There are arguments that both support and oppose the hypothesis that suicide bombers are foremost a product of religious extremism.

Since 1980, suicide bombings have been identified with a variety of religious and secular ideologies. These ideologies include: the Hindu BKI in India, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the SSNP in Lebanon, the PFLP in the Palestinian territories, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the PPK in Turkey.

Salafi, Deobandi, and Marxist ideologies are three of the most common belief systems that are associated with suicide bombings. Marxism is a socio-political and economic worldview that is not historically associated with religion. This would suggest that suicide bombings are at least not completely a product of religious extremism.

Focusing on the Deobandi and Salafi movements, both of which I have written on in this blog before, neither Deobandi nor Salafi are unified belief systems. There is no single authority on either. Quintan Wiktorowicz has written in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism that “(t)he divisions within the Salafi community, in part, represent a generational struggle over sacred authority–the right to interpret Islam on behalf of the Muslim community.” In other words, Wiktorowicz claims that there is no single and exclusive understanding within Salafi ideology regarding actions such as suicide bombings. With this knowledge, one can assume that other ideological factors other than religion are also contributors in the making of a suicide bomber. We can come to this conclusion, because there is no homogeneous authority within a belief system like Salafi to encourage every believer into becoming a bomber. If there were, the world would have experienced millions more of these bombings.

What Makes A Suicide Bomber?

Suicide bombers seek to coalesce their religious beliefs to existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political views. Therefore, they may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a suicide bomber as much as it is an approbation.

Individuals associated with suicide bombings tend to experience a progressive radicalization. A better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in that experience could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of suicide bombings.

A lack of data on successful suicide bombers is a contributing factor to the ambiguity that religion plays in these events. Many groups that plan the bombings put off releasing the bomber’s identities in order to protect their families and larger community from revenge. Yet, data from failed suicide bombers is available, and it is conclusive. There are plenty of instances where groups like the Taliban recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme religious ideology to incite and encourage them. However, there are just as many instances where failed bombers turn out to be extremely educated, and these people are just as likely to cite nationalistic and economic inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

One of the few consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

Suicide bombers are reactionary. They are reacting to their socio-economic-cultural realities. They are disgruntled by factors (both real and perceived) within their community, region, or nation state.

I think it is pragmatic to state that suicide bombings are not singularly a product of religious extremism. But, for those instances where religious extremism is a factor, it would be beneficial to ask if suicide bombers (who we know are religious) subscribe to an extreme religion because they are already disgruntled, or does an extreme religion advance their militancy?

The Marjah Offensive

February 16, 2010

U.S. marines are leading a massive NATO effort to drive Taliban insurgents from Southern Afghanistan so that power in the region can be transfered to the Afghan government.

NATO forces have so far been facing the most resistance in the Taliban haven of Marjah. U.S. troops have been plagued by sniper fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). However, British and Afghan troops are reported to be making better progress in the neighboring district of Nad Ali.

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World leaders meeting in London Thursday agreed to a timetable for an exit strategy in Afghanistan. The exit could start as early as the end of this year.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has stated that it could take up to 10 years before his forces can properly secure the country. He has proposed a policy of outreach to the Taliban for the interim; however, it is unknown if engagement with the Taliban is even possible. Just planning Taliban overtures is a problematic gamble, because it raises questions of which factions to pursue, where to stop in the Taliban chain of command, and how to bargain with political dissidents who crave exerting state authority and control.

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In April 2009, the Pakistani government launched its largest offensive yet against Islamist militants in the region known as Swat Valley.

A few hours drive north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Swat was once Pakistan’s most appealing tourist destination. Residents lived under a mix of tribal and sharia law augmented with rudimentary military control that was first established by the British. The leading member of the valley’s most powerful family was effectively a regional tribal king that enjoyed the title of Wali. Wali rule ended at the time of Pakistani independence in 1947, when Swat acquiesced to Pakistan. However, Swat didn’t become completely integrated into Pakistan until 1969 when the last Wali officially retired his authority.

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The Taliban Revisited

December 29, 2009

There has been a lot of talk in American news media over the past month about the concept of “good” and “bad” Taliban. This nuance in American national dialogue was diffused in some measure by President Barack Obama’s stated desire to send more troops to Afghanistan in part to help keep conflict there from spilling over into Pakistan. Mr. Obama and his administration have spent a great deal of time discussing with the American people Pakistan’s ongoing struggle with militancy and radicalism, as well as, Pakistan’s past tolerance of members of what has come to be termed the Pakistani Taliban.

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Last evening, President Obama announced his plan for the United States’ ongoing war effort in Afghanistan. His strategy includes 30,000 additional American troops, and a withdrawal date of mid-2011.

The exit strategy put forth by Mr. Obama can be understood as an ultimatum to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Essentially, Mr. Obama is telling Mr. Karzai that the government reforms called for must be put in place quickly. Mr. Obama is trying to instill a sense of urgency. It is a calculated risk.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been sworn in for a second term. During his inauguration, Karzai sought to reassure the West that his presidency would effectively change the culture of corruption within the Afghan government in concrete ways.

Mr. Karzai made reconciliation a major theme of his speech. He talked of including the Taliban in the democratic process, and of power sharing with his former presidential rival Abdullah Abdullah. He spoke of holding a conference to educate lawmakers on how to fight corruption.

It is not easy for heads of state to route out systemic corruption. Governmental mechanisms have to be put in place in order to tackle the job. One such mechanism being implemented in Afghanistan is the formation of a new anti-corruption unit to be led by Afghanistan’s justice minister Mohammad Sarwar.

Thousands of police officers are thought to be on the take of bribes. Government workers expect extra payments to process official documentation. Health care professionals expect extra payments to ensure adequate medical treatment. And politicians are thought to bribe their way to power while in office.

“For the next five years, the priority of Karzai is to fight corruption,” said interior minister Hanif Atmar.

Al Qaeda Strikes Back

October 23, 2009

Violence that has been defined as terrorism is usually perpetrated in relation to the political dynamics of a culture or society. Terrorism can thus be viewed as a mechanism of change used by those who feel powerless and seek to undermine the status quo or the understood power of a marked group. To recruit future members, dissident groups use shows of force, coercion, rhetoric, and iconography to utilize any radical discourse already existing within the social or political sphere of a given society. The terrorist network al Qaeda has effectively merged Islamist ideology and the Salafi movement to encourage religiously motivated militants into assisting their cause.

Al Qaeda has suffered setbacks since 9/11. It’s original figurehead, Osama bin Laden, has lost some of his influence within the network: The franchises in Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa have at times openly rebelled against his preferred strategies of attack. Others among the network’s top operatives are also politically impotent while they remain in hiding. Many of the most experienced have been killed. The network has thus far failed in its attempts to overthrow the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Perhaps most importantly, al Qaeda has seen the majority of its monetary assets frozen. Al Qaeda made four public appeals for money within the first six months of 2009. This tells analysts that al Qaeda’s ability to dominate the direction of insurgencies within Asia and the Middle East is waning. But does this mean the network is currently weak? In a word, no. The al Qaeda network is perhaps more dangerous than it has ever been.

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Iranian state media has reported that 5 top commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have been assassinated by a suicide bomber along with at least 26 others. The attack occurred in a region of south eastern Iran that borders Pakistan. 

Information being provided by Iranian state media indicates that the Revolutionary Guard commanders were meeting with local tribal leaders when one or two explosions went off and killed the commanders as well as the tribal leaders that they were going to meet. 

The south eastern region of Iran is a very volatile region due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working in the area.

The attack is being claimed by Jundullah (Army of God), a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shia led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003. It is said that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda. The group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran. 

Today’s attack highlights how the Taliban and al Qaeda’s regional influence is spreading. The suicide bombing is a hallmark of the al Qaeda playbook. While Jundullah has used suicide bombers in it’s attacks before, such actions indicate that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al Qaeda within Pakistan’s borders.

People have asked me why my writings are focusing on Afghanistan so strongly. Well, besides the fact that Afghanistan continues to dominate the media headlines, the truth of the matter is that the United States and NATO forces could be involved in the country for years to come. I believe people should be well informed so as to take part in national and international debates. Currently, there is a lot of debate over what an increase of around 40,000 American troops would do for the country’s security: would it help in resolving the issues of violence in the country or would it increase the Afghan resistance to NATO’s presence? There are legitimate reasons for argument on both sides of this debate. Here are the intellectual arguments: Read the rest of this entry »

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