Living to Bomb Another Day

“Among all the bombs, explosives and guns, the number of martyred dead is rising. Though this is the will of Allah, it is nevertheless possible to cause the enemy greater damage without exposing the Muslims to danger. How is it to be done?”

This question, which appeared as a post in May on the Web site Al7orya, one of the most important of Al Qaeda’s closed Internet forums, is only one example of the evidence that has been accumulated by American and Israeli intelligence in recent months of a significant ideological change under way within Osama bin Laden’s organization. Seven years after 9/11, it may well be that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of suicide terrorism and a shift toward advanced technologies that will enable jihadist bombers to carry out attacks and live to fight another day.

Although Islamic suicide terrorism dates back to the anti-Crusader “assassins” of the 11th century, its modern history begins with statements made by Sheik Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual compass of Hezbollah, in an interview published in 1983. “We believe that the future has surprises in store,” he said. “The jihad is bitter and harsh, it will spring from inside, through effort, patience and sacrifice, and the spirit of readiness for martyrdom.”

A short time later, Sheik Fadlallah’s bodyguard, Imad Mughniyah, organized a series of murderous suicide attacks — first against Israeli military targets, than against the American Embassy in Beirut and finally, of course, against the barracks of the American-led multinational force in Lebanon, causing nearly 300 deaths. From there, it was a short march to 9/11.

Despite countless attempts by Western intelligence agencies, and the many projects by psychologists trying to draw the profile of the average suicide terrorist, we have failed miserably in finding a solution to the “poor man’s smart bomb.” Now, however, attrition may achieve what the experts have not: after years of battle in two main arenas — Iraq and Afghanistan — Al Qaeda’s suicide-recruitment mechanisms are beginning to wear out.

While the terrorist group has been careful not to mention it in its official statements, it is no longer uncommon to find jihadists in their chat rooms and, according to Western intelligence sources, in interrogations, stating that young men are reluctant or simply too scared to take part in suicide attacks. At the same time, military blows against Al Qaeda’s training structure since 2001 have meant that the number of extremists with combat experience is decreasing, and that new recruits are harder to train.

The startling cost in lives of its operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan has motivated Al Qaeda’s technical experts to start seeking technical solutions, primarily on the Internet, that would render suicide unnecessary. These solutions mostly revolve around remote controls — vehicles, robots and model airplanes loaded with explosives and directed toward their targets from a safe distance.

This turn to technology, however, is not devoid of religious aspects: although dying in battle is undisputedly holy, many scholars claim that any intentional taking of one’s own life is forbidden, thus outlawing suicide attacks altogether. Even religious rulers who endorse suicide attacks consider them to be a last resort, to be used only when all other means are exhausted.

“Martyrdom operations are legitimate, and they are among the greatest acts of combat for Allah’s cause,” said Bashir bin Fahd al-Bashir, a Saudi preacher and one of Al Qaeda’s most popular religious authorities, in a recent sermon. “But they should not be allowed excessively. They should be allowed strictly on two conditions: 1. The commander is convinced they can definitely inflict serious losses on the enemy. 2. This cannot be achieved otherwise.”

The meaning of such dictates is clear: carrying out suicide attacks when there are alternatives that would allow the bomber to survive should be considered “intihar,” the ultimate sin of taking one’s own life without religious justification.

Avoiding suicide has become the major topic on Al Qaeda’s two main Web platforms for discussing the technological aspects of jihad, the forums Ekhlaas and Firdaws. “Those overpowering Satan’s seduction are few, and we sacrifice those few since they may win us Paradise,” read a posting on both sites this summer on the subject of “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.” It continued: “Yet, keeping them alive is beneficial for us, since every one of them is tantamount to an entire people. So we must find a way to save those lives and harness that zeal.”

The post led to a vast and heated online discussion among extremists, illustrating the new complexity of the topic. As the jihadists on these sites move from discussing ideology to the practical aspects, it becomes clear that their biggest technological challenge will be moving on from the radio-wave technology that has proved highly successful in remotely setting off homemade bombs against military convoys in Iraq to the more delicate task of getting the explosive to its target and then detonating it without being exposed.

Unfortunately, Al Qaeda seems well on its way to gaining such an ability. Chatter on these sites has tended toward discussions of the various types of remote-piloted aircraft able to carry the necessary weights, as well as specific robot designs, including models that police forces use to dispose of explosive devices. One extremist pointed out the ease with which such robots can be acquired commercially.

Also, in a document posted last month at Maarek, the most sophisticated jihadist forum for discussing explosives manufacturing, a prolific technical expert calling himself Abu Abdullah al-Qurashi suggested training dogs to recognize American troops’ uniforms, then releasing other dogs carrying improvised explosive devices toward American soldiers so the bombs can be detonated from a safe distance. The author begins with the following words: “I.E.D. operations, but this time, with dogs. Yes, dogs! Brothers, some may find my words fantastic. But, believe me, we should better let a dog die, than let a Lion of Islam die!”

To get a feeling for how Western militaries and security services plan to counter this next wave of terrorism, I talked to Gadi Aviran, the founder of Terrogence, a company made up of former members of Israel’s intelligence community and special military units that gathers information on global jihad as a subcontractor for intelligence agencies in Israel, the United States and Europe. “All of these secretive discourses in the password-protected cyber forums are of the same spirit,” he told me. “Mujahedeen’s lives are fast becoming too valuable to waste and although this seems like good news, the alternatives may prove to be just as difficult to deal with.”

So, while an end of suicide terrorism might seem like a good thing for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bad news is that the extremists seem to be well on their way to mastering all sorts of new technology, much of which, such as using dogs and remote detonators, is simple and cheap.

Most counterterrorism experts estimate that for military forces to devise and deploy countermeasures to a new insurgent strategy usually takes two to five years. Moreover, in the case of remote-control systems, improvements in technology mean that the signal-blocking systems now being used by Western militaries may no longer be effective.

Another hurdle Western forces may face is that a new emphasis on remote execution would significantly change the profiles of the terrorists. The uneducated, enthusiastic youths from weak economic backgrounds who have formed the bulk of Al Qaeda’s followers — and whom our intelligence services have spent a decade identifying and neutralizing — will give way to a new type of activists: electricians and robotics experts will join the qualified chemists who make the explosives in order to carry out non-suicide attacks.

The good news is that suicide bombing seems to be on the wane. The bad news is that Western forces will almost certainly face a new breed of highly educated Qaeda terrorist.

Ronen Bergman, a correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily and the author of The Secret War With Iran.