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Anatomy of a Suicide Bombing

by David Axe


Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan - On June 15 in this tiny town in Afghanistan southern Uruzgan province, a car laden with explosives raced down a narrow alley towards a Dutch M-113 armored personnel carrier trundling down a perpendicular street. Taking advantage of their healthy relationship with the town, a Dutch army civil affairs team, accompanied by a Dutch reporter, had been visiting with the town's women in a girls' school in celebration of International Women's Day. The M-113 was part of the team's escort.

The car exploded, killing the driver, blowing to pieces around 10 Afghans - including five children and two women - and injuring three Dutch soldiers in the personnel carrier. Within seconds of the blast, the other vehicles in the Dutch patrol pulled back to a safe distance, their gunners scanning for follow-on attacks, while medics raced to treat the wounded soldiers. One of the injured - 20-year-old Private 1st Class Timo Smeehuyzen - hovered near death.

The casualties were evacuated to Kamp Holland, a major Dutch base 10 miles away. A few hours later, in the neighboring town of Chura, hundreds of Taliban fighters wielding mortars, rockets and firearms launched a major assault on Afghan and Dutch checkpoints, initiating two days of fighting that left at least 30 Taliban dead.

Suicide attacks such as the one in Tarin Kowt are frightfully common in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya and other battlefields where powerful nations square off against elusive extremists. Some suicide bombers wield cars as weapons; others wear the bombs on their bodies. Some target occupying military forces; others aim to kill civilians in order to terrify them into submission or to instigate sectarian violence in the pursuit of some political goal. For all their diversity, most suicide bombings have in common complex infrastructures that bring together a suicidal killer, a bomb and a motive.

The evening after day after the Tarin Kowt bombing, a five-person Dutch "sensitive site" team convoyed to an Australian patrol base at a boys' school just two blocks from the bombing site. An Australian squad escorted the Dutch team to the bombing site so they could snap photos of the debris, the street and the surrounding area. Meanwhile, back at Kamp Holland, Dutch military investigators began speaking to witnesses and reviewing video shot by the reporter.

So began the laborious process of decoding the bombing and tracing its components - both human and machine - back to their origins, with the intention of ultimately disrupting the back-end activities that enable suicide bombings. The investigation of the Tarin Kowt bombing might take weeks to reach any official conclusions. But an informal verdict on means and motives can be assembled from bits of intelligence proffered by Dutch, Australian and Afghan soldiers and officials.

Based on their statements, it's reasonable to conclude that the Tarin Kowt bomber was a foreigner - and his bomb was a product of local materials, regional funding and foreign expertise. His motive was evidently two-fold: to weaken Dutch forces in advance of the Chura battle and to punish Tarin Kowt residents for collaborating with coalition forces. In regard to the former, the bomber at least partially succeeded, for Smeehuyzen's unit was immediately pulled from the front line for a period of rest. It remains to be seen whether the attack will turn the people of Tarin Kowt against coalition forces or actually strengthen their resolve to resist the Taliban.

Tarin Kowt's choice is between the International Security Assistance Force that builds roads and schools on one hand and, on the other, a body of relatively impoverished extremists renowned for their brutal application of fundamentalist Islamic law.

Regardless, it's choice between two invaders. For the Towin Kart bombing, like most in Afghanistan, was most likely conceived and executed by foreigners. Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Said Tayeb Jawad made that clear last month when he described Pakistan as the front of Afghanistan's trouble. He called that nation's fundamentalist religious schools, or madrasses, as "hate factories" whose products - not all of them Pakistanis - infiltrate the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border to challenge Afghanistan's moderate government and ISAF forces. Indeed, after the first round of fighting in Chura ended on June 16, Dutch forces reported finding dead Taliban fighters who were clearly foreigners. It wouldn't have been too hard for even Bosnian Muslims to reach Tarin Kowt. The town lies on a major Taliban supply line beginning in Pakistan and ending in opium-rich Helmand province.

Dutch army spokesman Major Erik Jonkers seconds Jawad's assessment of the source of Afghanistan's trouble, characterizing Afghan supporters of the foreign Taliban as "local recruits forced or 'persuaded' to join the Taliban." Again, the Chura fighting seems to confirm this. Dutch troops reported that Taliban fighters forced their way into Afghans' homes, ordered them to take up arms against ISAF and threatened to "slit their throats" if they refused.

Afghans, especially those in the outlying provinces such as Uruzgan, are known for being survivors. Older Afghans have lived through no fewer than three major foreign invasions since 1979: first by the Soviet Union, then by the Taliban and most recently by the United States and its allies. (Life expectancy in Afghanistan hovers at around 40, so there are few living Afghans who were adults during the country's recent period of relative peace preceding the Soviet invasion.) It seems unlikely that the Tarin Kowt bomber was an Afghan: suicide attacks are the acts of dedicated extremists, not coerced farmers. As for the bomber's sex: "he" was almost certainly a he, for in this region of the world, few women join extremist groups - or any political bodies, for that matter - and even fewer drive.

Even the most motivated bomber is powerless without his bomb. To turn its fanatics into weapons, the Taliban combine local components with know-how developed in the course of diverse conflicts over several decades by the foreign militants who pass through Pakistan's "hate factories." In the case of the Tarin Kowt bombing, it's possible that the bomb components came from the town's own bazaar. "There've been reports that the bazaar just over the road here is what they consider a black market for the Taliban where they do trading for IEDs," says Australian Lieutenant "Cliff." (Many Dutch and Australian soldiers give only their first names for security reasons.)

Lieutenant Cliff adds that, bazaar aside, Tarin Kowt "is generally considered permissive to ISAF." Tarin Kowt vendors, in a bid to make a few dollars from foreign-led Taliban bomb-makers, might have unwittingly supplied components used to kill their own neighbors and their coalition friends. As for the vehicle used in the attack: slightly used cars sell for around $4,000 in the capital of Kabul; in the provinces, older models sell for perhaps a few hundred dollars. All told, a suicide bomber's weapon might cost only a few hundred dollars. But those dollars have to come from somewhere. In Afghanistan, a seemingly innocent flower is the major source of revenue for terrorist activities.

Afghan poppies reportedly account for 90 percent of the world's opium production. Opium is the basis for heroin. Helmand and Uruzgan provinces are both major opium centers and last year produced bumper crops. Smugglers sneak the unrefined drug to the West via Iran and Turkey; much of the revenue winds up in the coffers of Taliban leaders. But according to Jawad, the average Afghan poppy farmer doesn't consider himself a Taliban supporter: he's just growing the most viable crop for the country's brutal climate and unreliable transportation network. Tragically, Tarin Kowt farmers - much like the bazaar vendors - might have inadvertently facilitated attacks against their own community.

Afghans aren't the only ones who suffer from the unintended consequences of their selling and farming. Private Smeehuyzen, the Dutch soldier critically injured in the Tarin Kowt bombing, died en route to Kamp Holland. Two days later, an honor guard carried the fallen soldier's coffin past hundreds of his friends, both Dutch and Australian, all standing at attention on the road to the base heliport. Meanwhile, behind closed doors elsewhere on the camp, investigators labored unseen to dig up the attack's roots, in a bid to prevent more such sorrowful ceremonies.

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