“There are plenty more like me.”
— Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
BOSTON — At almost no point in the would-be Christmas bomber’s odyssey towards martyrdom did anything go as it should — mercifully not the explosives tapped to the bomber’s body, and certainly not anything in the way of prevention, as U.S. intelligence services failed to connect the incriminating dots of evidence in their possession.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt at suicidal homicide trying to blow up a passenger plane over Detroit was still the lead story in my morning newspaper as 2009 came to a close. But elsewhere in the paper was the report of seven Americans killed in Afghanistan, and 24 Iraqis dead and a governor wounded, all by suicide bombers. On New Year’s Day another suicide assassin killed more than 30 and wounded 70 at a volleyball tournament in Pakistan.
The advent of death by people willing to kill themselves in acts of murder has become such a common occurrence that hardly a week goes by without someone blowing himself, or even herself, up in a flash of severed limbs among the dead and dying. It wasn’t that long ago that asking passengers to identify their bags before boarding a plane was a kind of insurance. Nobody would put a bomb in a bag if they were going to be on the plane, it was reasoned.
No more. And the difficulty of trying to prevent an assassination if the assassin is willing to die is ten fold.
The mother of all suicide bombings was, of course, the quadruple hijacking of airplanes on 9/11. Intelligence services had prior warnings then, too, but failed even to imagine such a wholesale slaughter, even after the boat bomb that blew up the USS Cole.
The very word "assassin" comes from the Arabic for someone on hashish. A secret society of that name was feared throughout the Middle East in the time of the Crusades. They were not, strictly speaking, committing suicide when they would approach a victim, but they seldom ran after sticking their daggers in the intended hearts, so their action amounted to suicidal homicides. It was thought, but never proven, that they must have taken hashish to steady their nerves, just as today some children are given drugs before the suicide vests are strapped on.
There were incidents of suicidal assassinations among anarchists and nihilists in the 19th century. Tsar Alexander II was blown up in the streets of St. Petersburg in 1881 by an assassin who was killed in the act.
In World War II the Japanese “kamikazi” attacks were carried out by pilots who knew they would not be coming back, and were proud to fly their planes into American warships for their emperor. A ceremonial glass of saki and a scarf around their heads was their send off. The role of honorable suicide may have been more acceptable in Japan than in the West, but the Germans, too, had their “self sacrifice” flights against the Soviets trying to cross the Oder River bridges in the spring of 1945 — albeit they were fewer in number.
In the 1980s, the suicide bombing became an increasingly common occurrence. It was used as a weapon against American and French soldiers in Beirut prompting both to withdraw from Lebanon. And, along with the now-common, pre-death video tapes full of prayers and praises, suicide bombers struck the Israelis in their occupied strip of Lebanon. Israelis were horrified, and compared these Hezbollah attackers to the Palestinians who did not commit suicide to kill — at least not yet. That would come later.
Such suicide attacks were the sole provenance of Muslims. Hindu Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka managed to kill both Sri Lanka’s president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as well as scores of lesser-knowns in suicidal bombings. Today the suicide bomber, along with the road-side bomb, is the weapon of choice of jihadists world wide.
The siren song of martyrdom has its appeal to young people, who are often more prone to suicide than their elders. Suicide bombers often come from middle class and higher educated backgrounds such as Abdulmutallab’s. But the underlying poverty and despair of their societies, such as Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan under occupation, plays a role in accumulating grievances.
For others it is the humiliation and alienation of growing up in a culture that is not quite theirs and in which acceptance is never complete. Often the solace of Islam to adolescent uncertainties is enough to aspire to martyrdom, and the web today obviates the need of having a fanatical imam on hand as an inspirational guide.
As the Golden Gate Bridge attracts suicides in San Francisco, there is no denying an element of fad in suicidal homicides. Those who recruit for them are very clever at giving the perpetrators a sense of inclusion, of religious duty, of heroism, patriotism and even idealism that many youths crave.
Alas, Abdulmutallab was not wrong when he said: “There are plenty more like me.” And we are not likely to have again a concerned father to tip us off that a radicalized son may be coming to kill us.