Skip to main content

The suicide bombing at a Kabul Internet café drew attention for a number of reasons: It was one of the first in the Afghan capital after the fall of the Taliban; it struck a spot popular with foreigners; and a UN worker was among those who died along with the attacker, Qari Samiullah.

But a little-known fact about that 2005 blast offers a clue into the workings of the insurgents who recruit suicide bombers, and what, apart from religious propaganda, has motivated about 200 men to blow themselves up: In addition to being a deeply religious man, Mr. Samiullah was disabled.

His disability didn't come as a surprise. As the insurgency in Afghanistan gathers urgency, the Taliban and other forces are recruiting marginalized and vulnerable groups to carry out suicide attacks while men from their own ranks keep up the ground offensive.

The pool of the disenchanted and hopeless is large in Afghanistan -- people left on the fringes by their economic, physical or mental circumstances -- and there are few services to rehabilitate them after three decades of war.

"Almost 90 per cent of [suicide bombers]are people with some form of disability," forensic expert Yusuf Yadgari said.

Every bomber's body in Kabul-based attacks passes through Dr. Yadgari's morgue. He has so far detected such disabilities as muscular dystrophy, amputated toes, blindness, skin diseases and signs of mental illness in the bodies of suicide bombers.

Although no statistics are available, anecdotal evidence increasingly backs up Dr. Yadgari's observations. Security experts argue that the Taliban seek out the disaffected, the poor and the marginalized, a group that certainly would include a majority of the disabled. And non-governmental organizations say reports of disabled people being trained as suicide bombers, although unproven, are common.

"One reason why people entertain the idea is there is complete loss of hope in being able to live a normal life," said Firoz Ali Alizada, who lost his legs to a land mine and now uses artificial legs and crutches.

"In a culture like ours, disability and the possibility of being out on the street are equated with great shame. A man who is married and has children is suddenly incapable of supporting and feeding his family. ... He might find it easier to die."

Disabled people are a significant portion of Afghanistan's population, but they live on the margins of its society. One NGO, Handicapped International, identifies nine dimensions of disability, including the ability to care for oneself, depression, epilepsy or seizures, and restrictions on physical movement. About 2.7 per cent of the population -- 747,000 to 867,000 people -- have very severe disabilities, according to the group.

When a wider segment of disability is included, the percentage skyrockets to 58.9. Even that, observers say, excludes mental disability and disabilities among women.

"It is clear that the Taliban are using financial incentives in many cases to encourage suicide bombers," said Sam Zarifi, Asia Division research director of Human Rights Watch.

"It's not just ideological fervour. It is clear that in a place like Afghanistan where there is a very weak economy, the handicapped, whether physically disabled or mentally challenged, are going to be more vulnerable to that kind of financial incentive."

Money for suicide bombings is offered to families of the bombers, so they can live a better life, a compensation of sorts for the loss of a male breadwinner. Because the men often have not been able to earn very much, the money, which ranges in amount, is seen as a solid incentive.

Saifuddin Nezami, director of the Community Centre for the Disabled, who is himself disabled, said he can see how recruiting disabled people would be effective:

"In Kabul we have some services for the disabled ... but in the provinces there is nothing -- no services, no vocational training. They are isolated from society and life. This situation causes people to be very disappointed in life, to be depressive and to bear a deep grudge in their hearts toward society and other people."

Suicide attacks in Afghanistan have risen dramatically in recent years, according to Human Rights Watch, which released a report on the subject last month. The tactic is a relatively new in the country, which saw only two suicide bombings in 2003. But the numbers grew from six such attacks in 2004, to 21 in 2005, to 136 in 2006. In the first 10 weeks of this year, there were 28.

In March, a suicide bomber attacked the car of a high-ranking Afghan intelligence official, killing four men and injuring six. When the bomber's body was taken to the morgue at Kabul Medical Centre, its middle was missing, but half his legs, his arms and his head were more or less intact.

The bomber's identity may still be unknown but his condition tell his story. The man was blind in one eye, his clothes torn and shabby, and weeks of grime were etched onto his skin.

Many cases of mental illness, mainly depression, can be judged from the condition of the bomber at the time of the attack, Dr. Yagadari said. "Their clothes and face are dirty. You can see that they are not interested in life. This is one of the first signs of depression, something that is rampant and unaddressed in Afghanistan."

It is difficult to track people with mental disabilities because the stigma of those illnesses is worse, if possible, than that attached to physical ailments.

"If you walk down the street ... you will notice that one of every three or four people is talking to himself," Mr. Nezami said.

Sayed Azimi of the World Health Organization in Afghanistan, estimates that 50 per cent of the Afghan population suffers from some form of mental disability. The Afghan Health Ministry puts this number much higher, at 85 per cent.

Security analysts say the Taliban and other groups do not recruit suicide bombers from among their elite. "It's true that the Taliban don't use their best and brightest as suicide bombers," said Philip Halton, managing director of Safer Access, which provides expertise for humanitarian aid groups.

"They do look for disaffected members of society, not only those who are disabled but those who are exceedingly poor, and they target those people."

In early April, a program broadcast on al-Jazeera and Tolo television (Afghanistan's private Dari-language channel) documented the stories of three young men from Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal belt, all of whom showed clear signs of physical or emotional incapacity, who had been recruited as suicide bombers. All were apprehended by the Afghanistan intelligence service.

Ayatollah, 16, who had a long scar dug deep just above forehead, often sounded nonsensical. He said the Taliban told him there was a financial reward: " 'First you have to go to Kabul,' they told me. 'After you commit suicide, come back and we will give you the money.' "

A second man, Amanullah, who constantly contradicted himself, said he hoped for paradise but also expected to walk away alive after setting off the bomb. Ultimately, he was afraid to risk death, so he ripped apart the wires in his bomb pack and pulled out the battery. Now he sits behind bars under the supervision of Kabul's intelligence services.

The case of Mr. Samiullah, the Internet café bomber, is slightly unusual in that he was middle-class.

Hamid Barakzai, a former high-school classmate, recalls bumping into his old friend several years after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Mr. Samiullah was still sporting the long beard advocated by the fundamentalist group.

"I asked him, 'Why haven't you cut off your beard? The Taliban are gone,' " Mr. Barakzai recalled. "He told me, 'I am al-Qaeda. I will die al-Qaeda. Next time, I might take some infidel with me to the other world.' I thought he was joking."

Shortly after that conversation, in May of 2005, Mr. Samiullah blew himself up.

"A lot of suicide bombers have disabilities that prevent them from living a normal life," Mr. Barakzai said. "When the Taliban see people like this they ... tell them, 'You cannot do anything with your life. You are useless. You cannot provide for your family. Why don't you go to heaven and we will look after your family?' "


How new recruits find themselves among the insurgency's suicide-bomber ranks.

Propaganda: Mobile phones are used to pass along videos of martyred young men. A young Afghan who lives in Pakistan received a video on his mobile phone that documented a suicide bombing near the Pakistani border, in Afghanistan. A man who had lost an arm and a leg is shown exercising and then driving an automatic car laden with explosives in Paktia province. Coalition forces can be seen in the distance as the bomber approaches them and detonates the bomb.

Compensation: In the early days of Afghan suicide attacks, the Taliban offered $250 (U.S.), sources say.

But that number has risen to as high as $10,000. A young man from Kandahar whose attack was foiled by police said he was offered $15,000.

Desperation: It's not clear how many of the suicide bombers are Afghan but security analysts say that foreign fighters were among the bombers of 2003 and 2004. The trend is to use people who are not fit to fight.

"Most of the recruits are not Taliban," said Haroun Mir, a former aide to the late, fabled Tajik warrior Ahmad Shah Massoud. "As long as you can fight, why blow yourself up?"

Sonya Fatah

Interact with The Globe