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A Talk With a Suicide Bomber

3 minute read
Robert Baer

Last week, at the Directorate of National Intelligence in Kabul, I met a failed suicide bomber. Arrested two weeks before in Jalalabad, preparing to assassinate the governor of Nangahar Province, Farhad was setting outside of Pakistan’s Waziristan Province for the first time.

Only 17, he was terrified. Not only because of an uncertain fate, but perhaps more so because the world was not as the Taliban had described it. The Taliban indoctrinated him well, convincing him the Americans were stealing the faith of Afghan Muslims. Turning them into kafirs. I asked him if he hated the governor. No, it was simply that in working with the Americans he’d fallen away from Islam. He deserved to die.

It was immediately clear this kid was ignorant of the world; the boundaries of his village were his world. I asked him if he’d heard of Iraq. He had, but when I asked him if he could point it out on a map, he said he couldn’t. The same with Palestine. I doubt that he’d ever seen a map.

That raised the question what he knew about Islam. When I asked he said he’d read the Quran. I asked it him if he understood it. He shook his head. It was then it became apparent his education went no farther than the madrassa—he was taught to recite the Quran in Arabic but did not understand a word. Other than what he was told.

And this is where the Taliban came in. Spotting him in the village mosque, they invited him to attend what can only be called an indoctrination course in Waziristan. There he was taught that suicide bombers go directly to heaven, where they’re met by virgins and lush gardens. Farhad was also taught that any Muslim working with the Americans in Afghanistan was no longer a Muslim, but a “munafiq,” a pretend Muslim. It was written in the Quran, Farhad was assured.

Even I, who have tried to get a grip on Muslim suicide bombing, was stunned by the depth of the brainwashing. I’d never seen anything like it. So I asked the question, What religion is Musharraf, the president of Pakistan? He’s a Jew, the Taliban had assured Farhad.

No wonder Farhad agreed to go to Jalalabad to kill a fellow Muslim. Still, wasn’t there a doubt in his mind about taking his life like that and who knows how many others? No. The Taliban had told him that when he pushed the button on his suicide vest, it was Allah then who would decide whether to summon him to heaven or not.

Earlier that day I’d visited NATO headquarters to talk to an American Marine colonel who tracks suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. He came straight to the point: neither military force nor intelligence is going to stop suicide bombings. Only “mitigate” them. What NATO is pressing the Afghans to do is to deindocrinate young men like Farhad. But how do you get someone like Farhad, who may never have seen a map, change his radical worldview?

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.

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