Foreign military occupation is a powerful motivator for suicide terrorism because it triggers three key conditions on the ground. First, segments of the local population perceive a loss of control over the future of a country’s political and social institutions. In Afghanistan, for example, the United States drafted and ensured passage of the new Afghan constitution in 2004. This document gave near absolute authority to the central government, without any checks and balances to executive power. This top-down power structure was a radical shift from the weak central government and dominant tribal organization that had constituted Afghanistan’s past political systems. Entire Pashtun tribes were stripped of political power, and unsurprisingly, many of them joined up with the Taliban. Second, military occupation unavoidably results in collateral damage, no matter how well trained the occupying force. Personal motivations of revenge for dead family members and friends feature prominently in the testimonials of suicide terrorists. Third, military occupation fosters the belief that a government is illegitimate, a puppet regime controlled by the occupying force. These conditions taken together create an environment that is ripe for recruiting suicide terrorists.
Because Boot does not agree with this ‘reality’ of military occupation, he chooses to ignore the testimonials of suicide attackers. Instead, Boot is convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is the cause. In Boot’s view, there is something special about Islamic fundamentalism, some magical elixir that its followers drink that inspires them to sacrifice their lives for Allah. I am surprised that Boot, a student of military history, thinks that Islamic fundamentalist groups are somehow unique in this regard. History is littered with causes, some religious, some secular, that inspire men and women to sacrifice their lives. For example: When Imperial Japan faced an increasingly unwinnable war in the Pacific during World War II, they filled the skies with Kamikaze pilots who crashed into U.S. ships in a last ditch attempt to stave off defeat.
Fundamentalist Islam has been around for hundreds of years and is a poor predictor of suicide terrorism. This point is clearly evident when reading Boot, who first credits the Islamic fervor of Hezbollah as the cause of suicide terrorism in the 1980s but then realizes that Hezbollah neglected to use suicide terrorism during the Israeli attack into Lebanon in 2006. Here, Boot tacitly acknowledges our own findings, which is that suicide terrorism is a weapon used strategically by terrorist groups, not one that is blindly triggered by the presence of Islamic fundamentalism. Other fundamentalist Shiite militia groups like Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq have never used suicide terrorism for the same reason that Hezbollah saw no need in 2006: they have very powerful guerrilla armies. Back in the 1980s, Hezbollah was a fledgling newly formed insurgent group that used suicide terrorism in a desperate attempt to end Israeli occupation. In Iraq, it is especially telling that only Sunnis militant groups use suicide terrorism. Sunnis lost a huge amount of political power when Saddam’s minority Sunni government was replaced by Shiite majority rule. Sunni militant groups in Iraq—outnumbered politically and outgunned militarily—turned to suicide terrorism in a desperate attempt to even the odds and coerce more favorable political concessions.
It is correct that foreign occupations prior to the 1980s did not generate the suicide campaigns we see today. Boot questions why suicide terrorism was not used in Vietnam, Algeria, or other colonial conflicts. Yet a student of military technology like Boot should be aware that plastic explosives, in the same manner as tanks, machine guns, and airplanes, were all invented years before their full military potential was realized. Successful use of military technology precipitates its popularity. The Wehrmacht’s innovative use of tanks in World War II revolutionized modern warfare, and in the same vein, suicide terrorism took off in the 1980s because Hezbollah successfully used the weapon to end Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon. Religious as well as secular terrorist groups like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka took notice of Hezbollah’s successful suicide campaign. Another factor was the availability of military technology. Stable high explosives and microelectronics for detonators had become cheap and readily available by the 1980s. Explosive suicide vests became a deadly low-cost weapon for insurgent groups.