Rod Nordland and Babak Dehghanpisheh / Newsweek – 2007-08-07 22:42:51
The Iraq war has turned into a
veritable ‘martyr’ factory,
unlike any seen in previous conflicts.
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(Aug. 13, 2007 issue) — In the video that serves as his last will and testament, the youthful, well-dressed Saudi, known only as “Fatima’s Fiancé,” is laughing and joking with the cameraman who will record his death a few minutes later. “Pray for Allah to make my mission easy,” he says, and waves as he climbs into a maroon sedan, grinning broadly. “May Allah make it easy for you,” the cameraman says obligingly, and laughs.
The scene cuts away to an earlier interview, where the Saudi announces that when he gets to heaven he plans to marry a woman named Fatima, who was allegedly abused in Abu Ghraib Prison. Then the scene shifts to a highway in Iraq, with a line of 18-wheelers roaring along and a red circle superimposed over the bomber’s approaching car. As the music swells and the screen fills with an orange-and-black fireball, the cameraman cries, “Thanks to Allah!”
Such scenes are all too easily found on YouTube—and hundreds more like them are never caught on tape. While new figures show that the U.S. death toll dipped to its lowest total all year in the month of July, the number of Iraqis being killed continues to rise: some 1,652 civilians died in July alone. Many if not most of those deaths are the result of what has become an epidemic of suicide bombings.
In the first three years of the war, there were fewer than 300 such attacks; in the year ending June 30 there were at least 540, according to a U.S. Department of Defense intelligence analyst in Iraq who specializes in the subject but is not authorized to speak on the record. Since January, the U.S. military says, more than 4,000 Iraqis have been killed or injured by suicide bombers. Last Wednesday, 50 more died in a truck bombing in Baghdad. “Iraq has superseded all the other suicide-bomb campaigns [in modern history] combined,” says Mohammed Hafez, author of “Suicide Bombers in Iraq” and a U.S. government consultant. “It’s really amazing.”
What’s perhaps even more surprising is that the majority of the bombers are not Iraqi. National-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie says that Saudis account for half the suicide bombings in Iraq. U.S. military estimates agree, and put Iraqis a distant second; in analyzing cases where the bomber’s identity is definitively known, Hafez comes up with similar figures. Saudis play a little role in the insurgency as a whole but are key to the suicide-bombing campaign: the U.S. intelligence analyst estimates that “about half the Saudis crossing into Iraq come as suicide bombers.”
That’s one of the reasons the Bush administration’s plan to sell $20 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates has aroused protest. “Saudi Arabia is the engine of jihad,” says a U.S. adviser in Baghdad who is not authorized to speak on the record.
Recently the American ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Saudis in particular were “not doing all they can to help us” in Iraq. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said he was “astonished” by the criticism. But privately, the Saudis admit they have a problem. A Saudi security consultant with close ties to senior officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, says the Saudi government estimates that 850 of its citizens have gone to fight in Iraq since 2003, of whom at least 50 percent have been killed.
IEDs may take more American lives, but suicide bombs have had a more devastating impact on the way the war is fought. “Martyrdom operations [the jihadist term for suicide bombings] are effective because our losses are little and the opposition’s losses are great,” says Oslo-based Mullah Krekar, a radical Iraqi Kurd who founded Ansar Al-Islam, one of the first groups to use suicide bombings in the war.
The tactic has driven a wedge between Americans and Iraqis: all U.S. outposts are now ringed by layers of blast walls and other obstacles, while convoys warn Iraqis to “stay 100 meters back” or risk being shot. Fear of car bombs has added vastly to the cost of reconstruction; Western contractors typically spend a quarter of their budgets on security.
The impact on Iraqis is even more insidious. The most spectacular suicide attacks have targeted the predominantly Shiite Iraqi security forces, as well as crowded markets in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhoods. They have fueled sectarian revenge attacks. And they’ve pretty well instilled a sense of despair and chaos among ordinary citizens.
When Iraqis of all stripes poured into the streets to celebrate the semifinals victory of Iraq’s national soccer team in the Asia Cup, two suicide bombers killed more than 50 revelers in separate attacks. “I could not believe that those who were dancing in the streets a few minutes before were now dead,” said an eyewitness, Ahmad Nabeel, 19, a student. “This was jihad?”
The Saudis say they’ve spent an average of $1 billion per year patrolling their border with Iraq. But Arabs can travel to Syria visa-free, and often jihadists will transit first through third countries in the gulf or even Europe to hide their trail. Saudis are particularly prized because they typically bring their own funds to pay the Syrian go-betweens who smuggle them into Iraq.
That was the route taken by a 21-year-old Saudi last month, who balked at the last minute while on a mission to blow up a key bridge in Ramadi. Police arrested him, and found that his Saudi handlers had given him $1,000 cash in travel expenses. Rubaie agrees with the Americans that Damascus isn’t doing enough to cut off the pipeline. He recalls how hard it was for Iraqi exiles in Damascus to get permission to cross into Iraq during Saddam’s regime: “This is under the iron fist of their intelligence,” he says. “There’s not even a bird that can cross the border without them knowing about it.”
Toll of Tears
An even harder challenge is to dry up the pool of willing martyrs in Saudi Arabia, where zealotry and resentment of infidels in Muslim lands are deeply ingrained. The Saudi government has launched a national media campaign to discourage would-be “martyrs” from traveling to foreign countries, especially Iraq. Radical clerics have been reined in and repentant would-be bombers have been hauled before the press to talk about the error of their ways.
In June, the Saudi Interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, gave a stern public address to a group of imams: “Do you know that your sons who go to Iraq are used only for blowing themselves up? … Are you happy for your children to become instruments of murder?” But hostility to the American presence in Iraq and to the increasingly powerful Shiites in the Baghdad government has provoked both anger and fear among the conservative Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia. As the security consultant warns, “If this [anti-suicide campaign] wasn’t in place, we would practically be in a state of war with Iraq.”
The flow of bombers seems inexhaustible. Iraqi and some U.S. officials say there have been cases of suicide bombers whose hands were chained to the steering wheels of their vehicles, and reports of those who were drugged or heavily brainwashed. But most experts who have studied the subject doubt such tactics are common. Hafez, who has identified 139 of Iraq’s suicide bombers, from U.S. government and jihadist sources, says he hasn’t come across a single credible case of coercion. “You see these martyrdom videos, and they say, ‘This is the button to paradise,’ and they really seem to believe that,” he says.
Iraqi officials who have worked at stopping suicide missions also tend to describe the bombers as dead-enders, manipulated by their handlers. “They don’t know what to do with their lives, and they are convinced that after they die they are going to have a better life,” says Maj. Gen. Riyadh Jalal, who commands an Iraqi division guarding largely Shiite eastern Baghdad. “They’re losers.” Saif al din Ali Ahmed, security chief in the Kurdish Regional Government, agrees: “depressed people looking for a better life somewhere else,” he calls them.
But in fact, most of the bombers are recruited from among educated, middle-class families; the recruiters’ appeal is an intellectual, theological one. The Ramadi bridge bomber’s parents are a college professor and a high-school teacher. Bilal Ahmed, an Iraqi, was a 22-year-old college student and soccer fanatic. Earlier this year he saw his Sunni father killed by Shiite militiamen rampaging through their Baghdad neighborhood.
He tore down his Ronaldinho posters, and began praying intensely and going to the mosque daily. There the imam told him suicide was wrong, but jihad was a religious duty. Within weeks his brother got a text message: “Yesterday Bilal was blessed with martyrdom that will lead him to paradise.” Apparently he had killed two bystanders at a police station, and just missed the cops.
Raed al Bena, a Jordanian who blew himself up in Hillah, Iraq, was a former United Nations employee in Jordan. He had obtained a visa to the United States, where he went to work, illegally, at a Los Angeles airport. Found out and deported, he returned home depressed, railing at the U.S. immigration officer who “destroyed my future,” recalls his father, Mansour. He denies reports in Jordanian papers that the family celebrated Raed’s suicide bombing, but his wife, Nareman, promptly takes offense. “Why do you say ‘suicide bombing’?” she asks. “It’s ‘martyrdom.’ One who wants to commit suicide will kill himself [even] in the house.”
Those are not just the views of a bereaved mother trying to make sense of the senseless. They’re widely held, even in countries otherwise friendly to the West.
In 2004, an opinion survey by the Pew Foundation found that 70 percent of Jordanians and 74 percent of Lebanese approved of suicide bombings; although that decreased dramatically in a second survey this year, still one out of five Jordanians and one out of three Lebanese approve of the tactic. (Saudi Arabia was not surveyed.) Unless those attitudes change, there will be more than enough human bombs to keep Iraq burning for years.
With Larry Kaplow and Iraqi staff in Baghdad, and Christopher Dickey in Paris
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.
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