Following the US President’s attack on Iran, the Shi’a suicide bomber – a human weapon that first emerged in the Middle-East in Iran – could resurface again, reports Iain Overton.
There was a suicide attack every three days around the world last year. In total, some 133 suicide bombings killed or injured at least 5,131 people. 79% of these were civilians and almost all of these were carried out by Salafist jihadist bombers – fanatics who claim to follow a Sunni strand of Islam.
This year, though, things could be very different. For, whilst the past two decades have been marked by a war on terror groups who hold a Sunni interpretation of Islam, the recent assassination of Iran’s top commander Qasem Soleimani – a Shi’a – by a US drone strike, may change all that.
This is certainly the rhetoric coming from militant Shi’a groups. Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah organisation, said that the 3 January airstrike that killed Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, constituted “the start of a new phase and a new history, not just for Iran or Iraq but the whole region”.
“The Americans will leave our region, humiliated, defeated and terrified,” he was reported as saying. “The suicide martyrs who forced the US out of the region before [still] remain.”
In this chilling sentence lies a hard lesson in history.
While the suicide bombings of today are undertaken by extremist Sunnis, the suicide attackers of the 20th Century in the Middle-East were often Shi’a. Indeed, the first suicide ‘martyr’ from the region, on 30 October 1980, was a 13-year-old Iranian boy who blew himself up in the thick of battle in the port of Khorramshahr, a trading city that rests along the border with Iraq.
That boy, Mohammad Hossein Fahmideh, was to be adulated by the Iranian regime. As the war with neighbouring Iraq descended into a terrible stalemate, memorials to him sprang up throughout the Shia nation. A golden monument was erected on the outskirts of Tehran. Streets, hospitals, schools and a sports stadium were named after him. Stamps were issued with his face printed upon them. And if you hold an old 500 or 1,000 Iranian rial bill up to the sun, it is his face you can see imprinted on the watermark.
His death fast became political capital. The Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shiite Muslim and Iranian revolutionary leader who made Iran the world’s first Islamic republic (from the perspective of the Shias) in 1979, proclaimed: “There are events that being so astonishing, might sound as unbelievable as fables and legends; but they are real. One of the most beautiful ones is the martyrdom of Basij volunteer teenager Hossein Fahmideh. He was 13… His memory will last forever; he has turned into legend.”
It was an adoration of the martyr that fuelled the rise of the Basij – Iranian brigades that turned self-sacrifice into a fervent passion. And it was an adoration that seeped into neighbouring Lebanon where, on 15 December 1981, the Iraqi Embassy was blown up by a suicide bomber from the Iranian-funded Islamist group called al-Dawa (‘the Mission’).
A few years later, on 18 April 1983, a Texas-bought pickup truck, packed with almost 1,000 kilograms of explosives, was driven into the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 and wounding 120. That attack was so devastating that, combined with a double truck bomb that targeted buildings in Beirut housing the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) peacekeepers – one of them driven by an Iranian national called Ismail Ascari, caused the withdrawal of US troops from their ‘peace-keeping’ mission in the region.
These were all suicide bombings backed by Iran and bolstered by the Shi’a tradition of the adoration of the martyr. It was that sentiment that was powerfully seen on Monday in the massive crowds that gathered for Soleiman’s funeral, at which stampedes killed more than 50 mourners.
“The martyr Qassem Soleimani is more powerful… now that he is dead,” the Revolutionary Guards’ top general, Major General Hossein Salami, told the grieving crowds in Iran’s city of Kerman.
Already, missions for future martyrs have been identified – at least 13 targets were reportedly discussed in Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
“Even if all agree on the weakest scenario, it will bring a historic nightmare for America,” Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, was cited as saying by Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.
The missile strikes on US bases today in Iraq constitute a rather blunt form of attack. The suicide bomber remains, to the Iranians, the most intelligent and targeted weapon they possess – where the exact time and location of detonation is decided by the bomber. If the situation escalates further, it is something they could easily contemplate, either directly or using proxy forces.
So it could be that the Shi’a suicide bomber, a human weapon that first emerged in the Middle-East in Iran, could resurface again. History has already shown how the US was forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon when faced with the suicide bombers’ fury. And history has a terrible way of repeating itself.