School massacres have become so commonplace that they scarcely shock us anymore. And yet, occasionally mayhem invades the sanctity of the classroom in a way that can still puncture our complacency. At these moments we’re reminded how fragile is this thing we call civilization.
Such was the case February 10 in a rural schoolroom outside Samarra in north-central Iraq, where a terrorism instructor teaching a class in suicide bombing accidentally detonated a live explosive belt. Twenty-one students died along with their teacher.
It happened in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Sunni terrorist group that was recently expelled from Al Qaeda for, of all things, its excessively brutal extremism in the Syrian civil war. ISIS also bears major responsibility for the renewed carnage in Iraq, which took some 1,100 lives in January alone.
The location of the suicide school in Samarra has layers of poetic resonance, probably unintended by ISIS. Though predominantly Sunni, the city is revered by Shi’ites as the place where the last caliphs are buried and the Mahdi disappeared. Its name resonates in medieval Islamic lore with mysteries of suicide and predestined death, echoed in modern Anglo-American literature and linked to Talmudic legend. But we get ahead of ourselves.
ISIS, sponsor of the suicide academy, is also the terrorist group that recently took over the two main cities in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province: Ramadi, the provincial capital, and Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad. Government troops have since retaken parts of Ramadi, but Fallujah remains firmly ISIS-controlled.
There’s a bitter irony in Fallujah falling to terrorists. It was there, in April 2004, that the first major fighting erupted following President Bush’s May 2003 “Mission Accomplished” announcement. The battle for Fallujah marked the effective beginning of the Iraqi insurgency. It was the American public’s first clear indication that invading Iraq wouldn’t be the “cakewalk” the Bush administration had promised. Now we’re back where it all started.
The ironies don’t end there. The Marines were fighting in Fallujah in 2004 to retake the city from insurgent forces led by a Jordanian-born Palestinian Salafi terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As first reported by the Forward in March 2004, Zarqawi’s group, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, was responsible for a string of anti-Jewish terrorist bombings in 2003 in Morocco and Turkey and several attempted anti-Jewish bombings in Germany in 2002. He moved into Iraq in 2003, following the Americans.