Syria latest magnet for jihadist suicide bombers
Suicide attacks in Syria show that Islamic militant groups reached across borders to instill disaffected youth with the jihadi ideology
On his last day as an ordinary teenager, Abdullah Siddeh kept to his daily routine: He filled in for his father at the small family grocery in the afternoon, asked his mother at home about dinner and then played soccer with friends at the nearby high school.
After the game, the 17-year-old slipped out of his hometown in central Jordan.
Six months later, his father Mohammed got a phone call from Syria. His son had blown himself up in a rebel attack on a police station in Syrian capital of Damascus, the unknown man on the line told him.
Mohammed said he asked the man how he could bring his son’s remains home for burial.
The reply: "There is no body."
With Syria now the latest conflict zone where suicide attacks have become a key tactic, AP reporters interviewed the families of Abdullah and another foreign suicide bomber in Syria, 22-year-old Mohammed Zaaneen from the Gaza Strip who died in September, to learn more about their motives.
Experts say there’s no “typical” bomber. But the stories of these two individuals offer a glimpse into how Islamic militant groups have reached across borders to instill some disaffected youth with the jihadi ideology behind their most horrific tactic.
Over the past decade, the use of suicide bombers has evolved. In the 1980s and 1990s, the tactic was used mainly in nationalist causes - Palestinians, for example, unleashed it in their fight against Israel, as did mainly Hindu Tamils in their fight against Sri Lanka’s government.
But the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq transformed it. Suicide attacks became more central to militants’ way of fighting and took on a transnational aspect. Militant groups used jihadi ideology honed by al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists to draw foreign recruits into the fight, in the name of defending both land and religion.
More than 1,300 attacks have been carried out in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, out of more than 3,100 suicide bombings worldwide since 1980, according to data collected by the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
The newest jihad battleground, Syria, has inherited the mantle, as al-Qaida-linked groups eclipse nationalist rebels as the most powerful forces in the fight against President Bashar Assad. The Chicago Project documented almost two dozen suicide bombings there in 2012, and dozens have taken place this year.
It’s not the only new front. In Egypt’s bloody insurgency of the 1990s, Islamic militants did not carry out suicide attacks. Now they do: The tactic has been used several times the past few months against troops and security forces in the Sinai Peninsula and in Cairo in a nascent insurgency sparked by the July ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Mursi.
For both Abdullah Siddeh of Jordan and Mohammed Zaaneen from the Gaza Strip, ideology was a powerful motivator, according to their families. Before joining rebel fighters in Syria, they embraced Jihadi Salafism, a strain of the puritanical Salafi stream of Sunni Islam.
Jihadi Salafism’s doctrine of global holy war forms the ideological basis for the al-Qaida terror network, preaching that committed Muslims must fight non-believers everywhere. They include non-Sunnis - like Assad, a member of the Shiite-offshoot Alawite sect - among the infidels.
Abdullah grew up in a mainstream Muslim family in Russaifa, a drab industrial city of 300,000 where jobs are scarce and teens have limited options.
Raed Khater, the librarian at Abdullah’s high school, said students either take up smoking and chasing girls or become religious. The vast majority of high school seniors fail university matriculation exams, he said.
Abdullah became intensely religious as a young teen, a cause of friction in the family, said his oldest brother, 22-year-old Afif, who is not observant. Abdullah would object to Afif watching TV programs featuring women or popular music, but Afif’s opinion usually prevailed because he contributes to the family by selling scrap metal.
After the Syrian conflict turned more violent, Abdullah dropped hints about martyrdom and wanting to fight Assad, his father said. Abdullah sometimes raided the family refrigerator to give food to Syrian refugees streaming into Jordan.
His last day in Russeifa, December 20, was a Thursday, and Abdullah was observing a dawn-to-dusk religious fast, as he did twice a week.
When he returned home, he asked his mother to prepare something delicious for the evening meal and went off playing soccer. He never returned home for the meal.
Two days after his disappearance, he called from Syria, saying he was fine.
From then on, Abdullah called his family once a month. He said he had become a holy warrior and ignored pleas to come home. In his last call, Abdullah said he would be closer to God as a martyr and would be able to put in a good word for 70 family members. He asked his mother Khaula for a farewell blessing.
A month later, Abdullah’s father received word that his son was dead.
He blew himself up in a June 23 rebel attack on a police station in the Damascus neighborhood of Rukneddine, said his family and a Jordanian intelligence official.
Syria’s state news agency said at the time that the attack involved three suicide bombers who killed five people. Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group linked to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility.
A large poster of a smiling Abdullah in Syria, sitting on a motorcycle, hangs in the family living room. “The ones who were killed for the sake of God are not dead,” reads the caption.
Abdullah’s father said he put up the poster, a gift from friends, so that he can look at his son, not because he accepts his actions. As a devout Muslim, Mohammed Siddeh believes death is preordained and martyrs are blessed by God, but says his son was too young to decide he wanted to die.
Robert Pape of the University of Chicago who runs the Chicago Project said he believes religion usually is secondary to the root cause of lopsided, asymmetrical conflicts.
“Outside the context of an occupation or conflict zone, we hardly see suicide terrorism,” he said.
A long-running conflict provides fertile ground for attacks by creating a “sense of collective grievance, daily humiliation, massive economic and social dislocation,” said sociologist Riaz Hassan, who kept attack statistics at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.
Within that context, different personal motives emerge.
In Iraq, a failed bomber told reporters last year that he tried to retaliate for the arrest and alleged rape of Sunni women by the security forces. Some Iraqi women blew themselves up at military targets to avenge the arrest of a husband or son. The desire for revenge also loomed large for many Palestinian bombers, but they also went to their deaths knowing their families would be provided for by the militant groups.
Mohammed Zaaneen’s journey to martyrdom in Syria had a peculiar twist. He found himself at odds with another Islamic militant group with a long history of suicide attacks, Gaza's ruling Hamas.
Hamas carried out scores of suicide attacks in Israel since the mid-1990s. But it rejects global jihad, focusing on the fight against Israel. In practice, it has all but stopped suicide bombings for now - in part because of tougher Israeli measures, in part because since 2007 it is burdened with running Gaza. It has even tried to restrain Jihadi Salafis in Gaza to prevent troubles.
“We are telling people, fight here,” said Ahmed Yousef, a Gaza intellectual with links to Hamas. “We never encourage them to go to Syria.”
Mohammed was arrested three times by Hamas security forces for Salafi activities after graduating from high school in 2009. When he tried to leave Gaza for Syria in April, he was turned back, but managed to sneak out in June.
He died Sept. 17 in a suicide attack claimed by an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, but no details are known about the location and possible casualties.
In a farewell video posted online, he said he had “chosen death as a path to life.”
At the Zaaneen home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, two tattered black flags, a symbol of Jihadi Salafis, still adorn the entrance gate. His mother Sharifa said they were put there by her son’s friends during the wake.
In the room he shared with his 19-year-old brother Emad, Mohammed’s side of the closet is still filled with typical Salafi attire, plain-colored robes and pants that expose the ankles. The thin mattress he slept on remains next to Emad’s on the floor.
Mohammed was the oldest and most devout of seven siblings, studying to become a religion teacher. Like Abdullah, Mohammed would argue with the family over what TV programs to watch and refused to attend his sister’s wedding because she wanted music at her party, something he considered “haram,” or forbidden by religion.
The family is still struggling with his actions. In phone calls, they had begged him to come home, and his brother Emad said he would never follow in Mohammed’s footsteps.
Mohammed’s mother said she’s accepted his death as God’s will.
“He always talked about martyrdom,” said his mother. “I am proud of him because he was religious and faithful to the Quran.”