Counter-Terrorism: Why Warriors Make Lousy Terrorists


July 23, 2007: Al Qaeda has been on a downward spiral since September 11, 2001, and there's no general agreement on why this is. No attacks in North America, and the many thwarted plots there, revealed a lack of professionalism quite at odds which attacks in the 1990s, and up to September 11, 2001. The terrorist violence in Iraq, often attributed to al Qaeda, is largely the work of Saddams rather efficient security organizations. Those lads were not much good at fighting the U.S. armed forces, but they have, over three decades, become quite good at killing Iraqis, and terrorism in general.

The attacks in London and Madrid were local Moslems, and got a lot more ink than the much more numerous failed attacks in the same area. Then there's Afghanistan, where suicide bombings skyrocketed last year. But there was something odd about the suicide bombing attacks in Afghanistan; 43 percent of them only killed the bomber. This year, suicide bombing attacks, at about two a week, are up about twenty percent over last year. But the percentage of attacks in which only the bomber dies has remained the same.

The reasons are partly cultural, and partly a lack of competent support personnel. The cultural angle has to do with the warrior tradition in Afghanistan. This does not rule out suicidal attacks, but it does regard attacks on women and children as cowardly and shameful. A real man doesn't do that. An example of that was found in one attack where a suicide bomber, after entering a crowded restaurant, and seeing all the women and children, went into a toilet and set off his bomb, killing only three people. Most Afghans insist on only going after military targets, which are much better prepared to deal with such attacks.

But most Afghans, or Pushtuns in general, just don't like suicide bombing. So the Taliban and al Qaeda have sought other recruits. Arabs are considered the best, because they believe that women and children killed in suicide bomb attacks are made (if involuntarily) martyrs and sent to paradise. Most Pushtuns disagree with this, and the Taliban often has to disown attacks that involve foreign (usually Arab) suicide bombers that kill lots of Afghan women and children.

The Taliban have recruited a lot of people who are just not competent enough to carry out a suicide bombing attack against a military target. This involves the mentally incompetent (either too stupid, or otherwise mentally disabled) and children. This last angle has caused the Taliban lots of trouble. One recent incident had a Taliban bomber team trying to trick a six year old street kid to go up to some soldiers and push the button on the explosive belt they put on under his clothes. The kid was smart enough to know something was not right, and asked the soldiers for advice. Another recent incident involved a 14 year old Pakistani Pushtun, recruited out of a religious school, without his parents permission, who surrendered instead of carrying out his mission. Many bombers, both adults and kids (usually as young as twelve) quietly abandon their mission. Over a dozen abandoned suicide belts have been found in Kabul alone.

Suicide bombing campaigns in parts of the world succeed because they are able to recruit competent bombers. Sometimes they use an economic angle, as the bombers family usually gets a cash rewards for their sons (and sometimes daughters) "martyrdom." Families are encouraged, under threat of violence, to "celebrate" the act, and the reward. But many areas in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, that are freed from terrorist control, find families complaining bitterly about the loss. In some cases, the parents find out about their kid being recruited, and are able to save him. In one notable case, the Taliban recruited the teenage son of a prominent Pushtun tribal chief. When daddy found out about this, he threatened to have his entire tribe make war on the Taliban, if his son were not returned. The kid was turned over.

Al Qaeda has not been able to send many technical experts out to train suicide bomber teams. These experts were few in number to begin with, and rapidly disappeared into graves and prisons after 2001. Instead, they post advice on the Internet. But in Afghanistan, few people have access to the web, or are even literate. Afghanistan really needs in-person training for the recruiters (of suicide bombers), bomb makers, planners, guides (who escort the bomber to the target) and minders (who training the bomber, and stay with the him in the days before his attack and keep his morale and resolve up), that make up the team.

The large number of poorly made bombs, and poorly planned attacks, demonstrates that al Qaeda is largely an idea, and a lot of web pages, rather that any kind of organization. It doesn't work very well, except for politicians and media looking for a hook to help them get something else done.


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