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The Logic of Foreign Fighters as Suicide Bombers Printer friendly page Print This
By The Soufan Group with Axis of Logic commentary
Soufan Group. Axis of Logic
Monday, Jul 11, 2016

Editor's Comment: The following article was sent to us by an Axis of Logic correspondent in Australia. Originally published in November 2014 by The Soufan Group (TSG), a private security contractor, it provides insight into the social conditions, minds and motives of suicide bombers recruited by the Islamic State. They report that most are foreigners in the host state where they carry out their attacks.

TSG claims headquarters in New York, with regional offices in London, Doha, and Singapore, as well as operations in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Their name derives from Ali Soufan, Chairman & CEO and former FBI Supervisory Special Agent. Their Board Members include 3 other FBI veterans, two former CIA officers, a former Executive Director within the NSA and Chief of Staff in the Chicago Police Department, a USMC veteran now living in Qatar, a former member of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a 25 year veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service and a former Intelligence Analyst and Singapore's Deputy Chief of Staff to Washington. Their website describes them as "strategic security intelligence services to governments and multinational organizations [whose] training programs, security services, and research insights arm our clients with the essential knowledge and skills to prepare for, manage and respond to constantly evolving security needs [and they] view each mission as a continuation of our work with the government, and lifelong devotion to improving global security."

As TSG is a business with members of such splendid backgrounds selling their services to "governments and multinational organizations", we were compelled to corroborate their report and found two credible academics: Scott Gates, a Professor at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and the University of Oslo and Sukanya Podder, a Lecturer at CISR (Center for Systems Research) at  Cranfield University, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham. Gates and Podder published more in-depth and much more detailed and well-documented research at Perspectives on Terrorism: Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State, a paper we encourage you to read. Their research is primarily focused on foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria.

The article below also cites Mohammed Hafez, a professor at University of Missouri in Kansas City and author of the July 2007 book, Suicide Bombers in Iraq. At that time, Hafez identified the nationalities of 124 bombers who attacked the US-installed Iraqi government. He reported that the largest number 53, were Saudis. Eight came from Italy and eight from Syria, seven from Kuwait, four from Jordan and two each from Belgium, France and Spain. Others came from North and East Africa, South Asia and various Middle East.

Gates and Potter wrote: "Recent reports indicate that over 20,000 foreign fighters have joined militant Sunni organizations in the Iraq/Syria conflict. Most of them have joined the Islamic State (IS). The majority of the foreign fighters are Arabs coming from neighboring countries or the Maghreb. An increasing number of recruits are now coming from the Chechnya and Dagestan regions of Russia with estimates of 2,000 recruits. Around 20% of the foreign fighters are from the West." And, "While some western born recruits are alienated and disaffected youth, many are not. As a group, European foreign fighters do tend to be socio-economic underperformers – a study of 378 German foreign fighters, for example, found that only a quarter had finished high school and a third had criminal convictions – but there are many exceptions, especially in the UK, where foreign fighters for some reason come from somewhat more affluent backgrounds than their comrades in other European countries."

They describe the profile of suicide bombers as "diverse, and can range from ignorant novices who view joining as a rite of passage to diehard militants looking for combat and martyrdom, while individuals that go for humanitarian reasons are often kidnapped or forced to fight. The motivations informing the decision to leave are numerous and they vary and interact in complex ways we probably do not yet fully understand. Motivations may include the prospect of adventure, a desire to impress the local community or opposite sex, a search for identity, feelings of revenge, the search for camaraderie, the desire to make history, and much more. Some also appear motivated by the millennial-apocalyptic promises of IS, as well as by the opportunity to die as a martyr and go to heaven."

Beyond this, Gates and Potter describe the differences between those who conduct suicide attacks and their recruiters. Neither report addresses the sources of money, arms and supplies from the West, Israel and Sunni regimes which support IS, the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, and other invading groups in Syria and Iraq. Nor does it address how those resources are channeled through Turkey, or the historical context of how they resulted from US-led wars for regime change in Africa and the Middle East and how the Jihadist groups serve the global agenda of Western countries, the Sunni dominated Arab countries, Turkey and Israel.

- Les Blough, Editor
Axis of Logic

The Logic of Foreign Fighters as Suicide Bombers
The Soufan Group

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • While there is understandable concern that an unknown percentage of foreign fighters fighting for the so-called Islamic State (IS) might return to their home countries intent on continuing the fight, IS appears intent on using them in suicide attacks in both Iraq and Syria
  • IS goes to great length to publicize the foreign fighters who die in suicide attacks, which greatly enhances the group in the eyes of unstable people looking for martyrdom, creating a feedback loop of death.
  • A recent statement by IS showed that 80% of the suicide attacks in Iraq between September and early October were committed by foreign fighters; this continues a trend of IS using their foreign fighters in suicide attacks while Iraqi fighters take on the role of traditional soldiers.
  • Along with Saudi nationals, who conducted 60% of the suicide attacks referenced above, fighters from North Africa consistently feature prominently in IS suicide attacks, which closely matches the suicide bombing statistics from the 2003 Iraq war, though now there are more suicide operatives from western Europe than during the earlier conflict.
For foreign fighters seeking death, the Islamic State (IS) delivers. The group continues to use its foreign fighters in the majority of its suicide attacks in Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Syria. This contradicts the common notion that foreign fighters are prized commodities and those with ‘valuable passports’ would be trained and sent back home to conduct attacks. This notion fails to take into account the motivations and capabilities of some foreign fighters as well as the recruiting, operational, and governing needs of IS. Simply put, there is a subset of foreign fighters who join for the opportunity for martyrdom, as they see it. That is what they want—it is why they joined—and IS profits in three important ways by providing them the opportunity.

1) There is a huge military benefit for IS to use foreign fighters in suicide attacks. By definition, these attacks defeat defensive measures aimed at rational actors. Most military and government targets are relatively well-protected by this stage in Iraq, leaving vulnerable convoys and the always vulnerable and targeted Shi’a civilian populations. The recent wave of suicide bombings across Iraq are stunning in their scope, with two and three attacks per day across the country. These attacks damage the Iraqi government in the eyes of the people it fails to protect, and it pushes the country closer to the sectarian fight IS wants above all else.

A statement by IS last week listed 21 suicide bombings in Iraq between September and early October, and showed that 80% (17) were conducted by foreign fighters. 60% of the operatives were Saudi: only two were Iraqi, two more from Syria, and then one each from Turkey, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Libya, and Indonesia. These attacks targeted Iraqi Army units as well as Sunni tribal opposition, and of course Shi’a civilians in Baghdad.

2) There is tremendous recruitment value in having foreign fighters conduct suicide attacks. It meets the expectations of the desperate and damaged who seek such a death, and by publicizing these deaths as IS does, it shows potential future recruits that IS delivers what for them would be considered an honorable death. This creates a feedback loop of death, in which each suicide bombing—and the subsequent publicity and glorification—light the fuse for a future suicide bomber.

Foreign fighters from Denmark to Chechnya have traveled to Iraq and Syria to die for IS, a global phenomenon that has become a hallmark of IS propaganda. While the wording and images may vary, the message is the same: Our supporters travel across the globe to die for our cause. It is a powerful message. The group’s legion of social media supporters and members ensure the broadest distribution of the names and nationalities of foreign fighters dying for IS, and again this both creates huge publicity for the group among disaffected or just bored youth but also highlights a credible path for martyrdom for the small subset looking for it.

3) Lastly, using foreign fighters in suicide attacks is good management for a group intending to rule over Iraq and Syria. The local fighters, with their ties to the community, are somewhat important, as they all will be future subjects of IS rule—assuming they don’t run afoul of the draconian rules set down by the barbaric regime. Foreign fighters aren’t part of the local social fabric; quite the opposite, they are designed to rip that fabric and allow IS to reshape it to their liking.

Iraqi and Syrian IS fighters certainly undertake suicide operations—more so in Syria—but IS can’t build a standing army and a ruling government replete with badly needed technocrats and bureaucrats from suicide candidates. That role is relegated to foreign fighters whenever possible and tactically sound. This continues a decade-long trend of non-Iraqis conducting suicide attacks in Iraq. A 2007 study on suicide attacks in Iraq conducted by Mohammed Hafez, a professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, identified 124 of the bombers: a mere 18 were Iraqis, with 53 (the largest percent) once again coming from Saudi Arabia, and the rest spread between northern Africa, Kuwait, Jordan, and some European countries. The goals and players of the conflict might have changed over the decade, but the pattern of exploiting foreign fighters as suicide bombers persists


Biography, Essays and Poetry by Les Blough

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