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A suicidal epidemic

Suicide bombing works so well that it's metastasizing. The U.S. lacks a strategic plan to stop it.

February 10, 2008

Iraqi militants strapped explosive belts onto two mentally disabled women last week, sent them into two crowded Baghdad markets and blew them up. Authorities said the two women had Down syndrome and may not have understood what they were about to do. Their belts were detonated remotely, 20 minutes apart, killing dozens.

Neither the Islamic nor the Western worlds have come to grips with acts of such evil. Media accounts of the attacks focused on the sense of shock felt by Baghdad residents who had come to believe that security was improving. Destroying that sense of progress and trust in the Iraqi and U.S. governments was doubtless the terrorists' goal. Equally horrifying, however, is what did not follow the barbarity in Baghdad: no outpouring of disgust from the Muslim world.

What does this moral numbness mean? It appears to signify that terrorists have succeeded in forcing the public to view suicide bombing as an inevitable, unstoppable, even ordinary tactic of warfare. In truth, because the technique has proved so spectacularly successful at instilling chaos and despair -- and because it is so cheap and difficult to deter -- it has metastasized to societies that had never heard of such horrors before. Suicide bombings have now occurred in more than 30 countries. The traditional rationale -- that suicide terrorism is the last resort of an occupied people against a far more powerful oppressor -- no longer holds true. Everywhere, suicide terrorism has thwarted traditional military and counter-terrorist solutions.

Consider the sad fate of http:///// Afghanistan. Though scorched and seared by two decades of fierce warfare, Afghanistan never had a suicide bombing -- even against the Soviet occupation -- until 2001. From 2002 through 2003, it suffered four. But by 2006, the tally was 109, and by 2007, it had more than doubled again to 270, according to scholars Prakhar Sharma and Mia Bloom, author of http:/// “Dying to Kill.” :// www.google.com/search%3Fhl=en%26rlz=%26q=dying+to+kill%26sa=X%26oi=pr int%26ct=title%26cad=one-book-with-thumbnail%23PPA4%2CM1 "> www.google.com/search%3Fhl=en%26rlz=%26q=dying+to+kill%26sa=X%26oi=pr int%26ct=title%26cad=one-book-with-thumbnail%23PPA4%2CM1

Suicide bombing has been used frequently in the Middle East since the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, but it isn't purely a product of Islamist extremism. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have been using the tactic since about 1987. After 9/11, Al Qaeda deliberately stepped up the use of suicide bombing in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the phenomenon has now spread to Bangladesh and Somalia.

For the most part, suicide bombing is not the desperate act of individual religious fanatics but a It requires a recruiter; a mastermind who decides on the target and sends agents out to case it; facilitators who get the bombers across borders, drive them to their missions and help them write goodbye letters or shoot testimonial videos; minders to make sure the bombers don't panic, get cold feet or blab; explosives experts; and of course, financiers.

U.S. counter-terrorism strategy has focused chiefly on preventing would-be bombers from reaching their targets, as well as decapitating Al Qaeda's top leadership. The inadequacy of that approach is illustrated by last week's chaos in Baghdad, as well as by statistics from attacks in Afghanistan that showed no improvement in 2007 in the percentage of suicide bombings that were thwarted.

Without a sophisticated, concerted, morally sensitive strategy to disrupt the suicidal supply chain, real security cannot be achieved in Afghanistan or Iraq. It will require far better intelligence, a more sophisticated response to psychological warfare and broader outreach to enlist public support in stopping the carnage. That in turn demands an honest debate about how terrorism suspects will be treated. To date, U.S. military and political strategists have not risen to this seminal challenge. Until they do, suicide bombing will remain tragically commonplace and deadly.

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