'The suicide bomber is the smartest of smart bombs'

Killers are motivated by quest for glory, experts say

In the West Bank and Gaza, portraits of dead suicide bombers and graffiti extolling their deeds are plastered all over walls. Videos of their last interviews are on sale on street stalls. Their funerals are occasions for mass mourning.

That celebrity factor helps in the recruitment of suicide bombers, young men and women brought up in the occupied territories.

Anne Marie Oliver, an American academic who has spent years studying the phenomenon in the West Bank and Gaza, believes the "star factor" and the acquiring of glory could also have motivated the Yorkshire bombers. They will not have posters up in Britain or mass mourning, but they will attain glory on internet sites across the Muslim world, according to Ms Oliver, who has co-written with Paul Steinberg the newly published The Road to Martyrs' Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber.

"It does not matter whether it is Britain or Syria or the West Bank, they are highly romantic figures," she said.

The fact that they carried with them credit cards and other personal ID suggests they wanted to be known.

The British media has, in the main, demonised the Yorkshire bombers in much the same way as the IRA was in the 1980s and 1990s. The adjectives come readily: fanatics, mad, evil.

Ms Oliver does not believe suicide bombing is a brave act, but, she says, "I steer away from the rubric of evil. You have to develop a concept of the suicide bomber without either of these extremes".

Suicide bombings, which have their origins in medieval times, can be traced through Japan's kamikaze pilots to the Iranians during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The modern version was developed by Hizbollah and its predecessor during the Lebanese civil war, with attacks on the US and then Israelis, and was refined by the Palestinians in 1994-96 and in the second intifada, beginning in 2000.

The number of suicide bombings has increased in the past five years, a combination of the Palestinian attacks and those in Iraq, where the numbers now outstrip those in Israel.

Ms Oliver said: "The motives are diverse: religion, nationalism, grievance, fame, glory and money, and, last of all and most important of all, they have to have an entire system that supports their actions (sympathetic groups round the world)."

She said the Yorkshire bombers would not necessarily have needed outside help from al-Qaida and could have gained all the knowledge, including practical advice, they needed from the internet.

Boaz Ganor, head of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, disagreed, saying that suicide bombers needed experienced handlers to provide explosives and choose targets.

His view is that all suicide attacks worldwide are organised by movements. "If one wants to understand the phenomenon, do not understand the motivation of the perpetrator but the motivation of the organisation," he said.

For organisations, whether Hamas or al-Qaida, the motivation was the same: the suicide bomber is the most effective weapon available. "The suicide bomber is the smartest of smart bombs. He can look around and decide when he can maximise the terror, maximise the casualties," Dr Ganor said.

Even if he is caught, he or she can detonate the explosives, killing those trying to intervene.

The figures bear out Dr Ganor's assessment. According to Israel, it has faced 160 suicide bombers in the last five years: they account for only 0.6% of the attacks but half the Israeli casualties - 514.

The movements lock the recruits in, in part through the recording of the final videos for release after the bombing.

Among Palestinians, a further factor, one that does not apply in Yorkshire, is poverty. The suicide bomber knows his family will be cared for after his death by various Arab charities and will often be better off than before. The family will also enjoy greater prestige.

Most of the bombers tend to be young, well-educated, and from lower middle-class backgrounds rather than those fighting for daily survival. An Israeli government study found that 23% of suicide bombers between 2000 and this year had been university graduates.

Their families, like those in Yorkshire, were often unaware of their intentions.

Dr Ganor said that religion was the predominant motive. "He believes he is carrying out God's will. They do not call it a suicide but shuada, martyrdom. They believe they do not die: they just transfer from life to heaven, a one-way ticket. And they believe there will be 72 virgins that serve them."

But religion is not the sole explanation. The Tamil Tigers were just as eager for self-sacrifice but were not motivated by religion. It was a matter of revenge, a way for the powerless to fight back, to create fear.

There is a desire among jihadists for revenge over what is seen as the brutal treatment of fellow Muslims: Russia's suppression of Chechnya, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and the US and British role in Iraq.

Toby Dodge, one of Britain's leading academics specialising on Iraq, said that Iraq has had a bigger impact on British Muslims than Chechnya or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"How Iraq is different is that Americans and British are killing Muslims. If you are a radical imam trying to mobilise a set of poorly integrated Yorkshire youths of Pakistani origin, it is a much more potent message to say the Americans and British are killing Muslims," Dr Dodge said.

Ms Oliver said that one of the most important motivating factors was what she described as "an element of ecstatic camaraderie, which is central to the group".

She believed the Yorkshire bombers shared the happiness of camaraderie. "The people we studied, a Hamas cell, described their time before their death as the happiest day of their life. What I have read of the London bombings, police officers described the three guys on CCTV as looking as if they were going on holiday," she said.


Ewen MacAskill, diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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