Thu, 22 May 2003

Not every bomber is from al-Qaeda

David Aaronovitch, Guardian News Service, London

On Monday it was confirmed. The body washed up a week ago on the Tel Aviv beach-front, somewhere in between the deck chairs and the volleyball pitch, was indeed that of the would-be suicide bomber from Derby, England, Omar Khan Sharif.

Sharif, even in death, is awkward. Last week was Suicide Bomb Week, as people exploded themselves and others from the Caucasus to the Atlas, and as far afield as Mindanao in the Philippines.

One response to this was to resurrect the threat from the single conspiratorial source. The attacks bore all the hallmarks (or ear-marks, as Colin Powell unfortunately bushed it) of al- Qaeda, and proved the need for constant vigilance. Others, including some of the less reflective of my correspondents, were keen to suggest that the attacks were the consequence of the war in Iraq. These were the acts, said one, of "people frustrated by the overwhelming military might of the U.S. and Britain".

The man from Derby was not a member of al-Qaeda, and -- as far as I can see -- he wasn't desperate or frustrated. He wasn't poverty- stricken, he wasn't the victim of constant prejudice (interestingly his family had just received permission from Derby council to set up a Muslim nursery school in the city). He wasn't obviously bonkers or psychotic, he wasn't a loner "nursing a grudge against society", nor did he have any more contacts with Palestinians, it seems, than do many of us.

Yet, if his bomb had gone off where he had wanted it too, then he would have died along with a few dozen young party people. When his companion, the cuddly boy from Hounslow west London, Asif Mohammed Hanif, was prevented from entering into the main part of Mike's Place, he detonated himself in the doorway. A French barmaid had her arm ripped off and died later, along with a musician and a customer. Hanif ended up, according to an eyewitness I met later in Tel Aviv, in three parts, head and shoulders shoved into the roof, torso among the chairs, and legs on the other side of the road. His presence in Paradise is debatable, his dismemberment a straightforward fact. Perhaps they should show that on al-Jazeera.

In Morocco the bombers didn't hit Israelis, because there weren't any to hit. Instead they blew up a Jewish community center (which was hardly likely to be hotbed of Zionism), a Spanish restaurant and the Belgian consulate. Interestingly they didn't target their own government, despite acres of rhetoric about how the real enemy of the Islamist is the corrupt administration in his own land. In Chechnya the bombers hit a Muslim festival at which a high official of the collaborative government was present. The Philippines bomb (the latest of several such attacks this spring) may have been carried out by the Muslim Moro Liberation Front, and simply targeted civilians in a market in the town of Koronadal City. It is possible with this last one that the bomber didn't intend to sup in heaven that night, but that the timer on his device was faulty.

Of all the explosions last week only three, the ones in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, seemed to have anything to do with the situation in the Middle East. In Riyadh the objectives were complexes housing foreigners -- some of whom might have been linked to the military, in Jerusalem it was a bus, and in Hebron it was a couple of settlers.

The one element that all these things have in common is that they seem to have been carried out by Muslims, claiming to act in accord with Islamic teaching. In Palestine the motivation of the bombers themselves (as distinct from the handlers) seems often to be revenge for lives lost or blighted as a result of Israeli action, according to Avishai Margalit, who studied the phenomenon for the New York Review of Books. Dying in the explosions, says Margalit, creates "a moral idea in which the killers, in acting out the drama of being the ultimate victim, claim for their cause the moral high ground". Unlike, say, the Omagh bombers in Northern Ireland, who were universally described as cowards.

In this sense suicide bombers are as admirable to themselves as, say, the non-violent protesters for civil rights in America, or against apartheid in South Africa, are to us now. With the added incentive of achieving a kind of celebrity, with their pictures and their deeds being spread by cable TV stations and posters, all the way from the Gulf to the Straits.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, they mourned the death of Walter Sisulu, who lived a long life, showed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for violence, and was one of the greatest revolutionaries of the past 100 years. It's a shame that Sharif never met him.