The scene after a suicide bomber drove into a fuel truck in Baghdad, killing 11, on April 19.
The scene after a suicide bomber drove into a fuel truck in Baghdad, killing 11, on April 19.
Getty Images

Deadly Embrace

Reviewed by Fawaz A. Gerges
Sunday, October 21, 2007

SUICIDE BOMBERS IN IRAQ The Strategy and Ideology Of Martyrdom

By Mohammed M. Hafez | US Institute of Peace. 285 pp. $17.50

A POISONOUS AFFAIR America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja

By Joost R. Hiltermann | Cambridge Univ. 314 pp. $29

MERCHANT OF DEATH Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

By Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun | Wiley. 308 pp. $25.95

The new Iraq has set a world record, not in the rapid construction of democracy, but in suicide bombings. Since the American-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has suffered nearly 1,000 suicide attacks, more than double the number carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel, combined. The majority of these attacks targeted Iraqi security forces and Shia civilians, not coalition troops.

As Americans contemplate this morass, one of the saddest questions is whether it is partly "blowback" -- intelligence jargon for what goes around, comes around. The fact that the United States once backed Osama bin Laden and other jihadis against the Soviets in Afghanistan is well known. But three new books, and my own recent experience, suggest that there are other kinds of blowback in the war on terror, some of them little recognized.

Far from "draining the swamp" of terrorism, as U.S. architects of the war had hoped, the new Iraq imports suicide terrorists and exports bombing techniques, most notably to Afghanistan, where insurgents are now copying the improvised explosive devices that have proved so devastating to U.S. forces in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.

The old Iraq, though a place of stunning brutality and repression, never saw suicide terrorism and shunned al-Qaeda's ideology and tactics. But in the last 15 months, I have interviewed scores of Arab and Muslim teens all over the Middle East and Europe who say they want to join the fight against the American "occupiers." They say their local clerics tell them stories about atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers and instruct them that jihad is an individual obligation. These teenagers -- whom I met in the Gulf states, Lebanon, Palestinian refugee camps, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Spain, France and Italy -- are trying to raise several hundred dollars each to make their way to Iraq through Syria. Most have no previous connection to Islamist militancy or al-Qaeda, but many talk about sacrificing themselves in "martyrdom operations."

In Suicide Bombers in Iraq, Mohammed Hafez seeks to understand what drives such men and, in rare cases, women. He believes they are mainly non-Iraqis, though he warns that it is impossible to reach firm conclusions about where, precisely, they come from, what motivates them and how recruiters have mobilized so many in a short time. "It is not clear who is carrying out most of the suicide attacks in Iraq," he admits.

The uncertainty is widely shared. Analysts worldwide have been unable to arrive at a useful socioeconomic or psychological profile of suicide bombers in Iraq. Some are from poor families in developing countries such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Morocco and Pakistan, while others come from affluent homes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, England and Italy. They are educated and uneducated. The bulk seem to be in their teens and 20s, but more than a few are in their 30s to 50s. And while some bombers have had previous links to violent activism, for others the suicide attack is their first (and last) offense. The only consensus among analysts, Hafez says, is that suicide bombers are not simply crazy or born violent.

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