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Why They Do It

Beyond the organization is a broader community that sanctions and celebrates the bomber’s actions. In The Road to Martyrs’ Square, their remark- able and creepy account of life in the Gaza Strip in the early 1990s, Anne Marie Oliver and Paul F. Steinberg, who lived with various Palestinians there, give us a look at the Hamas milieu from within. It’s a world where the cult of “martyrdom” is celebrated in graffiti, videos, and posters, creating a toxic atmosphere of sadism, kitsch, and religious ecstasy. The book is valuable for its exhaustive documentation of the martyr cult’s various uses of propaganda, for example the “martyr postcards” handed out by families after successful bombings. Yet none of this, they write, should be mistaken for a natural outgrowth of Palestinian society—not least because it’s all a recent development.

As the Israeli scholar Ami Pedahzur explains in Suicide Terrorism, the Lebanese Hezbollah initially kept its sponsorship of suicide bombings a secret when it began using the tactic in the early 1980s. The group’s leaders were concerned that the new tactic, inspired by the Iranian army’s use of mass suicide soldiers in the war against Iraq, might alienate the people they wanted to reach in the towns and villages of Israeli-occupied South Lebanon. But soon it became apparent that publicizing the self-sacrificing actions of the “martyrs” who killed themselves to kill Israelis could bring a huge propaganda payoff. That was when the “tradition” of public rituals for the commemoration and celebration of suicide attacks began.3 Pedahzur writes,

Social support for suicide terrorism, of the “culture of death,” as it is described in other places, is very rarely a grassroots phenomenon. The organization’s leadership is engaged in trying to mobilize support and one of the prominent ways of doing this—among societies which are oppressed and feel weak and hopeless—is by supplying heroes and hope.

But who are these heroes? What motivates suicide bombers to undertake their missions? We know very little, of course, since it’s rare for the volunteers to talk. We seldom know who they are until they’ve already pulled the trigger, and in Iraq in particular, we know hardly anything about them. But the studies at hand offer some starting points. One revelation is that the image of the suicide terrorist as a dead-ender couldn’t be less accurate. Many of those who undertake suicide missions are above the norm in schooling and income. As Perfect Soldiers, the careful investigation of the September 11 hijackers by the Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott, shows, the four pilots were all upper-middle-class Arabs who had come to Europe to attend universities. Mohamed Atta, the attack ringleader, was the son of a Cairo lawyer who defended a master’s thesis in urban planning at his Hamburg university. (Some of the sources I interviewed in Hamburg in the fall of 2001 told me that Atta’s German was so good that he liked to correct the grammatical errors of native speakers.)

Hanadi Jaradat, a twenty-seven-year-old Palestinian, had studied law in Jordan and was working as an apprentice lawyer in the West Bank town of Jenin. In October 2003 she entered a restaurant in Haifa and blew herself up along with twenty-one Israelis. Studies of Palestinian bombers suggest that they make up an accurate cross-section of Palestinian society, economically as well as educationally, but even that finding may be somewhat skewed, Pedahzur notes, by the spread of the tactic of suicide terrorism in the late 1990s. He points out that the Islamist groups who first made use of suicide terror tended to pick their recruits with great care, preferring relatively well-educated candidates with strong nerves and political convictions. When Fatah decided to use suicide bombers in the late 1990s, though, it accepted practically anyone who wanted to participate.

Revenge is certainly a factor. Pedahzur writes,

A review of the records and accounts of over 180 Palestinian suicide bombers confirmed that close to half of them—and a larger number during the years of the Al-Aqsa Intifada—embarked on their suicide missions shortly after they had lost a very close person. This person could have been a friend, family member or lover.

Mia Bloom in her study Dying to Kill suggests that having been a victim of sexual violence may be a motive for the surprisingly large number of female bombers. Dhanu, Gandhi’s assassin, had been gang-raped by enemy soldiers; some of the Chechen “Black Widows” may also have been violated by soldiers of the Russian army. For such victims, there may be no way back into traditional society, and a suicide attack on the enemy may be one way to restore lost “honor.”

Male bombers often seem to be seeking retribution for a broader sense of humiliation—perhaps at the hands of an occupier. Yet there are conspicuously few cases where attackers seem to be acting in response to a deep depression or other forms of mental illness. Terrorist groups generally prefer to recruit people who know what they’re doing. An impoverished peasant who’s been coerced into driving a bomb into a building may abandon the mission at the last moment. Atta and his friends, who took years to prepare for their attacks while isolated within the enemy society and at a great remove from their handlers, and then steered their planes straight into their targets, were of an entirely different character.

What clearly seems central is a deeply held conviction—a firm, specific belief, perhaps nursed over the course of years—that drives its holder to act. It may be religious, as was certainly the case with the September 11 plotters; it may involve obsessive loyalty to a political leader, as was true of those who killed themselves for the almost cult-like PKK and its head, Abdullah Ocalan. But easy labels like “fanaticism” sometimes fail in the face of a complex reality. The case of Ziad Jarrah, who piloted United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, is particularly telling because of his hesitations. From all the evidence collected by McDermott and others, he was deeply in love with his Turkish girlfriend (and later wife) Aysel Sengün, and on several occasions his divided allegiances seem to have threatened the plot. (We know of at least one instance where Atta felt he had to persuade Jarrah to stay committed.) In the last hours before he boarded his flight, Jarrah wrote Aysel a final love letter, which is reprinted by McDermott:

I did not escape from you, but I did what I was supposed to. You should be very proud of me. It’s an honor, and you will see the results, and everybody will be happy. I want you to remain very strong as I knew you, but whatever you do, head high, with a goal, never be without goal, always have a goal in front of you and always think, “what for.”

Remember always who you are and what you are. Keep your head high. The victors never have their heads down!

This is eerily reminiscent of the farewell messages to their relatives left behind by Japanese kamikaze pilots—the same references to honor and pride, the same consoling exhortations to carry on in the spirit of the dead beloved. One of the most powerful motives for heroism in wartime, as Diego Gambetta reminds us, is camaraderie: “Bonding in small ‘bands of brothers’ is a key feature of military combat training, as each soldier must know that he can count on the selflessness of his comrades to be able to fight effectively.”4 Gambetta also points out that the ethos of wartime heroism is perhaps not all that different from the forces that drive the suicide bomber. The chances of surviving an act worthy of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest wartime decoration, are roughly one in ten.

Equating war heroes and terrorists will undoubtedly seem offensive to many. But the comparison would probably feel entirely apt viewed from inside the world of a conspiratorial cell that sees itself as the vanguard of a heroic war against an all-powerful enemy. It is not for nothing that McDermott refers to the members of the Hamburg cell as “perfect soldiers.” None of what he says, of course, should be in any way construed as an apology or a justification of what the plotters did on September 11. But it is important to distinguish between moral outrage and pragmatic comprehension. In order to defeat the terrorists, we have no choice but to understand them first—no matter what George Bush’s minions might claim to the contrary.5


And that, of course, begs the question—how do you defeat them? By killing them? But they want to be killed. By far the most important countermeasure, of course, is advance information—not only broad analysis of terrorist strategy but tactical intelligence about their organization and immediate plans—the latter, in particular, something Americans do not seem particularly good at, thanks to their scandalous deficiencies in language skills and lack of close knowledge of regional life as well as their difficulties in infiltrating terrorist cells. Ami Pedahzur also emphasizes the importance of dialogue with “moderate forces” so that the concerns of the terrorists’ broader constituencies should be addressed wherever possible—precisely in order “to sidestep these organizations and eliminate their role as brokers.” When using military force is advisable, he stresses that civilian casualties have to be avoided at all costs.

The Turkish success in defeating the PKK’s suicide campaign is also frequently cited by experts. The Turks combined a program of concessions to Kurdish aspirations in the region with an intense, focused counterinsurgency campaign aimed at isolating and ultimately capturing the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. And once they had him, they didn’t kill him but put him on trial. Pedahzur wholeheartedly approves, pointing out that extrajudicial killing of terrorist leaders—as with Hamas officials in Israel—merely creates new generations of martyrs and undermines the moral claims of the democracies.

The American political scientist Robert Pape, while undoubtedly agreeing with much of this, also advocates another strategy that can be summed up in a single word: withdrawal. As the head of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism at the University of Chicago, Pape has spent the past few years accumulating every scrap of information about suicide terrorists that he could get his hands on, and analyzing case studies on individual bombers and their organizational underpinnings in different parts of the world. His group’s effort represents one of the most comprehensive surveys of suicide terror thus far available, and his conclusions are worth examining.

Like many of the other scholars on the subject, Pape is deeply skeptical about the notion that suicide bombers are the warriors in a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Pape’s survey reveals that there is nothing intrinsically “Islamic” about the suicide bomber. By his estimate, Islamist groups account for no more than 34.6 percent of the suicide terrorist attacks staged in the past twenty years. The real common denominator of suicide terrorism campaigns, he argues, is that they are all, in one form or another, responses to occupation or foreign control of a national homeland. Religion, in his view, functions merely as an aggravating factor. The leaders who run the terror organizations are trying, above all, to drive out invaders. And terrorist leaders use the strategy because it is so often successful. Once they have attained their goals, the campaigns cease. It’s that simple.

From all this Pape draws a conclusion that many will challenge. The best way to counter the threat of suicide terrorism, he says, is to eliminate the conditions of occupation that give rise to the phenomenon in the first place. He argues the point by demonstrating a correlation between occupation and the nationalities of those who have committed suicide bombings. Recent suicide bombers, he stresses, tend to come overwhelmingly from countries that are either occupied or affected by the strong military presence of a foreign power. If Russia wants Chechen suicide bombings to stop, in other words, it should pull its forces out of Chechnya. And if the United States and its allies want to neutralize the threat of al-Qaeda, Pape argues, they should disengage from the Middle East—completely removing their forces from Iraq and other countries of the Persian Gulf that have disproportionately contributed cadres to the cause of suicide terror in recent years.

As Pape points out, during the period between 1995 and 2003 there were no suicide terrorists from deeply Islamic countries such as Libya, Iran, Syria, and Sudan which had no US military presence of any kind. During the same period there were suicide attacks involving thirty-four militants from Saudi Arabia. He is by no means opposed to eliminating terrorist leaders, if that makes sense; but he believes that only a fundamental reconsideration of American foreign policy, a return to the “offshore balancing” of our relations among Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the Persian Gulf, that we once used to ensure our interests there, will remove the underlying grievances that sustain the martyrs and their organizations.

Not surprisingly, Pape has come in for considerable criticism for proposing that we “cave in” to the terrorists’ demands. But Pape’s book is an extremely important work precisely because it challenges us to engage in some robust demythologizing of the terrorist threat. At the same time it’s equally clear that he often overstretches to make good his point. He insists that al-Qaeda’s primary goal, repeatedly expressed by bin Laden, is to make the US leave Saudi Arabia so that its presence will no longer defile the holiest places of Islam.6 He does not give much credit to al-Qaeda’s other proclaimed goals—such as toppling Arab secular regimes, destroying Israel, or establishing a fundamentalist caliphate. Elsewhere he seems eager to discount the cultural or religious motives behind the individual bombers’ actions. That Atta’s long residence in Germany had little effect on his evolution into a holy warrior is contradicted by the available evidence, which makes it quite clear that Atta’s conversion to full-scale Salafism (the radically purist version of Sunni Islam propounded by bin Laden and others) actually took place during his time in Germany.

If Pape really believes his own claim, then he is missing a very important development. For it is precisely the same pattern of cultural dislocation embodied by Atta that will be shaping some of the attacks to come. Pape may well be right when he claims that most suicide terrorism campaigns until recently were motivated by efforts to liberate homelands. But what of the situation now? Gambetta states what should be more or less obvious: “9/11 simply accelerated a trend that began earlier: there has been an increase in the proportion of [suicide missions] carried out by Islamic groups since 1999.” Of all the suicide bombing campaigns now underway in the world, most seem to be driven, to some degree, by the grievances of Muslims.

So something is changing, and that something has a great deal to do with Islam—particularly with Sunni Islam, and particularly with the aggressive version of Sunni Salafism propagated by bin Laden and his followers. And speaking of homelands—how does al-Qaeda define its own? So broadly as to include the entire umma, the worldwide Muslim community itself—and if one defines the homeland in these terms, the organization’s tactics and demands will necessarily be far more diffuse, varied, and destructive. Pape tries hard to deal with the problem but ends by attempting to strike a balance between very general tendencies:

Al-Qaeda is less a transnational network of like-minded ideologues brought together from across the globe via the Internet than a cross-national military alliance of national liberation movements working together against what they see as a common imperial threat. For al-Qaeda, religion matters, but mainly in the context of national resistance to foreign occupation.

By this interpretation, Mohamed Atta was leading the Egyptian Liberation Army branch of the Hamburg cell, Jarrah the Lebanese Independence Army branch, Marwan al-Shehi the United Arab Emirates Liberation Front, and so forth. Does this really square with the facts? I would tend to put my faith less in the “predictive power” of Pape’s model than in Suicide Terrorism, Farhad Khosrokhavar’s fascinating study of the cult of martyrdom among the rootless young men of the modern Muslim diaspora in Western Europe. Khosrokhavar, a sociologist of Iranian provenance now living in France, has spent much time interviewing young Islamists, including would-be suicide attackers, in French prisons. Discussing Britain, Khosrokhavar says that the primary candidates for suicide bombings are

young second-generation Pakistanis, many of whom are highly educated and who are fascinated by the important role the association [with jihad] gives them: they are the vanguard of the new Islamic world that is about to come into being. They therefore feel that they have a prophetic role to play in their parents’ country of origin. That allows them to recover much of the dignity they have lost in Western societies, where they feel themselves to be the object of scorn and an almost palpable racism. Although they are not excluded from society, these young men are deeply discontented because of the discrimination they suffer. They have no access to the jobs and opportunities for which their level of education and their abilities qualify them. They have been insidiously marginalised by stigmatisation and racism, and their imaginary amplifies the effects of both.

Because they feel themselves to be victims, they explain their failures in terms of their stigma, but they lose sight of their own inability to adapt to the new constraints of modern society. They also feel a vague but crushing sense of guilt about their parents’ societies, especially when, like Pakistan, most Arab countries or even Afghanistan (which is Pashtu-speaking; the language is similar to Urdu) are hit by crises. Thanks to these associations, they become Islam’s world actors, and they can therefore feel that they are reestablishing their links with the Islamic societies from which they have been cut off. They also have the impression that, as actors, they are more important than the Western societies that stigmatise them believe them to be. In symbolic terms, this allows them to feel superior to the West that despises them.

In other words, Khosrokhavar is describing people who sound like two of the July 7 bombers in London. It’s an observation that seems all the more prescient considering that the first edition of Khosrokhavar’s book was published in 2002 (the present version has just appeared in English for the first time). The diaspora subculture described by Khosrokhavar is one of splintered loyalties and frustrated aspirations, populated by restless young men who have grown up in the West while longing for an imagined community of the faithful that will outshine the dreary realities of the rundown storefront mosques and the Halal butcher on the corner.7 These men, teachers and computer technicians among them, are both tempted by the West and tortured by their own temptedness. When the first details of the London suicide bombers began to emerge, I had an intense feeling that I had already read about all this not long before; then I remembered Khosrokhavar.

Contrary to what we have been hearing from the press, these were not the first British-born Muslims of Pakistani extraction to have become involved in acts of suicide terror. That dubious honor, as Khosrokhavar reminds us, belongs to Asif Mohammed Hanif (of Hounslow in West London) and Omar Khan Sharif (of Derby) who volunteered for a joint Hamas–al-Aqsa Brigades suicide mission in Tel Aviv in April 2003. Hanif’s bomb killed himself and three Israelis. Sharif’s failed to detonate, and he was later found dead in the sea. It is not clear how he got there. Gambetta tells us that Sharif “was the youngest of six children of Kashmiri immigrants, and attended a £12,000-a-year prep school.” Sharif’s story made me think of Shehzad Tanweer, the sports science graduate who blew himself up in a subway tunnel near Edgware Road on July 7. Tanweer has been described as a fan of cricket, and had several girlfriends; his father owns a local fish and chips shop in their hometown of Leeds, and drives a Mercedes. And I can easily imagine that both of these men, Sharif and Tanweer, would have had something in common with Ziad Jarrah, the articulate member of the Hamburg cell who piloted United Flight 93.

The recent bombings in London underline the possibility, suggested by Khosrokhavar, that the political virus of suicide terror, once confined to specific national liberation struggles, may have jumped the species barrier into a qualitatively new kind of transnational threat. The same can even be said to apply to Iraq, where, even though the pathogens are evolving in the familiar environment of a war against alien occupation, they are achieving a startling new virulence. The record of suicide bombings there is reaching extraordinary proportions. According to an estimate published in The Washington Post:

About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the US invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In May, an estimated 90 suicide bombings were carried out in the war-torn country—nearly as many as the Israeli government has documented in the conflict with Palestinians since 1993.8

Of the more than a thousand people killed by such bombings, most have been Shiites, a good many of them members, or would-be members, of security forces. Whether most of these suicide bombers are from Iraq itself or from Sunni Arab countries, as some Americans have claimed, we really don’t know. That we know so little about them may be the most instructive and unnerving fact of all.

  1. 3

    It is worth noting that those who promote the tactic of suicide bombing within the Muslim world must resort to contorted arguments to evade the strong Quranic ban on suicide. Proponents of suicide terror find a loophole in the Muslim belief that those who die in wars for the faith—including noncombatants killed by the enemy—are “martyrs” who can rely on especially favorable treatment in heaven. Suicide terrorism is thus rationalized as “martyrdom” in the name of jihad rather than as self-killing.

  2. 4

    My own father, who fought on the American side in World War II, explained to me that he and his fellow soldiers never saw themselves as fighting for grand and abstract ideals like freedom and democracy when they were wallowing in the mud on the front lines. What they were fighting for at that micro-level was their own buddies, their tiny group of comrades-in-arms.

  3. 5

    Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” Karl Rove, the senior political adviser to President Bush, said at a fund-raiser in Midtown for the Conservative Party of New York State. See Raymond Hernandez, “Democrats Demand Rove Apologize for 9/11 Remarks,” The New York Times, June 4, 2005.

  4. 6

    A curious thing about Pape’s book is that it does not mention that the Pentagon completed a withdrawal of virtually all US forces from Saudi Arabia in August 2003. One would think that this would have made at least some difference, since it essentially fulfilled bin Laden’s primary demand. But it doesn’t seem to have had much effect on al-Qaeda’s willingness to prosecute a campaign of suicide terror.

  5. 7

    Apparently this sense of compensatory belonging is enough to encompass quite a range of candidates. The July 7 team in London included two British-born Pakistanis, a Caribbean convert to Islam, and a Somali living in the UK.

  6. 8

    Dan Eggan and Scott Wilson, “Suicide Bombs Potent Tools of Terrorists,” The Washington Post, July 17, 2005.

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