The Cult of the Suicide Bomber
By Robert Fisk
14/03/08 “The Independent” — – Khaled looked at me with a broad smile. He was almost laughing. At one point, when I told him that he should abandon all thoughts of being a suicide bomber – that he could influence more people in this world by becoming a journalist – he put his head back and shot me a grin, world-weary for a man in his teens. “You have your mission,” he said. “And I have mine.” His sisters looked at him in awe. He was their hero, their amanuensis and their teacher, their representative and their soon-to-be-martyred brother. Yes, he was handsome, young – just 18 – he was dressed in a black Giorgio Armani T-shirt, a small, carefully trimmed Spanish conquistador’s beard, gelled hair. And he was ready to immolate himself.
A sinister surprise. I had travelled to Khaled’s home to speak to his mother. I had already written about his brother Hassan and wanted to introduce a Canadian journalist colleague, Nelofer Pazira, to the family. When Khaled walked on to the porch of the house, Nelofer and I both realised – at the same moment – that he was next, the next to die, the next “martyr”. It was his smile. I’ve come across these young men before, but never one who so obviously declared his calling.
His family sat around us on the porch of their home above the Lebanese city of Sidon, the sitting room adorned with coloured photographs of Hassan, already gone to the paradise – so they assured me – for which Khaled clearly thought he was destined. Hassan had driven his explosives-laden car into an American military convoy at Tal Afar in north-western Iraq, his body (or what was left of it) buried “in situ” – or so his mother was informed.
It’s easy to find the families of the newly dead in Lebanon. Their names are read from the minarets of Sidon’s mosques (most are Palestinian) and in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, the Sunni “Tawhid” movement boasts “hundreds” of suiciders among its supporters. Every night, the population of Lebanon watches the brutal war in Iraq on television. “It’s difficult to reach ‘Palestine’ these days,” Khaled’s uncle informed me. “Iraq is easier.”
Too true. No one doubts that the road to Baghdad – or Tal Afar or Fallujah or Mosul – lies through Syria, and that the movement of suicide bombers from the Mediterranean coasts to the deserts of Iraq is a planned if not particularly sophisticated affair. What is astonishing – what is not mentioned by the Americans or the Iraqi “government” or the British authorities or indeed by many journalists – is the sheer scale of the suicide campaign, the vast numbers of young men (only occasionally women), who wilfully destroy themselves amid the American convoys, outside the Iraqi police stations, in markets and around mosques and in shopping streets and on lonely roads beside remote checkpoints across the huge cities and vast deserts of Iraq. Never have the true figures for this astonishing and unprecedented campaign of self-liquidation been calculated.
But a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. This is a very conservative figure and – given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people – the true estimate may be double this number. On several days, six – even nine – suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability. If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper.
This is perhaps the most frightening and ghoulish legacy of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq five years ago. Suicide bombers in Iraq have killed at least 13,000 men, women and children – our most conservative estimate gives a total figure of 13,132 – and wounded a minimum of 16,112 people. If we include the dead and wounded in the mass stampede at the Baghdad Tigris river bridge in the summer of 2005 – caused by fear of suicide bombers – the figures rise to 14,132 and 16,612 respectively. Again, it must be emphasised that these statistics are minimums. For 529 of the suicide bombings in Iraq, no figures for wounded are available. Where wounded have been listed in news reports as “several”, we have made no addition to the figures. And the number of critically injured who later died remains unknown. Set against a possible death toll of half a million Iraqis since the March 2003 invasion, the suicide bombers’ victims may appear insignificant; but the killers’ ability to terrorise civilians, militiamen and Western troops and mercenaries is incalculable.
Never before has the Arab world witnessed a phenomenon of suicide-death on this scale. During Israel’s occupation of Lebanon after 1982, one Hizbollah suicide-bombing a month was considered remarkable. During the Palestinian intifadas of the 1980s and 1990s, four per month was regarded as unprecedented. But suicide bombers in Iraq have been attacking at the average rate of two every three days since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion.
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