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Originally published Monday, March 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Study offers glimpse into what it takes to be suicide bomber

Based on interrogations of 48 detainees, U.S. military says most foreign fighters are alienated young men who want to leave their mark.

BAGHDAD — Young, lonely and struggling to make a mark.

The suicide bombers who have killed 10,000 people in Iraq, including hundreds of U.S. troops, usually were alienated young men from large families who were desperate to stand out from the crowd, according to a U.S. military study.

As long suspected, most came from outside Iraq. Saudi Arabia, home of most of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was the single largest source. And the pipeline is continually replenished by al-Qaida in Iraq's recruiters.

The study profiled the suicide bombers and their support system based, in part, on interrogations of 48 foreign fighters who were captured or surrendered. Foreign fighters are blamed for about 90 percent of suicide bombings in Iraq. The U.S. command is trying to understand the system, including al-Qaida in Iraq's recruiting, training and transportation network, so they can disrupt it before the bombers strike.

According to the summary, interrogators concluded that most foreign fighters are Sunni Muslim men from 18 to 30, with the mean age of 22. They are almost always single males with no children and tend to be students or hold blue-collar jobs ranging from taxi drivers to construction and retail sales.

Most have had six to 12 years of schooling, and very few have gone to college. A majority have come from families in the poor or middle classes and have six to eight siblings.

"In these large family groups, individuals seek ways to 'make their mark,' to set them apart. In many ways, entering jihad gives sons a way to show themselves unique in a large family," the summary said.

According to the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, 949 suicide bombers killed 10,119 people and wounded 22,995 from the beginning of 2004 until now. Data compiled by the AP through its own reporting found that from April 28, 2005, to March 13, 2008, there were 708 incidents involving suicide bombings, with a total of 14,633 Iraqis wounded and 7,098 killed.

U.S. Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the spokesman for Multinational Forces in Iraq, said about 90 percent of suicide attackers are foreigners.

"Iraqis are religiously and socially opposed to suicide, requiring al-Qaida to recruit foreigners to carry out their terror," he said.

Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said al-Qaida prefers to use suicide bombers instead of other weapons because they are "easy, cheap and effective."

"It's what we call a thinking, walking bomb. He watches the whole scene, chooses the best time and best location" Alani said. "It's effective and costs nothing because you don't pay someone who is going to die."

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Two senior analysts who helped question the 48 captured fighters said the picture that emerges is of a cold and calculating process that recruits young, alienated men who are social outcasts. Neither of the interrogators could be named for security reasons.

"Al-Qaida recruits these people from the Middle East and North Africa, hitting them at the most vulnerable time of the life," said one of the analysts with the U.S.-led Multinational Force.

When an al-Qaida cell decides it needs a suicide bomber, it puts in an order that is funded through racketeering, extortion and kidnapping. That request goes to Damascus, Syria, and to the facilitators and recruiters training young men in North Africa and Saudi Arabia. Three months later, the bomber is delivered, military investigators and officials say.

More than half of the about 240 foreign fighters in U.S. custody came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, according to figures provided separately by the military. Smaller numbers were recruited in Jordan, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. There also are several hundred foreign fighters in Iraqi custody.

Al-Qaida in Iraq recruiters troll mosques for potential fighters — impoverished young men who are believed to be at odds with their family or angry at the West, the military summary says.

"They befriend them, usually by saying that they are praying wrong and offering to correct it." They then offer to help them with Quran studies, and that is the start of their indoctrination into the jihadi philosophy.

The summary also contends that some Arab media reports and Internet coverage of alleged U.S atrocities in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal were a major motivating factor.

Once they agreed to join the fight, most were flown to Syria and then smuggled into Iraq, he said. The facilitators who met them in Syria often entertained them at nightclubs and bars during the months it sometimes took to get them to Iraq, Smith said. But when they reached Iraq, those destined for suicide missions were sequestered in safe houses with a copy of the Quran and few other amenities.

Some spoke of their disillusionment when they discovered most of the attacks carried out by insurgents were directed against the Iraqi people rather than U.S. forces.

"Again and again, we heard this reality bothered the recruits," Smith said. "They had not come here to kill Iraqi civilians. ... They felt misled."

Eventually, he said, most just wanted to go home. But their handlers had their passports and their money, so they felt trapped.

The social and economic climate "will keep this generation, and the next generations to come, impoverished," the summary says. That will give fertile ground for al-Qaida to give such men "a purpose, a direction, and a reason to live and die."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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