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Suicide Bombers Span World, Classes of Potential Terrorists

April 13, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: As the Iraqi parliament met today, a moment of silence for their colleague, a Sunni lawmaker who was killed yesterday when a suicide bomber attacked the parliament lunchroom. Twenty-two others were injured by the bombing in the heart of what was supposed to be Iraq’s most secure place, the Green Zone.

It wasn’t the only suicide attack of the day in Iraq; this bridge over the Tigris River was destroyed by a truck bomb. In fact, attacks elsewhere this week showed that the phenomenon of suicide bombings is not at all limited to Iraq. From Afghanistan, where seven NATO troops were injured in Kandahar yesterday, to Algeria, where on Wednesday the capital city of Algiers shook with the deadliest attack there in 10 years. Thirty-three people were killed and more than 200 injured in two bombings, one aimed at the office of the prime minister. He survived.

Islamic Maghreb, one of North Africa’s most active terrorist groups and a wing of the al-Qaida organization, said it planned and carried out the attacks. These images of the bombers were proudly displayed on an Islamic Web site, which hailed them as martyrs.

Women have also taken lives in suicidal attacks. Just this week, a female bomber approached a line of police recruits outside of Baghdad and killed more than 15 of them. Suicide bombings became a regular occurrence in Israel during the second Palestinian Intifada at the turn of the decade. They were often the work of a single bomber at a bus stop or cafe…

JOURNALIST: We are just absolutely stunned…

JEFFREY BROWN: … but they’ve also been carried out on a more spectacular scale outside the Middle East, including, of course, 9/11 in the United States and the multiple attacks on London subways and buses two years ago. Those attacks killed 52 rush-hour commuters and injured more than 700 others.

Upward trend of suicide bombs

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University
Suicide terrorism works... As Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's number-two said, that we can inflict a lot of casualties and involve very few of our fighters as a result.

JEFFREY BROWN: For some analysis of the suicide bombing phenomenon, we're joined by Mohammed Hafez, a visiting professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. His new book, called "Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom," will be published next month.

And Daniel Byman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University, he's written widely about terrorism and Middle East politics.

Professor Hafez, starting with you, is it correct to see this as both a growing and more widespread phenomenon?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ, Visiting Professor, University of Missouri: Definitely. What we have seen is that more and more countries are experiencing suicide attacks. And the number of organizations that are carrying these attacks has increased.

Since the 1980s, some studies point out that about 40 countries have experienced suicide terrorism, and the number of groups that have engaged in those attacks reach up to 50. So this is a growing phenomena, and the trend line is going upward, not downward.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Daniel Byman, why?

DANIEL BYMAN, Former CIA Mideast Political Analyst: A couple of reasons. The most obvious is that suicide terrorism works. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's number-two said, that we can inflict a lot of casualties and involve very few of our fighters as a result. And we see this as a far more deadly tactic, that the bomber himself is smart and can move around and, at the last minute, find the place of most damage.

But the other shift is in the zeitgeist of much of the Muslim world, where these bombers in some circles are idolized. The media portrays them as heroes, and there is a growing cult that supports their actions and operations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Hafez, do you want to add to that, the question of why this is happening, why its rising?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I agree with Professor Byman that this is partly because it's an effective tactic. It's an innovation in terrorism that has been adopted by others. And there has been a legitimization of this tactic by clerics, by even secular leaders.

But one thing we also need to add is, these attacks are increasing in the context of the global war on terrorism. And what this tell us, that the global war on terrorism isn't working. We need to shift strategies; we need to shift tactics; and we need to change our rhetoric to be able to de-radicalize the Muslim world.

And we cannot just simply look at this outside of the context of the global war on terror.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, is that the way you would put it, in that context?

DANIEL BYMAN: I would actually disagree slightly. In my judgment, this tactic is growing to a degree independently of U.S. actions. Iraq is a turning point, where we've seen it initially used extensively against U.S. forces, but increasingly against Iraqi targets, and we're seeing the spread of targets that have nothing to do with the United States.

So I think, even if the United States shifts its rhetoric, shifts its policies in the war on terrorism, this tactic is here to stay and may continue growing.

Secular vs. Islamic phenomenon

Mohammed Hafez
University of Missouri - Kansas City
Most of the countries where the conflict is taking or where the attacks are taking place are in the Muslim world, and there is obviously the exception of the London attacks, but generally this appears to be a Muslim phenomenon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you both a little bit about what common threads you see, starting with you, Professor Byman. In terms of the religious or cultural barriers to doing this kind of thing that one would think would be there, how is it justified today? How has it become more acceptable?

DANIEL BYMAN: The justification has been largely in terms of pragmatism, where you'll have a cleric, you'll have someone who is an authoritative figure say, "Of course, Islam forbids suicide, but this is not really suicide. This is much more akin to a soldier, a warrior, who is taking out an enemy target. And you should think of it in those terms, rather than as a desperate individual giving up his life."

So they would portray it not as an individual who wants to kill himself, but rather as someone heroic who's in battle and sacrifices himself for his comrades.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Hafez, how would you answer that?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I would agree with that, but I would also add that much of the justification of attacks, say in Iraq, with regards to the Iraqi police and the Shiites, what the suicide bombers argues are: These people are collaborators. They are the eyes and ears of the occupation. And if these people weren't doing -- if they weren't joining the police services, if they weren't joining the security services, then the Americans would leave, they would be defeated. And so part of the justification is linked to the fact that there is an occupation in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it, Professor Hafez, correct to think of it -- or how should one think of it, in terms of a Muslim phenomenon, an al-Qaida phenomenon, a religious phenomenon, nationalistic phenomenon? What's the right way to think of it?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, if we start our perspective by looking in the last four or five years, then certainly this would appear to be an Islamic phenomenon. Most of the suicide terrorists are Islamists. Most of the countries where the conflict is taking or where the attacks are taking place are in the Muslim world, and there is obviously the exception of the London attacks, but generally this appears to be a Muslim phenomenon.

But if we expand the perspective, the historical perspective, say, to the early '80s, we would recognize that this is actually much more of a secular phenomenon.

And there have been non-Islamists or non-Muslims that have engaged in this tactic, specifically the Tamil Tigers. There have been some Marxist groups, like the Kurdish Workers Party, or the PKK. These groups are more secular, more nationalistic, and there's little justification that relates to Islam and Islamism.

A wide variety of backrgrounds

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University
What many people often fail to realize is that these are not poor, deluded, insane individuals, but rather people who are often well-educated, by the standards of their communities, relatively wealthy, and almost always highly idealistic.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what about the bombers themselves, Professor Byman? What do we know about them, who they are, how they're recruited?

DANIEL BYMAN: The bombers themselves come from a wide variety of backgrounds. What many people often fail to realize is that these are not poor, deluded, insane individuals, but rather people who are often well-educated, by the standards of their communities, relatively wealthy, and almost always highly idealistic.

And they see themselves as willing to sacrifice for the broader cause and are willing to go to great lengths, not only to kill themselves, but often to travel far away, to train for years to do so. And it's quite a contrast with the more popular image of these people as deranged fanatics.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see that, Professor Hafez? In terms of the people who are doing this, do you see changes in who's being recruited or how well organized they are?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Definitely. What we're noticing now is the phenomena of martyrs without borders. What we're talking about are transnational volunteers, a Tunisian living in Italy that makes his way to die in Iraq, a Belgian woman, a Christian convert to Islam, who makes her way to Iraq to carry out a suicide attack.

So this phenomena of the transnationalization or the globalization of martyrdom is really of concern, and this is one of the market shifts from the early '80s and even mid-'90s.

JEFFREY BROWN: So staying with you, what about attempts to stop it? Have those responded or changed over the last few years?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Frankly, I'm pessimistic that there are any effective policies that could be taken at this point to reverse the strand of increasing suicide attacks. To borrow a line from the respected terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, a colleague of mine, he says, "al-Qaida is on the march, it's not on the run."

And there doesn't appear to be any effective policies at this point to reverse this radicalization that is penetrating the Muslim world and, frankly, even Europe, the Muslim communities in Europe.

Stopping the pattern of terror

Mohammed Hafez
University of Missouri - Kansas City
The Internet is becoming increasingly important...in setting the atmosphere, the veneration of martyrdom, providing the religious justification for these attacks, the demonization of the enemies, and also of sharing practical manuals and information

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see, in terms of thinking, evolving, in terms of how one stops this phenomenon?

DANIEL BYMAN: It's exceptionally difficult. I was in Israel in 2002 during some of the height of the bombings there, and you saw really desperate attempts to avoid this. When you'd go to a restaurant, you had to be buzzed in, because they wanted to avoid having individuals come in who couldn't be stopped and searched first. When you walked along the beach, people scattered rather than clustered, because they were afraid that, if they came together, they'd be targeted.

These are social adaptations. From a broader, national perspective, you can do things like build a security barrier and so on, but these disrupt daily life in a tremendous way, and that's what makes this tactic so effective, is because it's so hard to stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see this as part of a kind of cyclical pattern of terror, where this is a phenomenon, then it subsides, and then comes back again, or more as a kind of growing trend?

DANIEL BYMAN: So far, it's been a growing trend, but terrorism, like almost all phenomena, does have certain tendencies. And it's quite possible that another form of attack -- hostage-taking, for example, which was quite prevalent in the 1970s and still exists, of course, today -- could become more prominent 10 years from now or 15 years from now.

But, unfortunately, because of suicide bombings' effectiveness, I think it's going to be hard to eradicate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Hafez, one more thing that came up. It came up in our set-up. That's the Internet. How much does that play a role in what we're seeing, in terms of either recruiting people, or organizing them, or carrying out these kinds of attacks?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: The Internet is becoming increasingly important, not in the direct recruitment of individuals to carry out a suicide attack, but in setting the atmosphere, the veneration of martyrdom, providing the religious justification for these attacks, the demonization of the enemies, and also of sharing practical manuals and information on how to create suicide belts, how to rig a car for a car bombing.

So these things help facilitate the process of recruitment, but I don't think we are at the point where individuals can simply turn on the Internet, learn some information or read a manual, and then go ahead and carry out a suicide attack. Hopefully, we don't come to that point any time soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mohammed Hafez and Daniel Byman, thank you very much.

DANIEL BYMAN: Thank you.