What Do Suicide Bombers Want?

In the Times today, Robert Pape explores the motivation behind suicide bombings. Drawing on a database of global suicide bombings and attacks, Pape finds that, in fact, “the leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion.” The implication here is that fundamentalist Islam is not the prime motivator here. That’s part of the equation: the notion of martyrdom makes suicide attacks a more appealing outlet for desperation and frustration. But in order to more effectively approach the situation in Iraq (and Israel/Palestine for that matter) there needs to be a better understanding of the motivations behind the violence. Pape notes:

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…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 higher increase in Jewish settlers on the West Bank in the 1980s, Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorism.

The idea here is that the strategy of “winning the hearts and minds” in the Muslim and Arab world isn’t going to work in the context of an open-ended foreign occupation. By Pape’s calculations, the longer the U.S. military is present in Iraq, the more likely Iraqis will be inclined to feel that their sovereignty is being challenged, and the more likely insurgents will be using suicide attacks as a tactic. It’s a basic pillar of warfare to know your enemy and your enemy’s tactics. As the Economist points out, there may be a broader understanding of suicide terrorism: “Suicide terrorism, like the slippery concept of terrorism in general, is harder to define than it may appear. For instance, are the suicide bombings in Israel really so different from previous incidents in which Palestinian gunmen and knifemen (and the occasional Israeli) launched assaults that they had little hope of surviving?”

Understanding this broader concept is key to developing a more effective political and military strategy. Indeed, what makes the Iraqi insurgency so strong is that it seems to be composed of people who are willing, and in some cases, eager to fight to the death for their cause. Unless we are as well, it may be time to reassess what success can come from the current combat situation in Iraq.


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