Martyrdom and murder 

The Economist, Jan 8th 2004

Terrorists have embraced suicide attacks mainly for their advantages in this world, rather than their rewards in the next

“I HAVE always dreamed”, says an anarchist in Joseph Conrad's novel “The Secret Agent”, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples...No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity.” But, Conrad's anarchist complains, “I could never get as many as three such men together.” These days, there seems to be a superabundance of people willing to die in order to commit murder: in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Russia, Pakistan, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Is this phenomenon new? If so, what explains it? And what can be done about it?

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? They were scarcely the first to sacrifice their own lives in order to take others. In the first century AD, the Zealots and Sicarii, two Jewish sects, attacked the Roman occupiers of Judaea and their allies in public places. The Assassins, a cult active in modern Iran and Syria from the 11th to the 13th centuries, killed their targets (mainly Muslim rulers whom they considered apostates) at close range and with no escape routes. Their name comes from the Arabic hashishiyya; the drug's powers were thought to explain the Assassins' oblivious bravery.

>From the mid-18th century, other groups launched suicidal attacks against colonial rulers in India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Then there are the countless individuals who have died for a cause without taking others with them: think of Irish and Kurdish hunger-strikers, or of the human minesweepers despatched by Iran during its war with Iraq.

Yet for all these partial precedents, there is something novel about the type of terrorism in which the terrorist's death is a necessary and essential part of his act, not just an incidental cost. This type arrived in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Before then, modern groups such as the IRA and ETA, the Basque separatist movement, planned to escape after (or before) their bombings, mortar attacks and so on. Hizbullah's campaign of suicidal car and truck explosions—one of which killed 241 Americans in Beirut in October 1983; 58 people died in a strike on a French barracks on the same day—changed the face of terror.

The fact that Hizbullah started the trend, and that its spread has coincided with the rise of other Islamic groups—Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), al-Qaeda and others—has led some to surmise that Islamic fundamentalism somehow explains it. Proponents of this theory can cite the lengths to which some terrorists go to justify their attacks in Islamic terms, manipulating the precedents set by the Prophet and his companions and finessing the meanings of three key concepts: suicide, martyrdom and jihad.

Unholy warriors

The Koran is unequivocal about suicide: as a mark of despair in Allah, it earns eternal damnation. On the other hand, martyrdom—death in jihad, incurred in Allah's name—earns eternal bliss: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of the Lord.” The Koranic outline of the martyr's rewards in paradise is elaborated in the hadith (prophetic sayings and anecdotes) and has been embellished by generations of scholars. Islamic suicide bombers go to their deaths variously expecting to meet the Prophet and to see the face of Allah. Their sins will be forgiven, and they can intercede for their relatives on the day of resurrection. They will live amid rivers of wine and honey, and be married to 72 black-eyed virgins.

But should their bombings count as sinful suicide or glorious martyrdom? That partly depends on how the volatile concept of jihad is defined. For many Muslims, jihad is principally an internal struggle. But, especially since the advent of Wahhabism, a branch of Sunni Islam that evolved in the 18th century, the notion of jihad as external warfare has been revived. Despite Koranic injunctions to the contrary, some radical Islamic thinkers have justified the killing of civilians, and of other Muslims, in the name of jihad.

Likewise, suicide bombings—or “martyrdom operations”, as some of their exponents prefer—have been rationalised as a praiseworthy embrace of death at the hands of the enemy, and as a legitimate tactic in extremis. Among other sophistic arguments, some terrorists say that Allah, and not the bomber, decides whether the latter will die, and whether women and children will perish with the shaheed (martyr). Some scholars believe that a newly strident view of martyrdom, adopted by many Shia Muslims after the Iranian revolution of 1979, informed the new species of terrorism that Hizbullah, a Shia group, developed not long afterwards.

A firm belief in paradise is clearly an asset for anyone strapping on a bomb. But all these theological somersaults suggest that religion may be as much a hurdle, which the perpetrators of “martyrdom operations” need to overcome, as a motive for their violence. Hizbullah's clerics, for example, have always been squeamish about suicidal missions. And, quite apart from these qualms, there is another compelling reason to doubt that Islamic fundamentalism accounts for the rise of suicide bombing: non-Muslims are among its most devoted practitioners.

Human cruise missiles

The single most prolifically suicidal terrorist group is the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers. In the course of their attritional struggle for an independent Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka, the LTTE has, among scores of other attacks, bombed the World Trade Centre in Colombo in 1997 and assassinated two heads of state. LTTE suicide missions, which began in 1987, are inspired more by cultish devotion to Velupillai Prabhakaran, the group's leader, than by religion. The Kurdish PKK, which has deployed suicide bombers in its quests for Kurdish autonomy and for the release of its captured leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is influenced less by Islam than by Marxist-Leninism. So too is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which perpetrated the first suicide strike in Israel for more than two months on Christmas Day.

Another sort of explanation for suicide terrorism focuses on its practitioners' travails and poverty in this world, rather than their imagined delights in the next. It used to be the case that a Palestinian bomber conformed to a recognisable type: he was young, male, single, religious and unemployed. He often had a personal grudge against Israel—for instance, a relative who had been arrested or injured by the Israeli army. He may have hoped to secure earthly as well as heavenly rewards for his relatives, in the form of financial donations after his death, and the new house that his parents might be given after the Israelis demolished their old one as punishment for his crime.

But the affluence of many of the September 11th hijackers cast doubt on the notion that poverty was a necessary, let alone sufficient, condition for suicidal terrorism. And since the start of the second intifada in 2000, the profile of Palestinian bombers has changed: several have been well educated and less devout than those of the mid-1990s. The LTTE, and especially the PKK and Chechen terrorists, have preferred female bombers, because they attract, or used to attract, less suspicion. Some Palestinian groups (though not al-Qaeda) have also used women, conjuring up fresh religious sophistries to justify female martyrdom. Globally, says Yoram Schweitzer, an expert in suicide terrorism at the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, the bomber has no clear profile.

A better way to understand the popularity of suicide attacks may be to focus on their advantages for the groups who commission them. Such operations are rarely, if ever, the work of lone lunatics. Hamas, PIJ and the other Palestinian groups who practise suicide terrorism recruit, indoctrinate and train their bombers. They write the texts for the video testaments filmed shortly before each self-immolation (making them unreliable records of the true motives of the “martyr”), which the bombers themselves watch to redouble their resolve. They take the photographs that will later appear on propaganda posters. Then they deliver their foot-soldiers to pre-identified targets. Al-Qaeda is remarkable for the expertise and independence of its agents, but they too are trained and primed for their missions.

Suicide bombing is a corporate effort: in this respect, the closest historical analogy may be the kamikaze pilots who trained as a cadre to terrorise the American fleet in the Pacific in 1944-45. And suicide appeals to these groups principally because it is a good way to kill large numbers of people. Robert Pape, of the University of Chicago, calculates that between 1980 and 2001 13 people died on average in every suicide attack, whereas just one was killed in other terrorist incidents—excluding September 11th, which would make the death ratio much starker. For those whose aim is maximum destruction, not just maximum publicity, it is the natural choice.

This special deadliness is partly the result of the suicide bomber's ability to adapt the place and time of his detonation to the last minute. As Bruce Hoffman of Rand, a think-tank, puts it, the suicide bomber is “the ultimate smart bomb, or human cruise missile”. If the bomber is spotted, he can detonate instantly. Fathi Shiqaqi, a founder of PIJ, used these unique advantages to justify “martyrdom operations”. The Palestinian groups regard suicide attacks as a way to counteract Israel's conventional military superiority. 

Depending on death

Suicide is also a flexible technology. Where Hizbullah used cars and trucks to attack well defended installations, Hamas, PIJ and some Chechen bombers mingle among civilians, their concealed belts or vests loaded with explosives and shrapnel. The LTTE, which turned to suicide because other methods were having frustratingly little impact, has despatched suicide bombers in boats, and to conduct assassinations: much easier if the assassin has no intention of escaping. Whoever sent the two suicide bombers who narrowly failed to kill General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, also on Christmas Day, understood that advantage.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, terrorists also regard suicide attacks as low-risk, given the scale of devastation they can inflict. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, has put it, “the method of martyrdom operations [is] the most successful way of inflicting damage against the opponent and least costly to the mujahideen in terms of casualties.” No accomplices are needed for rescues or getaways. Nor is there much danger of bombers betraying their comrades: if LTTE emissaries survive the explosion, they bite a poison capsule.

As well as these tactical benefits, suicide terrorism offers a strategic one. After the debacle in Somalia in 1993, Mr bin Laden concluded that sensitivity to casualties was the heel of the American Achilles; Palestinian terrorists think something similar about Israel. Suicide bombings juxtapose these groups' disdain for life with their victims' supposed love of it. This helps to create the impression of an undeterrable enemy, one freed by his self-disregard to strike anywhere: “I depend on death,” says a would-be suicide bomber in “The Secret Agent”, “which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked.”

Simultaneous bombings magnify this sense of vulnerability; so do sequences of attacks. As Mr Pape observes, almost all suicide missions occur as part of campaigns, often, as with the regular attacks on the Americans and their allies in Iraq, designed to liberate territory occupied by democracies. (Democratic governments, it is presumed, are more likely to be swayed by their citizens' deaths than others.) The cumulative effect of such campaigns was aptly described by Josephus, a classical historian who chronicled the anti-Roman insurgency in Judaea: “The panic created was more alarming than the calamity itself; everyone, as on the battlefield, hourly expected death. Men kept watch at a distance on their enemies and would not trust even their friends...” Everyday activities become perilous; ordinary life begins to seem untenable.

Terrorists have some reasons to believe that such onslaughts work. Chief among those is the withdrawal of French and American forces from Lebanon after Hizbullah's atrocities. “We couldn't stay there and run the risk of another suicide attack on the marines,” wrote Ronald Reagan, then America's president, in his memoirs. Other apparent concessions to suicide campaigns, such as temporary Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian territory in the mid-1990s, have been more ambiguous; but terrorists tend to interpret history in a way that burnishes their own efforts. For their part, the kamikaze pilots helped to convince America that Japan would fight to the last soldier. This conviction was partly why atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Finally, like other forms of terrorism, suicide attacks are designed to impress the terrorist's own constituency, as well as to coerce their opponents—and “martyrs” have a particular propaganda value. Some groups have embraced suicide to keep pace with rival outfits, with whom they are competing for recruits and support. This was the case in Lebanon, where other organisations, including some secular ones, imitated Hizbullah's new technique. Likewise, various offshoots of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which once preferred ambushes and guerrilla attacks, took up “martyrdom operations” after the suicidal “successes” of PIJ and Hamas. 

Will the bomber always get through?

The prevalence of suicide in contemporary terrorism has helped to persuade some observers that outrages from Rabat to Riyadh to Grozny are all the handiwork of al-Qaeda—just as, in the 1980s, conspiracy theorists believed that terrorism across the globe was being orchestrated by the Soviet Union. This sort of talk suits Mr bin Laden; and the idea of a single, coherent enemy also has some appeal for westerners. In reality, suicide has spread not because of central co-ordination, but because it works. The term “suicide bombing”, with its connotations of unhinged despondency, obscures the essential rationality of the method. Some in Israel and America, arguing that it also obscures the victims, prefer “homicide bombings”.

How can the targets of such attacks protect themselves? By picking on democracies, the terrorists can be reasonably sure that their adversaries will stop short of “the Mongol method” (ie, wholesale slaughter of the population from which the bombers derive). Even so, suicide campaigns are often designed to madden their victims into inflicting collective punishment, thus further radicalising the terrorists' actual or potential supporters, who might otherwise be repulsed by the carnage that such extreme violence causes.

But there are subtler methods. Because they are corporate enterprises, disrupting or preventing attacks is not just a question of catching the bomber: there are also recruiters, trainers, reconnaissance agents, bomb-makers and safe houses. Israel prevents many attacks by penetrating these networks—though as Shlomo Gazit, a former head of military intelligence, points out, Israel knows roughly where its enemies can be found, and so can monitor their movements and cultivate informers. Police in, say, London or New York do not enjoy that luxury.

Israel's checkpoints and cordons (also unlikely to be emulated elsewhere) intercept some killers; they also reassure the public that something is being done, thus countering the terrorists psychologically as well as militarily. Even when the bomber gets through, vigilant security guards who manage to keep pedestrian attackers out of restaurants or discotheques can massively reduce the number of casualties. Other sensible defensive measures include the rapid dispersal of crowds at the scene of an explosion, to protect them from follow-up strikes.

Such vigilance can make life grindingly tense. If possible, the best answer must be to choke the supply of the terrorists' prize asset—the bombers—through political compromise. Yet against the ultra-extremists of al-Qaeda, intelligence, disruption and vigilance may be the only ways.

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