Suicidal Ambitions: Human Bombs and the War in Iraq
By Matan Chorev
Review of Mohammed M. Hafez
Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom
(Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2007)
285 pages, $17.50 hardcover.
Since 2003, according to the United States Library of Congress, over 800 books on the Iraq war have been published in the U.S. alone, each of which aspires to provide some explanation for the seemingly inexplicable patterns of violence in Iraq. Any contribution to this mountain of printed knowledge faces the increasingly ambitious task of adding a semblance of clarity to the exceedingly complex conﬂagration that is Iraq’s Hobbesian reality.
In “Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom,” Mohammed M. Hafez applies his earlier research on Palestinian suicide bombers and the causes of rebellion in the Islamic world to analyze the patterns of suicide attacks in Iraq. His goal is twofold. First, Hafez assesses whether existing theories on suicide terrorism offer an analytic lens capable of explaining the phenomenon in Iraq. Second, he endeavors to explain the nature and goals of the insurgency, what it portends for the future of Iraq and the United States’ objectives, and its global repercussions.
In the book, Hafez examines conﬂict data from March 22, 2003, to August 18, 2006. Naturally, this timeframe disappoints. It predates important moments in the conﬂict, including the implementation of the latest effort at “victory,” the Baghdad Security Plan (i.e., “the surge”) announced in January 2007. Nonetheless, the study’s ﬁndings remain relevant in spite of the author’s rightfully modest insistence that they be viewed as “preliminary and subject to further research.”
During the period in question, approximately 514 suicide attacks took place—a ﬁgure greater than the number of suicide attacks reported in all other conﬂicts combined. Hafez argues that although they constitute a small proportion of insurgent activity in Iraq, “suicide attacks have a disproportionate impact on political developments in Iraq because of their targets, lethality, and psychological potency.”
To be sure, the book is an invaluable resource for understanding who exactly is volunteering to ﬁght and die in Iraq and why they are willing to do so. The author’s analysis makes important advances to existing theories that try to explain the existence, spread, and use of suicide bombings. Overall, however, the reader is left unconvinced as to whether the analytic prism of suicide terrorism advances, rather than distracts from, efforts to analyze the Iraqi conflict.
Hafez demonstrates that suicide terrorism in the Iraqi insurgency differs in important respects from its use in other conflicts. First, most of the suicide bombers are foreigners. Of the 102 known suicide bombers in Iraq listed by Hafez, 44 came from Saudi Arabia, by far the leading exporter of human bombs to Iraq. Second, suicide attacks primarily target fellow Iraqis, typically Shi‘a civilians and members of Iraq’s security services, and thus have been a major precipitating factor in Iraq’s civil war. Finally, rather than nationalists ﬁghting to expel occupying forces (the argument evinced most persuasively by University of Chicago’s Robert Pape in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism), the plurality of Iraq’s suicide bombers are afﬁliated with a “Jihadi Salaﬁst” movement championed by al-Qaeda and its associated movements mobilized by informal networks. The book aptly demonstrates that the existing theories are insufﬁcient in explaining the Iraqi case.
Hafez expounds upon social movement theory to offer a persuasive multi-causal explanation to those who wonder why so many volunteer to ﬁght and die in Iraq. His narrative includes the well-documented grievances of the insurgents, as well as the abysmal administration of the postwar political and security environment. Its main contribution, however, is its prescient analysis of the essential role of transnational networks that linked Arab, as well as European, Muslim jihadi aspirants with the necessary persons and know-how to make it to Iraq to fulﬁll their dreams of martyrdom.
It is here that Hafez’s regional expertise and ability to sift through the Arabic press, as well as the bottomless “jihadosphere,” helps color the book with distinctive analysis and insight. Readers will learn about how the ideology of martyrdom is framed and promoted, and how horriﬁc violence—even against fellow Muslims—is justiﬁed. It reveals the signiﬁcant ﬁssures that exist within the Islamic world. It is this struggle that will likely determine the progress of conflict in the region. It is also a confrontation on which the United States has minimal direct influence.
Hafez reserves the most intriguing analysis for the end of the book. He methodically demonstrates that the conditions which gave rise to the “second generation of jihadists” – those that succeeded the mujahedeeen in Afghanistan and brought down the towers in New York – are replicating in are replicating in Iraq and will give birth (if they haven’t already) to a third generation of glob- al jihadists with access to ever-deadlier weapons, more formidable transna- tional networks, and a new safe haven in Iraq. This ﬁnding is widely shared but has rarely received a sophisticated and well-substantiated treatment.
But do the ﬁgures about suicide terrorism in Iraq reveal anything more broadly about the complex warfare in Iraq? Hafez believes so. He attributes the majority of suicide attacks to “Jihadi Salaﬁsts” and “ideological Ba’athists” who are committed to a system collapse strategy—“the complete dismantlement of public order, governing political and economic
institutions, and state security forces.” The ensuing failed state will allow global jihadists associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to establish “a new safe haven to replace the one al-Qaeda lost after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001.”
The major Sunni insurgency in Iraq, however, is led by Islamic nationalists committed to a “system reintegration” strategy. Groups like the Islamic Army in Iraq share with AQI the goal of ousting the American occupiers, but they do not seek to dismantle the Iraqi government. Their goal, rather, is to reverse their marginalization in the postwar Shi‘a Arab-and Kurdish-dominated political arrangement and to guard against regional federalism.
This taxonomy is well within the consensus judgment of the analytic community. It is remarkable only because it counters the Bush administration’s imagined, if not fabricated, view of reality. In an effort to link the insurgency in Iraq with Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, President George W. Bush consistently blames AQI for carnage in Iraq. As noted by Andrew Tilghman’s provocative “The Myth of AQI” in the October 2007 issue of Washington Monthly, the President mentioned al-Qaeda 95 times in a single speech last July. The strategy works. The New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, in a July 8, 2007, article, censured his newspaper for wholesale adoption of the administration’s rhetoric that, through its uncritical journalistic practices, gave credibility to what Anthony Cordesman has understatedly called the “almost absurd” notion that AQI is a central element of the insurgency.
Hafez makes the case that suicide bombers have “dragged Iraq into civil war.” This analysis exaggerates the degree to which this tactic is a precipitating factor in Iraq’s civil war. Sectarian conﬂict is the inevitable outcome of the Bush administration’s bungling war effort to superimpose itself on the most inauspicious of preconditions. The Shi‘a insurgency, which unfortunately is largely untreated by Hafez (if only because of the dearth of Shi’a suicide bombers), and parasitic local militias struggling for power and spoils likely to play a greater role in fanning the flames of sectarianism in Iraq. As the August 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) notes, “Iraqi society’s growing polarization the persistent weakness of security forces and the state in general, and all sides’ ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism.” In Iraq, human bombs are but one ingredient in a most unsavory stew of violence.
There is little doubt in Hafez’s ﬁnding that the Iraq war has served as a “ﬁeld of dreams for jihadists seeking training, expertise, and experience in the ways and means of terrorism and guerilla warfare.” The Iraq war never had a thing to do with the war on terror, except, of course, that it went a long way in setting back its objectives. The new generation of terrorists and the millions of hearts and minds lost as a cause of this war will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most tragic of its innumerable negative consequences.
Decreased U.S. inﬂuence in the region will necessitate a return to the Cold War primacy of stability approach and thus sustain the very conditions that allow radical Islamic groups to mobilize support. Hafez correctly argues that the Iraqi petri dish is not likely to offer Jihadi Salaﬁs a campground as favorable as the one they enjoyed in Taliban Afghanistan. For one, this chafes against the country’s secular tradition. Second, Iraq’s Shi‘a majority is hardly a prospective bedfellow for Sunni Salaﬁst ideology.
But how does one contend with the fallout of U.S. failure in Iraq? On this point, the author is unsatisfactorily mum. Were one to follow Hafez’s analysis to its natural conclusion, it would reveal two important observations. The ﬁrst is that continued U.S. occupation will slow, not accelerate, AQI’s demise. This debunks the Bush administration’s last great reason for staying the course in Iraq. The second is that al-Qaeda has been rescued from extinction after the war in Afghanistan and has now, as the
July 2007 NIE assessed, restored the “key capabilities it would need to launch an attack on U.S. soil.” To refocus the ﬁght against al-Qaeda will require quickly extracting ourselves from the Iraq morass. Hafez’s valuable study rings the alarm bells on the difﬁcult challenges just over the horizon. We can only hope someone is listening.
Reprinted from The Fletcher Forum with kind permission of the author.
Matan Chorev is a researcher at the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.