They are not crazy. They are not coerced. And in most cases, researchers believe, the suicide bombers attacking U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies in ever greater numbers aren’t even Iraqis.
A startling surge of deadly attacks across Iraq — with hundreds killed in recent months — has U.S. officials and private terrorism specialists scrambling to identify and understand the motivations of the suicide bombers.
Given the grisly nature of most of the attacks, forensic evidence has been hard to find: A 20-year-old Saudi medical student is believed responsible for the attack last year in a U.S. Army mess tent that killed 22 and a Yemeni national was captured when his bomb failed to explode. But the vast majority of attackers have not been positively identified.
Terrorism scholars say the attackers in Iraq mirror many of the patterns seen in other suicide terror waves, from Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers to Palestinian Islamist groups targeting Israel.
“These are willing volunteers. I have yet to find a single case of true coercion among suicide attackers,” said Robert A. Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and a leading scholar of modern suicide terrorism movements.
“They’re working within a defined organization with political goals, and most are socially well integrated — technicians, ambulance drivers or some other midlevel occupation,” he said.
Suicide terrorists as a group are “rarely ignorant or impoverished,” according to University of Michigan psychologist and anthropologist Scott Atran in a study last year published in the Washington Quarterly. “Nor are they crazed, cowardly, apathetic or asocial.”
The bombers benefit from a sophisticated network of handlers who offer safe houses and weapons, U.S. officials in Baghdad say. Repeated security sweeps have been unable to penetrate networks bringing militants from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere to blow themselves up in Iraq.
Contradicting another stereotype, suicide bombers in Iraq are in their late 20s or early 30s, many from the Arabian Peninsula or North Africa with families and well-established ties in their communities. As in the July 7 subway bombings in London, the bombers typically have little or no history of violence or religious activism.
A new study by the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel found that virtually all of the 154 non-Iraqi Arab fighters killed in Iraq by coalition forces “have never taken part in any terrorist activity prior to their arrival in Iraq.”
Audrey Kurth Cronin, a terrorist specialist at the Congressional Research Service, noted in an analysis of suicide terrorism that the popular image that the attacks are carried out by “individual deranged fanatics” is “almost never the case.”
Suicide attacks share many of the characteristics of all terrorist strikes — including gaining attention to the cause, anger, revenge, personal humiliation and retribution, she noted.
Based on claims from Islamist Web sites and broadcasts, terrorism specialists estimate that perhaps three-fifths of Iraq’s suicide attacks are carried out by Saudi nationals, coming in through the porous Syrian border.
Mr. Pape said his research of suicide attacks worldwide over the past two decades finds Iraq very much in the pattern.
Religion is far less of a factor than politics, he concludes.
“In the vast majority of cases, the central objective of the suicide terrorist campaign has been to force a democratic state to leave an occupied homeland,” he said, citing cases ranging from Sri Lanka and Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s to Chechnya and Iraq today.
Mr. Pape said in a telephone interview it was unlikely the terrorist networks would run out of suicide recruits, given the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and the resistance of many Iraqi Sunnis to the U.S.-backed government.
But some critics argue Mr. Pape’s work understates the importance of religion — and particularly radical Islamist ideology — in modern suicide terror campaigns. Most of the suicide terror campaigns of the past two decades have been organized by Islamist groups.