Killing to Make a Killing

Killing to Make a Killing

Mini Teaser: Suicide terrorism may be more rational than meets the eye.

by Author(s): J. Peter Pham

Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Columbia University, 2005), 280 pp., $24.95.

Timothy Naftali, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism (New York: Basic, 2005), 415 pp., $26.

Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House), 352 pp., $25.95.

Suicide operations are not only one of the most prominent features of contemporary terrorism, but they are also increasingly the phenomenon's primary manifestation. At a time when terrorist incidents of all kinds have declined by nearly half--from a peak of 666 in 1987 to 348 in 2001, according to University of Chicago professor Robert A. Pape's count--suicide attacks have escalated sharply from an average of three per year in the 1980s to nearly fifty in 2003. Over that same period, suicide terrorism has established itself as terrorism's most lethal form: While accounting for only 3 percent of all terrorist incidents from 1980 through 2003, it was responsible for 48 percent of all victims killed by terrorists, even if the immense casualties of September 11, 2001, are not counted. Despite its significance, the phenomenon of suicide is poorly understood--at least by its intended targets.

The very nature of the problem contributes a great deal to the confusion. By definition, suicide terrorism is a more extreme form than other terrorist actions aimed at garnering publicity, mobilizing support or coercing opponents, precisely because it presupposes that to achieve these ends the perpetrator must adopt a modus operandi--whether wearing a vest packed with explosives, driving a car bomb or piloting an airplane--that requires his or her death in order to carry out a successful attack against the chosen target. This characteristic of the phenomenon has led to all manner of explanations. Some have focused on the premeditated certainty of death of the individual suicide bombers and proceeded to describe them as idealists whose willingness to sacrifice themselves must be born from an innate justice of their cause or hopelessness of their circumstances. Others have focused on what they perceive as the phenomenon's fanatical Muslim religious dimension. (At one point in the 1980s, it was even described by the experts du jour as specifically endogenous to the Shi'a community.) While varying considerably in both their diagnoses and in the consequent practical prescriptions, these explanations share the common presumption that suicide terrorists somehow constitute a radical discontinuity in the international arena and that only an equally abrupt shift in political approach--whether through a wholesale transformation of Muslim societies (and those in other troubled places around the globe) or by somehow magically redressing the injustice, oppression and other "root causes" that feature prominently in terrorists' complaints and demands--is adequate to the challenge.

The Logic of Suicide Operations

In his new book, however, Pape begs to differ with the latter analyses, which have to a certain extent been received by the policy mainstream as conventional wisdom. Expanding on research he initially presented in the August 2003 issue of the American Political Science Review, Pape compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980â€"2003--some 315 in all--in which the terrorist killed himself or herself while attempting to kill others. Pape's data show that there is little direct causal connection between suicide terrorism and any single religious tradition or religion at all: Religious fanaticism, after all, cannot explain why the leading perpetrators of suicide attacks, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who carried out 76 of the 315 incidents studied, are Marxist-Leninists whose members hail from Hindu families but are now militantly anti-religious. Religion, according to Pape, is more likely to be instrumentalized by terrorist organizations than to be their root cause. Likewise, popular early explanations that played off the psychological dispositions that might drive individuals to become suicide bombers have been contradicted by the widening range of socio-economic backgrounds from which known perpetrators have hailed.

Pape's analysis of the data leads him to the conclusion that even if many suicide attackers are irrational or fanatical, the organizations that recruit, train and dispatch them are not. The evidence that emerges is that suicide terrorism, instead of being impenetrable to conventional political analysis, responds quite well to it--if anything, Martha Crenshaw's quarter-century-old proposition that terrorism is best understood in terms of its strategic function is perhaps even truer when applied to suicide terrorism. In fact, Pape elucidates three general patterns in the data. First, nearly all suicide attacks--301 of the 315 examined--are part of organized campaigns, rather than isolated incidents. Second, democratic states are more likely to be targets of suicide attacks than non-democratic regimes: the United States, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey were the targets of almost every suicide operation in the past two decades. Third, campaigns of suicide terrorism are directed toward the strategic objective of coercing liberal democracies into making territorial concessions.

In Pape's analysis, terrorists groups have engaged in 17 distinct campaigns of suicide terrorism since 1980 (an 18th, currently underway in Iraq, began in August 2003): Hizballah in Lebanon against the United States and France (1983-84) and against Israel (1982-85, 1985-86); the Tamil Tigers against Sri Lanka (1990-94, 1995-2000); Hamas against Israel (1994); Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel (1994-95); the BKI against India (1995); Hamas against Israel (1996, 1997); the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) against Turkey (1996, 1998-99); the Tamil Tigers against Sri Lanka (2001); Al-Qaeda against the United States (1995-2003); Chechen separatists against Russia (2000-03); Kashmiri separatists against India (2000-03); and Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel (2000-03). In each case, the strategic objective of the campaign was to coerce an enemy force to withdraw from a specific territory that the architects of the suicide operations perceived as theirs. And in every one of these campaigns (with a limited exception in the case of the Kurdish struggle against the Turkish government), the lesson the terrorists learned was that their suicide tactics, to one extent or another, paid off: The American and French peacekeepers abandoned Lebanon posthaste, and even the Israeli forces eventually withdrew, albeit with greater deliberation over a longer period; the Sri Lankan government has accepted the principle of a Tamil homeland; Israel is set to disengage from Gaza and has accepted the presence of the Palestinian Authority in the biblical Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria; and, however one spins it, the United States has essentially pulled its military forces out of Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden's first grievance in his 1998 fatwa. If suicide operations have become increasingly the instrument of choice for terrorists, it is because they have seen greater advances for their political causes after they resorted to suicide operations than before. Leaders of terrorist groups have said as much, and both officials of target governments and neutral observers have confirmed their judgment. And, sadly, the concessions gained by past terrorist operations have done little to disabuse the would-be planners of future suicide attacks concerning their own prospects for still greater gains. Pape reproduces a quote from Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah who told a BBC interviewer in November 2001:

"The shameful defeat that Israel suffered in southern Lebanon and which caused its army to flee it in terror was not made on the negotiations table but on the battlefield and through jihad and martyrdom . . . . If the enemy could not bear the losses of the war on the border strip with Lebanon, will it be able to withstand a long war of attrition in the heart of its security dimension and major cities?"

Why has terrorism proven such an effective political tool? Because democratic states are characterized by greater freedom of movement (which facilitates the operational side of the suicide attack) as well as greater freedom of expression (which both magnifies the shock value of the casualties and leads to debate over the government's policies with respect to the terrorists' grievances). Suicide terrorism is, as Walter Laqueur summarized in his deeply pessimistic No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (2003), asymmetric warfare par excellence: The terrorist uses even the most lethal weapons against civilians, while the liberal state, bound by rules and conventions, cannot retaliate with the overwhelming force that is its chief tactical advantage against the enemy. For example, while Kurds can be found in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria--and, arguably, the authoritarian regimes of the latter three countries have been far more brutal toward their Kurdish populations than more liberal Turkey has been--Kurdish militant groups have only used suicide attacks against the government in Ankara. It is only against liberal regimes that suicide terrorists can count on making a killing by killing.

While Pape's findings are extremely valuable and useful for understanding why terrorist organizations adopt suicide tactics against external enemies whom they perceive to be militarily occupying their claimed homeland, they tend to gloss over the personal motivations of the perpetrators of suicide terror, the internal dynamics of the groups that dispatch them and the constituencies they seek to represent. Mia Bloom, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, takes up the latter concern in Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. The volume suffers from several weaknesses, including the author's attempt to include an overly broad range of phenomena (including Jewish Sicarii, Ismaili assassins, Hindu thugs and Japanese kamikaze) under the rubric of "suicide terrorism", despite the evident difference that those historical perpetrators of high-risk attacks still stood a chance, however minute, of surviving, unlike the case of contemporary suicide attackers in which the success of their politically motivated action is predicated on their certain death. Nonetheless, Bloom offers valuable insights into the rational calculus of terrorist groups that adapt their tactics to shifting currents to maximize their influence within their communities, arguing that "the organizations that perpetrated the violence increased or decreased operations in response to the reactions of the larger population."

Essay Types: Book Review