Suicide Bombers and What Makes Them Tick

Posted by on Nov 28th, 2010 and filed under Opinion, Recent Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry


CHALMERS Johnson died last Saturday.  An intellectual stalwart and a powerhouse in political economy, he will be sorely missed.  He was ever the pragmatist — first, when he realized its futility, turning against the Vietnam war.  The conceptualization, examination and analysis of state capitalism became his bailiwick with Japan as the focus.  Such a confluence of government, private industry and workers for the goal of economic growth and market domination by first Japan, then the Asian tigers and now China continues to be ignored, despite his warnings.  Our corporate titans are in for a cheap buck — short term profits, and executive bonuses based on them, as our industry is hollowed out by exporting manufacture.  His views of the causes of terrorism also come to mind as the empirical analysis in a new book, Cutting the Fuse:  The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It(University of Chicago Press, 2010) by Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, validates his thinking.

If anyone says the words, “suicide bomber”, what images flash across ones mind?  No matter how careful we are, or how assiduous in being well-informed, these images remain — a direct result of the media narrative.  Inevitably, they lead to preconceptions, states of mind, habits of thought, a world view, a personhood that is ourselves.  It also makes us malleable to policies, often contrary to the general welfare, promoted by special interests.

So what fuels such terrorism?  The media would have us believe it is religious extremism — the notion of Islamic terrorists and religious madrasahs serving as factories for them is transfixed in our consciousness.  But Pape and Feldman, after exhaustive research into 30 years of data, conclude otherwise; instead they contend the evidence places the blame squarely on foreign occupation.  The principal objective of the terrorist, it seems, has always been to compel a democracy to withdraw from prized land.

For example, Hezbollah did not exist before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.  Thereafter, in the next four years, there were over two dozen suicide attacks including the truck bomb killing of 241 U.S. Marines in October 1983.  As U.S., French, and then Israeli forces began to leave the country, the attacks first declined, then ceased completely following Israel’s total withdrawal in 2000.

Suicide bombers, undoubtedly, are highly effective as the 9/11 attack demonstrated when 19 operatives managed to kill thousands.  Pape calls the technique, the ultimate smart bomb.  Between 1970 and 2001, they accounted for only 3% of terrorist attacks yet caused 70% of casualties.

Attacks against U.S. forces and interests are found to be directly correlated with our occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  From 1980-2003, less than 15% of the 343 such attacks worldwide were aimed at the U.S.; from 2004-2009, fully 92% of a vastly increased number (1833) were.

This correlation between force level and the number of attacks holds in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  It held true even during the Iraq ‘surge’, when attacks declined, because in fact the total international force level was down — more coalition troops were leaving Iraq than the U.S. surge arrivals.  In Afghanistan, as troop levels escalated, so did the attacks:  there were only 15 from 2003 to 2005, then jumped to 87 in 2006 and 128 the year after.

To Donald Rumsfeld’s famous question of whether more terrorists were being produced than the U.S. was eliminating, Pape answers in the affirmative adding again that occupation serves as the trigger.

Returning to the image of the suicide bomber, it is interesting to note that the first suicide bombers of the post WWII era (that is after the kamikazes) were the secular Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, who happened to belong to a Hindu minority concentrated in the north.  They were responsible for most of the suicide attacks (78) during the period 1987-2001.  Tired of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese, they had opted for an independence struggle for their part of the island.

Given our stance in the Middle East, we have little choice but to contend with the present reality of possible suicide attack — that is until we rethink strategy and policy. As the deadliest weapon in the guerrilla arsenal, it is unlikely to be discarded.

Chalmers Johnson used to say we should:  stop supporting dictatorial regimes that bend to our will against the interests of their own people; revisit global trade policy so it does not punish the poor of the world; help maintain Israel’s security, but insist on the fair treatment of Palestinians.  Without such changes the developing South and the Islamic world will continue to look upon our actions as inimical to their interests.  So it was when he was saying it; so it is today.

Arshad M. Khan is a retired professor. He can be reached at:

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