Behind the Baghdad Bird Market Bombings Using the Disabled for the Jihad

For a while it looked as if the US military's surge was pacifying Baghdad. Now it seems al-Qaida may have found depraved ways around new security measures -- including female "suicide" bombers, recruited from mental hospitals.

By Britta Sandberg and

An Iraqi soldier inspects a pool of blood at the site of a suicide attack at Baghdad's al-Ghazl bird market.

An Iraqi soldier inspects a pool of blood at the site of a suicide attack at Baghdad's al-Ghazl bird market.

Bird seller Amir Kashku, 23, imports parrots from Senegal. They are beautiful birds, and they are usually sold complete with four phrases Kashku has taught them: "Down with Bush!", "Down with America!", "Long live Iraq!" and, naturally, "Allahu akbar!"

Kashku sells his birds from a stand in the al-Ghazl bird market in downtown Baghdad. There have been four attacks in the market since the war began, and then the market was closed. When it was reopened a few months ago, city officials celebrated it as a success of the American strategy and of an improved security concept. That remained true until the first Friday in February.

At about ten in the morning that day a red Opel Vectra was stopped at a checkpoint at the al-Ghazl market. A woman in an abaya, the floor-length robe worn by many Arab women, got out of the car. Since women aren't checked, the guards let her pass. When she walked past Kashku's stall, the vendor noticed her babbling incoherently. He said she sounded agitated, as if she had just been robbed. "Then she exploded. I saw her head fly into the air and the bits of her abaya falling to the ground afterwards."

The women killed herself and 62 others, wounding 88.

Reaching a New Low

Half an hour later, Kashku's cousin called from the bird market in New Baghdad, a neighborhood eight kilometers (five miles) away. There a gray Opel Vectra -- apparently the preferred model of Iraq's holy warriors -- had pulled up, also containing a woman. She'd stepped out of the car and disappeared into the crowd when suddenly her backpack exploded, killing 27 people and wounding 57.

It seemed to be a double attack with al-Qaida's signature all over it. Only a year ago, attacks like these were gruesome routine. Then the number of attacks declined, and hope began to mount that the situation in Iraq was improving at last.

The two Baghdad market attacks are a bitter setback, because they reveal a new method of terror. Iraqi and American investigators who collected the bombers' remains noticed that both women had telltale traits of Down syndrome, a fact that forensic experts have confirmed.

The Americans and Iraqis agree that the two women were probably blown up with remote-controlled detonators. The investigation is still underway, but Commander Scott Rye, a US military spokesman, says: "There have been one or two incidents involving the mentally impaired in recent years. But this is the first time we have seen mentally impaired suicide bombers -- women who were incapable of understanding what they were being used for."

This suggests that terrorists in Iraq have reached a new low, and that al-Qaida has embarked on a depraved strategy: the use of the disabled as willing bomb carriers, extinguished like characters in a perverse computer game -- by the push of a button on a mobile phone converted into a remote detonator. (Investigators found a converted mobile phone near the site of the attack.)

This new method of bombing is also an expression of hard times for al-Qaida in Iraq. More military roadblocks have made it tougher for jihadists to use car bombs -- which have, in fact, grown less common -- and according to the American military, the number of jihadists entering Iraq from other countries has dropped by half.

In a 39-page al-Qaida document found in Iraq's Anbar Province last November, the insurgents even admit to having difficulties. "The Islamic state of Iraq is in an crisis," the document reads, "and our leadership must reduce the number of foreign fighters coming here." The document also notes that the "crusaders" have "learned from their mistakes" in the last four years.

The fact that even "children and the disabled are now being recruited reveals the dismal condition of al-Qaida," says Mohammed al-Askari, a spokesman for the Iraqi defense ministry. "One of the reasons for this is that al-Qaida in Iraq is slowly dying," Askari believes. "Why else would they resort to such methods?"

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apparently agrees. The two Baghdad attacks, she said, are evidence of the terrorist network's "absolute bankruptcy and brutality."

The radical Islamists' use of remote detonators is nothing new. The "Encyclopedia of Jihad," a sort of online manual for preparing attacks, provides detailed instructions on how to convert mobile phones into remote detonators. The 5,000-page book also recommends the use of wristwatches with integrated alarm functions.

After the attacks in Algeria last April 11, the police found a remote detonation device in one of the vehicles that exploded. Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni then said that it was "very likely" that the drivers "were blown up, along with the cars, without their knowledge." In Saudi Arabia in 2004, cars and their passengers were supposedly blown up using remote-controlled detonators because the terrorists lacked confidence in their suicide bombing candidates.

'All Means Are Legitimate'

Four days after the double bombing in Baghdad, the mother of the al-Ghazl market bomber turned up at the market, shouting: "My daughter was used, my daughter was used!" Then National Guard officers took the woman away.

A week later, American and Iraqi security forces stormed the offices of the 1,200-bed Rashad Hospital, the largest psychiatric hospital in the Iraqi capital, arresting the administrative director, searching his office and seizing files and computer hard drives. They suspect the man provided terrorists with details about hospital patients. The two female bombers with Down syndrome had apparently received outpatient treatment at his hospital.

The hospital director was still being questioned late last week. "We are very interested in him," a US officer confirmed, although the US military was not willing to provide any further details.

Are doctors in psychiatric clinics offering patients to al-Qaida as potential bombers? Are the terrorists recruiting the disabled?

"They do whatever works best. They have even tied explosive belts to dogs," says Rita Katz, who founded what is now the SITE Intelligence Group (Search for International Terrorist Entities) in Maryland. "All means are legitimate in their struggle, as long as they lead to success. The new attacks can be attributed to the changed circumstances in Baghdad."

Iraqi officials also realize that the methods of terror are directly tied to the military situation. There were no suicide bombings committed by women in 2006, but there have been 10 in the last 12 months, seven since November alone. Women are almost never searched at checkpoints and aren't as conspicuous. Adolescents, victims of kidnappings and people who have been drugged are also used.

In late July, for example, the driver of a car in line at a checkpoint in western Baghdad jumped into the street in a panic, shouting: "A mine is hidden in my car!" The man had been kidnapped a short time earlier. Only when he was waiting at the checkpoint did he notice that the kidnappers had hidden explosives under his seat.

The same scenario was repeated at the same checkpoint two weeks later, and again a short time later. The bomb exploded the third time, revealing a pattern: The checkpoint, which is on 14th Ramadan Street, is the first point where cars coming from the Jamia neighborhood are required to stop. After the US troop surge, al-Qaida fighters were pushed back into Jamia. Their new strategy was to send out their kidnapping victims -- people who had no idea they were carrying deadly cargo -- as living bombs.

Half a year earlier a 13-year-old boy was kidnapped in Daura, a district in south Baghdad. The boy was mildly retarded, and at first neither the parents nor the police understood the kidnappers' interest in him. There were no calls or demands for ransom money. But then the boy was found, ripped to shreds by a bomb in downtown Baghdad. The device had apparently gone off before the boy had reached his target.

Zayid al-Hashimi, a psychiatrist who used to practice at Rashad Hospital, also assumes that the two Feb. 1 bombers could not have detonated their explosives themselves. According to Hashimi, the attention span of a Down patient is simply too short for this sort of task.

Walls at the al-Ghazl market are still spattered in blood from the attack. Vendors and customers alike returned last Friday, but there was little left to buy. The few birds that had survived the pressure wave from the bombing flew away when their cages were destroyed. "We have suffered an immense loss. We all have to start over again," says Kashku the bird seller. "But, most of all, we are mourning the dead."

In Iraq it is considered a good omen if a bird chirps when someone dies. It means the soul is flying toward heaven.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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