"The New Martyrs Go Global"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
November 18, 2005
Author: Assaf Moghadam, Former Associate, International Security Program (ISP)/Initiative on Religion in International Affairs (RIIA), 2009–2010; former Research Fellow, ISP/RIIA, 2007–2009; former Research Fellow, ISP, 2004–2006
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
This op-ed was reprinted as as "Suicide Bombers Go Global" in the International Herald Tribune on November 21, 2005.
THE GEOGRAPHIC spread of suicide attacks, which reached the Jordanian capital of Amman last week, tells an alarming tale: Unlike the suicide bombers of the '80s and '90s, the grievances motivating today's bombers are less concrete and more virtual and vicarious. To curb the recent spate of suicide missions we must understand this fundamental shift in the causes that give rise to human bombs.
Since modern suicide attacks began in the early 1980s in Lebanon, this tactic has been employed mostly by fighters in localized conflicts with identified belligerent parties that were geographically confined.
Traditionally, suicide missions have been used by organizations seeking to establish a national homeland or ward off a foreign occupier — meaning that the attacks happened close to home. For instance, Hezbollah — the pioneer of modern suicide bombings — conducted the overwhelming majority of its suicide attacks in Southern Lebanon to rid its territory of the Israel Defense Forces. Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, a radical insurgent organization fighting for an independent Tamil homeland, has restricted most of its estimated 200 suicide attacks against the ethnic Sinhalese to Sri Lanka proper.
Traditionally, recruits who turned themselves into human bombs have tended to be locals as well. More than 99 percent of Palestinian suicide bombers since 1993, for example, have been from the West Bank or Gaza. In over a dozen suicide bombings against its Turkish nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party similarly relied on local Kurdish recruits.
Most suicide bombings of the 1980s and 1990s were in response to occupation. But resistance to occupation does not explain some of the most fatal bombings the world has seen since 9/11 in Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, London, Baghdad, Riyadh, and now Amman. So what characterizes the new globalization of martyrdom? Three elements are critical:
First, the new globalized phenomenon of suicide attacks is transnational in nature and in its aspirations. Today's human bombs are more ambitious geographically and politically and are operated by cells connected to transnational movements. Modern martyrs often sacrifice themselves beyond their own borders, as became painfully apparent to the United States on 9/11. In Iraq, too, the overwhelming majority of suicide bombers are from Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other countries, but rarely Iraqis.
That the goals of the global jihad movement are transnational has recently been affirmed in a letter by Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he calls for the establishment of a caliphate "in the manner of the prophet," to be spread over as many countries as possible. This leads followers to believe that apostate regimes such as the House of Saud or the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan must be overthrown in the process.
Second, the new martyrdom is driven by a humiliation that differs significantly from the concrete grievances of traditional suicide bombers. The motives of the bombers of Bali, London, and most probably those of Amman are not rooted in the humiliation of a personally experienced occupation.
Many of today's martyrs, in fact, have enjoyed a relatively comfortable upbringing. Theirs is a suffering and humiliation felt vicariously through the calamities of their brethren in Iraq and Palestine. They are humiliated partly by the guilt over living a relatively worry-free life in comparison with their brothers under occupation in the West Bank and the Sunni triangle.
The third fundamental element is the role of the Internet which, as global jihad scholar Reuven Paz has noted, has turned into an "open university of jihad." The Web plays a crucial role in the indoctrination, training, and recruitment of today's martyrs. It exploits the humiliation and anger sensed by many Muslims, while offering them an opportunity to "make a difference." It appeals to would-be-bombers to undo their fellow Muslims' plight by sacrificing themselves for the sake of a new, transnational Muslim nation.
Some have argued that ending occupation in Iraq and other places is the key to solving the jihadist problem. But we should be disabused of the belief that withdrawal alone will appease the new martyrs. Instead, the countries affected by suicide attacks must step up the battle for the hearts and minds of alienated young Muslims. This war of ideas should expose the hypocrisy of global jihad, but it must also consist of a more sensitive engagement with the Muslim world.
Assaf Moghadam is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's JFK School of Government and author of the forthcoming book "The Roots of Terrorism."
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