The survey, released July 14 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, also found that higher-income Muslims are less likely than lower-income Muslims to condone suicide bombings against Americans, and that men are significantly more likely to support such attacks than women. Although many Muslim leaders have condemned such attacks, some--including Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a well-known Egyptian religious authority--have issued fatwas in recent years that support the abduction or killing of Americans in Iraq as defending Islam.

Are suicide bombers generally Islamist?

Suicide bombing is not exclusively an Islamist phenomenon, and some experts argue that nationalism, more so than religion, is what has historically triggered these attacks. In his new book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago documents 315 suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003, and finds that around 95 percent of the attackers were not motivated by religion, but by secular, strategic concerns such as fighting foreign occupation. "Before our invasion, Iraq had never experienced suicide terrorism in its history," he says.   

Others disagree with Pape's thesis. While secular national groups like Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers or Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have committed many suicide attacks, the majority of the 434 suicide bombings that have taken place around the world over the past three years have been carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. "If you look at the number of fatalities, it's very clear Islamist groups are most lethal," Stern says.

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