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The online bio of Iraq’s suicidology

In 2003, a 26-year-old Moroccan who called himself Abu Osama Al Maghribi took the proceeds from the restaurant he owned with his father in Tangier and went to Baghdad. There, Al Maghribi, who named his own son Osama in honor of Osama bin Laden, turned a car purchased with his restaurant money and the sale of a plot of land he owned into a weapon of jihad. A friend who accompanied him describes what happened: "Abu Osama came back and got his bride--his car--and flew ahead of me. I was behind him, in my car. There was a lot of traffic, and he started to maneuver between the cars as though he were on a race track going for first place. I couldn't keep up. My strength flagged, I stopped the car, and I cried. I saw him pulling away from me and drawing nearer to his target. His heart grew still to tear out the criminal hearts. He will be blessed, and the criminals will face hardship; he will rise, and they will fall. I saw a column of smoke rise 20 meters into the sky amid a deafening roar. He felled 50 infidels."

This account comes from "The Martyrs of the Land of the Two Rivers," a collection of 430 biographies of insurgents who are connected by conviction, if not organization, to a global jihad symbolized by Al Qaeda. As suicide bombings--not to be confused with other insurgent groups like Sunni Baathists--continue to rock Iraq on an almost daily basis (including a dozen that took place on a single day, September 14), these biographies provide the most extensive account thus far of how these jihadists see their mission. Posted on the Internet in May by "Muhib Al Jihad" ("the lover of jihad") as three separate file attachments on an Arabic discussion forum, the compendium is a virtual recruitment poster. It chronicles the jihadists' exploits with the intention of inspiring others to "set off for the gardens." The biographies of the "martyrs" who have already done so inhabit a murky realm between fact and fantasy. But, even if the accounts paint a picture of their movement not as it is, but as its supporters would like it to be, it still speaks volumes about what motivates the jihadists--and, more importantly, what doesn't.

Technically speaking, the "The Martyrs of the Land of the Two Rivers" is a pastiche--snippets from Arab newspapers, postings to Internet forums, the transcribed texts of "wills" videotaped before suicide attacks, and occasional quotes from prominent jihadists like Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. The factual material presented paints an interesting demographic picture of the global jihadists in Iraq. For example, of the fighters expressly identified by country of origin, 175 are Saudi, 50 are Syrian, 28 are Iraqi, 15 are Kuwaiti, 13 are Jordanian, and a handful are from other Arab countries, including a few young men who had lived in France, Denmark, and Spain.

Many of the jihadists profiled held good jobs or were well-educated. Faysal Zayd Al Mutayri of Kuwait "resigned from the Ministry of Defense, where he held a military post." Sultan Al Hudhayl Al Qahtani owned restaurants in Riyadh. Fahd Abdallah Al Fayzi was from a rich Saudi family, his father a local real-estate tycoon. Tariq Bin Luwayfi Al Huwayti graduated from the meteorology faculty of King Abd Al Aziz University. Mahir Ali Al Jahni of Saudi Arabia studied in India, where he earned a degree in English and computer science. And Ahmad Said Ahmad Al Ghamidi, also of Saudi Arabia, was studying medicine at Khartoum University when he broke off his studies and used his tuition money to go to Iraq.

The point is not that foreign jihadists in Iraq are rich and well-educated, though some of them may be. Rather, the biographies stress wealth and good prospects as examples of what jihadists give up when they decide to join the jihad. They are men who either had, or could have had, the good things of this world, yet chose to forsake them in favor of the greater pleasures of paradise, the texts insist. Indeed, the biographies of the Iraqi jihadists contain many elements of the mythic cult of martyrdom that researchers have found elsewhere, most notably among Palestinian militants. As his final act draws near, the martyr sees visions of himself in paradise, and he dreams of the beautiful, black-eyed virgins who await him there.

But, before the martyr can reach paradise, before he can even kill himself, he must make it to Iraq, and, to do that, he must leave home. On this issue, the biographies elucidate an oddity of the many ideological and motivational texts that have come together in what is now a considerable body of jihadist literature. The vast majority of the martyrs are young men raised in a conservative society that emphasizes obedience to one's parents. Yet the "Martyrs of the Land of the Two Rivers" stresses that they need not ask their parents' permission before departing for the battlefield. Many jihad hopefuls, it is clear, must slink away from home because they know their parents would not approve. This indicates that Muslim families and societies are not as accepting of their young ones joining jihad as many believe.

One method "The Martyrs" recommends to recruits for explaining their journey is "the pious fib." Muqrin Majid Shib Al Utaybi of Saudi Arabia told his parents he was going to perform the lesser pilgrimage (the pilgrimage to Mecca that one can perform at any time of year) when he left for Iraq. Others said they were leaving to seek work, or simply left without saying anything. When parents approve, "The Martyrs" stresses it. It frequently speaks of parents joyfully handing out sweets to well-wishers when they learn, usually through an anonymous phone call from Iraq, that their son has become a martyr. Several biographies even provide phone numbers to contact and congratulate the martyr's family. In one extreme case, a Lebanese man who had lived in Denmark brought his 15-year-old son to Iraq, where both perished "in a clash with an Apache helicopter on a dark night."

As this dramatic language--pervasive in many accounts in "The Martyrs"--suggests, jihad is about more than ideology. Most recruits are young men, and, while they may crave paradise and its pleasures, they also want some excitement on earth. Here is the death of Iraqi Abu Muthanna Al Ansar: "He went out barefoot, pulling up his belt. He saw some infantrymen, shot at them, and hit around two. He had seen in a dream earlier that he was killing Americans and then was martyred. God was true to him and he true to God. A plane approached spewing death. He challenged it with a bazooka. He fired and missed. It fired and opened with its missiles the gateway to the garden. The two units did battle. About 15 unbelievers were killed." In another story, a suicide attack provides an opportunity for macabre, tough-guy humor. Abu Qutaybah, an Iraqi from Al Ramadi, "put on an explosive belt in Nazzal and went up to [American] soldiers ... reserved tickets to hell for them and hand-delivered them with his sacrifice."

While the biographies offer up rich material, what they leave out is even more telling. Accounts by journalists and Western analysts often focus on insurgent organizations and leaders, yet the biographies are thin on such details. Zarqawi and his variously named groups make the occasional appearance. Abu Anas Al Shami, a top Zarqawi lieutenant who was killed in a U.S. air strike in Baghdad in September 2004, receives lavish treatment. But most of the stories are simple and operationally vague--"came to Iraq and was killed," sometimes in a suicide attack, but often by U.S. bombs.

Some of the reticence is surely due to a reluctance to reveal the jihadists' secrets, but much of it seems to stem from a lack of strategic vision. As the biographies tell it, the jihad works primarily through small groups and almost entirely at the level of the individual operation. The one "great battle" that runs through many texts is the fight for Falluja, where dozens of jihadists died. Falluja, however, was a defensive operation that the jihadists fought house to house. The offensive strategy and tactics belonged to U.S. forces. Then again, long-term strategic planning is something of a problem when the soldiers headed into battle hope to die. The texts dwell on the longing for martyrdom, with some would-be martyrs even worrying that God may not love them when they survive a battle. But they never address the difficulties this might pose for their campaign.

Indeed, their campaign, such as it is, seems to consist of fomenting terrorism until, by some stroke of divine luck, the infidel Americans just get up and leave Iraq. As a model, Salafi theorists usually invoke the Afghan jihad--which they believe not only drove out the Soviets, but also brought down the Soviet Union. For all its leaps of logic, it is at least a theory. But the biographies do not even go that far, preferring to claim a victory with each individual ascent to the garden.

Also missing are some of the issues most commonly cited as driving anti-Americanism in the Arab world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict barely registers on the jihadist radar, and Abu Ghraib merits few mentions. The motivation for jihad is almost always, in keeping with Salafi ideology, the plight of the humiliated Muslim nation, victimized by the joint evil forces of kufr (unbelief, embodied by the United States as the enemy bent on the destruction of Islam) and tawaghit (tyrants who have set themselves up, or are propped up, as gods on earth).

Another curious omission is the general avoidance of the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq. The majority of Iraqis are Shia, while the jihadists are militant Sunnis. Salafi ideology, in particular, savages Shia as heretics. Some biographies contain anti-Shia rhetoric, but mainly as asides. And, while some of the most devastating suicide attacks in Iraq have specifically targeted Shia, the global jihadists' exploits focus on American and other coalition troops, foreigners in general, and "collaborators" like the Iraqi police. If the jihadist planners hope to incite Sunni-Shia strife, as some of their actions suggest, it is not a strategy their supporters feel comfortable articulating.

They are even less comfortable articulating the fact that the vast majority of victims in suicide bombings are ordinary Iraqis. Take the description of Walid Al Asmar Al Shammari's death: "Walid Al Asmar Al Shammari was martyred in Iraq on 14 June, 2004.... His family received condolences in Hail, northern Saudi Arabia, after they got a call from Iraq confirming his death when he carried out an operation with a car bomb. He drove it into a crowded area in central Baghdad last Tuesday. In addition to Al Shammari, the operation killed 16 people, including two Britons, a Frenchman, and an American." The other twelve were Iraqis but were not identified as such, a telling omission.

That omission suggests a critical weakness in the jihadist movement and its recruitment efforts. Imagine how the biography of the "hero" Al Shammari would read if it were juxtaposed with the biographies of the people he killed? What might readers in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world make of a companion volume to "The Martyrs" in which each suicide bomber faced his victims, not as statistics in a war against the infidels, but as individuals in their own right? No such expanded edition is likely forthcoming from Muhib Al Jihad and his ilk. Perhaps it's a job for those fighting them.

HUSAIN HAQQANI , a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, teaches at Boston University and is the author of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.

DANIEL KIMMAGE is the Central Asia analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The views expressed here are his own.


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Original piece is http://tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20051003&s=haqqanikimmage100305


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