The Sunday Herald, September 16th, 2006
Why would a young mother blow herself up?
Kevin Toolis investigates the rise of female martyrs
The Sunday Times, September 3rd, 2006
The Making of a Suicide Bomber
Former CIA officer Robert Baer traces the origins of
terrorism's most potent cult and explains why it will
be hard to stop
The Observer, Sunday August 7, 2005
This deadly virus
In a searing analysis of the wave of suicide
bombings, former CIA agent Robert Baer warns Britain
of the grave dangers ahead
The Guardian, Wednesday August 3, 2005
'I was living fiction'
Robert Baer is about to be played by George Clooney
in a movie tipped to win an Oscar. He is also a leading
expert on the psychology of suicide bombers. The former
CIA agent talks to Stephen Moss about what makes a terrorist
The Times, July 27, 2006
When in Rome, don't
forget the bombs of 1983
If anyone believes a multilateral
force will sort Hezbollah out, the story of Ahmed Qassir
will dissuade them
IN THE VILLAGE of Deir al- Nahr in the foothills above
the southern Lebanese city of Tyre is a little shrine
that all those advocating the deployment of a new “robust”
multi-national force in Lebanon should visit before
so willingly offering up the blood of their soldiers.
Pride of place among the fluttering yellow Kalashnikov-symbolled
Hezbollah flags, captured Israeli guns and gallery of
suicide bombers is a painting of Ahmed Qassir. Qassir,
known locally as the “prince of martyrs”,
has been largely forgotten by the outside world but
not by the Lebanese.
And as a new generation of our leaders, and fools, gathers
in Rome to chart out on what terms another outside force
can be sent to intervene in the Lebanon, it’s
worth remembering Qassir’s contribution to the
history of the Middle East, indeed the history of the
But it is not Qassir Ahmed’s life but the manner
of his death that is so notable. Qassir was the world’s
first suicide car bomber. On a wet November morning
in 1982 Qassir drove a car, packed with 500kg of explosives,
into the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre. He brought
the building down, killing 76 Israeli troops.
His suicide bombing was the first successful counterblow
by the Lebanese against the 1982 Israeli invasion unleashed
by Ariel Sharon and a portent for the chaos now visited
daily on the streets of Baghdad. The Israelis had provoked
a new, far deadlier enemy to come into being —
the Shia of the Lebanon — who would not be so
easily vanquished as Nasser and his blustering Egyptians.
Hezbollah, aided by a contingent of Iranian Islamic
Revolutionary Guards, had in Qassir invented a new weapon
— the tactical human bomb.
If delegates from Rome took a stroll up the street from
his billboard picture they could drop in on Qassir’s
mother. Amid the traditional warm Arabic hospitality,
the family will gladly point out pictures of the martyr
Qassir and fondly recall his earnest vow to “rock
the Israelis”. Where we see and fear a suicide
bomber, Qassir’s family only see a patriot and
martyr — a simple hero.
The Qassirs are Shia, who revere the Prophet’s
grandson, Imam Hussein, for his martyrdom at the battle
of Kerbala against the overwhelming army of the evil
Caliph Yazid in AD680. Martyrdom thus lies at the core
of the Shia faith and for this simple rural family,
Ahmed, in blowing up the Israeli headquarters, was thus
re-enacting Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. His death
was both a justifiable act of war and a sacred religious
duty. “Just as you love life, we love death”,
is a common Shia mantra. Ahmed, they were convinced,
is in Paradise.
In 1983 Hezbollah followed up Qassir’s work with
the the most powerful acts of terrorism before 9/11
— the April 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in
Beirut and the October 1983 bombing of the US Marines
barracks. Again, two of Hezbollah’s “martyrs”
simply drove to the targets with trucks packed with
explosives and brought the buildings down, killing everyone
inside. Both attacks were devastating strikes. In the
embassy bombing the entire CIA station, meeting in a
first-floor room to discuss the threat of terrorism,
was wiped out. In the Marine barracks attack, 241 Marines
were killed in the biggest single loss to the US forces
since the Second World War. And just to spread the message
around, another Hezbollah bomber attacked French paratroopers,
killing 60 at the same time as the Marines.
A few months later the US President, Ronald Reagan,
pulled the Marines out from their supposed peace-keeping
mission in the Lebanon. The withdrawal was an ignominious
end to another flawed peace keeping mission where the
US superpower, aided by its European allies, naively
believed it could assert its will in the Lebanon and
suffer no consequences.
In Rome today we hear similar misguided rhetoric. The
notion that a multinational peacekeeping force could
hold Hezbollah at bay, or restore order, might be easy
to imagine in the air-conditioned conference suites
of Rome but would be a lot harder to carry out in villages
such as Deir al-Nahr.
This is not a proposed ceasefire but a recipe for madness.
Ever since that fateful November 1982 the Israeli Defence
Forces have been waging a hot war against Hezbollah,
using missile strikes, assassinations and bombings.
The IDF has tried almost every weapon in its vast arsenal.
It is demonstrably waging that same battle today.
Self-evidently the Israelis, with all their might, have
failed to disarm Hezbollah. The notion that some well-meaning
Norwegians, backed by a few Turkish soldiers, could
dismember the most formidable terrorist organisation
the world has known is ridiculous. Worse than ridiculous,
every Western leader who contributes to such a force
will be sending their own men to their death.
Hezbollah may have been created by Iran but it is Lebanese
to its core. It has resisted the Israelis and it will
also violently resist its destruction by what its sees
as a US-Israeli sponsored plan. And the weapon Hezbollah
will choose will be more Ahmed Qassirs.
I doubt if the planners in Rome will visit Ahmed Qassir’s
mother or remember the glaring history lessons of past
interventions. In the nature of these things we will
be told that everything is different this time round
and that our troops will be welcomed and the world has
changed. The television cameras will cover the initial
deployment as the troops patrol the streets of Deir
al-Nahr with soft berets on their heads and hand out
sweets to local kids.
But the world will not have changed and this coming
story of folly, hubris and blindness will end the same
way with another Ahmed, a car packed with explosives,
a blown-up barracks and a pile of dead foreign troops.
And then, amid the needless, futile loss, we will remember
that old lesson from 1983 that you cannot enter a battlefield
armed only with the best of intentions.
The Times (London), Friday July 22, 2005
What yesterday told us
The golden rule of terrorist organisations
was revealed by the London outrages
TERRORISTS WILL always have one advantage over democratic
states -surprise. What begins as another normal day
in the capital turns into chaos, crisis meetings
in 10 Downing Street, mobile phone surges, fear and
red alerts even when the terrorist devices are duds
and the casualties minor.
But yesterday's events and the grim death toll of
July 7 are also proof not of the strength but of
the weakness of our enemy. The tiny group who killed
so blindly two weeks ago are not and can never be
a serious threat to the state, or the vast majority
of its citizens.
The golden rule of any terrorist organisation planning
a spectacular operation is to throw everything into
the first attack. From a terrorist point of view
your first strike against a major power will always
be your best strike simply because your enemy is
sleeping. The paradigm terrorist operation is, of
course, September 11, when as if from nowhere al-Qaeda
hijackers seized four planes to crash them into their
As Osama bin Laden knew, life for a terrorist organisation
gets immeasurably harder after its spectacular. Democratic
states wake up quickly and the manhunt begins for
those responsible. Armies are unleashed, wars begun,
informers recruited and hundreds of suspects hauled
in for interrogation. Even if it survives the inevitable
military crackdown, the terrorist leadership has
to go on the run and its capabilities are diminished.
Pulling off another 9/11 becomes infinitely more
July 7 in London was no different. Knowing that
surprise was their greatest weapon the bombers planned
to maximise the impact by carrying out simultaneous
suicide bomb attacks on London's transport network.
It was only by chance that Hasib Hussain, the bus
bomber, was 81 minutes late for his appointment with
Although it can be little compensation to the grieving
relatives, the death toll of 52 is comparable not
with the cataclysmic thousands killed in the Twin
Towers but with the Real IRA's murderous work, 29
killed, on the streets of Omagh in 1998.
Obviously this is not because the terrorists themselves
felt constrained to avoid a high civilian death toll.
Their aim was to kill as many people as possible.
They failed to kill more people because they did
not have the operational capacity to do so. They
are weak and poorly financed, not strong.
Every terrorist organisation operates under a set
of rules of engagement. When the IRA murdered large
numbers of civilians it was usually a mistake because
mass murder of women and children has never played
well, even in the Republican bars of South Armagh.
Gunmen and bombers were shunned, doors were closed
to them and collection tins ran empty.
Al-Qaeda and its British spawn clearly operate under
no such restraint. The Tube attacks were deliberate
acts of mass murder. But the key question is why
there were not more casualties. If your aim is mass
slaughter then why not pack a car with explosives
and drive down Oxford Street?
The reason is not the terrorist's sensitivities
but their incapacities. The explosive they used,
acetone peroxide, is proof that the enemy we face
is home-grown. Their warped ideology, the cult of
the suicide bomber, might be imported from the Middle
East, but the instructions in how to make their bombs
came from the internet. Acetone peroxide, whose base
materials are easily purchased in most British hardware
stores, is a lethally unstable compound with a shelf
life of less than a week. It is difficult to store
and as it dries out it becomes even more unstable.
It was just as likely to kill the bombmaker as the
civilians at whom it was eventually targeted. Unscrew
the cap the wrong way or drop the bottle and it will
blow you and your bomb factory to smithereens. The
only reason to use acetone peroxide for explosives
is because you have no alternative.
Acetone peroxide is the base material of plots dreamt
up in a two bed-room terrace in Beeston, not the
training camps of Afghanistan where stable military
explosives, such as C4, can be readily purchased
for a few hundred dollars in the local bazaar. No
money, and certainly no weapons and explosives, are
being clandestinely shipped across the globe to Yorkshire
from the wilds of Afghanistan.
Nor is it conceivable that a prolonged terrorist
campaign could be sustained from within the Muslim
communities of Britain. In order to survive as a
terrorist group, such as the IRA, you need a community
to swim in. You need a network of supporters and
sympathisers prepared to hide and give succour, financial
and otherwise for the cause. But the July 7 bombings
have been universally condemned.
A number of the victims are themselves Muslims.
Cold-blooded murder on the Tube does not appear to
play well in Beeston. And all of those communities
now and in years to come are likely to be scrutinised
intensely by Special Branch and MI5.
There is no chance that Osama bin Laden's British
followers will be training in the Yorkshire hills
in the near future.
Terrorism is normally the weapon of the weak, although
as we discovered after July 7, it can also be the
weapon of the ideologically deranged.
Counter-terrorism is the weapon of the state. And
a state such as Britain is indeed powerful at stopping
terrorists in their tracks. Once our defences are
up and the intelligence community on high alert it
becomes infinitely harder for the terrorists to strike
again. The odds are on our side not theirs.
Kevin Toolis is a producer of a forthcoming Channel
4 series, The
Cult of the Suicide Bomber
The Times (London), Saturday November
A million martyrs await
THEY WERE not hard to spot -the dead tanks -as they
littered the sides of the main Baghdad-Tehran highway
deep inside Iran. Heavy twisted monsters, blasted
by artillery, mounted on stone plinths like trophies
as a warning to any other army that came to fight
and die here, as Saddam's divisions had done. After
40 I stopped counting.
On the Iranian border itself the little town of
Mehran had become a shrine to martyrdom and death.
Like a mini-Stalingrad, it had been razed three times
during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, its streets
filled with the corpses of Iranian child soldiers
sacrificed in human-wave assaults; but in the end
the Iranians expelled the invader at an awesome human
Saddam has gone, but Mehran is once more in the
front line of potential war. The Iran-Iraq border
is just a few miles to the west of the town on a
flat plain - ideal tank country. The border itself
is marked by a meandering stream but on either side
now are the opposing armies of the United States
and the Islamic Republic of Iran, all waiting for
orders from above. If the Americans do ever invade
then it will be here, as the shortest distance to
Tehran from Baghdad; and that little stream the Rubicon
for a war of unimaginable consequences.
In No10 the tom-toms of war of war are drumming
again as Tony Blair warns that he will not tolerate
the meddling hand of Iran in the affairs of Iraq.
In Washington the neoconservative tom-toms are even
louder, warning that the West must "surgically
strike" at Iran's hidden nuclear facilities
and robustly challenge Iranian state-sponsored terrorism.
Nor it seems can the EU countenance Iran's rise as
a nuclear power either. A new nuclear crisis now
looms later this month with the threat of UN Security
Council sanctions over Iran's controversial nuclear
In Tehran the hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,
has done little for foreign relations with his chilling
call for Israel to be wiped off the map. We are,
it seems, close to the on-ramp for another spectacular
confrontation in the Middle East.
But before we succumb again to the hysterical warnings
of our leaders it is worth seeking a cold-eyed measure
of this new enemy they would have us fight. Iraq
and Iran are very different. Iran is nearly four
times the size of its neighbour and six times the
size of Britain. How could an already undermanned
American army expect to control such a huge territory?
Nor will those already fabled "surgical strikes" by
the US Air Force deliver a decisive blow to Iran's
growing nuclear capability. Iran's nuclear plants
are already well hidden across its huge land mass.
And all that a partial strike will do is unleash
an unstoppable war without significantly damaging
the enemy's capability.
Iran's population at 70 million is three times that
of Iraq's and it has one of the youngest populations
in the world. Iran's standing army is estimated by
the CIA to be 520,000-strong, but each year 817,000
17-year-old Iranian boys are potentially available
for military service. That is an awful lot of martyrs
or suicide bombers.
The Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, a consideration
entirely absent from most neoconservative analyses
of Iran's supposed weakness. Persian imperial dynasties
date back to Cyrus the Great, around 530BC, and Xerxes,
486-465BC, who plagued the Greeks.Unlike the chaotic
Arab shambles of Saddam's Iraq, Iran remains a hierarchical
society where the vast majority live in rigid terror
of the authorities above them, religious or imperial,
and will utterly obey their commands.
In many ways Ayatollah Khomeini, who came to power
in 1979, was the greatest Persian Emperor, fusing
his own version of Shia Islam into a state ideology.
And during the Iran-Iraq war he revived the ancient
Shia tradition of martyrdom: hundreds of thousands
of soldiers, many of them children, died in futile
suicidal assaults over minefields. "The Tree
of Islam has to be watered with the blood of martyrs," said
Khomeini without regret.
Martyrdom is still the state religion. Huge posters
of the war dead and Palestinian and Lebanese suicide
bombers dominate every surface in Tehran and every
speech of the political leadership. Any attempt to
threaten or invade Iran will be a huge asset to a
regime longing to re-energise its faded legitimacy
among its own downtrodden population. Invasion by
the Great Satan would be a godsend.
Nor should we underestimate Iran's capacity to punish
its enemies at long range.
In 1982 Iran sent a thousand revolutionary guards
to Lebanon to spread the Islamic revolution. The
plan failed but Iran was behind three of the greatest
acts of postwar terrorism: the American Embassy bombing
in Beirut and the blowing up of the US Marine and
French paratrooper barracks by suicide bombers in
1983. The French and the Americans left Lebanon in
defeat soon afterwards.
Iraq is a mess but widening the conflict by attacking
Iran would be an act of madness. That little stream
on the western edge of Mehran is a Rubicon we must
Kevin Toolis is a terrorism expert and a documentary
The Times Magazine,
Saturday October 23, 2004