Entering the mind of the suicide bomber
The Sunday Business Post (Ireland), July 17, 2005
By Kevin Toolis
As the Tube doors closed behind him, and the Circle Line train headed west towards Edgware Road, bomber Mohammed Sidique Khan knew that his next destination was paradise.
Around him stood innocent London commuters, but their lives - and their imminent deaths - meant nothing to Khan. Brainwashed by his recruiter, he would have held the bag containing the bomb, convinced that jannah', the gardens of paradise, lay waiting on the other side of the switch.
In the gardens, dark-eyed women, 72 in number, would attend to his every need. Luscious fruit would fall from the trees and there would be drink and sweet things.
He would live forever close to the Prophet as a living saint; his deeds glorified as the work of a blessed martyr'.
Suicide bombers are told there will be no pain even as the explosives they detonate rip their bodies apart and disintegrate the flesh closest to the bomb. Instead, they believe they will ascend from this earthly life straight to paradise in an instant.
Once, in an Israeli prison, I asked a failed suicide bomber, Hassan Kahlut, what was going to happen to the Israeli bus passengers he had intended to kill. His answer was automatic. They would all have gone straight to hell, he explained matter-of-factly.
For the last year, as part of the forthcoming Channel 4 history series on the cult of suicide bombing, I have interviewed dozens of suicide bomber families, failed bombers, recruiters, intelligence agents and Islamic clerics to try to understand the origins of this deathly cult.
Like a virus, suicide bombing has spread across the Islamic world from Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Chechnya and the US and now to the streets and trains in London. But even Israel has never suffered four suicide bombers in one day, in one series of attacks.
As the cult has spread, so has its propaganda. Often, each martyr' is filmed before death, ritually espousing the justness of the coming massacre. There are posters, and internet sites and charities that gather money for the bomber's relatives.
Saddam Hussein used to send a $20,000 cheque to the family of each Palestinian bombing martyr. Once, in Gaza, I attended a celebration in a mosque where official certificates of martyrdom' were handed out like school prizes to suicide bomber families.
But the cult of the suicide bomber does not need the misery refugee camps or military oppression to flourish. The poison of the cult can be downloaded from the internet or picked up from speeches at radical mosques by militant clerics like Omar Bakri Muhammad, who praised the September 11 hijackers as heroes.
Of all the London bombers, Khan's journey from classroom assistant at Hillside Primary School in Dewsbury to suicide bomber seems the most baffling. At 30 years of age, he was older than his fellow bombers, Lindsay Jamal, 19, Shehzad Tanweer, 22, and 18-year-old Hasib Hussain. Khan was married with a baby daughter and had another child on the way. How could a father - how could anyone - turn himself or herself into a human bomb? The answer lies in the fatal collision of two forces; youthful rebelliousness and the virus of suicide bombing.
Like fellow bombers, Khan was profoundly dissatisfied with life as a second-generation British Muslim. He rejected his parents' acceptance of the routine racism of regional Britain and the commonplace Paki bastard' epithets that his father and uncles had learned to endure.
He also had come to reject the Islam of his father's generation as a religion of compromise and passive acceptance, just as he would have seen most British Islamic leaders as traitors and sell-outs. He was a rebel, as many young men are, looking for a cause.
In a world where capitalism rules universally, the most obvious place to find that source of rebellion was in the Koran. Most British Muslims are Indo-Pakistani in origin and the language of their mosque is Urdu, not Arabic.
The majority of British Muslims cannot read Arabic and rely on their imam, or prayer leader, to interpret the Koran for them. Khan's journey to his death would have begun here in his search for a true' or purer' Islam.
He sought an Islam that existed before the corrupt West and corrupt apostate Muslim rulers controlled the world. He sought an Islam from the time of the prophet Muhammad, who lived in the 7th century, and his companions, which is known as the salaf.
Whether he was influenced on a trip to Pakistan or at the local Dewsbury mosque, Khan became more religious as he strove to learn Arabic to read the Koran himself.
Under the puritanical code of salafism, he ejected the materialism and corruption of the West, and took up the five-times-a-day prayer cycle of a devout Muslim.
Like all fundamentalist religions, salafism reinforces its grip on its adherents by isolating them from non-believers. Khan increasingly spent his time in the company of like-minded extremists angry at America or Britain for their alleged oppression of Muslims in Iraq or in Israel.
Somewhere, as the British police andMI5 are now desperately trying to find out, Khan and his fellow bombers met their sender' - the organiser and bomb-maker who recruited them for death. The next step, as we discovered in Israel, the recruitment for death, is surprisingly easy.
For a salafist, God is real, and paradise easily awaits those who die for Allah. The internet is full of websites praising the martyrs' of Palestine. Videos, pamphlets, posters, DVDs and CDs circulate across the Muslim world glorifying suicide bombing and those shahids - martyrs - who carry out these attacks.
Suicide bombings are depicted as part of a glorious religious crusade, an act of supreme religious devotion against the all-oppressive evil West. All the recruiter needed to do was supply the means to make the explosives and point the way towards martyrdom.
Although it is very hard for Westerners to understand, that recruiter probably had no difficulty in convincing Khan and his companions that killing themselves on the Tube was God's will and God's work.
The fact that there were four of them, a gang together, made the recruitment process easier.
Suicide bombing remains a weapon of sheer terror. The death, the self-sacrifice of the bomber is part of the message. We hate you and your way of life so much that our young men, our martyrs' willingly give their lives just so long as they can take yours, they say.
In the misery of the Gaza Strip, a pro-Hamas cleric, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Shami, explained the simple philosophy behind these acts of mass murder. Suicide bombing is designed to strike fear into the heart of the enemy, he said.
It shows the strength of Muslims in that we are prepared to die.
We are not afraid of death and the enemy is. We will always have that advantage.
In crude terms, Al-Shami is right. Suicide bombing reverses the normal logic of power. We expect to deter an enemy by superior force.
But how can you deter an enemy who deliberately kills himself?
Kevin Toolis is a terrorism expert and film-maker with Many Rivers Films, which is making a series on the history of suicide bombing. The series is scheduled to begin on Channel 4 on August 4.