Why Is It So Hard to Find a Suicide Bomber These Days?

A decade after 9/11, the mystery is not why so many Muslims turn to terror -- but why so few have joined al Qaeda's jihad.

Harry Lynch/The News & Observer via AP
Harry Lynch/The News & Observer via AP
Harry Lynch/The News & Observer via AP

The rental car turned onto the sidewalk behind the registrar's office and rolled slowly down the brick path between a dining hall and the English department, a few steps from my office. "Beyond Time," an upbeat German dance song, played on the car's stereo. The driver, Mohammed Taheri-Azar, had just graduated from the University of North Carolina three months earlier, so he knew the campus well. Beyond the dining hall was a plaza known as the Pit, where students were hanging out at lunchtime on a warm winter day in early 2006. Taheri-Azar planned to kill as many of them as possible.

The rental car turned onto the sidewalk behind the registrar’s office and rolled slowly down the brick path between a dining hall and the English department, a few steps from my office. "Beyond Time," an upbeat German dance song, played on the car’s stereo. The driver, Mohammed Taheri-Azar, had just graduated from the University of North Carolina three months earlier, so he knew the campus well. Beyond the dining hall was a plaza known as the Pit, where students were hanging out at lunchtime on a warm winter day in early 2006. Taheri-Azar planned to kill as many of them as possible.

He brought no weapons except a knife, some pepper spray, and the four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle he had rented in order to run people over without getting stuck on their bodies. When he reached the Pit, Taheri-Azar accelerated and swerved to hit people as they scattered out of his way. His fender clipped several students, and several more rolled over his hood and off the windshield. Taheri-Azar turned left at the end of the plaza, hit another couple of students in front of the library, and then sped off campus just beneath my office window.

Taheri-Azar drove down the hill that gave Chapel Hill its name, pulled over in a calm residential neighborhood, parked, and called 911 on his cell phone. "Sir, I just hit several people with a vehicle," he told the operator. "I don’t have any weapons or anything on me; you can come arrest me now."

Why did you do this? the operator asked. "Really, it’s to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world." So you did this to punish the government? "Yes, sir." Following the operator’s instructions, he placed his phone on the hood of the car and put his hands on his head as police officers arrived.

Before leaving his apartment that morning, Taheri-Azar left a letter on his bed explaining his actions more fully:

Due to the killing of believing men and women under the direction of the United States government, I have decided to take advantage of my presence on United States soil on Friday, March 3, 2006 to take the lives of as many Americans and American sympathizers as I can in order to punish the United States for their immoral actions around the world.

In the Qur’an, Allah states that the believing men and women have permission to murder anyone responsible for the killing of other believing men and women. I know that the Qur’an is a legitimate and authoritative holy scripture since it is completely validated by modern science and also mathematically encoded with the number 19 beyond human ability. After extensive contemplation and reflection, I have made the decision to exercise the right of violent retaliation that Allah has given me to the fullest extent to which I am capable at present.

I have chosen the particular location on the University campus as my target since I know there is a high likelihood that I will kill several people before being killed myself or jailed and sent to prison if Allah wills. Allah’s commandments are never to be questioned and all of Allah’s commandments must be obeyed.

Nine people suffered broken bones and other injuries that day. Fortunately, Taheri-Azar didn’t kill anybody, though the toll could have been higher. Initially, Taheri-Azar had planned to join insurgents in Afghanistan or Iraq, but he was discouraged by visa restrictions on travel to those countries. Then he looked into joining the military and dropping a nuclear bomb on Washington, D.C., but he realized that his eyesight was too poor to qualify to be a military pilot. Turning closer to home, Taheri-Azar considered shooting people randomly at the university. His letters from prison indicate that he thought about targeting the dining hall where I often eat lunch.

In the weeks before his attack, Taheri-Azar test-fired a laser-sighted handgun at a nearby shooting range but was told that he couldn’t buy it without a permit. Taheri-Azar could have purchased a rifle on the spot if he had completed some federal paperwork, but he had his heart set on a Glock pistol. Later, at his apartment, he started to fill out the permit application, but gave up when he found that he would need three friends to attest to his good moral character. "[T]he process of receiving a permit for a handgun in this city is highly restricted and out of my reach at the present," Taheri-Azar complained in the letter he left on his bed for the police. Months later, in prison, he rationalized his decision: "The gun may have malfunctioned and acquiring one would have attracted attention to me from the FBI in all likelihood, which could have foiled any attack plans." Taheri-Azar may be the only terrorist in the world ever deterred by gun-control laws.

TAHERI-AZAR’S INCOMPETENCE as a terrorist is bewildering. Surely someone who was willing to kill and die for his cause, spending months contemplating an attack, could have found a more effective way to kill people. Why wasn’t he able to obtain a firearm or improvise an explosive device or try any of the hundreds of murderous schemes that we all know from movies, television shows, and the Internet, not to mention the news? And once Taheri-Azar decided to run people over with a car, why did he pick a site with so little room to accelerate?

Even more bewildering is that we don’t see more terrorism of this sort, a decade into the "global war on terror" launched by the United States in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. If every car is a potential weapon, then why aren’t there more automotive attacks? Car bombs have been around since the 1920s, when the first one was detonated on Wall Street in New York City, but they require a fair bit of skill. Drive-through murder, on the other hand, takes very little skill at all. People have been killing people with cars ever since the automobile was invented, and the political use of automotive assault was immortalized in a famous 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, in which two Algerian revolutionaries drive into a bus stand full of French settlers. Yet very few people resort to this accessible form of terrorism. Out of several million Muslims in the United States, it appears that Taheri-Azar was the first to attempt this sort of attack; so far he has been followed by two possible copycats, leading to one fatality. (The trial of Omeed Popal, who killed a pedestrian, has been delayed for several years while the court tries to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.) In addition to cars, plenty of other terrorist weapons are readily accessible. One manual for Islamist terrorists, published online in 2006, listed 14 "simple tools" that "are easy to use and available for anyone who wants to fight the occupying enemy," including "running over someone with a car" (No. 14) and "setting fire to homes or rooms at sleep time" (No. 10).

If terrorist methods are as widely available as automobiles, why are there so few Islamist terrorists? In light of the death and devastation that terrorists have wrought, the question may seem absurd. But if there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don’t we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?

Islamist terrorists ask these questions, too. In their view, the West is engaged in a massive assault on Muslim societies and has been for generations, long preceding 9/11. This assault involves military invasions, political domination, economic dependence, and cultural decadence — and, they believe, it is reaching new heights of aggression each year. Islamists offer a solution: the establishment of Islamic government. Revolutionary Islamists offer a strategy to achieve Islamic government: armed insurrection. Terrorist revolutionaries offer a tactic to trigger insurrection: attacks on civilians. These attacks are intended to demoralize the enemy, build Muslims’ self-confidence, and escalate conflict, leading Muslims to realize that armed insurrection is the sole path to defend Islam.

But Islamist terrorists worry that things haven’t worked out as planned. Acts of terrorism have not led Muslims to revolt. Leading terrorists regularly complain: Why aren’t more Muslims resisting the onslaught of the West? What more provocations do they need before they heed the call to arms?

The late Osama bin Laden frequently sounded this theme. "Each day, the sheep in the flock hope that the wolves will stop killing them, but their prayers go unanswered," he declared in May 2008. "Can any rational person fail to see how they are misguided in hoping for this? This is our own state of affairs." Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his successor as al Qaeda’s leader, have infused their statements with a triumphal, inspirational tone, but their disappointment shows through. "There is no excuse for anyone today to stay behind the battle," Zawahiri lectured in a video released on the Internet in 2007. "We continue to be prisoners, restrained by the shackles of [mainstream Islamic] organizations and foundations from entering the fields of battle. We must destroy every shackle that stands between us and our performing this personal duty."

A 2008 al Qaeda recruitment video laments, "My brother in Allah, tell me, when will you become angry? If our sacred things are violated, and our landmarks are demolished, and you didn’t become angry; if our chivalry is killed, and our dignity is trampled on, and our world ends, and you didn’t become angry; so tell me, when will you become angry?" It concludes with a taunt aimed at those not man enough to join the jihad: "So live as a rabbit, and die as a rabbit."

Other terrorists have issued similar insults in their attempt to goad Muslims into revolutionary activity. "What is wrong with the Muslim Ummah today?" the Pakistani militant group Harkat ul-Mujahideen complained on its website. "When the Kuffar [non-Muslims] lay their hands on their daughters, the Muslims do not raise even a finger to help them!" Abu Musab al-Suri, a widely read strategist of Islamist revolution, called it "regrettable" that so few Muslims — only one in a million by his reckoning — have committed themselves to jihad in Afghanistan.

These are not necessarily new laments: Proponents of violent jihad have insulted and guilt-tripped their fellow Muslims for decades. Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian revivalist who inspired a generation of Islamic movements, went so far as to declare in the 1960s that "the Muslim community has been extinct for centuries." Only a revolution that establishes Islamic government will entitle Muslims to call themselves "believers."

Qutb’s exhortations treated revolutionary jihad as a collective duty. By the 1980s, however, Islamist militants had honed their religious judgments to a finer point. "Today, jihad is an individual duty of every Muslim," wrote Muhammad abd al-Salam Faraj, chief ideologue of the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. This obligation can only be fulfilled through "confrontation and blood." Abdullah Azzam, one of the chief organizers of the 1980s pan-Islamic jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, called participation in this battle — actually going to fight, he specified, not just sending money — an individual duty that is "incumbent upon every Muslim on Earth until the duty is complete and the Russians and communists are expelled from Afghanistan. This sin weighs on the necks of everybody." In 1998, bin Laden and colleagues used similar language in declaring war on the United States: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

For several decades now, Islamist terrorists have called it a duty for Muslims to engage in armed jihad — against their own rulers, against the Soviets, and later against the Americans. Tens of thousands have obeyed, perhaps as many as 100,000 over the past quarter-century, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This is a significant number of potentially violent militants, even if most received little serious training and subsequently dropped out of the militant movement. At the same time, more than a billion Muslims — well over 99 percent — ignored the call to action. This is typical for revolutionary movements of all sorts, of course: Few ever manage to recruit more than a small portion of their target populations. Leftist terrorists such as the Weathermen in the United States, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, and the Red Brigades in Italy were even less successful at recruiting, numbering no more than a few thousand militants at their height in the 1970s and 1980s. The most effective recruiters tend to be territorially based movements such as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque Homeland and Freedom group ETA, and the Palestinian group Hamas, whose military wing is said to have grown since its 2007 takeover of Gaza to approximately 1 in 100 residents. But by my calculations, global Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter-century and fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11.

Recruitment difficulties have created a bottleneck for Islamist terrorists’ signature tactic, suicide bombing. These organizations often claim to have waiting lists of volunteers eager to serve as martyrs, but if so they’re not very long. Al Qaeda organizer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed made this point unintentionally during a 2002 interview, several months before his capture. Mohammed bragged about al Qaeda’s ability to recruit volunteers for "martyrdom missions," as Islamist terrorists call suicide attacks. "We were never short of potential martyrs. Indeed, we have a department called the Department of Martyrs."

"Is it still active?" asked Yosri Fouda, an Al Jazeera reporter who had been led, blindfolded, to Mohammed’s apartment in Karachi, Pakistan. "Yes, it is, and it always will be as long as we are in jihad against the infidels and the Zionists. We have scores of volunteers. Our problem at the time was to select suitable people who were familiar with the West." Notice the scale here: "scores," not hundreds — and most deemed not suitable for terrorist missions in the West. After Mohammed’s capture and "enhanced interrogation" by the CIA, using methods that the U.S. government had denounced for decades as torture, federal officials testified that Mohammed had trained as many as 39 operatives for suicide missions and that the 9/11 attacks involved 19 hijackers "because that was the maximum number of operatives that Sheikh Mohammed was able to find and send to the U.S. before 9/11." According to a top White House counterterrorism official, the initial plans for 9/11 called for a simultaneous attack on the U.S. West Coast, but al Qaeda could not find enough qualified people to carry it out. Mohammed’s claim that al Qaeda was "never short of potential martyrs" seems to have been false bravado.

Since 9/11, the scale of terrorist recruitment has been further reduced. During the preceding five years of Taliban rule, tens of thousands of recruits had passed through terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials. But after 9/11, terrorist training there dropped considerably. In recent statements, U.S. intelligence officials estimate that fewer than 2,000 militants have been trained in the frontier regions of northwestern Pakistan, the world’s largest concentration of terrorist camps. Militants interviewed by Pakistani journalists say that most camps in the region consist of only one to three dozen men. (If the camps were any larger, they would be easy targets for American satellite surveillance and missile attacks.) Hundreds of foreign fighters received training in Iraq, but that route was largely shut down by the tribes of Anbar province when they abandoned the insurgency in 2006. Another several hundred militants are said to be training at terrorist camps in Yemen and Somalia, according to public comments by intelligence officials. All told, there appear to be several thousand Muslim terrorists in the world — a not-insignificant total, but far fewer than a decade ago.

Islamist terrorists have found it especially hard to recruit in the United States. Al Qaeda’s leaders have encouraged American Muslims to attack the United States from within, and the U.S. government has identified the possibility of domestic Islamist terrorism as a serious threat. In early 2003, for example, Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told Congress that "FBI investigations have revealed militant Islamics [sic] in the U.S. We strongly suspect that several hundred of these extremists are linked to al Qaeda." Alarmists outside government have implied that the number of Muslim terrorists in the United States is even larger, perhaps in the thousands. However, all these estimates must be regarded as exaggerations. By the U.S. Justice Department’s count, approximately a dozen people in the country were convicted in the five years after 9/11 for having links with al Qaeda. During this period, fewer than 40 Muslim Americans planned or carried out acts of domestic terrorism, according to an extensive search of news reports and legal proceedings that I conducted with David Schanzer and Ebrahim Moosa of Duke University. None of these attacks was found to be associated with al Qaeda. A month after Taheri-Azar’s attack in Chapel Hill, Mueller visited North Carolina and warned of Islamist violence "all over the country." Fortunately, that prediction was also wrong. 

To put this in context: Out of more than 150,000 murders in the United States since 9/11 — currently more than 14,000 each year — Islamist terrorists accounted for fewer than three dozen deaths by the end of 2010. Part of the credit for this is surely due to the law-enforcement officers and community members who have worked to uncover plots before they could be carried out. But fewer than 200 Muslim Americans have been involved in violent plots since 9/11, most of them overseas, so credit for the low level of violence must be due primarily to the millions of Muslims who have refrained from answering the call to terrorism.

Of course, more terrorists may still be in hiding or under surveillance, or have been deported or jailed for other offenses. There is no way to know how many — so there is no way to completely debunk paranoid fears about massive secret threats. In any case, even a single violent plot is too many, and I do not doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world, to paraphrase the adage that is often attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead. Islamist terrorists are likely to continue to kill and maim thousands of people around the world each year for the foreseeable future.

However, terrorism accounts for only a tiny proportion of the world’s violence. Every day, according to the World Health Organization, approximately 150,000 people die around the world. The U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center calculates that Islamist terrorism claims fewer than 50 lives per day — fewer than 10 per day outside Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. By way of comparison, approximately 1,500 people die each day from civilian violence, plus an additional 500 from warfare, 2,000 from suicides, and 3,000 from traffic accidents. Another 1,300 die each day from malnutrition. Even in Iraq while it was suffering the world’s highest rate of terrorist attacks, they caused less than one-third of violent deaths. In other words, terrorism is not a leading cause of death in the world. If we want to save lives, far better to divert a small portion of the world’s counterterrorism budgets to mosquito netting.

TAHERI-AZAR WAS A VOLUNTEER to the cause of jihad. Nobody recruited him. No organization welcomed him. No comrades swore him to a bond of solidarity. Taheri-Azar encountered Islamist terrorism solely through the prism of the global media, but that was enough to convince him to sacrifice his life.

It didn’t matter that his knowledge of Islam was limited and extremely confused. Taheri-Azar apparently couldn’t tell the difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam and wasn’t aware that al Qaeda and other Sunni militants would consider him non-Muslim because he is Shiite. Taheri-Azar knew no Arabic, and in his handwritten letters from prison he misspelled al Qaeda as "al-Quaeda." (The "e" is a legitimate English transliteration of Arabic script, but the "u" is simply wrong; he may have gotten the misspelling from Microsoft Word’s autocorrect function, which Taheri-Azar apparently trusted more than any Islamic source.) Taheri-Azar drew his Quranic justifications from an English edition translated by Rashad Khalifa, who was assassinated in Arizona in 1990 — a murder that Khalifa’s followers blame on militants linked with al Qaeda. Taheri-Azar’s prison letters listed his favorite songs and albums; Islamist militants frown upon Western music as frivolous and sinful. In other words, Taheri-Azar knew next to nothing about the Islamist ideology that he was willing to kill and die for.

If terrorists like Taheri-Azar can be recruited through the Internet and books, then why aren’t there more attacks? What is stopping people? I propose five answers.

The first and most obvious answer is that most Muslims oppose terrorist violence. According to surveys by Gallup and the Pew Global Attitudes Project, support for attacks on civilians is a minority position in almost every Muslim community. (By way of comparison, a 2006 survey found that 24 percent of Americans consider attacks on civilians to be justified.) But even if only 10 percent of the world’s billion Muslims supported terrorism, we would still expect to see far more terrorist activity than we do.

The second answer is that much of the support for Islamist radicalism is soft. Al Qaeda and bin Laden may be "sheik" in the way that Che Guevara and Malcolm X are chic: objects of aspirational pop culture more than inspirations for revolutionary militancy. Terrorism expert Jessica Stern likens this to the fad for gangster rap: "Most of the youth attracted to the jihadi idea would never become terrorists, just as few of the youths who listen to gangsta rap would commit the kinds of lurid crimes the lyrics would seem to promote." This "radical sheik" was visible, for example, on Arabic-language bulletin boards telling the story of a vision that bin Laden was said to have had when he was 9 years old. In this dream, an angel supposedly told bin Laden that he would play a major role in a titanic clash with the West. Islamist revolutionaries were not the only ones to offer warm notes of appreciation for the story. One enthusiastic online response, for example, featured pictures of a woman with flowing black hair and a male model with blond highlights. "Hallelujah," wrote someone whose signature icon was a blond female with a bare midriff. This is radical sheik in action — people who are impressed by bin Laden but do not share his conservative Islamic mores and are unlikely to translate their symbolic support into strategic action.

Even among militants who share the terrorists’ goals of establishing a strict Islamic state, al Qaeda faces competition. Islamist revolutionaries are divided, and that is a third reason for their relatively small numbers. Al Qaeda’s most effective rivals are local Islamist revolutionaries such as the Afghan Taliban and the Palestinian group Hamas, which shy away from al Qaeda’s global agenda and siphon off its support and recruitment base. The Afghan Taliban and Hamas have specific territorial goals and do not wish to widen the conflict to include Western targets outside their territories.

In addition to revolutionary rivals, al Qaeda faces competition from more liberal Islamic movements. The fourth reason jihadi numbers are low is that the combination of democratic politics and cultural conservatism is far more popular among Muslims than the revolutionaries’ anti-democratic violence. Pro-democracy Islamic organizations strike some observers as stalking horses for revolutionary violence, and in some cases they have been, but they are far more frequently the targets of revolutionary violence. In June 2009, for example, a young man armed with explosives walked into the Jamia Naeemia seminary complex in Lahore, Pakistan, just after midday prayers. He made his way to the office of the director, an Islamic scholar named Sarfraz Naeemi, and then detonated his bomb, killing Naeemi and several others, including himself. Naeemi was targeted for his outspoken opposition to Islamist revolutionaries. Several weeks earlier, he had participated in two large conventions of Pakistani Islamic scholars that condemned the "killing of those having dissenting opinion" as "manifestly against Islam" and complained about the assassination of Islamic scholars. And yet Naeemi was active in an Islamic political party that sought to implement sharia as the law of the land — but through electoral politics, not through revolutionary means. That made him a threat to the revolutionaries.

Anxiety over their unpopularity has divided the revolutionaries. Some have responded by converting to liberalism, while others have turned to ever-more-heinous attempts to purify their societies through violence. They have targeted cafes that the revolutionaries consider decadent, weddings that do not observe the revolutionaries’ rituals, and mosques that do not follow their creed. This escalation is an intentional attempt to "drag the masses into battle," according to al Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji. "We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away, so that the two groups will realize that entering this battle will frequently lead to death. That will be a powerful motive for the individual to choose to fight in the ranks of the people of truth in order to die well, which is better than dying for falsehood and losing both this world and the next."

But this strategy has backfired. The more that terrorists target Muslims, the less popular the terrorists become — the fifth reason that their numbers are so low. After terrorists bombed a wedding reception in Amman, Jordanians’ positive attitudes toward al Qaeda plummeted by two-thirds. When terrorists bombed a cafe in Casablanca, Moroccans’ confidence in bin Laden dropped by half. As terrorist campaigns have mounted in Pakistan, public opposition to violence against civilians has more than doubled. It is no surprise that the most popular revolutionary movements in the Middle East today are not Islamist terrorists but the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring, which offer the stirring narrative of ousting corrupt and oppressive rulers through peaceful protest. Why strap on a suicide vest when demonstrations and sit-ins are proving to be more effective?

THE BAD NEWS, especially for Americans, is this: Islamist terrorists really are out to get you. They cannot be deterred by prison sentences, "enhanced" interrogations, or the prospect of death. They consider the United States to be their mortal enemy, and they would like to kill as many Americans as possible, in as dramatic a way as possible. The more I look at their websites, watch their videos, and read their manifestos and discussion boards, the more I realize just what a brutal and inhumane bunch these people are. It is worth taking them seriously.

But there’s good news, too, that is often overlooked: There aren’t very many Islamist terrorists, and most are incompetent. They fight each other as much as they fight anybody else, and they fight their potential state sponsors most of all. They are outlaws on the run in almost every country in the world, and their bases have been reduced to ever-wilder patches of remote territory, where they have to limit their training activities to avoid satellite surveillance. Every year or two they pull off a sophisticated attack somewhere in the world, on top of the usual daily crop of violence, but the odds of their getting lucky and repeating an operation on the scale of 9/11 are long, given that no other attack in the history of Islamist terrorism has killed more than 400 people and only a dozen attacks have killed more than 200. A terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction would be devastating — but devilishly difficult to pull off, which probably explains why it hasn’t happened.

There will be more terrorist attacks, and some could be successful in killing hundreds of people, perhaps even thousands. Last year, Faisal Shahzad almost succeeded in an attack of this scale, filling a vehicle with explosives and parking it just off Times Square in New York City. As with the terrorist who drove through campus in Chapel Hill, incompetence saved the day — Shahzad used faulty firecrackers as his detonator. We may not be so lucky in the future. But even if they succeed in killing thousands of us, attacks like these do not threaten our way of life, unless we let them.

Charles Kurzman is a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists? Twitter: @CharlesKurzman

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