‘Martyrdom culture’ not major cause of Afghan suicide attacks, UN reports

10 September 2007

Suicide attackers in Afghanistan, including children, are being coerced or duped into carrying out such operations, and seemed to be motivated by a variety of grievances such as foreign occupation, anger over civilian casualties and humiliation rather than a “martyrdom culture,” according to a new United Nations report.

“Based on what we’ve found you can say we are puncturing a few popular myths,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative Tom Koenigs said of the study carried out by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). “The Afghan suicide attacker is not crazed, fanatical or brainwashed. Some are recruited in madrassas, but many are not. Of those we’ve seen most are young, poor, uneducated, and easily influenced.”

Released yesterday on the anniversary of Afghanistan’s first-known suicide attack, the 9 September 2001 slaying of commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, and just days before the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the study presents data and analysis and includes interviews with more than two dozen failed and alleged suicide attackers. It is the most detailed so far into the phenomenon in Afghanistan.

It notes a sevenfold increase in suicide attacks in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2006 and a continuing though slower rise in 2007. Its recommendations include immediate efforts to diminish perceptions of a foreign military occupation, and political steps to reduce the insurgents’ support base by meeting the demands of the population, cutting corruption, overseeing fair judicial processes and providing basic public services.

“Unlike other conflict areas wherein suicide attacks are commonly used, Afghanistan fortunately has yet to develop a robust “martyrdom culture,” which simultaneously celebrates the attacker and helps forge a justifying narrative for the attacks as in other theatres,” according to the study, Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007 – www.unama-afg.org).

“In fact, in Afghanistan it is rare that one can identify, much less celebrate, the attacker and his deed. Not all attackers seem to be truly ideologically committed, based upon the highly limited data garnered for this study. While suicide attackers in Afghanistan may have been inspired by such attacks in Iraq and neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan has been spared sectarian violence despite having a relatively large Shi’a population as discussed in this report,” it says.

The study calls on all forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations to reduce civilian casualties and “conscientiously work to uphold the dignity and honour of Afghans, to avoid provoking outrage in the population and a ready supply of volunteers for jihad.”

Afghan national security forces must be supported increasingly to assume responsibility for providing more effective security, and the means must be found to engage other Muslim countries to support security and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

The cross-border dimension of suicide attacks in Afghanistan must also be addressed by bolstering Pakistani support to eliminate domestic enablers for the insurgency in Afghanistan and address militancy within its own borders, the study states.

Previous research has noted the low effectiveness of Afghan suicide attackers, who in some cases succeed in blowing up only themselves. UNAMA’s findings affirm this but also point to a possible explanation, that coercion and misrepresentation on the part of terrorist training and recruitment networks mean attackers are often ill-prepared for their missions and unaware of the consequences.

 

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