The Guardian (UK) - May 14, 2005
Honor and martyrdom
Suicide bombing isn't as new or alien as westerners imagine
by Madeleine Bunting
……..Tracing the history of how suicide has been used as a weapon and as a protest through history offers up many illuminating parallels to what might motivate those who undertake the suicide missions in Iraq. It was the Japanese who made the use of suicide as a military strategy so feared, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in the 1980s who applied it as a technique for assassinations. Both were part of wider military efforts which were not always easily distinguishable from a suicide mission. The line in war between a suicidal mission and a reckless disregard for one's own life can be very blurred.
This was true in the Soviet struggle against the Germans in the Second World War. Some Soviet pilots undertook explicit suicide missions to ram bridges in Germany in 1945; many others went into battle knowing they would die, and saw their death as a sacrifice for the "motherland". It is the powerful who
determined how such events are understood; while the Japanese and Islamist militants are feared as inhuman, the Soviets are celebrated for their courageous defiance of Nazism.
The idea of suicide to serve a set of beliefs is also deeply rooted in history. The staging of the current brilliant production of Julius Caesar in London pointedly refers to Iraq with its US military fatigues and the set of a military warehouse. Several suicides in the final scenes lead to Brutus's poignant comment that swords have been turned "in our own proper entrails". Roman republicanism, imperial Japanese militarism: both elevated suicide as an honorable part of military valor.
Even more closely related to Iraq's suicide bombers is the fascinating description of early Christian martyrdom in Farhad Khosrokhavar's new book, Suicide Bombers. The suicidal recklessness of a large number of early Christians, aimed precisely at bringing about their martyrdom, bewildered and horrified contemporary commentators. But martyrdom was an astonishingly effective propaganda tool designed to inspire awe - and converts. The Greek origin of the word martyr is "witness". Interestingly, it prompted exactly the same sorts of criticism among pagan Romans as today's Islamist militants do in the west: the Christian martyrs were accused of dementia and irrationality. Such was the flood of Christians in pursuit of martyrdom by the third century that the theologians had to step in to declare this thirst for a holy death to be blasphemous.
That concept of using your death to bear witness to a cause, without killing others, has prompted more than 1,000 suicides since 1963, when a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest against the oppression of Buddhism in Vietnam. Global mass media ensure that this individual protest has impact across the world; it is a desperate but hugely effective way to give the cause prominence.
Elements of all these precedents can be traced in the research done on motivations of suicide bombers in Palestine, Chechnya and al-Qaida and probably now those in Iraq. A sense of humiliation and the need to avenge honor on the part of their faith and/or people (or a potent combination of both as in Iraq) is emphasized by Khosrokhavar. He also picks up on how hating the world (because of the experience of injustice and oppression) leads to a longing for death - a rejection of this world's vale of tears.
These are concepts which are very difficult for westerners living largely comfortable lives to grasp. Honor is meaningless to us; we have replaced it with a preoccupation with status and self-fulfillment. We dimly grasp
self-sacrifice but only apply the concept to our raising of children. Meanwhile, nothing can trump our dedication to the good life of consumer capitalism, and certainly not any system of abstract beliefs. Not having experienced the desperation of oppression, we have little purchase on the extremism it might engender. Meanwhile, we have medicalized rather than politicized the condition of hating the world and longing for death. The gulf in understanding yawns wide.
But our outraged incomprehension of suicide bombing is also partly because it is the opposite of how we have come to believe wars are fought. It is not the high technology of laser-guided bombs, nor the strangely sterile detachment of the aero-plane camera without any images of the screams, smashed bones and blood. The west can only now kill from a distance - preferably from several thousand feet up in the air or several hundred kilometers away on an aircraft carrier. It is the very proximity of these suicide missions which is so shocking. This kind of intimate killing is a reversion to pre-industrial warfare - the kind of brutality seen in the thirty years war, for example. Suicide bombers in Iraq are a new permutation of old traditions; they have no monopoly on the horrors they reveal of the human psyche and its capacity to destroy life.
The New York Times - May 19, 2005
Blowing up an assumption
Robert A. Pape
Many people are mystified by the recent rise in the number and the audacity of suicide attacks in Iraq. The lull in violence after January's successful elections seemed to suggest that the march of democracy was trampling the threat of terrorism.
But as electoral politics is taking root, the Iraqi insurgency and suicide terrorism are actually gaining momentum. In the past two weeks, suicide attackers have killed more than 420 Iraqis working with the United States and its allies. There were 20 such incidents in 2003, nearly 50 in 2004, and they are on pace to set a new record this year.
To make sense of this apparent contradiction, one has to understand the strategic logic of suicide terrorism. Since Muslim terrorists professing religious motives have perpetrated many of the attacks, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause, and thus the wholesale transformation of Muslim societies into secular democracies, even at the barrel of a gun, is the obvious solution.
However, the presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading, and it may spur American policies that are likely to worsen the situation.
Over the past two years, I have compiled a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003 - 315 in all. This includes every episode in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while trying to kill others, but excludes attacks authorized by a national government (like those by North Korean agents against South Korea). The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think.
The leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more than Hamas (54) or Islamic Jihad (27).
Even among Muslims, secular groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades account for more than a third of suicide attacks.
What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in seeking aid from abroad, but is rarely the root cause.
Three general patterns in the data support these conclusions.
First, nearly all suicide terrorist attacks - 301 of the 315 in the period I studied - took place as part of organized political or military campaigns.
Second, democracies are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists; America, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide attack of the past two decades.
Third, suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective: From Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya, the sponsors of every campaign - 18 organizations in all - are seeking to establish or maintain political self-determination.
Before Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there was no Hezbollah suicide terrorist campaign against Israel; indeed, Hezbollah came into existence only after this event. Before the Sri Lankan military began moving into the Tamil homelands of the island in 1987, the Tamil Tigers did not use suicide attacks. Before the huge increase in Jewish settlers on the West Bank in the 1980s, Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorism. And, true to form, there had never been a documented suicide attack in Iraq until after the American invasion in 2003.
Much is made of the fact that we aren't sure who the Iraqi suicide attackers are. This is not unusual in the early years of a suicide terrorist campaign. Hezbollah published most of the biographies and last testaments of its "martyrs" only after it abandoned the suicide-attack strategy in 1986, a pattern adopted by the Tamil Tigers as well.
At the moment, our best information indicates that the attackers in Iraq are Sunni Iraqis and foreign fighters, principally from Saudi Arabia. If so, this would mean that the two main sources of suicide terrorists in Iraq are from the Arab countries deemed most vulnerable to transformation by the presence of American combat troops. This is fully consistent with what we now know about the strategic logic of suicide terrorism.
Some have wondered if the rise of suicide terrorism in Iraq is really such a bad thing for American security. Is it not better to have these killers far away in Iraq rather than here in the United States? Alas, history shows otherwise.
The presence of tens of thousands of American combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula after 1990 enabled Al Qaeda to recruit suicide terrorists, who in turn attacked Americans in the region (the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the destroyer Cole in 2000).
The presence of nearly 150,000 American combat troops in Iraq since 2003 can only give suicide terrorism a boost, and the longer this suicide terrorist campaign continues the greater the risk of new attacks in the United States…..
(Robert A. Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is the author of the forthcoming ''Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.'' )