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Why They Do It

Suicide Terrorism

by Ami Pedahzur
Polity Press, 255 pp., $59.95; $24.95 (paper)(to be published in November)


On a clear hot day near the end of October 2003, I was finishing breakfast in my Baghdad hotel room when the distant thud of an immense explosion shivered the windows. In Iraq we had long since become accustomed to sporadic attacks of various kinds, but it soon became apparent that this was something new. The next blast, equally huge, came around fifteen minutes later, while we were running down to our car. Another followed soon after that, as we were heading downtown; and then another. Whatever was going on, it was definitely big. As we neared the center of the city we could see a plume of smoke rising into the sky. We stopped to ask passersby and policemen what had happened. “They hit the Red Cross,” someone told us. That had been the first explosion. Subsequent attacks, it seemed, were targeting police stations all around the city. And it wasn’t over yet.

By the time we reached the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the police and rescue services had cordoned off the site, but they couldn’t hide the devastation. The front of the building had evaporated into a blackened muddle of bricks and concrete. The burned-out hulks of cars lined the street. One bystander told us that you could still see the incinerated bodies of their occupants sitting upright inside. The smell of burning rubber and charred metal made our eyes water. It was a sweltering day to begin with, but the added heat of the lingering fire made everything around us shimmer.

We began to query onlookers. One man in his twenties, a member of an Iraqi aid organization, had just finished a meeting with a friend in the building. As he was driving away, he was jolted by the blast. “There was an enormous boom and suddenly all this gravel was raining down on my car,” he told me. “The car bounced up and down.” The fate of the friend was unknown, but it was safe to assume that he was dead. Other witnesses told us that the attacker had driven into the entrance of the compound in an ambulance, wearing the uniform of a paramedic. He had blown himself up with the car.

By the time it was all over we would realize that we had witnessed one of the bloodiest days in Baghdad since the beginning of the US occupation. Dozens were dead, hundreds wounded, all Iraqis except for one American soldier. The day’s campaign had been a masterpiece of coordination: the six attacks had taken place within a little more than an hour. In addition to the Red Cross, five police stations had been targeted. In one case the police, warned by their colleagues, had opened fire as the would-be bomber sped toward them in an SUV, throwing grenades as he went. The defenders had managed to immobilize the car and capture the bomber. He turned out to be a Syrian, who cursed his captors for collaborating with the infidel occupiers.

This detail was verified by US military spokesmen—even though an American general had assured us just a few days earlier that the mounting attacks were the work of “former regime loyalists,” not fighters who were swarming in from the larger Arab world to attack the occupation. In any case, by attacking the police to such spectacular effect, the insurgents had driven home the message that the Americans were incapable of providing security to those who helped them, and that collaborators could expect pitiless retribution. As history has repeatedly shown, any occupying force that cannot ensure the safety of its supporters will be short-lived. The attack on the ICRC, meanwhile, essentially put an end to the last vestiges of independent humanitarian relief under the occupation, thus striking a huge blow to the reconstruction effort.

These goals could have been achieved, theoretically, with a conventional guerrilla attack—though it’s hard to imagine how the insurgents could have managed to pull one off at six different locations deep inside Baghdad. Suicide bombings offer many advantages to the attacker: they are quick, cheap, and extremely accurate. As the Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta puts it in his contribution to Making Sense of Suicide Missions, the collection of articles he has edited, suicide missions “are the high-precision artillery of the militarily challenged.” A bullet or a shell fired from a distance may or may not find its target, but the suicide bomber is an intelligent weapon that guides itself to the point where it can do the most damage. Palestinian suicide bombers thwarted by unexpectedly tight security at their primary objectives have been known to keep moving until they can find a target where the chances of success are more promising.

In Dying to Win the American political scientist Robert Pape calculates that suicide bombings accounted for 48 percent of those killed in terrorist attacks throughout the world between 1980 and 2003—even though suicide attacks made up only 3 percent of the total, “making the average suicide attack twelve times deadlier than other forms of terrorism.” And that doesn’t include September 11.

And then there’s the psychological impact—the unique quality of fear produced by an opponent whose desire to kill you is greater than his own will to live. How can you possibly deter a suicide bomber? How do you defend against an attacker who wants to die? How could the guards at the Red Cross expect to protect themselves from a suicidal infiltrator dressed as one of their own? The uncertainty and dread generated by attacks of this kind also have the effect, which the insurgents welcome, of provoking overreaction by the other side. It was no wonder that, when in doubt, US soldiers tended to start shooting at any car that came toward their checkpoints too fast, more often than not resulting in horrific civilian casualties. We journalists traveled about in the same ordinary-looking Iraqi vehicles, so any time we came near a US military base we made a point of slowing down, stopping the car at a safe distance, and getting out to show that we meant no harm. We would stand with raised hands, doing our hapless best to look friendly (even while sweating profusely), until the guards lowered their guns.

Since then, suicide attacks in Iraq have become an almost daily occurrence. But the fear experienced by both Iraqis and Americans there is by no means unusual. It is the same fear felt by Israelis under threat from Palestinian suicide attackers, by New Yorkers and Washingtonians just after September 11, and by Londoners after the subway bombings on July 7. Residents of Moscow and Istanbul, Jakarta and Tunis have known it as well. Suicide bombing, it would seem, is increasingly becoming the weapon of choice for a new kind of global insurgency. The terrorized grope for explanations. It is hardly a surprise that many of us assume that suicide terrorists are religious zealots whose irrational fanaticism makes them seek death. Or perhaps, we think, they are depressed people who have nothing to live for, refugees from the ranks of the impoverished or ignorant. Yet the reality is far more complex, and, it should be said, far less comforting.


In 1991, a young woman known by the single name of Dhanu arrived in the south Indian city of Madras. She had come there for reasons that were not immediately apparent, but, as Robert Pape explains, she seemed determined to get the most out of her stay. The Indian police and press later reconstructed her movements:

…She went to the market, the beach, and restaurants every day, enjoying many luxuries rarely found in the jungles of Jaffna. She bought dresses, jewelry, cosmetics, and even her first pair of glasses. In the last twenty days of her life, she took in six movies at a local cinema.

On May 21 she attended a political rally for Rajiv Gandhi, the head of the Indian Congress Party. Shortly before the rally began she walked up to Gandhi and presented him with a garland. Then she pressed a button, activating an explosive belt wrapped around her body. At the time the idea of using a belt as a bomb, concealed under clothing, was a technical innovation. Since then, by virtue of its success, it has found countless emulators. The resulting blast killed her, Gandhi, and several bystanders, including one of her accomplices, who was supposed to be filming the attack on videotape for the people who had ordered it, the leaders of the separatist movement known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).1

Dhanu’s story tells us a lot about suicide terror. For a long time researchers assumed that people who performed suicide missions were loners, socially marginalized persons acting out of pathological sadness or economic desperation. If that was ever true, it certainly is not today. In all but a few cases suicide terrorists are acting in the name of organizations conducting campaigns designed to achieve specific political goals. In the case of the LTTE, the cause in question is a fight for ethnic self-determination, and the enemy is the Sri Lankan government, which is dominated by the country’s Sinhalese majority. (Gandhi was selected as a target because his party, poised to return to power in an election, was considering dispatching Indian troops to Sri Lanka in an attempt to stop the conflict.)

In Turkey the PKK, the Marxist-influenced Kurdish separatist group, used suicide bombings against the forces of the Ankara government. In Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, a variety of organizations, ranging from Marxists to Islamic fundamentalists, dispatched suicide terrorists against invaders from Israel, France, and the US. In Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad started using the weapon against their Israeli foes.

The suicide bomber is a prime example of an organization man or woman.2 A suicide attacker brings the bomb to his or her target and pushes the button; but he or she is very rarely the maker of the bomb. An organization recruits, indoctrinates, and trains the bomber; an organization picks the targets and later makes the case for the legitimacy of the attacks by distributing promotional literature or “martyr videos,” recorded by the bomber before death. Freelance suicide attacks sometimes occur (most notably among the Palestinians), but they are strikingly rare.

The sociologists and political scientists who have been studying the question in recent years also agree on something else. Virtually all the organizations that have used suicide attacks have been fighting to evict an occupying power from a national homeland. Usually the conflicts are extremely “asymmetric” (to use the current jargon), with the occupier enjoying vast superiority in weaponry and resources. (The Tamil Tigers, for example, have a hard time competing with the Sri Lankan military’s tanks, planes, and helicopter gunships.) Very often there is a deep cultural divide between the sides involved as well, one that is fatally aggravated by religious difference (Hindu Tamils versus Buddhist Sinhalese, Muslim Palestinians versus Jewish Israelis).

  1. 1

    In his brief history of the Tamil separatist movement included in Gambetta’s collection, Stephen Hopgood argues that the LTTE never assumed explicit responsibility for this attack and that its sponsorship of the act can only be alleged. But the case for LTTE involvement seems strong nonetheless, and the details of Dhanu’s last weeks appear well corroborated. Though the camera operator died, his videotape survived, providing us with an eerily clear picture of the attack’s final moments.

  2. 2

    Women crop up in the case studies with surprising frequency. In the Chechen separatist struggle, it is almost exclusively men who do the conventional fighting, but women (the so-called Black Widows) have most frequently engaged in suicide terrorism. Women can feel just as passionate about national causes as men do, but traditional societies often regard women as unreliable in their use of conventional weapons. But suicide bombing seems to be a different story.

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