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Monday, July 18, 2005


Most of the world's major media are reporting that the 7/7 London bombers were suicide terrorists, willing to give up their life for their cause.

I've watched CNN and MSNBC enough the past week to know that this "fact" is now part of the conventional wisdom. Suicide is repeatedly used as an adjective to describe the bombers. Say it over and over and over...and it becomes truth. Right?

What if it is wrong?

Apparently, there is pretty good reason to be skeptical that the four alleged bombers intended to commit suicide. Two of the men had pregnant wives, meaning they didn't fit the typical profile of suicide terrorists, and the men purchased return fares for their trains, apparently believing that they had a future. Some credible media outlets around the world have reported this dimension of the story, but it will have to become a lot more prominent to overcome the huge advantage for the "suicide bomber" angle.
"We do not have hard evidence that the men were suicide bombers," a Scotland Yard spokesman said. "It is possible that they did not intend to die."

One hypothesis is that the bombers' al-Qaeda "controller" had told them that timers would give them a chance to escape, when in fact the devices were primed to go off immediately.

A security official said: "The bombers' masters might have thought that they couldn't risk the four men being caught and spilling everything to British interrogators. The stakes were too high, so they could have lied to them and deliberately sent them to their deaths."

...None of the men was heard to shout "Allah akhbar" (God is great) which is normally screamed by suicide bombers as they detonate their bombs.

The devices were carried in backpacks - not strapped to their bodies as is usually the case - so the bombers may have believed that they would be able to put the bombs down and get clear.

The four men also carried driving licences, bank cards and other personal ID. Police at first thought this was because they wanted to be acknowledged as "martyrs", but now they are not so sure. Suicide bombers usually carry nothing that might identify them.
One of the alleged bombers bought a 7 day parking pass for his car and left a lot of explosives in the trunk. That sounds like someone intent on having a future.

According to a Reuters report from this weekend, the British police have not concluded that the terrorists were suicide bombers:
Police have carefully refrained throughout the investigation from publicly using the term "suicide bomber", describing the four men only as bombing suspects.

"We've never used the phrase 'suicide bombers'. We've always been aware that amongst the things we need to clarify is the notion these people intended to die as well as letting off a bomb," the spokesman said.
Would it matter if the bombers were not intending to kill themselves in the attacks?

Well, it could be good news if they were not suicide terrorists. Suicide bombers are scarier than regular terrorists because they are so committed to their ideals that they are willing to forfeit their own life. This means they will run much higher risks than "ordinary" terrorists and are probably more difficult to stop because they can adapt to a given security situation on the ground. They can also actively seek to maximize loss of life.

Bluntly, if a terrorist willingly commits suicide in at attack, he or she locks in many operational advantages. The terrorist also likely generates more media attention. The horror of the attacks is magnified if the public starts to believe that there are many devoted terrorists willing to commit these violent acts and die in the attacks.

I have been teaching about terrorism since the mid-1980s, admittedly as part of broader scope classes on US Foreign Policy, International Relations, or National Security. However, my students over the years could tell you that I have suggested all sorts of nasty terrorism scenarios that don't require that much weaponry or imagination. People with automatic weapons and/or bombs can do a lot of potential damage to a nation's psyche by repeatedly attacking "soft" targets, like malls, fast food restaurants, schools, post offices, etc. Think about the national horror after the Columbine school shootings.

These scenarios are more difficult to develop, actually, much more difficult to develop, if the terrorists plan to survive their attacks -- whether to live their normal lives or to strike again on other days.

It is still too early to know if the 7/7 London bombers were played for patsies by a handler/mastermind, but I think the major media outlets should stop calling them suicide bombers. It may be inaccurate and it plays into the hands of the terrorists.

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