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BOOK REVIEW: When suicide is a terror tool

DRIVEN TO DEATH: PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL ASPECTS OF SUICIDE TERRORISM
By Ariel Merari
Oxford University Press, $42.95, 328 pages

In "Driven to Death," Ariel Merari brings together insights accumulated over a more-than-40-year career as one of the world's top academic experts on terrorism and its suicide variety. In the late 1970s, Mr. Merari (now retired from his position as professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University in Israel) established and directed the university's terrorism and low-intensity-conflict program as well as the Israeli government's hostage negotiations and crisis-management unit.

More recently, Mr. Merari headed a major study funded by Israel's National Security Council on Palestinian suicide terrorism, in which operatives whose missions failed were interviewed in Israeli prisons. These interviews form the basis for much of the empirical data used in this book.

What is suicide terrorism? As Mr. Merari explains, it "is a situation in which a person intentionally kills himself (or herself) for the purpose of killing others, in the service of a political or ideological goal." The crucial element is that "no escape" is possible for the perpetrator, making it different from conventional terrorism, in which the perpetrator is aware that his death is likely, but he still will be able to resume warfare once he has escaped from the scene of the attack.

Most suicide terrorist attacks, Mr. Merari points out, are carried out by substate groups, whether organized as terrorist groups or as "self-starter" cells (for example, the London 7/7 bombers). This is because it is easier for groups (however small in size) to transform susceptible individuals into terrorists by radicalizing, recruiting, indoctrinating and training them to become suicide bombers and then videotaping their commitment to martyrdom. Such groups receive their "oxygen" from religions and societies that glorify martyrdom into an afterlife in "paradise."

Suicide terrorism's modern era began in the early 1980s in Lebanon, when Hezbollah's attacks included the devastating 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. Sri Lanka's Tamil LTTE also was a major user of this tactic, including a heavy reliance on female bombers, against the country's Sinhalese government. Today, groups such as the Palestinian Hamas and al Qaeda and its affiliates (including the Taliban) are the primary practitioners of suicide terrorism - although Hamas and the Taliban have added new warfare tactics, such as firing rockets and mortars, not discussed by the author.

Can suicide terrorists be profiled? Yes, according to Mr. Merari, who finds that those who are willing to kill themselves "by setting off a suicide belt in the midst of a casual crowd" possess unique personality characteristics. In general, they can be described as "introverted, loners, quiet, nongregarious and inhibited," with practically none having been members of a group before embarking on their mission.

This is because their recruiters seek persons with dependent personalities characterized by a "pronounced lack of self-confidence, difficulty in making decisions independently, reliance on others' opinions, reluctance to express disagreement out of fear that this may result in disapproval and rejection, and willingness to carry out unpleasant tasks to please others." Becoming a martyr, or shahid, thus provides such vulnerable individuals "an opportunity to soar to importance and fame" within their communities.

Interestingly, unlike the susceptible suicide bombers they exploit, a terrorist group's operational managers tend to be "well adjusted" and, most tellingly, are "unwilling to carry out a suicide attack themselves." Confirming this assessment, I know of no instances in which leaders of Palestinian terrorist groups have sacrificed themselves or any of their children on suicide missions.

Are there tactical advantages and strategic results for resorting to suicide terrorism? Mr. Merari says yes, explaining that a suicide bomber becomes a "smart bomb" who, by his willingness to die, increases the chances for the attack to occur. They are able to "select their target according to a predetermined criteria and cause a larger number of casualties, for instance, by blowing oneself up in a crowded area." Most important, in the event of "success," the perpetrator's death eliminates the risk that the attacker will be arrested, an event that could smoke out accomplices.

As to strategic benefits, Mr. Merari takes issue with those - such as Robert Pape of the University of Chicago - who argue that suicide campaigns have led to the defeat of their targeted adversaries, by pointing out that terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, were generally more effective when they resorted to more conventional tactics against Israel in southern Lebanon in the late 1990s. Although Mr. Merari does not discuss it, Hamas' firing of rockets and mortars into Israel in 2007-08 caused substantially more physical and psychological damage than its previous campaign of suicide attacks.

Much of the book focuses on the Palestinian case, but Mr. Merari also discusses, although to a lesser extent, the psychological and social aspects of suicide bombers among terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Tamil LTTE, Hezbollah and the insurgents in Iraq, some of whose characteristics differ from those of the Palestinian operatives.

Overall, Mr. Merari's "Driven to Death" is highly recommended as an insightful treatment of suicide terrorism and the factors that drive it.

Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech (National Capital Region), Alexandria, Va.

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