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Jihadi Suicide Bombers: The New Wave

A series of essays in The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, edited by Robert Crews and Amin Tarzi, describe how the Taliban have thus reinvented themselves with fresh mobilization, new transnational networks in Pakistan and neighboring countries, and help from al-Qaeda. This growth has been financed through the trade in opium poppies and other drugs. The essays describe how by 2006 the Taliban movement had become much more internationalized as Iraqi and Arab trainers arrived in Taliban camps to indoctrinate suicide bombers.

In his essay “Explaining the Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” Abdulkader Sinno points out that following the defeat of the Taliban, the US was at fault in failing to dismantle both the Pashtun power structure and the Pashtun warlords. That gave Afghanistan, he writes, far too early the “illusory symbols of a state.” Instead of “focusing on creating the image of a state, the United States and its clients should have done what the Taliban did before them: dismantle rival power structures.”

In Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, Antonio Giustozzi also writes that the US, after its victory in 2001, curried favor with the Afghan warlords and declined to disarm them in the hope that they would maintain law and order in Afghanistan while US forces concentrated on the war in Iraq. Washington made inadequate investments in Afghanistan, whether for fighting the Taliban or for carrying out nation-building. We see the consequences today as the Taliban’s suicide and conventional combat attacks increase and European countries are more and more reluctant to send troops to the front line as part of the NATO force.

Across the border in the tribal regions of Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban and assorted extremists have set up a base for launching increasingly lethal suicide attacks against army, intelligence, and police forces in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, suicide attacks rose from just six in 2006 to fifty-six in 2007, in which 419 members of the security forces and 217 civilians were killed, including a lieutenant general.

The greatest success of the Pakistani Taliban was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, just ten days before general elections which her party was expected to win. (Her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) eventually won the elections after they were postponed to February 18, 2008, and the PPP has since formed a coalition government with the party of Nawaz Sharif.) In the first four months of this year, there have already been nineteen suicide attacks in Pakistan, killing 274 security officials and injuring hundreds more.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan there are separate but mutually supported campaigns to destabilize the country organized by al-Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and other Central Asian Islamic groups. Many of the initial suicide bombers were Pakistani and Afghan orphans or mentally unstable teenagers recruited from asylums, orphanages, and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Taliban leaders correctly predicted that their sacrifice would create a wave of more capable and dedicated recruits. Now a factory-style conveyor-belt system has emerged. Fervent teenagers are being recruited from the Pakistani madrasas in the Pashtun tribal region along the border with Afghanistan. They are moved from safe house to safe house and receive various forms of training. Bombers, for example, are taught to duck their heads when they pull the switch so their head is blown apart and is unrecognizable. Meanwhile separate teams choose the next targets in Afghanistan.

According to European intelligence officials I have talked to in Kabul and Islamabad, the resources for these suicide bombers—leaders, recruitment, training, indoctrination, materials—are all on the Pakistani side of the border, where, so far at least, the Pakistani authorities have done little to root them out. The presence of bin Laden, who is reported to be on the Pakistani side of the border according to US intelligence, acts as an inspiration. The production of suicide belts in the tribal Pashtun region has become a cottage industry, not very different from local handicraft production elsewhere in the third world.

One household makes the detonator, another sews the belt, a third molds ball bearings, and so on. These are then collected and paid for by the Taliban, who claim in their propaganda that they have hundreds of willing youngsters lined up to carry out suicide bombings. Their main problems, they say, are finding good targets and the lack of sufficient explosives. While in Pakistan most suicide bombers are Pakistanis, in Afghanistan they include Afghans, Pakistanis, Kashmiris, Central Asians, Chechens, and, most recently, a German-born Turk, Cuneyt Cifici, who on March 3 rammed his explosive-laden car into a US military outpost near Khost in eastern Afghanistan, killing two American soldiers and wounding another fifteen. Two Afghan civilians were also killed.

A similar human conveyor belt carries Africans, Arabs, and Europeans to Iraq, just for the purpose of blowing themselves up. This year there has been an average of eighteen suicide attacks a month in Iraq compared to eight to ten a month in 2007, according to a US military spokesman in Baghdad in April. The suicide cult has become so accepted that ordinary al-Qaeda fighters are now wearing suicide belts as part of their equipment when they fight conventional battles with US forces. The belts prevent them from being taken alive, allow them to kill Americans even as they die, but above all satisfy a desire to constantly live with and embrace the idea of martyrdom.

However, the tactics of suicide bombings cannot win wars, topple regimes, or influence the deep beliefs of local people. Nor can the bombers drive out US and NATO forces from Afghanistan or allied forces from Iraq. What they do achieve is to create, among an already bewildered populace, a sense of panic, uncertainty, and fear so pervasive that the battle by state authorities and Western forces to win them over is more and more futile. Suicide bombing does not lead to any victory for the insurgents, but creates a political limbo bordering on anarchy in which government forces cannot win and reconstruction cannot take place. The war can last as long as the terrorists don’t run out of suicide bombers.

Tragically, Muslim political and religious leaders have failed to counter this offensive with one of their own. Only a few leading clerics have condemned suicide attacks as haram, or something strictly forbidden by Islamic law, because suicide itself is haram. Others say suicide attacks are not justified against Muslims, but can be carried out against the forces of Western infidels. Hardly any of Pakistan’s Islamic politicians with large followings have openly condemned al-Qaeda and its allies. In fact, most religious leaders are, at least publicly, still in a constant state of denial, insisting that al-Qaeda does not exist, that it is a fictitious creation of the American government as a way to control the Muslim world.

US officials have tried to enlist so-called “moderate” Muslims on their side. This policy has been an abject failure. Right now it is difficult enough for Muslims themselves to define a moderate position, because even liberal, Western-educated Muslims are also vehemently against US policy in the Middle East. Liberal Muslims may be a better term to define those who speak up against extremism, but there are few to be found. Partly because of a lack of literacy, the word “liberal” has become a dirty word to Middle East leaders, who fear that it leads to demands for greater democracy, while the clerical elite feel threatened by the very idea.

There is in fact much internal debate going on about extremism within Pakistan and other Muslim countries—in the press, the universities, the bureaucracies. However, unless the state authorities in the region actively promote a moderate version of Islam and come down hard on extremism, the civil society is not strong enough to do it on its own. Moreover, Western powers can never win the religious argument as long as they continue to occupy Iraq and other Muslim countries with armed forces.

The aim of US strategy should not be to find “moderates” and then stamp them with a “Made in the USA” label, but to bolster civil society and democratic institutions. The US has utterly disregarded these in its reliance on military force in its ill-conceived “war on terror.” Instead of spending aid money on trying to improve the quality of the madrasas because Pakistani and other authorities ask for it, Western governments should make more funds available to improve the secular state educational system with better teachers and more schools, thereby offering a real alternative to the madrasas. The Western countries say they want to find moderate Muslims, but they avoid giving adequate and intelligently conceived subsidies for economic development and education. It suits the extremists to have the West split Muslim societies into extremists and moderates, while doing nothing to support the moderates; the outcome has been only to show the extremists who is with them and who is against them.

Since September 11 the US-led war on terror has been out of touch with the sympathies and needs of local populations in Muslim countries. Some 80 percent of the $10 billion in US aid to Pakistan since 2001 has gone to the Pakistani army. The US military spends over $1 billion a month in Afghanistan and over $9.8 billion a month in Iraq to sustain its military effort and build new local security forces. In comparison only a pittance has been spent on reconstruction, nation-building, and shoring up institutions of civil society. When elections have been held or a new constitution has been promulgated (whether in Iraq or Afghanistan), the new institutions of a potentially democratic state such as parliament, political parties, the justice system, and local government have been inadequately supported and have failed on the whole to provide adequate local services.

In Pakistan the US chose to side with President Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator who over the past twelve months has tried to suppress all the democratic forces that might prevent him from staying in power. He curtailed the press, sacked senior judges, and subverted the 1973 constitution. Since the elections in February in which Musharraf’s political allies lost, his power has rapidly diminished as his unpopularity has increased. A new government led by the PPP has allowed the press and television to function freely, and the party is trying to find a new way to deal with extremism and to reinstate the judges. However, the legacy of nine years of military rule is not easy to dispense with. On the one hand Musharraf had battled al-Qaeda and reaped US rewards; and on the other he had allowed his intelligence agencies to give sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil as a hedge against the possible collapse of the Afghan government. Such policies have only increased anti-Americanism among an angry public.

The lives of the two jihadis described in the books by Omar Nasiri and Brynjar Lia are useful in showing what might have happened if the policymakers in the West had been more informed and astute. One reads both of these excellent books with the hindsight of what al-Qaeda has since become and how it might have been stopped in its tracks well before September 11.

The Moroccan-born Omar Nasiri (Inside the Jihad) first came under the influence of Algerian jihadis in Belgium in the early 1990s. Soon he also began to work as a double agent for French and later German and British intelligence. He provided Algerian militants with weapons and explosives, underwent training in Afghanistan, and then resettled in London, where he tried to promote global jihad. At the same time, he provided Western intelligence agencies with information about militant movements in North Africa and the Middle East and their exiled leaders in London. He drank, went to clubs, and had girlfriends, and although he was drawn to the doctrines of jihadism, he never becomes a true and uncritical believer. “Only one thing really bothered me…the problem of modern Islam in a nutshell,” he says.

We are totally dependent on the West—for our dishwashers, our clothes, our cars, our education, everything. It is humiliating and every Muslim feels it…. For centuries we ran far ahead of the West. We were the most sophisticated civilization in the world. Now we are backward. We can’t even fight our wars without our enemies’ weapons.

The book has the suspense of a thriller, except it’s for real. In 1995 Nasiri traveled via Pakistan to Khalden, the terrorist training camp in Afghanistan that bin Laden was to later make famous. Here he learned military tactics but was also told that in the jihad, women and children must be spared, that churches, water supplies, and schools should not be bombed, and that nobody of any religion can be attacked while at prayer. “There are many different kinds of jihad, of course,” he writes.

There is the inner jihad,…the jihad of knowledge and scholarship. There is the jihad of the tongue…. There is the jihad waged through actions,… or even giving money to support the ultimate jihad…. The holy war.

What is instructive is that the concept of jihad, as he first encountered it, had rules of behavior that have since been abandoned by al-Qaeda.

He was later dumped by his French handlers, ignored by British intelligence, and took up with the Germans, describing in detail how little European intelligence agencies were concerned about jihadism in the late 1990s. Now settled and married in Germany under an assumed identity, he was horrified by the September 11 operation and this prompted him to write his book.

The Syrian-born Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar—known as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri—who is the subject of Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, was a committed jihadist from his earliest years. Al-Suri is a journalist by profession, a historian by inclination, and perhaps the most intelligent, well-read, and farsighted agent al-Qaeda has produced.

He has long believed in expanding the territory under the jihadists’ control and today the Taliban and al-Qaeda are once again trying to regain the territory they lost in 2001 in the Pashtun border lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Without confrontation in the field and seizure of land,” he writes, “a state will not emerge for us. And this is the strategic goal for the Resistance project.”

Al-Suri also criticizes bin Laden for carrying out the September 11 attacks, saying they had exposed the Taliban regime to US retribution. It took several years after September 11 for the CIA to grasp that al-Suri was an important intellectual figure in al-Qaeda. Even though he was arrested in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, his earlier differences with bin Laden probably precluded the possibility that he knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts. US intelligence has now firmly reported bin Laden as being based further north in Pakistan’s tribal areas. If al-Suri is talking to the CIA—in whatever secret place he is being held—he is doubtless proving to be a source of abundant information, particularly about jihadist cells in Europe where he lived and worked for many years.

Two books about future policy by American foreign policy analysts—Daniel Byman’s The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad and Philip Gordon’s Winning the Right War: The Path to Security for America and the World—effectively criticize the policies of the Bush administration and lay out what they think the next elected US president can and should do, particularly regarding jihadism. Byman is a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; Gordon is a former National Security Council staff member and also a senior fellow at Brookings. Both present commonsense ideas and policies that ought to have been pursued a long time ago. From both books one gets the impression that the Bush administration has been so ideological that any ideas rooted in reality have consistently been discarded.

Byman describes the changes in al-Qaeda, the debate about it within the US establishment, and the threat that it poses today. Drawing from a variety of sources, Byman concludes that al-Qaeda’s leaders are intent on controlling territory; their aim remains taking over a government, for example in Afghanistan, which could then be used as a stepping stone for the eventual establishment of a global caliphate. Byman also considers the Iraq war a disaster, writing that it has become a breeding ground for jihadists and that a US victory “cannot be attained.”

He offers alternative strategies on how to defeat al-Qaeda. The military should be dramatically reorganized to address its now “primary” function of fighting insurgencies and, when necessary, “conducting targeted killings of terrorist leaders.” Whether the US alone has the resources and expertise to carry out such policies, however, or whether it will have to rely on multinational collaboration, remains a large question he does not address in any detail.

Byman makes the valid but neglected point that in the Muslim world, al-Qaeda’s propaganda war has been far more effective than that of the US, and that “Iraq has become an enormous public relations boon to al-Qaida.” Today on its Web sites, al-Qaeda is asking for new volunteers who are versed in Web technology and the communications revolution. Al-Qaeda now feels strong enough to publicly promote its international training facilities. The veteran Iraqi jihadi Abu Kasha, who has a training camp for suicide bombers in Mir Ali in Pakistan’s tribal region, released a video in April calling for jihad against the US and its allies and offering to train any foreigners.

Countering such opposition will not be easy. “The bureaucracy that coordinates the US message must be made stronger and given a more prominent role,” writes Byman. “In particular, the bureaucratic rank of such officials must be elevated.” What he cannot supply is just what message the US should be disseminating to alienated young Muslims, aside from “going negative” about al-Qaeda; nor does he suggest how the US is to find the superior and knowledgeable bureaucrats he hopes for. But he identifies some important challenges that American policymakers should be facing.

Gordon makes his position clear from the start. “The administration is failing because it is fighting the wrong war…. It is putting its faith in tough talk and military power when ideology, intelligence, diplomacy, and defense are in fact more important,” he writes. He describes how Bush has consistently mischaracterized the “war on terror,” painting a simplistic picture of evildoers who hate US values. He argues that just as the US won the cold war through containment of the former Soviet Union and a multipronged strategy, a similar strategy is needed to deal with jihadism. It’s a long war that needs ideas, not a short war of the kind US Special Forces are trained to fight.

Gordon writes that to fight the right war the Bush administration should have taken bold steps in its national energy policies and conducted far more intensive and informed diplomacy in the Middle East. He offers a long list of prescriptions—close Guantánamo; spend more on homeland defense; rebuild the US information services; and reduce the US dependence on Middle East oil. He also argues that the US should withdraw from Iraq and engage diplomatically with Iran, which inevitably has huge and growing influence with its Shiite neighbor. It should also “reestablish itself as an honest broker between Arabs and Israelis” and “make far more energetic efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

The next US administration would do well to take seriously the analysis and recommendations of Byman and Gordon. There has been an upsurge of fighting and suicide bombing in both Iraq and Afghanistan this year. In Afghanistan from January to March 2008, there were 704 Taliban attacks killing 463 civilians, compared to 424 attacks killing 264 civilians in the same period last year. The American conduct of its war on terror has, in fact, strengthened the impact of the jihadist message and fostered the spread of al-Qaeda and its allies to new battlefields in Europe and beyond. There is no quick solution for the suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Only a long, difficult effort to reshape US diplomacy and develop new policies for aid, nation-building, and the use of military force in concert with other nations could do that.

May 14, 2008


Corrections August 14, 2008

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