'Martyrs' In Iraq Mostly Saudis

By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Before Hadi bin Mubarak Qahtani exploded himself into an anonymous fireball, he was young and interested only in "fooling around."

Like many Saudis, he was said to have experienced a religious awakening after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and dedicated himself to Allah, inspired by "the holy attack that demolished the foolish infidel Americans and caused many young men to awaken from their deep sleep," according to a posting on a jihadist Web site.

On April 11, he died as a suicide bomber, part of a coordinated insurgent attack on a U.S. Marine base in the western Iraq city of Qaim. Just two days later, "the Martyrdom" of Hadi bin Mubarak Qahtani was announced on the Internet, the latest requiem for a young Saudi man who had clamored to follow "those 19 heroes" of Sept. 11 and had found in Iraq an accessible way to die.

Hundreds of similar accounts of suicide bombers are featured on the rapidly proliferating array of Web sites run by radical Islamists, online celebrations of death that offer a wealth of information about an otherwise shadowy foe at a time when U.S. military officials say that foreign fighters constitute a growing and particularly deadly percentage of the Iraqi insurgency.

The account of Qahtani's death, like many other individual entries on the Web sites, cannot be verified. But independent experts and former government terrorism analysts who monitor the sites believe they are genuine mouthpieces for the al Qaeda-affiliated radicals who have made Iraq "a melting pot for jihadists from around the world, a training group and an indoctrination center," as a recent State Department report put it. The sites hail death in Iraq as the inspiration for a new generation of terrorists in much the same way that Afghanistan attracted Muslims eager to fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Rosters of the Dead

Who are the suicide bombers of Iraq? By the radicals' account, they are an internationalist brigade of Arabs, with the largest share in the online lists from Saudi Arabia and a significant minority from other countries on Iraq's borders, such as Syria and Kuwait. The roster of the dead on just one extremist Web site reviewed by The Washington Post runs to nearly 250 names, ranging from a 13-year-old Syrian boy said to have died fighting the Americans in Fallujah to the reigning kung fu champion of Jordan, who sneaked off to wage war by telling his family he was going to a tournament.

Among the dead are students of engineering and English, the son of a Moroccan restaurateur and a smattering of Europeanized Arabs. There are also long lists of names about whom nothing more is recorded than a country of origin and the word "martyr."

Some counterterrorism officials are skeptical about relying on information from publicly available Web sites, which they say may be used for disinformation. But other observers of the jihadist Web sites view the lists of the dead "for internal purposes" more than for propaganda, as British researcher Paul Eedle put it. "These are efforts on the part of jihadis to collate deaths. It's like footballers on the Net getting a buzz out of knowing somebody's transferred from Chelsea to Liverpool." Or, as Col. Thomas X. Hammes, an expert on insurgency with the National Defense University, said, "they are targeted marketing. They are not aimed at the West."

Zarqawi Lures Attackers

Many of the Arabs, according to the postings, were drawn to fight in Iraq under the banner of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the group run by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi that has taken credit for a gruesome series of beheadings, kidnappings and suicide attacks -- many of them filmed and then disseminated on the Internet in a convergence between the electronic jihad and the real-life war.

In recent days, the U.S. military in Iraq has stepped up its campaign against the Zarqawi network, launching an offensive in western Iraq in an area where foreigners are believed to be smuggled across the Syrian border and claiming to have arrested or killed nearly two dozen key Zarqawi lieutenants. At the same time, Iraq has been hit by a wave of suicide attacks causing about 400 deaths over the last two weeks, one of the deadliest periods since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

As the military has blamed much of the escalating violence on foreign fighters coming to Iraq, Zarqawi's group responded this week. "The infidels once again are claiming that foreign fighters are responsible for initiating the attacks and an increase [in foreign fighters] is the true danger," the Zarqawi media wing said in a May 10 Internet posting. But "the real danger," the posting said, is Zarqawi's overall following. And besides, it added, "who is the foreigner . . .? You are the ones who came to the land of the Muslims from your distant corrupt land."

U.S. military estimates cited by security analysts put the number of active jihadists at about 1,000, or less than 10 percent of the number of fighters in a mostly Iraqi-dominated insurgency. But military officials now say the foreigners are responsible for a higher percentage of the suicide bombings, and the online postings include few names of dead Iraqis affiliated with Zarqawi's group.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company