Cult of the Suicide Bomber (2005)

“The martyrs are all graduates of the occupation.”

Former CIA agent Robert Baer takes the viewer on a vivid tour of the evolution of the suicide bomber in the gripping documentary The Cult of the Suicide Bomber. Directed by David Batty and Kevin Toolis, this mesmerizing film analyzes how and why suicide bombing started, how it spread to other countries, how it evolved as a tool of terror, and also major turning points in this phenomenon. No matter which side of the political fence you are on, there’s a great deal to learn in this information-packed, eye-opening, made-for-British television documentary.

Baer begins his narration with an examination of large-scale demonstrations of suicide attacks–the July 2005 bombings in London, the April 1983 attack on the American Embassy in Beirut, and the Beirut marine barracks attack in October 1983. Baer was one of the few agents to survive the embassy attack–he was lucky enough to not be there that day. Baer travels to Iran to trace the origins of suicide bombing. Here he interviews the family of a 13-year-old boy who is the very first acknowledged suicide bomber. In the Iran-Iraq war, Hossein Famideh blew himself up with a grenade as he threw himself under a tank. In an amazing sequence Baer questions the family, tackling the martyrdom vs. suicide arguments of the suicide bomber through Hossein’s example, and asks them to align Hossein’s suicidal actions with Islam–a religion that forbids suicide. To Hossein’s family there is a clear difference and they explain that “suicide implies he did it out of desperation” but that “martyrdom shows he knew the implications” of his actions.

Baer then travels to Beirut where the 1983 bombing of the American Embassy was the “first suicide attack against Western interests.” Baer talks to Hezbollah fighters, and observes the billboards of martyrs that line the Israeli-Lebanon border, and talks to a man who argues, “if given half a chance, Israel would invade us.” Baer also analyzes another group within Lebanon–the Syrian Socialist National Party–this group use a number of female suicide bombers and see the attacks as a “political struggle” in which “religion played no part.” In Lebanon, the film argues that suicide bombing evolved into an effective tool against the superior military power of the Israelis.

Baer then moves on to yet another Middle East hot spot–the Gaza Strip and shows clips of Hamas videos of suicide bombings. At the time the film was made, approximately 200 suicide attacks had taken place in this region in an 11-year period. Baer argues that this was sparked by an incident in 1994, when an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein entered a Hebron mosque and killed 29 worshippers, and injured an additional 100. Hamas swore revenge, had a 40 day period of mourning, and then the first fatal suicide attack took place in Israel. Baer then examines the bloody career of “The Engineer–Yahya Ayyash”–a man who organized 10 suicide attacks in an 18 month period. Ayyash is credited with turning suicide bombing from a “weapon of war” into a “weapon of terror.” Baer attends a Hamas march and films tiny boys geared with camouflage and wooden guns shaking hands with their adult heroes.

If you are remotely interested in the subject of suicide bombing, politics in the Middle East, or just wonder what this is all about, then I recommend this great slice of investigative filmmaking. It’s packed with information and interviews that are mind-boggling, and even addresses the debate and theological struggle that rages in the Muslim world over this phenomenon. Baer is obviously very comfortable with a range of cultures and can hold his own without a translator. While there’s no solid information here on either the Tamil Tigers or the Black Widows of Chechnya, The Cult of the Suicide Bomber is riveting. Due to the subject matter, the film contains some gruesome footage, and it also contains an apocalyptic message. While the aim of the film is not to feed Islamophobia, Baer makes the point that suicide bombing is still evolving and cites instances of home grown terrorists. There’s a prescient message here–We are living in a time of a shifting paradigm of warfare. We are experiencing 4th Generation Warfare. The lines between civilian and combatant are no longer secure, and we’d better be prepared for the consequences.

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