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Invisible, invincible

Iraq and Afghanistan reveal the kind of damage a steady supply of suicide attackers can inflict on both civilians and security forces, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2007, 23:02 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times

It’s the age of new terror. Suicide bombers are its symbol. They embody a breed that no longer recognises national boundaries and whose battle is no longer triggered by resistance to occupation. If September 11, 2001, marked the beginning of a new and frightening phase in striking fear and terror into people, Iraq and Afghanistan reveal the kind of damage a steady supply of suicide attackers can inflict on both civilians and security forces. (This is not to deflect attention from the ferocious, non-suicidal insurgency in Iraq.)

The internet provides terrorist groups with unprecedented access to the world outside from releasing propaganda videos to posting ‘messages’ from terrorist bosses the web is the ultimate forum for extremist groups. And it can’t be regulated.

According to Mohamed Hafez, author of Suicide Bombers in Iraq, 53 of the 124 suicide bombers identified in the embattled West Asian nation were Saudi nationals. Italy and Syria provided eight each, while seven came from Jordan. Only 18 of the 124 bombers were Iraqis.

Iraq, like Afghanistan during Soviet times, is a melting pot for terrorists of all hues and colours, inspired by visions of bliss in heaven. The entry of Saudis and Kuwaitis for undertaking suicide missions in Iraq points to the potency of al-Qaeda propaganda and its ability to attract recruits to the ‘cause’. More often than not, Iraqi civilians face the brunt of the suicide attackers. However, the presence of foreign troops in Iraq is a live issue and the United States and its allies really haven’t been able to deliver security, peace and democracy as they had promised.

The civil war in Iraq is dangerous not just for Iraqis, but for the entire neighbourhood. Already, foreign troops in Iraq present a target for Saudis and Kuwaitis wanting to ‘do their bit’ by participating in a jehad against the Americans. For instance, the figure of 53 Saudi nationals undertaking suicide missions points to a dangerous radicalisation of Saudi society, a country that continues to live under a Wahabi-style dictatorship.

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago professor, claims in another study that suicide attacks had more than doubled each year from the US-led invasion in 2003 to 2005. In 2006, such attacks increased by a third. Since January 2004, Pape points out, the US military had reported 1,400 suicide attacks. “The Iraq War has failed to serve a single major US foreign policy objective. It has not made the United States safer; it has not advanced the war on terror; it has not made Iraq a stable State; it has not spread democracy to the Middle East; and it has not enhanced US access to oil,” Peter W Galbraith writes in The End of Iraq.

Setting the phenomenon in a global context, a new United Nations report points out that suicide attacks have taken place across South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia, the Americas, Europe, Russia and Africa. “Between 2000 and 2004, there were 472 suicide attacks in 22 countries, which killed more than 7,000 persons and injured tens of thousands. Most of these were perpetrated by Islamist groups,” stated a study released earlier this month by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

The study, entitled ‘Suicide Missions in Afghanistan (2001-2007)’, argues that suicide attackers were the ultimate smart bombs. “They inflict terror by moving among his or her targets, calculating the optimum time and place for maximum carnage, signaling to their adversary a willingness to do anything to achieve the aims of the group.” Suicide bombers provide “macabre theatre”, in which even failed attempts get media attention, “captivating and horrifying the target population”, denigrating public confidence in the State’s ability to provide security, and propagating images of the attacker’s martyrdom.

Like in Iraq, the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan is on the upswing, although, mercifully, bombers here have been less successful in the damage inflicted. Between January and June this year, there were as many as 77 suicide attacks in Afghanistan while 2006 saw 123 such missions. In 2005, there were 17 suicide attacks in the whole year. Many of the suicide bombers, the report noted, were from Pakistan or Afghans raised in refugee camps in Pakistan.

Of course, the first suicide attack in Afghanistan was none other than the September 9, 2001, assassination of Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Masood in his headquarters in the Panjsher Valley. In all the years of bloody conflict, first with the Soviets and then among themselves, there wasn’t a single case of a suicide attack taking place in Afghanistan. After the Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan in 1989, the world saw the emergence of local jehadis in countries as far away as the Philippines and Somalia; out-of-work militants were looking for other Islamist causes to take up. A non-State in Afghanistan, under the control of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, provided the perfect staging ground for the 9/11 attacks in the US. The world paid the price for forgetting Afghanistan.

The real danger from Iraq and Afghanistan lies precisely here. In both these countries, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been provided hunting grounds. A massive 1,50,000 American troops having been reduced to the status of bystanders. Both Iraq and Afghanistan point to the abysmal failure of political leadership — one that has both acceptance and credibility. More than four years after the invasion of Iraq and seven years after a UN-sponsored intervention in Afghanistan, the situation in both countries is deteriorating. The ouster of Saddam Hussein was cause for immense celebration among the people of Iraq. But what has followed after the American invasion is unmitigated disaster. Terror networks, as the Iraqis know, have taken root in their country. “The situation in Iraq, more than anything else, has provided al-Qaeda with a safe haven and with endless hordes of fighters eager to die opposing the US occupation of the country,” concludes Abdel Bari Atwan in his The Secret History of al-Qaida.

Often, dangers to societies and countries present themselves years after the events have played themselves out. The danger from Iraq-Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to West, Central and South Asia — not to speak about the rest of the world — is immense. Already, the radicalisation of some Muslims living in Western societies appears to be a function of perceived ‘anti-Muslim’ actions of their governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmeds, or those responsible for the July 7, 2005, train bombings in London, are precisely such products.

A law and order approach to fighting jehadi terrorism is essential. But in itself, this cannot yield results. The battle against terrorism, especially new terror like transnational suicide missionaries, has to be waged politically in the domain of ideas.

As political changes manifest themselves in countries that led the charge in Iraq, the new leaders must realise that solutions from outside just don’t work. They only complicate difficult situations.

If, in the past, the West, especially Britain, rightly robbed the terrorist of what Margaret Thatcher had called the ‘oxygen of publicity’, today it’s essential for ‘causes’ like the foreign ‘anti-Islamic’ occupation of Iraq to be removed from the propaganda arsenal of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Foreign policy choices are critical in minimising the danger from terrorists and terrorism — jehadi or otherwise. Only smart policies can counter ‘smart bombs’.

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