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Military Produces Profile of Iraq Suicide Bombers


There were 550 suicide bombings in Iraq last year. Military and intelligence experts say they're developing a profile of the suicide bomber, and that profile is not always what you might expect. NPR's John Hendren was recently in Iraq and has this story.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

The stereotype of the suicide bomber in Iraq has long been that of a financially destitute Arab, brainwashed in the Islamic schools where he was educated, and illegally spirited across Iraq's thinly patrolled border in the dead of night. But strategists at the U.S. Central Command now say that's only half right. Doug Lute is director of operations for CENTCOM. He says the typical suicide bomber is indeed a non-Iraqi in his 20s, but he is financially solvent and relatively well educated, and, because he has no criminal history, he enters Iraq legally through Syria, possibly with the help of local facilitators, in the light of day, with a legitimate passport and no baggage. Then, Lute says, the minders take over.

Major General DOUG LUTE (Director of operations, U.S. Central Command): We have evidence that once these young Sunni Arab 19 to 31-year-old males arrive in Iraq, that their identification, their documents, are taken from them, their passports are taken from them, any money they might have is taken from them. They are separated from anyone with whom they may have traveled. So they're very much put into sort of an isolation cell network where they're over-watched very carefully until they're put on their suicide mission.

HENDREN: U.S. military officials say many of the bombers are allied with al-Qaida and Iraq's leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose network guides them to Baghdad and other cities through time-worn smuggling routes along the Euphrates River Valley. That's why the Army last summer opened a remote base in the rural Euphrates town of Rawa. Defense officials say the minders ensure no one gets cold feet. On one occasion, another senior defense official says, soldiers in a Stryker Armored Vehicle were pursuing a car across a bridge near Rawa. When the car stopped, he says, it was apparently remotely detonated by a minder who is waiting nearby.

Major General DOUG LUTE (Director of operations, U.S. Central Command): Even once on this suicide mission, we have evidence that there are steps taken to insure that they'll complete the task at hand. Sometimes by way of a backup bomber who is essentially over-watching one bomber there. They work in tandem so that one of the two of them will certainly not lose his nerve.

HENDREN: Some, says Lute, have been found with their hands taped to the wheel or their feet chained to the pedals. Experts say the potential recruiting pool is enormous.

PAT LANGE (Former Head of Defense Intelligence Agency's Human Gathering Intelligence Program): I would say that there is a potential of hundreds of thousands of suicide bombers, not just a few thousand.

HENDREN: Pat Lange is the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Human Intelligence Gathering Program. Now working as an independent consultant for the government. Lange says the bombers are generally devout Muslims recruited in a mosque setting somewhere in the bronze swaf of the Islamic world that stretches from Central and South Asia to the Middle East and Africa. The way the recruiters work, he says, is a lot like the way the U.S. Government works.

Mr. LANGE: This is a process which is remarkably similar to recruiting an asset in the espionage business overseas. It's a business of persuading somebody that this is what they want to do by, you know, a very seductive kind of logic, and endless repetition until you get them to where you want them to be.

HENDREN: Lange says the recruiters talk to the recruits daily about how the West, especially the United States, oppresses Muslims. They talk to them about how long life is, he says. And about what a shame it is that the faithful have to wait so long to reach paradise. Eventually, Lange says, the recruit develops the idea that becoming a suicide bomber is an opportunity to achieve both his religious goals, and to speed his way to paradise.

The top American General in Iraq, General George Casey says the eventual goal of Zarqawi's network of suicide bombers is clear.

U.S. General GEORGE CASEY: The way I look at it and the way we talk about it with our groups is this is al-Qaida's main effort. They're trying to establish a terrorist safe haven right in the center of their war, and we're going to deny them that.

HENDREN: In order to do that, he says, the bombers seek an Iraq in chaos, much like Afghanistan was before the American military led the invasion that toppled the Taliban Government in 2001. Casey says Zarkawi wants to use Iraq as a safe haven to export terror to Israel and beyond. John Hendren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Hendren
John Hendren began covering the Pentagon for NPR in November 2005. His reports can be heard throughout NPR News programming and newscasts.
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