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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
Kevin Toolis

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 world.

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 about terror
Kevin Toolis

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 targets.

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 difficult.

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 death.

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 19, 2005
A million martyrs await the call
Kevin Toolis

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 cost.

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 programme.

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 never cross.

Kevin Toolis is a terrorism expert and a documentary film-maker


The Times Magazine,
Saturday October 23, 2004