- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

Suicide terrorism is not only the rage among terrorist groups, especially in Muslim lands, but also among academic researchers. Some academic researchers, like the suicide terrorists whom they study, are even prone to exaggerate the achievements of such tactics, when compared with their more mundane “conventional” counterparts, where the objective of the terrorist perpetrator is to escape from the scene of the incident in order to carry out further operations.

The distinctiveness of suicide terrorism is that the premeditated objective of the perpetrator is to intentionally kill himself or herself together with the chosen target, which is the precondition for the success of the attack, attainment of political objectives for the group and religious martyrdom and the afterlife for the individual operative. However, as will be discussed in this review, narrowly focusing on suicide terrorism alone can bias a researcher from highlighting terrorist operations that use conventional means but are strategically important nonetheless.

Robert Pape, the author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, $25.95, 352 pages), and a political science professor at The University of Chicago, is the leading practitioner of the suicide-terrorism-is-the- only-form-of-terrorism-that-yields-results school of terrorism analysis. Arguing that suicide terrorism is “mainly a response to foreign occupation,” Mr. Pape then claims that one of the reasons such a tactic has been escalating over the past two decades is that its perpetrators have “learned that this strategy pays.” However, an examination of actual data of all terrorist incidents, whether suicide or conventional, reveals that in cases of foreign occupation where terrorists have claimed significant success, conventional tactics were employed. In the case of south Lebanon, Israel withdrew from that strip of land in May 2000 due to Hezbollah’s guerilla tactics against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that created an untenable casualty situation and combined with Israel’s perception that remaining in south Lebanon was no longer strategically necessary.

In another case, the Spanish national election and the country’s support of the U.S. involvement in Iraq were strongly influenced by the March 11, 2004 detonation of bombs on Madrid’s trains which killed 191 persons (according to some reports, 3,000 might have been killed if one of the intended trains had not been late), and where in that conventional attack the al Qaeda perpetrators succeeded in fleeing from the scenes of their crimes. Both of these important cases, however, are not included in Mr. Pape’s discussion because they might disprove his hypotheses.

There are other problems with Mr. Pape’s analysis, such as his assertion that suicide terrorism is strategically beneficial to the perpetrating groups in advancing their cause (when this is often not the case), his reliance on misleading incident data (e.g., only incidents that ‘succeed’ but not ones that are thwarted by security services, which together would reveal important information about the actual magnitude of the threat) and his claims that suicide terrorists primarily attack democracies (but is Saudi Arabia considered a democracy?).

Moreover, he writes that among Muslims such martyrdom operations are not the product of Islamic fundamentalism (many experts would disagree), and that al Qaeda’s primary conflict with the United States has always been (even before the Iraq intervention) about the presence of American troops in the Persian Gulf and “reduction of Washington’s power and influence in the region,” an assumption I would argue is overly simplistic and wrong.

Interestingly, even Mia Bloom’s Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (Columbia University Press, $24.95, 272 pages), takes issue with some of Mr. Pape’s contentions (which were previously published in a leading academic journal) in a page and a half critique (pages 83-84). Ms. Bloom is a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, who has done extensive field research in the Middle East and Sri Lanka, so she’s able to present a more nuanced and better informed analysis of suicide terrorism.

There are insightful discussions of how to define suicide terrorism, its objectives (to sow panic in the targeted adversary), its historical antecedents (although one may disagree with her contention that groups generally adopt the tactic of suicide operations in the second stage of their conflicts), and the way groups employ this tactic to compete against fellow insurgent groups and increase support among their constituencies.

A series of case studies in which suicide terrorism has been employed in Israel/Palestine, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Chechnya, Iraq, as well as al Qaeda’s insurgency, are used to further elaborate on Ms. Bloom’s important insights.

Farhad Khosrokhavar’s Suicide Bombers: Allah’s New Martyrs (Pluto Press, distributed by University of Michigan Press, $27.50, 288 pages) is the perfect antidote to the argument that suicide operations by Muslim groups are not related to the concept of martyrdom in fundamentalist Islam. Mr. Khosrokhavar is a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Sciences Sociales in Paris and a prominent expert on Jihad and Islam.

In a compelling discussion of the way Jihad has been operationalized by terrorist groups in martyrdom operations in Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, and transnationally by al Qaeda (including its growing membership of converts from Christianity), Mr. Khosrokhavar argues that it is the “warrior side” of the religion of Allah that attracts groups that rebel against the social order. He writes that many “find a vocation for martyrdom because it allows them to recreate the coherence of their families and their imaginary world in the name of Islam and to fight the perverse West together.”

One of the best introductory overviews on terrorism is Leonard Weinberg’s Global Terrorism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, $14.95, 192 pages). Mr. Weinberg, a political science professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, is a veteran academic in terrorism studies. This book reflects his immense knowledge and wisdom on subjects ranging from defining terrorism, the goals of terrorist groups, the history of terrorism, the origins of terrorism, why people become terrorists, models of countering terrorism, and how terrorism ends. This relatively short and elegantly written book is indispensable for the general reader, the academic specialist, and courses on terrorism.

Joshua Sinai is a Washington-based analyst on terrorism issues.

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