The suicide vest and the suicide mind
About a year ago the enemy weapon of choice was the vehicle borne explosive device or the VBIED and the roadside IED. But Coalition intelligence efforts found the car bomb factories and created barriers to their easy deployment. And while the roadside IED still found occasional effective employment the tactical utility of the VBIED catastrophically declined. Recently there's been a shift to the use of enhanced suicide vest bombs.
"There has been an increase over time in the use of suicide vest bombers," US military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told a news conference in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. "Late in 2007 there were about eight or 10 a month; in the month of February, there were 18....
"We are also seeing that average Al-Qaeda fighters are wearing suicide vests and before they are captured they are often blowing themselves up," Smith told reporters. "That is something we have not seen earlier. We used to see just the most senior leadership of Al-Qaeda wearing suicide vests."
This weapon was responsible for the death of five US soldiers who "by a man wearing a suicide vest who mingled with their patrol." As weather warms in Iraq (this week it is in the mid 60s) it will be more difficult to wear suicide clothing, except for women, but the process of adaptation is likely to continue. Such vests now being used in tandem. A bombing of a Baghdad pet market in February employed two suicide-rigged women.
What's more interesting to consider is whether the suicide vest tactic will soon be seen in the West and why it has not been used in large numbers so far. It was unsuccessfully used for example, in the Benazir Bhutto assassination. But it was used. So why is not seen in London, Paris and New York? The logistics of manufacturing an explosive vest are not great. But the fundamental limit to suicide vest deployment isn't the the supply of vests but the availability of people willing to wear them. Suicide attackers are relatively abundant in cultures which produce the mentality to use them. But they are relatively rare in the West, for now.
Suicide bombers are also quite expensive to produce. The production cost is not in the vest, but in the motivation of the bomber. In 2005 the Times Online featured a study on the process of becoming a "martyr". It's a fascinating glimpse into the assembly-line of suicide-bombers. The factory is entirely virtual; it consists in the mental preparation of the attackers. It doesn't have any machine tools, electronics or technology newer than the 8th century. In fact it would look very much like a meeting hall, mosque or madrassa. Nasra Hassan explained:
From 1996 to 1999, I interviewed nearly 250 people involved in the most militant camps of the Palestinian cause: volunteers who, like S, had been unable to complete their suicide missions, the families of dead bombers, and the men who trained them. ...
I was told that to be accepted for a suicide mission the volunteers had to be convinced of the religious legitimacy of the acts they were contemplating, as sanctioned by the divinely revealed religion of Islam. ... I met an imam affiliated with Hamas, a youthful, bearded graduate of the prestigious al Azhar University in Cairo. He explained that the first drop of blood shed by a martyr during jihad washes away his sins instantaneously. On the Day of Judgment, he will face no reckoning.
A planner for Islamic Jihad said that his organisation carefully scrutinises the motives of a potential bomber: "We ask this young man, and we ask ourselves, why he wishes so badly to become a human bomb. What are his real motives? ... Preparation bolsters his conviction, which supports his certitude. It removes fear."
Hassan asked about the technology for removing fear. It was not a concern, she was told by the trainors, fear already having been banished by a "fervent desire for success, which will propel him into the presence of Allah". That desire was implanted by strict religious exercises; what the secular would call 'motivation'.
The young men undergo intensified spiritual exercises, including prayers and recitations of the Koran. Usually, the trainer encourages the candidate to read six particular chapters of the Koran: Baqara, Al Imran, Anfal, Tawba, Rahman, and Asr, which feature such themes as jihad, the birth of the nation of Islam, war, Allah’s favours and the importance of faith.
Religious lectures last from two to four hours each day. The living martyr goes on lengthy fasts. He spends much of the night praying. He pays off all his debts, and asks for forgiveness for actual or perceived offences.
Producing a cadre of suicide bombers is largely a religious and cultural process that is ironically protected by notions of freedom of religion and speech. Due to its nature it cannot be countered with ordinary weapons. Successful opposition to it requires a cultural Surge, one that is fought largely without kinetic weapons. The natural agents for such a religious Surge aren't diplomats or soldiers, but proselytizers of non-Islamic religions and/or the imams of Islam who do not subscribe to the theories of suicide martyrdom.
But that doesn't mean that the outcome of the kinetic battle is unimportant. When Nasserism and secular socialism were discredited by the Arab world's defeat at the hands of Israel it opened the way to a resurgence of the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that has produced the suicide bomber. While the military defeat of the Jihad may have no direct effect on Islamic doctrine, it will probably encourage ideological substitution and adaptation away from it, in the same way that explosive vests replaced the VBIED. In other words, military setbacks for the Jihad have the effect of undermining people's faith in it. That undermining might be the most important result of all. A study by Radha Iyengar and Johnathan Monten at Harvard demonstrated the correlation between faith in victory and the ferocity of attacks in Iraq. The authors found that:
Using data on attacks and variation in access to international news across Iraqi provinces, we identify an “emboldenment” effect by comparing the rate of insurgent attacks in areas with higher and lower access to information about U.S news after public statements critical of the war. We find in periods after a spike in war-critical statements, insurgent attacks increases by 5-10 percent. The results suggest that insurgent groups respond rationally to expected probability of US withdrawal.
It was the allure while still undiminished by the recent effects of the Surge -- and usually from afar -- of "martyrdom" that was largely responsible for the suicide bombing carnage in Iraq. The average suicide bomber in Iraq, according to a profile released by the US military is that of a "young, lonely" man "struggling to make a mark".
They typically come from large, lower-income families in which they struggled to be noticed. "Most of these young men wanted to make an impression, but paradoxically they did not tell their families they were going off to Iraq to fight for Al Qaeda out of fear of disapproval," said Smith, a U.S. military spokesman.
Smith said most were from the Middle East and North Africa, including about 40% from Saudi Arabia. More than half of the approximately 240 foreign fighters in U.S. custody come from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, according to figures provided separately by the military. Smaller numbers were recruited in Jordan, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. In addition, several hundred foreign fighters are in Iraqi custody.
Most described their upbringing as religious but not extremist, Smith said. Many said their fathers were harsh and often abusive. Most reported little or no previous military experience. Before they were recruited, many worked as taxi drivers, construction workers and in other low-paying jobs. Others were students.
Their recruiters preyed on their desire for recognition, acceptance and friendship, Smith said.
As previously noted, the assembly lines of suicide bombing are cultural institutions largely spared from the effects of kinetic warfare. If they are motivated by "outrage" against US combat in Iraq, they are mostly motivated at second-hand by a deadly partnership of media and mosque.
Many detainees told their interrogators that they were first approached at their mosques. Others were approached at work and invited to attend discussions at the mosque.
These conversations would begin as a harmless discussion about Islam that over several weeks would shift to the war against U.S.-led forces in Iraq, he said.
The recruits were often shown videos of Americans purportedly abusing Iraqis and were urged to help avenge the mistreatment by killing Americans, Smith said. Insurgent strikes against U.S. forces also were shown.
Only when they had been molded into suicide weapons did military or clandestine logistics play any part. "Once they agreed to join the fight, most of the young men were flown to Syria and then smuggled into Iraq by road, he said. The facilitators who met them in Syria often entertained them at nightclubs and bars during the months it sometimes took to get them to Iraq, Smith said. But when they reached Iraq, those destined for suicide missions were sequestered in safe houses with copies of the Koran and few other amenities."
The Harvard study showed how demoralization adversely affects enemy military success. While this is the effect that one would expect to find, the larger lesson that that the wellsprings of enemy kinetic fighting capability lie in cultural and religious activity -- in this case partly encouraged by Western newspapers -- goes largely unappreciated. The source of the enemy's strength is, if not the Koran, a particular interpretation of it. But if the primary force generation tool of the Islamic radicalism are the ideas taught in Mosques and madrassas how can they be successfully countered? In particular, what would a Cultural or Religious Surge look like? One obvious front is in the media. The Harvard study shows how life-saving public discourse literally is.
But any Cultural Surge needs foot-soldiers to wage it and this case the reinforcement cannot come primarily from the military. But if not them, then who will wage the polemical war against religious nihilism? Gen Petraeus knew where to get the brigades for his kinetic reinforcement. Where do we find those who will argue against bombing pet markets? Where do we get the soldiers of religious belief and ideas?
One is tempted to say one may potentially find them in universities, divinity schools and in the media of the West. But the reality is that is but faint hope. Not until these institutions reform themselves to fight against the suicide bomber; a reform process that must be largely internal, can the intellectual warriors be generated in sufficient numbers. To a large extent winning the ideological fight against radical Islam means waging the war against the forces which have crippled the intellectual life of the West.
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