The Magazine

Suicide by Bomb

Misunderstanding a weapon in the terrorists’ arsenal.

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By MAX BOOT
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What Pape’s narrative glosses over is the fact that suicide bombing in the modern context was first employed by Hezbollah and its immediate precursors in Lebanon. The very first suicide attack in Lebanon occurred in 1981; the target was the embassy of Iraq, a country that, to the best of my knowledge, was not occupying Lebanon at the time. Perhaps for this reason the attack goes unmentioned in Pape’s database, which lists only attacks by Hezbollah committed on the U.S., Israeli, French, and Lebanese armies. The next major attack occurred in 1982. The target was an Israeli military headquarters in Tyre. The fact that Israel was occupying part of Lebanon at the time gives superficial support to Pape’s analysis, but we must still ask why Hezbollah resorted to suicide attacks while other terrorist and guerrilla groups also resisting Israeli occupation—for example, the Palestine Liberation Organization prior to the 1990s—did not. 

Surely the answer is that Hezbollah was (and is) a fanatical Shiite movement that was inspired by the Iranian revolution, which itself became known for the use of suicidal tactics. During the Iran-Iraq war, tens of thousands of Iranian boys, some as young as 10, were sent to run through minefields in human-wave attacks. They were even given plastic keys to ensure their entry into heaven. Only a political science Ph.D. could doubt that it was religious zeal which inspired them to sacrifice their lives.

While suicide bombing started with Hezbollah, it soon spread to other organizations, including a few secular groups, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Pape makes much of the Tigers’ record of suicide attacks to deny any Islamic orientation to this tactic. But by his own count the Tigers killed 1,501 people in suicide attacks over 21 years (1987-2008). That works out to an average of 71 victims a year. The only other major campaign of suicide terrorism mounted by a secular group that Pape cites is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which killed all of 43 people in Turkey between 1996 and 2008. Contrast this with the far bloodier record of Islamic suicide bombers from Chechnya to Israel. Pape’s database reveals that, since 1981, Muslim groups (not counting the PKK) have accounted for 93.7 percent of all deaths caused by suicide bombers—24,631 out of 26,277. This statistic isn’t cited in Pape and Feldman’s book, presumably because it is so at odds with their main argument.

The deadliest campaign of all occurred in Iraq, where suicide bombers murdered 10,655 people in just five years (2003-08). What could have motivated the killers who turned Iraq into a charnel house? If Pape’s logic were to be believed, they must have been Iraqi nationalists outraged by American occupation. But Pape’s own data show that only about a third of all suicide bombers in Iraq were actually Iraqis. The rest were Saudis, Kuwaitis, Syrians, Jordanians, Yemenis, and other foreigners. Surely they could have had no devotion to Iraq as a national entity. In most cases the first time they ever visited Iraq was on their way to self-immolation. The only conceivable reason they could have sacrificed themselves to slay others was because they saw this as a religious obligation.

Moreover, the vast majority of their victims were not Americans, Britons, or other “occupiers” but, rather, Iraqis: either members of the security forces or innocent bystanders. For many of the dead, their only crime was to be of the Shiite faith. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, nurtured a fanatical hatred of Shiites, whom he referred to as “crafty and malicious” scorpions, snakes, rats, and “devils in the bodies of men.” He saw it as a religious duty to kill these “apostates.” Al Qaeda in Iraq and more secular Sunni insurgents also targeted American troops, but this was mostly by employing improvised explosive devices, not suicide bombs. (Shiite insurgents preferred to use rockets and mortars.) In other words, those who fought the U.S. military most directly did so by employing nonsuicidal tactics. It was only fanatical Salafists who were willing to blow themselves up to make a point, and most of their victims were co-religionists.