Requiem for a Suicide Bomber

Reflections on the meaninglessness of terrorism in post-Arab Spring Egypt.


In early October, a suicide bomber affiliated with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis drove his car through several checkpoints in the southern Sinai city of El-Tor, pulled up at Egyptian security headquarters, and detonated his explosives, killing three policemen. A month later, the Sinai-based jihadi group identified the attacker as Mohammed Hamdan al-Sawarka, in a haunting video that also included images of crackdowns by Egyptian security forces and footage of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin making peace alongside Jimmy Carter. “I only decided to do the mission for the victory of the religion of God and to revenge our brothers, the mujahideen, against the infidels and tyrants,” al-Sawarka declared. Three months later, and three years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the swell of militancy that has afflicted Egypt since the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi is only getting worse. What follows is a letter from Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha to the young assailant behind the fatal attack in El-Tor.

(Note: Video contains graphic imagery.)

Of the hundreds of news items that cite your name, Mohammed Hamdan (Abu Hajar) al-Sawarka, none gives your age or personal details. It’s hard to believe you are older than 17. “Abu Hajar” suggests you already have a daughter, named after the wife of the prophet Ibrahim according to Muslim custom. But if that is the case she can’t be more than a few years old; it wouldn’t surprise me if you married right after puberty. Under the circumstances, of course, those who condemn you do not bother to account for your good looks, the mildness of your manner, or the child’s warmth in your smile—an earnestness that makes sincerity irrelevant, so ingenuous is your willingness to die.

I say “is” because the YouTube appearance that turned you into a posthumous celebrity in Egypt is all I know. The miracle of photography is the way it stops time, Mohammed. And if a still image denotes an eternal present tense, then that clip must be present continuous. You will always be alive for me the way you were when you were filmed. Instead of ever having been, instead even of going to be—a bloodied mess, samples of which apparently confirmed your identity—you are. And being as you speak, gesture, look shyly to one side, pose for the camera, or hug your comrades, bidding them farewell. It is the implausibility of your innocence that makes me write, knowing what you were about to do when you intruded on my web browser.

It is not what you say: the formulaic statements of divine intent; the Quran and Hadith you get grammatically wrong; the sense of knowing beyond human doubt that your imminent sacrifice makes categorical sense—that the advent of the Wahhabi Caliphate is what life in the post-millennial Middle East is really all about. What moves me is precisely the failure of such staples of the generic audiovisual jihadi message, in your case, to convey any gravity. Are you a miscast lead? That would explain your relatively small part in the 10-minute set piece whose object is to claim credit for blowing up the South Sinai Security Department on October 7, 2013. Hence the eclectic, abridged history of post-1952 Egypt that precedes your appearance—a news footage-enhanced exposé of the infidel tyrants who not only made peace with Israel, bowing to Crusader enemies of the Umma, but also ignored sharia, and murdered and humiliated Muslims. This is the Raithu desert, where your nomadic ancestors killed 43 Christians—centuries before tribes like yours, the Sawarka, accepted the Prophet Muhammad’s message. The Bedouin have rejected the fellahin [peasant] state just as much as the fellahin have shut out the Bedouin. And, robbed of what development might have graced the Nile Valley since independence, you aided the Israeli army against the Egyptian. Some of you. More recently, some have embraced militant Islam.

A miscast lead, for this viewer, because your performance undermines the message of the production company you work for, the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (or Partisans of Jerusalem), one of several Sinai-based al-Qaeda affiliates that have been attacking the Egyptian army and police since the Muslim Brotherhood was evicted from power in July. The word for your role, istishhadi, is a contemporary and peculiar coinage. Its sense of pre-doomed purpose is paradoxical—“martyrdom-ist”? So you’re supposed to ameliorate the absurdity by showing both physical fear and joy in death.

But you, Abu Hajar the Jihadi, are an affront to the genre. You show neither perturbation nor pretense; you are the willing commodity of a hopeless political transaction. Instead of denying the paradox of what you are, you embody it. The way you shake hands with your comrades once you’re in the explosive-filled vehicle, for example—as if you’re going on holiday. And even as you clearly believe the dogged, dogmatic rhetoric you’re regurgitating, the effect, rather than a desert of the absolute, is a rainforest of relativity. You are neither intelligent enough to resist the brainwash nor proud enough to have a survival instinct. Is your life somehow less meaningful than others’? You expose our lack of innocence, Mohammed.

We: fellahin; patriots; conscious citizens of a state that’s alienated you so perfectly; quasi-secular politicians; scions of the military; enraged media commentators. We who will do nothing about the meaninglessness, who are not aware of meaninglessness, or who wrangle with it silently on the computer screen. ‘We’ also includes the fanatics who will never blow themselves up, the martyr-mongers who are squandering your beauty and your youth: God’s priceless gifts, if there is a God (and not even the fiercest defenders of the police have denied His existence). I think of demonstrators as young as you who, objecting to Muslim Brotherhood rule, lost their lives on the Cairo asphalt. They too died for the cause, though ultimately there was no cause—just life and death. I think of them as not being as atheistic as you, at bottom. Nor as winsome. And I realize they had a far more plausible idea of what they were about. They died, after all, involuntarily. Embrace idealism or risk as they might, they lived in the God-weary world. No one in our times seriously believes in the Caliphate, Mohammed. Yet no one will admit that; for you, too, the Caliphate can only be a symbol—a pretext. All, ultimately, are “us.” And, in your nearly obscure feat—in the nonchalance with which you embark on it, especially—you make spoofs of us all.

Not that you aren’t a spoof yourself. Just that the lie you’re selling, having bought it, is far too blatant to convince the viewer. The truth of your suicide is so much more harrowing than any grief you can cause. At some level even you must realize that, were God or His Messenger who you think they are, neither would bless you. It’s hard to believe you could be doing this for 72 houri virgins in paradise: God’s promise to soldiers of the faith. Still, you need the alibi of eternity to ease your step. And yours is the logic of revolution and resistance. If Washington and Ban Ki-moon are Crusaders—if terrorists are the guardians of truth and identity, and weapon-wielding civil servants their distorters and deniers—then the head of the Security Department and his two assistants must deserve their fate. You bullshit yourself to bullshit me, and all I know is you—and your victims—don’t have to die.

To tell you that I too want to object to meaninglessness—what could that be worth to Abu Hajar the Jihadi? I’m supposed to believe you are now a resplendent prince reclining on the banks of a river of wine, with virgins more beautiful than humans can imagine attending to your bodily needs? The sad part is—I know otherwise. You’re just a medley of dead tissue and a YouTube video with Saudi religious chanting in the soundtrack. Detonated flesh, Mohammed Hamdan (Abu Hajar) al-Sawarka. Soon you will be just bone, and no one will remember your name.