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Jihadi Suicide Bombers: The New Wave

After September 11, 2001, readers around the world quickly learned about the basic tenets of jihad and its distortion by al-Qaeda. Now the shelves of Western bookshops are again filled with books on the subject, which gives no sign of going away. Jihad, which means struggle, is “recommended” rather than obligatory for all Muslims, but its interpretation is literally an open book—the lesser jihad to purify one’s soul and perform good deeds for the community, the greater jihad to defend Islam when it is under attack. Each major collection of Hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that were compiled by several Muslim scholars well after the Prophet’s death, contains its own descriptions of jihad, with the result that the discussion of jihad has always been a matter of differing interpretations rather than literal observance.

The jihad of the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s was supported by the US and the West. Some 40,000 non-Afghans made it to that jihad, many of them receiving an Islamic education and military training with funds from the CIA and support and sanctuary from Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Some fought and died, others went home to spread the message, taking with them long lists of contacts they had made in the university of jihad that they had established in Pakistani cities such as Peshawar. In the 1990s jihad became a much-maligned word as the Afghans butchered each other in a bloody civil war, which both sides claimed was a jihad. Muslims in other parts of the world did the same. They claimed to be carrying out jihad as they were killing their Muslim brothers.

When Osama bin Laden decided to launch a jihad against the US and the West from his new base in Afghanistan in 1996, few took him seriously. Several developments at that time got little attention from Western governments as Afghanistan became the incubator of a new, Arab-led “global jihad” against the West. The fifteen-year-long insurrection against the Indian government of Kashmir introduced the skills of suicide bombing to South Asia. The endless civil war in Somalia eliminated any clear center of power there and freewheeling jihadist groups emerged in the chaos. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict was seen as becoming increasingly insoluble. President Clinton’s failed attempt to foster peace at the end of his administration came just as many Palestinians were beginning to embrace more extremist Islamic ideas.

Two of the books under review are so illuminating about this twilight period in the 1990s that I even wonder if September 11 could have been averted if they had been published a decade earlier. One is Omar Nasiri’s Inside the Jihad, a first-person account by a Moroccan-born spy who infiltrated Islamist groups on behalf of European intelligence organizations in the 1990s; the other is Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, a Norwegian scholar’s account of a top al-Qaeda strategist named Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and handed over to the US. He is now one of the “rendered” or disappeared prisoners. Both books are about men who were trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan in the early 1990s—when bin Laden was not even there—and who then traveled across Europe to mobilize Muslims for the emerging global jihad. The Afghan camps were providing military and technical training, ideological education, and new global networks well before al-Qaeda arrived on the scene.

Yet the young men who trained in these camps were not educated in the Islamic schools called madrasas and they were inspired less by extremist Islamic ideology than by their desires to see the world, handle weapons, and have a youthful adventure. It was a boy’s world of reality games. “I realized that I had dreamed of this moment for years,” writes Nasiri—a nom de plume.

I was in the mountains of Afghanistan and there was gunfire all around me…. There would be handguns and assault rifles and mortar fire all blasting against the mountain. It sounded like a kind of chorus, almost, and sometimes I shivered and praised God for having brought me here.

At that time such young men might have been won over from violent jihad to something more constructive if Muslim regimes and Western countries had realized what was going on. Today alternative education programs teaching useful skills—a major strategy for combating jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere—are too little too late, and increasingly difficult to carry out since the terrorists are now far more ideologically sophisticated than they were in the early 1990s.

That twilight period ended with bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan in 1996 when he reorganized the Arabs and other foreigners who saw him as their leader, and offered them a new interpretation of jihad as an unconditional and never-ending war against the West and its Muslim “lackeys” in the Islamic world. When al-Qaeda bombed two US embassies in Africa in 1998, causing heavy casualties among African Muslims, bin Laden was, in effect, openly proclaiming that killing fellow Muslims and women and children was a legitimate part of the game, even though the Koran is categorical about avoiding civilian casualties in war and especially about protecting women and children.

Nobody in the West seemed to suspect at the time how extensively bin Laden had already distorted Islam. His tactics had hardly anything to do with religion and everything to do with gaining political power and influence. Jihad was no longer a defensive maneuver but an offensive weapon that elevated martyrdom. Every religion has had its martyrs—think of the early Christians and Jews defying the Roman Empire—and Islam too has its pantheon of martyrs. But the Koran categorically forbids suicide. Until al-Qaeda began turning religious texts on their heads, martyrdom was accepted only as the last resort of a cornered Muslim warrior and not as a willfully planned death. This radical change in the concept of martyrdom has been viewed by many commentators as the license for modern Islamic terrorism.

Before September 11, al-Qaeda carried out suicide missions, but it also fought its jihad on the conventional battlefield, supporting allies such as the Taliban government, the Kashmiri terrorists, and the Somali warlords. The extremists from the 1990s depicted in the books by Nasiri and Lia would never have considered throwing their lives away in a deliberate suicide attack—their lives meant too much to them and they were having too much fun spreading the global jihad around the world.

Of course al-Qaeda is still engaged in conventional guerrilla wars, fighting US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but today, seven years after September 11, jihad for al-Qaeda and its worldwide allies increasingly means one thing—suicide bombing. This is the change that must be confronted. Now you are not a good jihadi until you kill yourself in the act of killing many others. Thus in the period after September 11 the extremist interpretation of jihad has undergone yet another metamorphosis, degenerating into a cult of suicide bombing against which there is often no plausible defense. In the martyrdom videos they make just before they blow themselves up, bombers like to taunt their audiences with phrases such as “while you Americans love life, we love death.” When these videos are shown on Western television they make Muslims and the religion itself look quite ridiculous and half crazy. Such videos help fuel anti-Islamic xenophobia in the West—xenophobia that in turn helps provide more recruits to the ranks of suicide bombers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It’s a vicious circle.

Yet as is made clear in Michael Bonner’s short, incisive, and highly readable book Jihad in Islamic History, the concept of jihad has constantly changed. Bonner writes that the success of early Islam was owed to the individualistic Arab nomads coming together to form a community that was defined by its faith in God and whose most important characteristic was its care for the poor:

The activity that stands out as most characteristic of this early community (in Mecca)…has to do with the generosity and care for the poor and unfortunate…. We cannot doubt that all this involved a profound transformation, both political and social, in Arabia.

Unfortunately, in contemporary Islamic states the commitment to public welfare is almost nonexistent. With few exceptions, both Muslim elites and extremists ignore the idea that the state has a responsibility to civil society and the poor. Neither are committed to serious social reform, and this failure has helped create crises in many Muslim countries. Still, most ordinary Muslims view Islam as a religion concerned about the welfare of poor people: consider how frequently Muslims invoke Islam as a peaceful religion, and the billions in cash that Muslims privately give as zakat, or charity to the poor.

Bonner goes on to describe how during the era of Islamic expansion into Europe, jihad became “an imperial ideology” used to ensure military successes. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, jihad became a defense mechanism for resisting British, French, and Russian expansionism into the Muslim world. There is nothing in the long history of jihad, Bonner writes,

that dooms us to repeated violence and failure. The history of the jihad has constantly involved the revival of older idioms and forms, but at the same time, it has always been a history of new political structures and of creative, new solutions.

Take Afghanistan. There was not a single suicide attack during the ten-year-long Afghan war against the Soviets. The first al-Qaeda suicide attack was in September 2001, two days before September 11, when the popular anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Masoud was assassinated by two al-Qaeda suicide bombers. There were hardly any further bombings in Afghanistan until 2004 when the resurgent Taliban mounted six suicide attacks against US and Afghan forces. Then there was an explosion of suicide attacks in the country: 21 in 2005, 136 in 2006, and 137 in 2007.

The carnage has continued to increase. Last year casualties in Afghanistan rose by more than 50 percent although the number of suicide attacks stayed nearly the same. In 2006 there were 1,100 casualties from suicide bombings but in 2007 the number rose to 1,730. The Taliban have aimed at exposed targets—nine hundred Afghan policemen and forty Afghan aid workers were killed last year as a result of all types of attacks including suicide attacks. Guerrilla attacks by the Taliban and al-Qaeda have claimed many more lives.

Suicide attacks have been made possible by the new training and indoctrination provided by al-Qaeda as well as the booming drug trade, which has provided the Taliban and al-Qaeda with enormous funds to compensate the families of young suicides. Even more tragic, women and children are now considered fair game. On November 6, 2007, a suicide bomber struck in Baghlan in northern Afghanistan, killing seventy-two Afghans including five members of parliament and fifty-nine schoolchildren. Another ninety-three children were wounded. Afghan schools are now regularly bombed by the Taliban and some six hundred out of a total of 8,500 have been forced to close down, sending 300,000 students home. Over 150 teachers and students have been killed.

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