WASHINGTON - The attacks in London and the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik have reawakened many to the horrors of suicide bombings. Although it's not clear that all of the perpetrators realized that they were on a suicide mission, the result was the same: A small gang of terrorists was able to kill a large number of innocents.
There is, of course, no foolproof defense against determined terrorists willing to die for their cause. Once they're armed with their personal bombs, very little can be done to stop them. Erecting a security perimeter around mass transit facilities, guarded by bomb-sniffing dogs and heavily armed police, would only deflect terrorists to new targets - possibly even including the lines of commuters waiting to pass through security checkpoints.
But we're not helpless, either. The key is to keep the terrorist network that builds the bombs from finding, recruiting and brainwashing the human pawns it needs to deliver the bombs.
Although suicide bombers do not require much training to carry out their lethal strikes, they do need a high level of personal commitment to sacrifice themselves. They don't just wake up one day and decide to kill themselves. It takes a network of handlers to create a suicide bomber. Every bomber is shepherded by groups of recruiters, mentors, trainers and controllers who select a candidate, isolate him from friends and family, brainwash him, strap a bomb on him and direct him to a specific target.
Fortunately, relatively few volunteer for suicide bombings. Even in Iraq, which has suffered more suicide bombings than any other country in the last two years, the terrorist networks increasingly must recruit non-Iraqis. The lack of Iraqi volunteers has led them to use unwitting accomplices - reportedly even a mentally impaired child - or foreign volunteers who are recruited to place bombs but not told the bombs will be detonated by remote control before they can get clear.
The key, then, is to disrupt, uproot and destroy the terrorist networks that create suicide bombers. This requires intensive police and intelligence operations to infiltrate the networks and capture or kill the leaders who direct the operations. But this will take time.
Meanwhile, the authorities need to reduce the ability of the terrorist networks to recruit within their communities. This requires effective outreach to the parents, teachers, community leaders and religious leaders of the population that the terrorists target for recruitment.
Extremist offshoots of all religions are capable of producing suicide bombers. For example, one of the bloodiest practitioners of suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tiger terrorist group, predominantly composed of Hindus, which has launched more than 200 suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka.
But in recent years, Islamic extremists have become the foremost sponsors of suicide bombings. Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida have adopted such tactics with deadly effect. They have constructed elaborate ideologies that manipulate Islamic religious teachings to justify the murder of innocent people, which is prohibited by the Quran and rejected by mainstream Muslim religious leaders.
We must fight barbaric ideas in order to prevent barbaric acts. A crucial long-term goal is to discredit and delegitimize the ideology that terrorists promulgate to justify mass murder. To drain their pool of potential recruits, governments must work with Muslim religious and political leaders to expose the terrorist networks as death cults that purposefully distort Islamic religious teachings to advance a revolutionary agenda. To inoculate young Muslims against the toxic ideological virus spread by extremists, Muslim religious leaders need to take the lead in denouncing the extremists as blasphemers who promote an unholy war.
Western governments also must pressure certain regimes in the Muslim world to halt their support of terrorist networks. Iran and Syria support terrorist groups that dispatch suicide bombers to Israel. Pakistan turns a blind eye to the activities of radical Islamic groups suspected of involvement in the London bombings, in part because those groups are useful allies against India. The United States should lead an international coalition to press state supporters of terrorism to end their support or face economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and possible military retaliation.
Suicide bombers will claim fewer victims if we stand firm and refuse to appease them.
James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern studies in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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