During the First World War British solider and poet Frederick William Harvey wrote a piece entitled “To the Devil on His Appalling Decadence.” In it Harvey acknowledged that wickedness was the devil’s stock in trade and one should expect no less especially in wartime. But in ages past Lucifer had always been something of a gentleman. Given the magnitude of horrors that had been released into the world after 1914, Harvey felt compelled to ask, “Satan, don’t you feel a trifle sick?”
#ad#The poem came to mind reading about a recent act of senseless brutality in Iraq. On July 13 in the al-Jadidah section of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb exploded near an American vehicle while soldiers were giving candy to Iraqi children. One serviceman and two dozen kids were killed, and many more wounded. This is not the first time the insurgents have targeted youngsters. On September 30, 2004, almost three dozen children died when a bomb went off at a street festival celebrating the opening of a water-treatment plant in a poor section of Baghdad. The bombing was roundly condemned as a particularly brutal act, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda group quickly took credit for it.
The July 13 bombing was also widely criticized in Muslim circles, but this time Zarqawi’s group rushed out a statement denying responsibility. It stated that Zarqawi, who “personally supervises, plans and directs all operations,” is “extremely cautious not to target civilians.” Yet last May Zarqawi released a lengthy audio tape in which he justified killing innocents in the cause of “taking away the souls of nonbelievers” and “cleansing the earth of their filth.” His rationale is worth quoting at length:
If it happens that these means kill both the intended fighting nonbelievers and the unintended from women, children, and nonbelievers, what the scholars referred to as collateral damage, then this is permissible even if it leads to killing a number of Muslims that happen to be near the scenes of operations for some reason or another and it was not possible to avoid killing them and distinguish between them and the intended fighting nonbelievers. There is no doubt that killing a Muslim soul is an evil act, but sometimes you cannot avoid this evil act when fighting a bigger evil which is giving up jihad altogether.
So in al Qaeda’s utilitarian balance of evils, apparently anything can be justified, even randomly slaying the most innocent. It is an interesting calculus, most importantly because it is not based on principle but expedience. In seeking to shirk responsibility for collateral damage, Zarqawi simply admits that Muslims killing Muslims is evil, and shrugs it off. Bad break for the bystanders, but at least they are headed for paradise.
Naturally a rationale this callous and opportunistic has raised some eyebrows even in radical circles. Zarqawi’s former mentor, Abu-Muhammed al-Maqdisi, who has sterling jihadist credentials, took Zarqawi’s argument apart in a lengthy interview. A Saudi cleric said that Zarqawi is in violation of sharia and that targeting Iraqis “is not honorable resistance and is even embarrassing.” Nevertheless, Zarqawi has fired right back at his critics, maintaining that in a holy war you do what you have to do, and hinting that while it is easy for armchair mullahs to pass judgment, he is out on the front lines. If they want to make a difference, they should strap on a bomb vest and join the party.
Doctrinal debates aside, one might ask how this brutality translates into strategic gains for the bad guys. What do they hope to achieve? These certainly are not hearts-and-minds operations. According to the recent Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, suicide bombing against noncombatants is losing its allure in the region as a justifiable tool to defend the faith. (The fact that it gets any support at all should give us pause.) This is probably why Zarqawi tried to duck responsibility for the July 13 massacre–it went a little too far. But his men are carrying out similar attacks on a daily basis, often several a day. They take place on street corners, in mosques, wherever people might be available to serve as extras in his ongoing disaster epic.
The attacks are focused primarily in the Shia areas, consistent with the plan outlined in a 17-page letter Zarqawi wrote to Osama bin Laden last year. In it, he posited that what was needed in Iraq was a sectarian civil war, and if the factions would not voluntarily fight each other, it was up to al Qaeda to stir up the pot. As noted here last spring, they have faithfully followed this strategy, even though the results have been disappointing. The terrorists may yet goad the Shia private militia units into taking some kind of action, but it will probably be aimed at the members of al Qaeda who, generally not being Iraqis, will probably find few defenders.
As a postscript to the July 13 massacre and further reminder of the type of people we are up against, on Saturday a Libyan, undoubtedly one of Zarqawi’s men, was apprehended while en route to bomb a funeral for children victimized the previous Wednesday. The bomber was wrapped in explosive-and-ball bearings, and high on drugs to the point of overdose (which tells us something about how they get some of their followers to undertake their missions). So a drugged-up suicide attacker was sent to kill innocent mourners at the graveside of child victims of another suicide bombing ordered by foreigners to foment a civil war to assist in the creation of a terrorist state? Trench warfare looks straightforward and reasonable by comparison.