Monday, July 25, 2005

The rise of a jihadi suicide culture

Dan Murphy:

Sharm el-Sheikh. London. Casablanca. The men who carried out the terrorist bombings in each of these cities came from dramatically different backgrounds.

In London, the attackers were lower middle-class Britons. In Casablanca in 2003, they were all from one of the city's poor neighborhoods. And in Sharm el-Sheikh Saturday - although the investigation into the deadliest terror attack in Egyptian history is just getting under way - local officials say there are indications the attackers have links to an attack here last October carried out by a cell of working-class Egyptians.

While some counterterrorism experts say evidence may eventually link all of these attacks to the core of Al Qaeda's leadership suspected of hiding along the Pakistan-Afghan border, the diverse backgrounds of the presumed attackers underscore a shift: The culture of Islamist suicide bombers is becoming more commonplace, as is the defining of civilians as "enemies."

Even in the wave of Islamist terror attacks that destabilized Egypt for much of the 1990s, suicide bombers weren't used. Now the country has seen two major attacks of this kind in eight months, with the latest death toll now at least 88.

What concerns counterterrorism experts is that tactics that once prompted fierce ideological debates within radical circles - suicide and attacks on civilians are both classically defined in Islam as sins - are now more likely to be embraced by young men. A decade or two ago, Muslim males might have been willing to take up a rifle and risk death fighting against the Soviets in the mountains of Afghanistan, but many would have balked at making the ultimate sacrifice or at blowing up civilians in a Moscow train station.

While the attacks on London and Egypt in recent days have dominated the headlines, Iraq appears to be playing a central role - in shifting views and as ground zero in a new wave in of suicide attacks.

"You can probably average it out to about one a day almost," says M.J. Gohel, a terrorism researcher at the Asia Pacific Foundation in London. (In June, the peak month in June 2004, there were 18 suicide bombings. This June, there were 30). "They're using them like confetti for what are frequently minor attacks, and what this shows is they have a virtually endless supply [of bombers] at this point. In the old days, suicide bombing was a rare event."

The tactical logic of the suicide bomber hasn't changed: He's difficult to stop, and equalizes the power differential between the militarily weak and the strong. But it appears, say some analysts, to have developed a momentum of its own. As it has become more common among the circles of supporters of the global jihad, taboos have been broken down creating a greater willingness among young men to take their own lives, which in turn feeds the cycle.

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