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     Jul 25, 2007
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The world's worst suicide bombers
By Brian Glyn Williams

Suicide bombing statistics from Afghanistan alarmingly demonstrate that, if the current trend continues, 2007 will surpass last year in the number of overall attacks.

While there were 47 bombings by mid-June 2006, there were about 57 during the same period this year. Compounding fears of worse carnage to come, Afghanistan's most lethal single suicide bombing attack to date recently took the lives of 35 Afghan police

trainers near Kabul.

When considering the expanding use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the discovery of the first Iraqi-style explosively formed projectile (EFP) in Afghanistan in May (ie, a more deadly form of IED that has killed high numbers of soldiers in Iraq), it is understandable that critics of the war in Afghanistan discuss it in alarmist tones.

About 80% of US casualties in Iraq come from IEDs, and members of the US and Afghan military who were interviewed for this study believe that the absence of mass-casualty suicide bombings and EFPs are the two factors that made Afghanistan less dangerous than Iraq. A deeper investigation of the wave of suicide bombings that have swept the country in 2006 and 2007 paints a less bleak picture.

Missing the target
An analysis of the attacks carried out in the past two years reveals a curious fact. In 43% of the bombings conducted last year and in 26 of the 57 bombings traced in this study up to June 15 this year, the only death caused by the bombing was that of the bomber himself. This means that, astoundingly, about 90 suicide bombers in this two-year period succeeded in killing only themselves.

There was one period in the spring of 2006 (February 20 to June 21) when a stunning 26 of the 36 suicide bombers in Afghanistan (72%) killed only themselves. This puts the kill average for Afghan suicide bombers far below that of suicide bombers in other theaters of action in the area (Israel, Chechnya, Iraq and the Kurdish areas of Turkey).

Such unusual bomber-to-victim death statistics are, of course, heartening both for coalition troops - who have described the Afghan suicide bombers as "amateurs" - and for the Afghan people - who are usually the victims of the clumsy bombings.

These statistics also represent a uniquely Afghan phenomenon that warrants investigation. A part of the reason for the low kill ratio lies in the Taliban's unique targeting sets. As Pashtuns with a strong code (Pashtunwali) that glorifies acts of martial valor and badal (revenge), Afghan suicide bombers are more prone to hit "hard" military targets than callously obliterate innocent civilians in the Iraqi fashion. On the rare occasions where there have been high-casualty bombings of Afghan civilians, they tend to have been carried out by Arab al-Qaeda bombers. [1]

The Taliban's selective targeting is a calculated decision on the part of the Taliban shuras (councils) to avoid inciting the sort of anti-Taliban protests that led thousands in the Pashtun town of Spin Boldak to chant "Death to Pakistan, death to al-Qaeda, death to the Taliban" after a particularly bloody suicide bombing in that frontier city last year.

Taliban spokesman Zabiyullah Mujahed recently claimed, "We do our best in our suicide attacks to avoid civilian casualties. These are our Muslim countrymen, and we are sacrificing our blood to gain their freedom. Their lives are important to us, of course. But fighting with explosives is out of the control of human beings." Then he made an interesting admission that speaks to other factors that might explain the Afghan suicide bombers' failure rate. He stated, "We have a problem with making sure they attack the right targets, avoiding killing civilians."

Clearly, there is more to the Taliban bombers' stunning failure rate than simply "hard" targeting difficulties and an obvious reluctance to slaughter the Afghan constituency that the Taliban is trying to win over.

Members of the Afghan police, government and National Directorate of Security (NDS) who were interviewed about this trend during the months of April and May offered a surprisingly unanimous explanation for the Taliban bombers' poor showing. [2] They said it lay in the ineptitude of the people the Taliban were recruiting as fedayeen (suicide) bombers.

Afghan officials continually told stories of lower-class people who had been seduced, bribed, tricked, manipulated or coerced into blowing themselves up as "weapons of God" or "[Taliban leader] Mullah Omar's missiles". Afghan NDS officials also spoke of apprehended bombers who were deranged, retarded, mentally unstable or on drugs.

Such claims should, of course, be accepted with caution, for two reasons. First, the targets of suicide bombings are prone to speak in disparaging tones regarding the mental state and motives of those who carry out bombing attacks against them. They tend to describe them as mindless, insane, fanatical, drugged or brainwashed.

Second, in his groundbreaking work Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman has refuted the long-held notion that suicide bombers are impoverished, voiceless dupes tricked into killing themselves. Rather, he has shown them to be politically and religiously motivated. They are conscious actors who, like the multilingual and educated team that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001, do not need to be brainwashed.

Certainly, in the Afghan context, there are bombers who fit the Sageman profile. Several Taliban leaders have carried out bombings, and the al-Qaeda team that scrambled on short notice to launch the symbolically important mass-casualty bombing at Bagram Air Base during US Vice President Dick Cheney's February visit was clearly composed of "professionals" [3]

Nevertheless, interviews and field work conducted in Afghanistan for this study revealed considerable evidence that the "duped, bribed, brainwashed" paradigm applies to a growing percentage of the bombers being deployed in the Afghan theater. [4] Afghan police told of numerous incidents where citizens in Kabul reported finding abandoned suicide vests in the city. They seemed to signify a last-minute change of heart in several would-be bombers.
In one case, they told of a mentally deranged man who threw his vest at an Afghan patrol, assuming it would explode on its own. [5] Several of the bombers apprehended by the NDS were carrying mind-altering hallucinogens or sedatives, which they had been told to take to calm their fears during their last moments of life. Others, including a Taliban bomber who was arrested while pushing his explosives-laden car toward its target after it ran out of fuel, appear to be inept beyond belief. [6]

Recent media and think-tank reports have also mentioned the utilization as suicide bombers of an Afghan war invalid who was blind, another who was an amputee and one who was a disabled man whose only motive was to make money for his family. Coalition troops who have spoken of seeing bombers blow themselves up far from their convoys have characterized it as the act of drugged or mentally unstable bombers.

While this might explain some of the Afghan suicide bombers' failures, there also appears to be a financial motive behind several of the bombings that offers further explanation. United Nations 

Continued 1 2 

Suicide video gets Taliban message across (Jul 11, '07)

Fast and furious with the Taliban (Jun 27, '07)

Afghanistan: 'Two feet and a lot of skin' (Mar 29, '07)

1. Pakistan in the grip of a big squeeze 

2. In defense of genocide, redux 

3. The terror of state health care    

4India's US nuclear deal in last straight   

5. Turkish voters want more of the same

6. Harry Potter and India's curse 

7. China's risky bet in Somalia    

(24 hours to 11:59 pm, ET July 23, 2007)


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