Until a few seconds ago, it must have seemed like just another day for Iraqi police officer Saad Ali Thabit. But now, he’s standing in front of a man with a bomb strapped to his chest. Thabit’s next move, then, is literally a matter of life and death. That’s when his instincts kick in, and he leaps toward the man in an awesome act of heroism. He can only hope it’s the right move.
The would-be suicide bomber is Hussain Ali, a man with links to ISIS, or the so-called Islamic State. Operating mainly across regions of Iraq and Syria, ISIS promotes extremist Islamic views and rose out of the power vacuum left by the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath government in Iraq.
The group, which is also referred to as ISIL and Daesh, is behind all manner of war crimes, including various abuses of human rights, executions and the demolition of historic buildings. Moreover, Amnesty International has levied charges of “ethnic cleansing” against it.
Meanwhile, in recent years suicide bombings have become an increasingly common tactic for terrorists. Indeed, the rate of suicide attacks around the world was only three per year in the 1980s. But by 2015 they were occurring around once a day, with the majority taking place in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to The Atlantic writer Bruce Hoffman, this rise is because the method is “inexpensive and effective.” The intention, he said, is to instill fear – and to ensure that people don’t feel safe to go out in public.
The would-be bomber that Staff Sergeant Thabit faced in May 2016 was crossing the Kadhimiya region of Baghdad, Iraq. That month had already seen a spate of bombings across the city, with more than 200 people killed in just one week.
ISIS, of course, claimed credit for many of the attacks. Many of the bombings occurred in civilian areas, as Iraqi forces and U.S. air assaults had pushed the group back from the battle lines of the conflict.
It is understandable, then, that officers such as Thabit were on high alert. But even so, there was no way he could have expected his day to end up like it did. So, as civilians passed through a checkpoint in Kadhimiya, each one was subjected to a routine search.
Up stepped Hussain Ali. Apparently not counting on being searched, he seemingly took no precautions to ensure the bomb vest strapped to his torso was not discovered. Unsurprisingly, then, officers promptly found it when they searched him. But rather than panic or flee, the security personnel did something amazing.
Yes, it was in that moment that Thabit made the split-second decision to charge toward Ali. And before the would-be bomber could detonate his vest, he found his arms pinned against the wall by the police sergeant as the pair engaged in a literal life-or-death struggle.
A nearby CCTV camera recorded a video of the dramatic incident, and it shows the civilians who had been queuing up behind Ali fleeing after the bomb is revealed. Indeed, they literally ran for their lives.
Nevertheless, Thabit seemingly continued to hold Ali up against the wall, no doubt all too aware that one wrong move would be fatal for him and those around him. While he did so, his fellow officers began to tear off Ali’s clothing in order to access to the bomb.
When the officers removed the man’s shirt, the vest and bomb were exposed. The improvised explosive device, or IED, was attached to Ali’s body using nothing more than plastic film. It may have looked crude, but it was absolutely deadly.
After the officers removed the bomb vest, Thabit pushed Ali to the ground and climbed on his back to make sure he couldn’t move. But the bomb still had to be defused before the area could be deemed safe.
Therefore, counter-IED officers were called to help defuse the bomb, which contained metal scraps – such as screws and nails – that would splinter off and become deadly shrapnel upon the bomb’s detonation. Fortunately, the officers were successful in rendering the weapon harmless.
Ali was thought to have been targeting a nearby shrine dedicated to Imam al-Khadim, one of the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s 12 imams, or successors. The shrine attracts millions of Shia Muslims on their annual pilgrimage.
Photos of the incident were also published to imgur. In one of the images, Thabit can be seen smiling for the camera, even as he holds Ali up against the wall with the bomb still strapped to his torso.
The images quickly went viral, with thousands of people praising the sergeant for his brave actions. In fact, dozens of online commenters called Thabit a hero, lauding him for saving so many lives.
Fortunately, then, Thabit was even commended by the highest authority in the Iraq – the country’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. Yes, he congratulated the police officer on his courage and heroism.
When Saad Ali Thabit stepped up to the checkpoint on that near-fateful day, there was no way he could have known just how far his resolve would be tested. Luckily for him and everyone around, the heroic cop’s instincts served him well, averting what would have been yet another atrocity in a deeply troubled region.