NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Earlier today, a suicide bomber in Iraq detonated a cart packed with explosives in front of a high school. Yesterday, 17 people died when a young man set off his suicide vest at a funeral ceremony in a Sunni village. And last week, a woman killed herself and eight others in a marketplace, the fourth female suicide bomber in Iraq since November.
Last fall, U.S. forces got a rare look at the backgrounds, nationalities, professions and the ages of 606 foreign fighters who entered Iraq. And most of them said they wanted suicide missions.
Today, we'll take a closer look at the people behind the numbers, talk about increased use of suicide attacks in other countries, and about why more suicide bombers are women.
If you want to know more about who these people are and what we actually know about them, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Later in the program, a tax rebate could be in your future. If you got one, what would you do with it?
But first, suicide bombers.
We begin with Karen DeYoung, senior diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post whose article on Iraq's foreign fighters appears yesterday. She joins us from the paper's studios here in Washington, D.C.
Nice to talk you again, Karen.
Ms. KAREN DeYOUNG (Senior Diplomatic Correspondent and Associate Editor, The Washington Post): Hello, Neal.
CONAN: And first of all, what are these documents and how did the U.S. military get a hold of them?
Ms. DeYOUNG: These are records kept by al-Qaeda in Iraq of the suicide bombers, the suicide - the foreign fighters who entered Iraq between August of 2006 and August of 2007. They were discovered by the U.S. Special Operations Command last fall in the town of Sinjar, which is a small town in northwestern Iraq along the Syrian border.
They are - essentially, they are questionnaires, where people coming across the border were asked a set of questions - who are you? How old are you? When were you born? Where did you come from? How did you get here? What is your profession? What are you bringing with you? Do you have something you'd like to contribute to the insurgency? And what do you want to do here?
CONAN: And it's sort of fascinating - and we'll get to the answers to those questions in just a minute. But al-Qaeda in Iraq has a bureaucracy, they have forms you have to fill out?
Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, you know, these are - the forms were analyzed by something called the Combating Terrorism Center, which is at West Point. They are kind of a repository for al-Qaeda and other - and terrorism group documents. And they have a lot of this stuff, which shows kind of the human resources department of al-Qaeda.
Obviously, al-Qaeda in Iraq is a slightly different organization, but it does follow some of the same patterns where you have thousands of people coming from all over the world. Somebody's got to keep track of them, somebody's got to figure out how they get from where they're coming from to where you want them to be and what they're going to do when they get there. They have to be fed. There are - there's a lot of bureaucracy involved.
CONAN: Didn't think of that. And we learned, unsurprisingly, that the majority of these foreign fighters are from Saudi Arabia - 40 percent, according to the figures.
Ms. DeYOUNG: Right.
CONAN: And nevertheless…
Ms. DeYOUNG: Right.
CONAN: …there - in terms of origin of these foreign fighters, there are some interesting surprises.
Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, as you said, 40 percent were from Saudi Arabia, which was no big surprise. What was surprising was that another 40 percent were from North Africa. And this is something that a lot of intelligence people have said is a trend. But it's really the first time we've seen it quite so starkly. Forty percent from North Africa and 19 percent were from Libya, which was a surprise. I think earlier estimates by the military, at least, were that - somewhere between 4 and 10 percent came from Libya. But this shows a much, much higher number.
CONAN: And not only from Libya, but from specific places in Libya. More than half, you note in your article, came from the coastal cities of Darnah and Benghazi, both long associated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which in November officially affiliated itself with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
Ms. DeYOUNG: Right. Well, I've seen - I think you've seen in Libya, you've seen in Algeria, to some extent in Morocco, you've seen these groups associate themselves more with al-Qaeda at least on a sort of public relations level. Although, in the case of Libya, you did see a senior Libyan militant leader appear most recently in some al-Qaeda videos.
So intelligence people have been looking for more of these kinds of associations. And this would seem to underline it. Again, these towns, as you mentioned, in Libya, are sort of the central areas where certainly the Libyan government and U.S. intelligence believe that militants are most prominent, where they tend to congregate, where there have been a number of attacks, where the Libyan military to the extent it's tried to fight against them has run into the most trouble.
CONAN: And it's interesting, as you look at the questions, the answers on these forms, it turns out people are from all over the place doing all kinds of different things.
Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, if they're to be believed what they tell - the people who are interviewing them, they come from - a lot of them said unemployed, a lot of them said student in terms of what their professions were. But there were all kinds of different professions. There were people who said they were lawyers, plumbers, carpenters, policemen, military people, pretty much anything you can think of. One man said - described his profession as massage therapist. Another one said he was a worker in Saudi Arabia on F15s. So all kinds of surprising information there.
It shows that, you know, a lot times we think that these are people who are from the lower strata, socioeconomic strata of wherever they're from. That they're poor, they're uneducated. And if these documents are to be believed, that's not necessarily the case for a whole lot of these people.
CONAN: We're talking with Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post about the seizure of the documents that show us years worth of foreign fighters on their way into Iraq from Syria, and who they are and what they hope to do.
And if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is email@example.com.
And Chuck is on the line. Chuck calling from San Francisco.
CHUCK (Caller): Thank you very much. This is a question I've been wondering about for a long time. Since I actually - shortly after 9/11, read an article about how some people, perhaps associated with the perpetrators, had been overheard in a strip club making anti-American remarks. And it got me thinking. The - I'm told that sometimes these guys are told to engage in that sort of behavior, to fit in and to camouflage their actual identities. But it would also seem like a very effective way to manipulate them psychologically, to get them to develop a sense of contempt for the host culture and a sense of self-loathing that in the context of their religious beliefs might kind of feel that - make them feel they had no way out, but to carry out the mission to get a kind of absolution for their sins.
So I'm wondering to what extent do we know about the personal histories of these people and their religious beliefs, and how this could be used by terror groups to manipulate them.
CONAN: And certainly not the strip clubs. I don't think there are any in Sinjar, but anyway…
CHUCK: Well, I've heard that the Middle East is a somewhat more complicated place than sometimes we think. I have not been there, though.
CONAN: Okay. Karen DeYoung, is there any indication that their cycle, their backgrounds were used to manipulate them?
Ms. DeYOUNG: There's nothing really in these documents that goes to specific motivation. But I think you can extrapolate some things looking at it. And this is what the Army center at West Point did by looking at where they come from, the towns they come from, what they said themselves about how they first came in contact with this network. I think most of them are people who come from a background that has already pushed them in this direction and have been around a lot like-minded people. So that it appears to be a fairly closed funnel. It's not people who are reacting to anything outside their own religious culture.
In other words, there are people who've come up through this religious culture and stay with it starting, say, in Benghazi, most of the Libyans went to Egypt where they were met up with - by coordinators who then sent them on to Damascus. And then, you have a group of people who get them from Damascus to the border. Some of them talked about being hidden in Damascus while they were waiting to be transported to the borders. So it didn't sound, at least from these documents, that they were interacting too much with people outside their own society.
CHUCK: Do you think, though, that there must be some sort of psychological manipulation being - going on here. And I'm wondering, it would seem like guilt would be a very effective way to do that. And if there were people who had some sort of problem in their past, they would be susceptible to this. Is anything known about that sort of thing?
Ms. DeYOUNG: That may be. But that's - it's not reflected in these documents. And I think that to the extent I'm aware that there've been studies of those kinds of things, it's generally people who have come up through this line of religious thought. It's not that they're converts to it at some point in their life because they feel bad about something they've done previously.
CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much.
CHUCK: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: Okay. And Karen DeYoung, you've been very careful to call them foreign fighters. Many of them, most of them, requested suicide missions, but in fact, do we know what they did?
Ms. DeYOUNG: No. We don't know. Probably, some people know. You know, all of these, this information has been fed into these massive databases that this country, at least - and I'm sure, many others - keep on names and all kinds of information that comes their way. Whether they've tied any of these names to any specific acts inside Iraq at this point, I don't know.
CONAN: And another question, what does this tell us about the organization al-Qaida in Iraq, which we are told has been consistently led by foreigners, but the majority of the people in it are said to be Iraqi Sunnis?
MS. DeYOUNG: I think it's always been assumed, certainly, by the U.S. military and intelligence, at least, that most of the suicide bombers have been foreigners. That the Iraqis themselves are perhaps less interested in the kind of global jihad that al-Qaeda's interested in and interested more in their own position inside Iraq. And so suicide bombers have tended to be foreigners.
Now, the military in Iraq says that based on these documents, they've concluded that they actually underestimated the number of foreigners who were suicide bombers. In other words, they earlier thought it was about 75 percent were foreigners. They now think it's a size - 90 percent.
CONAN: And how many were women?
Ms. DeYOUNG: None that I'm aware of, of these documents.
CONAN: Karen DeYoung, thank you very much. We appreciate your time.
Ms. DeYOUNG: You're very welcome.
CONAN: Karen DeYoung, senior diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, author of the book, "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell." Her article on Iraq's foreign fighters is titled, "Papers Paint New Portrait of Iraq's Foreign Insurgents." She joined us from the studios of the Washington Post here in Washington, D.C.
In just a moment, we'll be speaking with Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.
If you'd like to join our conversation about suicide bombers and why this practice has been spreading from Iraq to other countries, and why more suicide bombers are women, give us a call 800-989-8255. E-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
And we're talking today about suicide bombers, what we actually know about them, who they are, and what experiences might lead them to commit such an attack. Of course, we want to hear from you. If you have questions about suicide bombers, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us email@example.com.
Joining us now is Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, with us from the studios at the University of Chicago.
And nice to have you on the program today.
Professor ROBERT PAPE (Political Science, University of Chicago; Director, Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism): Great to be here.
CONAN: And we were just talking with Karen DeYoung about the Sinjar records. Have you looked at those? What do you make of them?
Prof. PAPE: Well, actually, these records are fairly consistent with the data that we've been collecting - myself and actually, other researchers - over the last few years about suicide terrorism in Iraq in particular. And the data that she's reporting is actually of foreign fighters who are entering. And as you just pointed out, not all of those go on to become suicide attackers. And the kind of data that I'm collecting, other scholars such as Mohammed Hafez are collecting, are actually trying to pin down who actually has done suicide terrorist attacks.
And when we collect that data, we still end up with a partial picture, that is, we can only confidently identify maybe as many as 15 or 20 percent of the individuals who've done suicide attacks in Iraq. But when we do, we end up with actually a picture that's not too far off from what you've just heard. That is, the largest two groups doing suicide attacks are Iraqi Sunnis and Saudis, and the next largest group actually comes from the other border states around Iraq itself. That is, the combination of Syria, Kuwait and Jordan account for a very large fraction. So that altogether, from - if you actually just look at the data of who has actually done suicide attacks in Iraq, about 75 percent have come either from Iraq itself or the immediately adjacent border communities.
About a quarter of the suicide attackers in this data come from North Africa, and virtually none, by the way, from other areas in the Muslim world. That is, virtually none from Bangladesh, none from Indonesia, none from India. So what we're not seeing here is we're not really seeing a global jihad of 1.2 billion Muslims flooding into Iraq. What we're really seeing is a rather localized phenomenon that at its core is emanating from Iraq or the immediately adjacent border areas. And then, when it's stretching and becoming transnational, it's tending to go to North Africa.
The only real difference in the data is that they're finding that about 40 percent are coming from North Africa and 19 percent from Libya. That's a bit higher than the 25 percent figure that I've cited. But that could simply be accounted for by the period. This is the only simply a single year of data. And also simply the fact that our data is - remains incomplete. We - no one really has a count of better than about 20 percent of the suicide terrorists in Iraq.
CONAN: Another thing: that as violence in Iraq as a whole goes down, suicide attacks seem to be fairly consistent.
Prof. PAPE: Yes. One of the important things that's happened over the last year is that suicide terrorism had a banner year in Iraq. In 2007, there were 343 completed and confirmed suicide terrorist attacks in Iraq, with only a modest decline in the second half of the year. There were about 204 suicide terrorist attacks from January to June of 2007, and that fell by about a third from July to December to 134. But what's really striking about this is that this is nowhere near the decline that we've seen in the general civil violence in Iraq during that period, which is, of course, is - I'm sure all your listeners know - has fallen much, much, much more.
And what this suggests is that the causes of the civil war in Iraq and suicide terrorism in Iraq - although they overlap - are not really quite the same thing. The civil war was made much, much worse by the existence of mixed ethnic communities - Sunni and Shia mixed ethnic communities in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. And suicide terrorism is partly a function of that; but it's also a product of simply American and western military presence. And so, as that presence has continued, suicide terrorism in 2007 in Iraq was worse than any year before.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on this conversation. And David(ph) joins us on the line from Iowa.
DAVID (Caller): Hi. My question is simple. I've been wondering about this a long time. Why would terrorist leaders choose to promote suicide terrorism when it seems to me - from a strategic point of view, it's like a general embracing a strategy that requires virtually all of its fighters to die even if, you know, no matter how many people on the other side he manages to kill. It seems like already a bad strategy. I want to know…
CONAN: Self-defeating strategy on the face of it, Robert Pape?
Prof. PAPE: Yes. It's a great question. Boy, do I wish it were self-defeating because then suicide-terrorist campaigns would kind of die out in their first year or two and that doesn't tend to be the pattern. In fact, they tend to grow over time. Well, the reason that suicide terrorist leaders are very interested in - the terrorist organization is interested in suicide terrorism is because it's a means of - a method of last resort.
Your caller is quite right, that this is not a preferable strategy. This is a strategy that's often used later in resistance campaigns - specifically resistance to foreign military occupations - as other ordinary means, that is ordinary guerilla warfare. Ordinary terrorism tends to kind of lose its obvious effectiveness.
Why they can continue to do it is that what happens with the motivation of suicide terrorists is that they're overwhelmingly walk-in volunteers, not longtime members of the organization. We have virtually no evidence. We have some, but virtually no - very little evidence of actual manipulation, psychological manipulation of suicide terrorists to get them to come to do it. And what happens is that as a foreign military occupation goes on longer and longer and longer, there tends to be a movement by terrorist groups towards suicide terrorism to get rid of that foreign military occupation, and then there tends to be a growth of the volunteers to do suicide terrorist attacks.
CONAN: Yet in Iraq, there…
Prof. PAPE: I should also mention there is a contagious…
CONAN: Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me, Mr. Pape. Just a second.
In Iraq, a lot of these bombs - yes, are directed against the United States military, the foreign military occupiers, an awful lot are developed - like today at a Sunni - at high school north of Baghdad or a Sunni funeral. There's clearly a lot more going on here than just attacking foreign forces.
Prof. PAPE: You're quite right. But about three quarters of all the suicide terrorist attacks that have occurred Iraq, in Iraq - and in fact, this includes in 2007 - have been against either military targets, security forces in Iraq or government targets in Iraq. About a quarter to upwards of about a third in 2007 - it was a third - have been against civilian targets. So I don't mean to say that attacking civilians is not part of a strategy. And in fact, you might know that attacking some of those civilians have been standing in line waiting to work for the government or have been the family members of policemen. And so, attacking at least some of the civilians is an indirect way to try to attack the government itself.
CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.
As we mentioned earlier, four suicide bombers in recent months have been women.
Joining us now is Mia Bloom, professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, author of the book "Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror." She joins us today from the studios of WUGA in Athens, Georgia.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Prof. MIA BLOOM (International Affairs, University of Georgia; Author, "Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror"): Neal, thank you for having me.
CONAN: And while that's a very small percentage of the number of suicide bombers, it does represent an increase, does it not?
Prof. BLOOM: Actually, yeah. According to the data I have, there've been eight in Iraq since 2003. And so, I'm seeing a lot more women. Not only in Iraq, but in places like Somalia, in Pakistan, in Lebanon, and even in some places where they don't use women, the men will pretend and dress up as women. There was a recent attack in Afghanistan where four men were trying to smuggle in explosives and they were dressed in burkas. And in fact, there was a preempted attack in Iraq last year that I found very humorous because the man was dressed up like a bride but had forgotten to shave. So, of course, as soon as the security forces took a closer look, they realized, you know, like Austin Powers would say, that's a man, baby.
So we do see a lot more women. We're seeing changes in the tactics from what we could have assumed suicide terrorism was all about in 2005. We're seeing more and more - what you recognized, Neal, more and more Muslim on Muslim violence in places like Pakistan and in Afghanistan, where the targets are not just occupiers, but the targets will be other Sunnis against Shias. And in fact, even Sunnis against other Sunnis.
So I think a lot of the general rules that we've been operating with - we need to reconsider some of these, because the growth of the tactic is very shocking. Both for women, as well as, you know, sort of internecine conflict.
CONAN: And shock, I guess, is part of it. But should we assume that women have different motives than men who do this?
Prof. BLOOM: Well, generally - I think, politically, the women tend to have motives very similar to the men. But according to a lot of the research that's been done, people who've interviewed the women in prison, they tend to look at it as the four Rs: revenge, reputation, respect and relationship. And what I mean by that is that many of the women have lost a loved one, a husband, a brother, a son. And so there is a certain element of revenge. But there is also a question about some of the women who have had questionable reputations. There have been allegations that some of the women have had children out of wedlock or have had an extramarital affair or, in one case, a woman was barren.
One of the interviews that I saw that, interestingly enough, that was conducted by Shimon Dotan in "Hot House" with a woman named Amahl Faiz Jumaa(ph) from Nabulus. Clearly, this was a woman who was same-gender oriented. And so she had chosen to participate in a suicide operation, I think, in part, to overcome the fact that she had a reputation in the community as not liking men. So I think there is a little bit of everything. When you start looking at motivations, you are looking at very personal reasons. But you also are looking at political reasons.
And I think some of the findings that we have - somewhat different from Dr. Pape's - is that the women will give you different responses at different times. Their initial response, when you ask them immediately after the attack - and of course, you're talking to the failed bombers, the successful ones are impossible to talk to. So with the failed bombers, they'll say it was because I lost a brother, I lost a boyfriend. It was a very personal reason. But then after they are politicized inside the prison, then, of course, you start getting the propaganda - the standard party line. And it becomes difficult to disaggregate which is the truthful answer - that first answer or the answer several weeks and several months later?
CONAN: Well, you can see an immediate tactical advantage to the use of women as suicide bombers. They would be allowed in. They may not be searched as thoroughly. They would be less suspected. But many of these organizations, they use suicide bombers religiously - very religious. How do they explain why they're using women?
Prof. BLOOM: Well, it's interesting. Even going as far back as the Battle of Algiers, if any of your listeners have ever seen the film, you see that the role of women is very crucial as helping the men and ferrying weapons, as well as being able to penetrate checkpoints, so that the women have been involved in many of these organizations for a very long time. But what I find interesting is there's at least six fatwas - Islamic rulings - that are right now out there that permit women to participate in these martyrdom operations. And that's relatively new. And as a result of the fact that you have these religious rulings that legitimize women's participation, we've seen more and more women.
So not only can they pretend to be pregnant. And of course, as you said, they're better able to penetrate. They're stealthier attackers. But in fact, what really shocked me was that in Gaza, a woman named Fatima Zak was actually nine months pregnant. And last year, she attempted to commit a suicide attack. So we're not just seeing women pretending to be pregnant. We're actually seeing pregnant women. And the organizations feel it's a win-win for them. Because if security forces don't check women in these very conservative societies, then, of course, the women are the perfect operative. And if they start checking women too much in very invasive searches, that will just anger the population more. And so from the perspective of the group, using women is a perfect strategy.
CONAN: We're talking with Mia Bloom and with Robert Pape about suicide bombers,what we actually know about them. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Mike(ph). Mike with us from Denver, Colorado.
MIKE (Caller): Excuse me. Hi, Neal. Yeah, I just wanted to kind of explain my position that this is an unfortunate confluence, really, of several factors. One of them, of course, is obvious. It's our foreign policy in the Middle East. Your previous guest mentioned that no suicide bombs were from India and…
CONAN: Indonesia and…
MIKE: …you know, places like that. Well, it doesn't take too much work to connect the dots that the ones who are going to Iraq are all Arabs. So you know, and it's not just our support of Israel, but it's our support of dictators like, you know, people - Mubarak, Musharraf, you know, the Shah of Iran - all these people who - that we support. And they suppress their people. So it creates a lot of animosity. These people feel very helpless if they have nothing they can do.
CONAN: And is there a question?
MIKE: Well, the other part of it is it's also connected to faith. And I think, you know, President Bush and a lot of people talk about the power of faith and how wonderful it is. But I think people need to acknowledge also how dangerous faith is. These suicide bombers - no one is more faithful than a suicide bomber. These are people who deeply believe in their religion. And that shows the danger of it. Just as people in this country - excuse me - gave George Bush a pass, you know, about invading Iraq. We didn't have evidence, but people had faith. They said, let's have faith in our leader. Let's have faith in our president that he knows what he's doing.
CONAN: All right. Well, let's see. We're running out of - we're running short of time here. So let's see if we can get a response from Robert Pape.
MIKE: Okay. Sure.
CONAN: How much is political, how much religious?
Prof. PAPE: Well, actually, we see a fair number of secular suicide terrorists. I just want to call attention to the PKK, which is a Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey that has done over 22 suicide attacks. The majority are - I'm sorry, all of them are secular. This is a pure - a Marxist group that's actually anti-religious. And one of the largest suicide terrorist groups in the world is actually the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. And this is, again, a Marxist secular group. And this is a Hindu group.
In fact, for the first 25 years of suicide terrorism, from 1980 to 2005, Tamil Tigers had the distinction of being the world's leader in suicide terrorism. So I would just simply add to what the person said, which is - and faith does play a role. I don't mean to say that we don't see any evidence for a religion or faith. But what we don't tend to see is that faith or religion alone, independent of the threat of foreign occupation or repressive dictatorships, leads to suicide terrorism very often.
CONAN: Mia Bloom, we just have a minute or so left. But would you agree with that?
Prof. BLOOM: I would say that it's true, that if you look historically at the record of suicide terrorism, that, by and large, a lot of the secular groups initiated it, especially the participation of women was seen to be something associated with the secular groups. But I think now, if you look at the landscape, you are looking overwhelmingly at suicide terrorism affiliated with a religion. And what is unfortunate is that, in part, because you've had religious authorities providing ex post facto justifications, you see a lot more in Islam.
The problem is that it's not an Islamic phenomenon per se. Dr. Pape is absolutely right. Of the many suicide attacks by the LTTE, almost 80 of them were by women. And they were very effective, including killing the Indian prime minister in 1991.
CONAN: LTTE, of course, is the Tamil Tigers, yeah.
Prof. BLOOM: But I think it's important to understand it's changing.
CONAN: Okay. Mia Bloom, thanks very much for being with us.
Prof. BLOOM: Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: Mia Bloom, professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, author of "Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror," with us today from WUGA in Athens, Georgia.
Robert Pape, thank you for you time.
Prof. PAPE: My pleasure.
CONAN: Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. His latest book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," with us from the University of Chicago.
When we come back, feel-good economics or a little windfall? We'll discuss the tax rebate idea on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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