The origins of suicide bombing lie among the Shi'ite in Iran. A 13-year-old child, Hossein Fahmideh, strapped rocket-propelled grenades to his chest and blew himself up under an Iraqi tank in November 1980. Ayatollah Khomeini's embattled Islamic republic adopted Fahmideh as a national hero and as an inspiration for further bloodshed and martyrdom. Even today on the streets of Tehran huge propaganda posters depict Fahmideh as the "grandson" of the Islamic revolution.
The posters are adorned with tulips and beds of flowers - symbols of eternal life. His tomb on the outskirts of the city is a national monument, a site of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of Iranians. The Khomeini regime even issued every Iranian schoolchild with a plastic knapsack depicting Fahmideh's heroic sacrifice under the tank and the grenades he used to blow himself up. It's not difficult to read the message. In life you may be a nobody but if you die for Khomeini or his successors you will become a blessed shahid, a martyr, and rise up in death, and dwell in paradise.
Normally, it is not easy to persuade anyone to kill themselves. Think how instinctively even small children are wary of potential harm. To create a willing martyr like Fahmideh or Hasib Hussain you need to overwhelm every natural instinct. Suicide bombers are not born but indoctrinated. And it helps to have a cult that glorifies those who have blown themselves up and so encourage fresh recruits.
The cult has easily spread itself, like the recipe for the bomber's home-made explosives, over the internet. If you have just a few words of Arabic and know where to look you can download a constant stream of martyrdom videos from Iraq.
Western suicide bombing is a collective act, a tight conspiracy of individuals drawn together by what at the beginning is an unfocused anger at the West, their own sense of frustration with their lives and a search for identity. As the group tightens in on itself its distorted view of the world blocks all alternative viewpoints. Every allied blunder in Lebanon/ Iraq/ Afghanistan merely confirms what the group sees as a revealed truth that the US and its ally the UK are at war with the ummah, the entire Islamic world.
The videos, the glorification, compound the distorted world view of the would-be bombers and help cancel out other loyalties like marriage, love and education. A willingness to die becomes the ultimate loyalty test to the group and its leader. Both the September 11 cell, based in Hamburg, and the July 7 bombers spent a huge amount of time in each other's company at mosques and gyms insulating themselves against the outside world.
But what makes suicide bombing different from other terrorism is its doctrine of religious sacrifice. For the would-be bomber the deliberate sacrifice of his or her own life is a guarantee of a place in paradise and thus a vindication of the deed. Dying on a distant Afghan battlefield fighting British troops and blowing yourself up in the toilet of a crowded transatlantic plane are one and the same.
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