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Moroccan Village Funnels Suicide Bombers to Iraq


Suicide bombers are among the biggest dangers in Iraq. It's believed that some of those attackers come from outside the country. And now, researchers have traced dozens of them back to a single city in North Africa, in fact, a single neighborhood.

The city is called Tetuan; it's in Morocco. Look on a map and you'll find it close to the Straits of Gibraltar, close to territory controlled by Spain. So it's a border zone dominated by trade and commerce, much of it illegal.


The research team includes Scott Atran, an American university professor. He got interested in Tetuan because of a single neighborhood there that produced several men accused of bombing trains in Spain in 2004.

So this one neighborhood attracted your interest?

Professor SCOTT ATRAN (Psychology, University of Michigan): Yes.

INSKEEP: Because - how many suicide bombers had come from there?

Prof. ATRAN: The ones who actually blew themselves up when cornered by police after the bombing, five of the seven where not the people who had been part of this sort of ideological groups since the beginning. But all of them grew up as kids within two blocks of one another. You know, there may be tens of millions, or at least a few millions, who are very, very sympathetic to the jihad, but there are only very few who will actually go out and commit violence.


INSKEEP: And yet this group of people kill themselves rather than give themselves up, and they all came from one neighborhood in Morocco, in this one town.

Prof. ATRAN: Right.

INSKEEP: And how many other suicide bombers had come from there?

Prof. ATRAN: Well, one of the brothers of two who had blown themselves up in Madrid we found out had been piping suicide bombers to Iraq - about 30 of them, according to the people who talked to.

INSKEEP: Piping suicide bombers to Iraq.

Prof. ATRAN: Right. Riding piggyback on the drug and contraband traffic that's going in and out of Tetuan and Ceuta are handlers who pass people on to other people who pass people on, and they eventually wind their way to Damascus or to Istanbul, and then over the border into Iraq.

INSKEEP: I want to understand this. If we imagine a map in our heads, Tetuan is up in northern Morocco, where there's that little town that belongs to Spain.

Prof. ATRAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: And because there's effectively an open border there and people can jump back and forth between countries it becomes easy to smuggle things to all sorts of other countries from there?

Prof. ATRAN: That's right. These guys want to hook up with something. You know, you get somebody who knows a relative, who has a friend in the next leg on the journey, who knows a friend, who has a relative in the next leg of the journey, and eventually they work their way to the end. And then word gets back and the whole thing starts over again. And we find that within the last year, about 30 suicide bombers who actually lived across the street from the five who blew themselves up in Madrid had been doing the same sort of thing.

INSKEEP: Did you ask yourself what could it possibly be about this particular neighborhood that would cause it to be home for such a concentration of people willing to kill themselves and kill others?

Prof. ATRAN: Well, there are a number of factors. First is that peculiar relationship with Ceuta, which in this particular case forms a sort of underworld and underground economy.

INSKEEP: In other words, it was just practical to get away from there and get sent some place to do jihad.

Prof. ATRAN: Or to trade drugs in Europe for profit. And if you're fairly poor, that's a good way of getting out of that.

INSKEEP: So that's one factor. What's another?

Prof. ATRAN: Another factor is that the jihad is actually growing throughout North Africa. If you ask somebody why they joined the jihad, say, in Europe, they would give you the story that Islam is under attack. Okay, that's the general idea. Then, you know, you ask them, well, if this was 10 years ago, would you have joined the jihad? And they say, of course not. The jihad wasn't there. So, it's in the landscape of ideas now.

INSKEEP: You mean, it's in the news because of Israel, because of 9/11, because of Afghanistan and Iraq. And so they're thinking about it in a way they might…

Prof. ATRAN: It's the big dream out there now. I mean there's a massive transnational media-driven political awakening in which the jihad in effect is the vanguard and the principal counterweight to the influence of the United States in the world, at least in these young people's minds. And like young people everywhere, they're looking for a dream and they want to be heroes.

INSKEEP: Scott Atran, thanks very much.

Prof. ATRAN: Sure.

INSKEEP: Scott Atran, a professor at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.