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

Bloom shows that flexibility with regard to the use of suicide tactics, rather than sustained consistency in ideology, is the key to these organizations' success with their target domestic audiences, on which they rely for recruits and support and for which they must outbid rival groups. George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (pflp) is a case in point. While guilty of a string of terrorist actions since the 1960s, including the airline hijackings and the spectacular taking hostage of the opec oil ministers, the pflp had long refused to engage in suicide operations. By the start of the second intifada in 2000, however, its stock had declined significantly. The following year, the previously secularist splinter group (Habash himself is Greek Orthodox) began employing the vocabulary of jihad and martyrdom and undertook suicide attacks. As Bloom notes succinctly, "By the time the next public opinion poll was taken (within three months), support for the pflp returned to its former percentage."

Whatever the rational incentives for a suicide terrorist's handlers, whether external or internal, they would have no stock in trade without individuals willing to blow themselves up. While there has been some evidence of suicide bombers coerced into their actions--the 2004 case of Reem al-Rayashi, the 21-year-old mother of two who killed four Israelis by blowing herself up at the Erez border-crossing from Gaza after being caught in adultery, is one example--most seem to be motivated by a combination of religious, social, cultural and material incentives, including spiritual (and, in some cases, physical) delights in a post-mortem paradise, celebrity and even cash payouts. With respect to the last of these, it should be noted that in the case of the Palestinian conflict with Israel, families of suicide bombers receive a financial bonus amounting to about $25,000 from Muslim states and foundations, while the families of those killed in conventional open combat with the Israeli Defense Forces receive a paltry $2,000.

What such a clear examination reveals is quite disturbing: The lesson that terrorists have learned over the last few decades is that, within certain limits, their tactics work. This is a point that Timothy Naftali--a professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs who was commissioned to write an account of earlier U.S. counter-terrorism activities as a background briefing for the 9/11 Commission--has convincingly made, however unintentionally (the author is an academic historian rather than a policy wonk) in Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. The book draws upon the author's historical work for the commission and brings its analysis up to September 11, 2001. Naftali's finely crafted narrative, which benefits from the author's access to former principals as well as classified documents, is more than a chronicle of bureaucratic malaise, strategic shortsightedness and missed diplomatic opportunities--although it is all of this as well. The author's real contribution is to present the elements of the case that the real shortcomings in American counter-terrorism are not so much institutional as conceptual: If anything, the record of the last half-century is that of short-term institutional concerns being addressed, even if at the expense of what should have been overarching considerations.

While America's confrontation with international terrorism, especially its Middle Eastern variant, dates back to the 1960s, even the foreign policy-minded Nixon Administration seemed to view it at best as a secondary problem whose concerns were subordinated to larger geopolitical interests. Despite the March 1, 1973, hostage-taking, and later killing, of U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and American diplomat George Curtis Moore (along with a Belgian diplomat and two others) in Khartoum, Sudan, by the Palestinian Black September faction (linked to Yasir Arafat), the Nixon Administration established the first official dialogue with the Palestinians. During Gerald Ford's tenure, his advisors largely believed it politically risky for the president to associate himself directly with anti-terrorism activities. That signal was read throughout the administration: When the chair of its own counter-terrorism working group tried to convene a high-level task force on terrorism, he could only lure two deputy assistant secretaries, one from the Transportation Department and one from the Justice Department, to attend. (The Justice Department's representative, interestingly enough, was an associate deputy attorney general named Rudolph Giuliani.)

American counter-terrorism policy likewise sent confusing signals even under Ronald Reagan, who took office determined to redress what he perceived to have been his predecessor's weakness, as exemplified by the humiliating 444-day captivity of the American diplomats taken hostage in Iran. Reagan's 1981 Inaugural Address was, in fact, the first presidential Inaugural Address to mention terrorism specifically. However, in the face of the bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. embassy and the hostage taking in Lebanon, the administration demurred. While it is understandable that the president became preoccupied with securing the release of the hostages and the Pentagon's doubts about employing the military to retaliate against Hizballah were not unreasonable, the message that terrorists received was certainly not one of deterrence, much less resistance.

If the two-term Reagan Administration was stymied by concerns about operational success against known perpetrators, the next two-term president, Bill Clinton, proved to be hamstrung when his intelligence advisors were unable to provide him with enough evidence to credibly pin the blame for particular attacks in time to retaliate against the perpetrators before the public's attention span passed. Thus, the suicide bombings against the Khobar Towers at Dhahran Air Base, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 and the uss Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, in 2000 went unpunished--the latter case serving as a less-than-strong message to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, who were already in the United States planning their own operation.

Foreign policy realists have taken more than their share of hits since the September 11 attacks brought America's decades-long, albeit often ignored, struggle with international terrorism to the shores of the U.S. homeland. Critics from both the Right and the Left have argued that the principles of political realism are hopelessly outdated in the era of transnational terrorist networks, especially those willing to embrace suicide operations. Thus it is argued that the combination of resistance, deterrence and cooperation calibrated on a moral, strategic and economic calculus that worked so successfully against the Soviet menace is inapplicable to the case of an apparently irrational enemy bent on wreaking havoc even at the cost of the perpetrator's certain death. Despite this skepticism, those principles--including, in Hans J. Morgenthau's classic formulation, the existence of objective laws of politics, the significance of interest defined in terms of power, the centrality of the nation-state, the ineluctable tension between the demands of morality and those of successful political action, the suspicion of universalism and the autonomy of the political sphere--nonetheless retain their validity in the international political sphere today, which, alas, must also account for transnational terrorism and its deadliest form, the suicide attack.

In the end, despite the irrationality of the act of suicide, suicide terrorism as a strategic tool is not incomprehensible, even if the motivations of the individual suicide terrorist are inscrutable. No known suicide bomber has acted alone; whatever his or her background and circumstances, he or she was recruited, indoctrinated and eventually sent out by some organization with a political agenda. Even if one accepts--which Pape and Bloom do not--the widely held view that the suicide terrorist is driven by despair to lash out and is indeed unstoppable, it does not follow that this holds true for those who direct him or her. These architects of terror have certain strategic aims and they are subject to deterrence if the cost of their operations redounds on them in the form of unsustainable damage. Even among the Palestinian population, where support for suicide attacks during the second intifada tends to run high, a few intellectuals have begun to question not so much the morality of dispatching the so-called martyrs against Israeli civilians as its effectiveness as a tactic. Sifting through the raw data compiled by Michele K. Esposito in the Winter 2005 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies, one wonders what has taken them so long. During the first four years of the intifada (September 28, 2000-September 27, 2004), there have been 135 suicide bombings, which have killed at least 501 people and injured at least another 2,823. Meanwhile, during the same period, according to the conservative estimates of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, 2,859 Palestinians have been killed, 7,366 others have been detained, and 3,700 homes (including 612 belonging to terrorists or their families) have been demolished. According to the ngo Health Development Information Project, some 53,000 Palestinians had been injured in conflict-related violence; in contrast, the Israeli Defense Forces report 6,709 Israeli injuries, including 4,711 civilians and 1,998 members of the security forces. So now what if, after five years of hundreds of suicide missions and thousands of "martyrs", the terrorists are no closer to their objective? Or what if they achieve some short-term and even intermediate gains only to reap few long-term strategic goals and a great deal of self-ruination? Will they be able to sustain the momentum of their deadly campaign? Or will the tried and true instruments of deterrence prevail once more?

Essay Types: Book Review