Behind the Workings of Suicide Bombers

Robert Siegel talks with Bruce Hoffman, terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, about the recruiting, funding and psychology of suicide bombers in Iraq. Hoffman says most of the bombers are recruited from outside the country.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Iraqi insurgents have organized many suicide bombings over the past year. How they do that is a question we're going to put now to Bruce Hoffman, who studies terrorism at the RAND Corporation

And, Bruce Hoffman, perhaps I've begged the question by saying the insurgents have organized all the suicide bombings. How organized a campaign is it?

Mr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Terrorism Expert, RAND Corporation): It's a fairly well-organized campaign, because certainly over the past two-plus years, the insurgents have been fairly effective in sustaining this particular tactic. So in other words, they have a flow of recruits that they can, of course, either strap a belt bomb or a vest bomb onto, or else put in a vehicle that's loaded with explosives and send towards their target.

SIEGEL: Who are these recruits?

Mr. HOFFMAN: It seems to be that the majority of suicidal terrorists in Iraq are foreign jihadists. What we know in general is that it seems like the largest single demographic group is from Saudi Arabia, and then it flattens more or less. The next highest is Syrians, Kuwaitis and then throughout the Middle East, the Gulf, North Africa and Europe, as well.

SIEGEL: What does it say then about the larger insurgency in Iraq that these are the people who seem to be doing the most damage?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think that for Salafist jihadists, or for radical jihadists, that Iraq has become something of a rallying cry in that this is the next battleground where they believe they have to descend on to defend Islam. So they see this as almost an obligation. And the opportunities for martyrdom, I think, interestingly enough, is what attracts them. I mean, it's precisely the opportunity to surrender their lives that is used very effectively to recruit foreign jihadists into the country and to engage in suicide attacks.

SIEGEL: Have the suicide bombings in Iraq generated the kind of trading card subculture that one can find, say, in Gaza, where in addition to cards there are posters all over the wall commemorating the martyrs who died in the cause?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Interestingly, I think in Iraq, it's less of a personal phenomenon. In other words, the bombers in Gaza, for example, achieve a notoriety in death that perhaps eluded them in life, and they're celebrated in posters and on calendars and on key chains and so on and it becomes very much the individual who's being a martyr.

In Iraq, the suicide attacks are, indeed, celebrated, but it's more an organizational or operational level, in other words where the groups behind it circulate DVDs, videotapes of the attack. And that's basically how these are both celebrated and then perpetuated and seen to be a positive and very effective, if not instrumental, weapon against both the United States and the Iraqi government.

SIEGEL: Now you were advising or consulting the Coalition Provisional Authority when it was still in operation in Baghdad about counterterrorism issues.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Specifically about countering suicide terrorism, yes.

SIEGEL: Since that time, there's still been a lot of suicide terrorism. Does that suggest that whatever the fight here is they are winning?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think, indisputably, suicide terrorism worldwide is amongst the most effective terrorist tactics, primarily because it's not only that--very effective in getting as close to the intended target as possible, you have what is, in essence, the ultimate human smart bomb or human cruise missile, perhaps driving a vehicle or even walking on foot. But in other words, that bomb can home in as close to the target as possible and inflict the maximum damage. It also has, I think, a devastating psychological impact on the society, because it creates the impression that there's no way to defend against it.

However, there are means to defend against it, but it requires eternal vigilance, it requires considerable training and it requires, in many instances, various rings of defense that are constantly manned by people specifically on alert for suicide bombers. And we saw that. This was a tactic that was foiled, for instance, during the elections last January. It was also foiled when I was in Iraq last year at the Arbaeen Festival last April. So it can be prevented, but it really does require vigilance, training and deployment of forces.

SIEGEL: But if there were adequate vigilance, if there were an adequate effort to counter this form of terrorism, wouldn't there be some general buzz of news to the effect of, `A would-be suicide bomber was arrested somewhere in Iraq yesterday,' or `A bomb factory was discovered and a number of vests were found.' And we're not hearing that sort of thing, are we?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, and I think that's because--you've hit the nail on the head of what the other critical element is in countering suicide terrorism, and that's excellent intelligence. And that's what the Israelis, since 2002 in their own situation with the West Bank and Gaza, have been able to achieve, where they claim they've thwarted upwards of 85 to 90 percent of the suicide attacks before they're even mounted. And they will also say, `Once an attack is set in motion, it's almost impossible to derail.' And that's what's, I think, proven so enormously challenging in Iraq is the paucity of intelligence means that we only can rely on the last line of defense, which is the physical defense against this threat, and that's the most permeable.

SIEGEL: Bruce Hoffman, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. HOFFMAN: You're very welcome.

SIEGEL: Bruce Hoffman studies terrorism at the RAND Corporation. He spoke to us from Arlington, Virginia.

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