Reaping a bloody harvest

From Egyptian resorts to mosques in Pakistan, suicide bombings are the scourge of the Muslim world.

reap feat uf 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
reap feat uf 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Diving instructors spent the morning of April 25 combing the waters off the coast of Dahab for body parts - the grisly debris from the triple suicide bombing that rocked the popular Red Sea resort town the day before. Wearing latex gloves in addition to their regular gear, the six divers take turns coming ashore to hand off black plastic bags to Egyptian police. Meanwhile, shopkeepers on the promenade swept up shards of glass and washed away a long trail of bloody footprints. Nearly two dozen people, mostly Egyptians, lost their lives in the Dahab blasts, and for some, the pain of it all is too great to continue as if nothing happened. At least one longtime resident, jeweler Samir Mohammed Aboul el-Yazid, has decided not to reopen his stand. "I've lived here 16 years - almost as long as the Beduins," he says, his voice choked with emotion. "These people who died are my children. They killed my children." A large plaster globe rolls down the street between the Madonna Bazaar and the Santa Claus Jewelry Shop; once a sculpture of the earth, its pedestal has been snapped in two and the map of the western hemisphere completely torn off by the force of the blast. It is hard not to see it as an augury, a dark warning about the future of Sinai's tourism industry. "[Terrorists] are damning our homes, damning everything they touch," says Mohammed Abdel Mohsen Bakry, standing outside the Caponi Restaurant. From the hotels of Egypt to the Shiite mosques of Pakistan, suicide bombings have become the scourge of the Muslim world. They have killed over 3,100 civilians in Iraq and have even spread to Bangladesh, which has long insisted it had no Islamist problem. Muslims are furious over the attacks, but this has yet to be translated into a principled rejection of so-called "martyrdom operations." The Coming of the Shiites Before being hammered into submission, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt planned in 1954 to assassinate its archenemy, Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser. One plot involved the use of a dynamite belt, but the Brotherhood failed to find anyone who would wear it. As a result, the Middle East would wait another 27 years before witnessing its first suicide bombing - an attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut by al-Dawa, a Shiite precursor to Hizbullah. Hizbullah ("The Party of God") made its debut in 1982, and soon afterward became synonymous with speeding car bombs. It struck the U.S. embassy in Beirut twice and leveled the Marine Corps barracks, killing 241 servicemen and prompting an American retreat from Lebanon. It harried the Israel Defense Forces and its Christian allies, all with the blessings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Suicide bombings were not a problem for Khomeini: He used Iranian children as human minesweepers during his war with Iraq. As for the Lebanese Shiite scholar Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, he did not issue an official fatwa, but he too defended suicide attacks, declaring in 1985, "There is no difference between dying with a gun in your hand or exploding yourself." The Party of God eventually racked up some 40 suicide attacks, even inspiring a few copycats. Still, Lebanese society, divided along sectarian lines, took its time in warming up to this new form of martyrdom. "Hizbullah had a hard time finding local volunteers," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College. "According to U.S. naval intelligence, the driver in the Marine barracks bombing was Iranian." No Israeli Civilians For the most part, Hizbullah targeted foreign troops. Not so Palestinian factions. Beginning in April 1994, Hamas introduced so-called "martyrdom operations" to the malls, markets and commuter buses of Israel - a tactic at odds with both Islamic just war theory and, according to polls at the time, Palestinian public opinion. Justifying these attacks on civilians therefore required heavy retooling of religious norms, provided in part by an Egyptian-born Muslim Brotherhood scholar. The dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Qatar, Yusef al-Qaradawi contended then, as he does today, that Israel is one big army camp; therefore, killing its citizens does not constitute terrorism. The Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) translated a 2003 speech in which Qaradawi claims, "Every Israeli is a soldier in the army, either in practical terms or because he is a reservist soldier who can be summoned at any time for war." By contrast, a few scholars have come out against suicide terrorism. In April 2001, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, grand sheikh of al-Azhar University in Cairo, condemned the murder of civilians (though he has flip-flopped on the issue in the past), while the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia banned suicide bombings outright. However, Meir Litvak, a Middle East researcher at Tel Aviv University, notes that the two are in the minority. For their part, the Palestinian clergy actively cultivated a cult of martyrdom, praising suicide bombers as selfless soldiers of Allah and describing Israelis as "the sons of monkeys and pigs." No wonder a poll conducted by Birzeit University in October 2001 found that 26 percent of Palestinians thought Islam endorsed the 9/11 atrocities. (Another 9.6% were unsure.) Yet rather than reject the cult, many in the Muslim world have resorted to conspiracy theories when things get out of hand. "They claim that Mossad was behind 9/11 because not enough Jews were killed in Manhattan," says Yoram Kehati, a terrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "Some are saying the same thing about the recent Dahab attacks because Israel issued a security warning." But pointing at others will not make the threat go away. From Egypt to Iraq Long before Dahab, Egypt suffered its first suicide attacks - one, a failed assassination attempt on the interior minister in 1993 and the other the bombing of its embassy in Pakistan in 1995. Radical Islamists were responsible for the two strikes, but they never fielded a sustained suicide campaign against the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, they took to gunning down foreign tourists, like the 1997 massacre of over 60 Swiss and Japanese tourists at Luxor, in southern Egypt. However, in the last couple of years the two deadly trends have converged. Suicide bombers attacked targets such as the Taba Hilton in October 2004, tour groups in April 2005, and resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 (prompting the construction of a security fence in the area). Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, attributes this change to al-Qaida's influence on a new generation of terrorists. "The earlier attacks were responses to very specific individual cases," says Rubin, "while these are part of a new campaign in which suicide bombing is a prized tactic." Still, no place in the Middle East has seen more fratricide by way of suicide than Iraq: according to the Web site Iraq Body Count, there have been over 320 suicide bombings since Coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein in May 2003. But rather than American and British soldiers bearing the brunt, over 77% of those attacks have targeted Iraqi officials, security personnel and civilians - especially Shiites. "I would caution against reading too much into that statistic," warns Mahan Abedin, the editor of Terrorism Monitor, published by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC, "because the Americans are extremely hard targets to hit and there are only a few of them." Nevertheless, it's clear that a Sunni-Shiite civil war is unfolding. When the Coalition invaded, Iraq was a poor, sectarian society held in check by the iron will of a Sunni Arab dictator. With Saddam now gone, the minority Sunnis are doing all they can - including suicide attacks - to keep a Shiite-led government from emerging. Suicide Terrorism in South Asia Though neither falling apart nor under occupation, Pakistan has been wracked by suicide bombings since 2002. At first, the terrorists attacked Western targets, but they soon turned on their fellow Muslims. For example, in February, a Sunni radical blew himself up amidst a Shiite religious procession in the North West Frontier Province, killing over 40 celebrants. The attack was motivated by pure bigotry - the same sort of prejudice that, in the past, led to creation of sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a terrorist group working to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state. "Sunni and Shiites have been slaughtering each other in Pakistan for the past 30 years," says Mary Anne Weaver, author of Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan, "but suicide bombings are relatively new. It's a legacy of the [anti-Soviet] jihad in neighboring Afghanistan and spillover from Iraq." In other words, Iraq offered a new twist on martyrdom to a society already primed for it. During the Afghan jihad, Pakistan funneled CIA money to some of the most radical Islamist paramilitaries (and even tried to sell them on suicide bombings); in 1992, the government switched clients and backed the Taliban, a relationship it maintained until 9/11. Pakistan's religious right has also applauded suicide attacks by Muslim separatists in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan is the perfect case of the chickens coming home to roost. By contrast, the situation in nearby Bangladesh is a bit of a surprise. During the Muslim country's war of independence from Pakistan, in 1971, local Islamists fought on the side of Islamabad - discrediting themselves in the eyes of many Bangladeshis for years to come. In fact, the government played down any notions of an Islamist problem until last August, when the previously banned Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) detonated over 450 salt shaker-sized bombs in a single day. After the country-wide bomblet attack, the JMB demanded that the country adopt Islamic law and followed up in November and December with five suicide bombings that killed Communists, lawyers and judges. The government responded with a crackdown of sorts, but Anand Kumar, an analyst with the Indian think tank South Asia Analysis Group, insists that radicals have sunk deep roots, maintaining training centers in 57 of the country's 64 districts. Indeed, many believe that the South Asian country has not seen the last of suicide bombings. "It is more likely to grow in Bangladesh in future, as there is a half-hearted attempt to suppress the growing militancy," says Animesh Roul, research coordinator at the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict in New Delhi. It's Personal Now that suicide bombings have come to Muslim countries, has this generated any empathy for Israel, India or other countries that have experienced similar terror in the past? Among some quarters, it has. But on the whole, Muslim scholars (and with them, their communities) are content with a selective condemnation of these attacks - bad when used against fellow Muslims, good when used against the enemy. But do the ends justify the means? In July 2005, Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, a former dean of Islamic law , wrote an article in the Qatari daily al-Raya criticizing those who sanctify suicide terrorism. Translated by MEMRI, al-Ansari asks rhetorically, "Is the Muslim permitted to blow himself up among others because they are enemies?... Are we justifying barbaric operations with the claim that we were done an injustice and that we are victims?" Egypt and the Arab League took a similarly principled stand when, in April, they condemned the Palestinian suicide attack at the old Tel Aviv bus station that killed nine people. However, most others judge suicide bombings on a case-by-case basis. For instance, a poll conducted in December 2005 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 88% of Palestinians opposed al-Qaida's triple bombing at hotels in Amman. Clearly, the respondents had a problem with the target, not the tactic, as a different survey the same year found that 65% of Palestinians back al-Qaida operations in the United States and Europe. But there is no need to read between the lines of opinion polls: leading Islamic scholars have been quite explicit about where they stand on the issue. In May 2005, jurists in Pakistan forbade suicide attacks at home but said their decree did not apply to Indian-controlled Kashmir - a declaration repeated this April, when the leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood condemned suicide bombings in Sinai but justified them against Israel. It's a myopic attitude toward the cult of martyrdom, says Rifaat Hussain, the executive director at the Colombo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. But, he says, it will take Muslims a long time to realize they are handling a double-edged sword. "My own sense is that, unfortunately, suicide bombings will only be dealt with once they have become more widespread [in Muslim countries]," he concludes. With reporting from Dahab by Vivian Salama.