Suicide Watch

Reviewed by Aharon Horwitz

Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism
by Mia Bloom
Columbia University Press, 2005, 251 pages.

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The suicide car bomb that blew apart the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981 seemed, at the time, like little more than a gruesome peculiarity in Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war. Yet as the popularity of suicide bombings in the following years made clear, Lebanon in the 1980s was the laboratory for contemporary suicide terrorism. Between 1983 and 1986 alone, the country saw over 30 suicide attacks, the most deadly of which-the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut-killed more than two hundred Americans. America’s subsequent withdrawal from the region caused terrorists worldwide to take note of an effective new tactic, and since then suicide terrorism has behaved like an infectious disease, spreading death and destruction across continents.

Enter Mia Bloom, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who offers in Dying to Kill the first book-length, scholarly assessment of a tactic that has become fundamental to terrorism today. Surveying the history of suicide terror from its roots among the ancient Jewish Sicarii and Hindu thugs to the Japanese Kamikaze attackers in World War II and the Palestinian suicide “martyrs” of the last Intifada, Bloom argues that, despite the conventional thinking on the subject, suicide terrorism is far from a modern development, and far from unique to the Middle East. More importantly, she attempts to address sociological and psychological questions, such as why some terrorist organizations adopt this tactic while others do not, and what inspires someone to volunteer for a suicide mission.

Yet while her research is thorough and her examples at times fascinating, the conclusions she reaches are determined more by a tenacious adherence to the “soft power” school of counterterrorism than by evidence. By relying too heavily on certain variables, such as the kinds of counterterrorism tactics used by states fighting terror, and too little on others, such as the role played by culture and charismatic leaders in creating an ethos of death, Bloom at best offers a distorted picture of suicide terrorism, and at worst prescribes a counterterror policy likely to blow up in our faces.

The majority of the book is dedicated to the question of when and why individuals and groups engage in suicide terror, and Bloom offers a laundry list of answers. First, individuals invariably come from a society that “believes in violence or thinks that other (more peaceful) strategies have failed.” Second, they are often provided with an incentive, be it material or otherworldly. Such individuals may also have been personally humiliated by their enemies, or raised under the influence of a cultish leader. Bloom’s litany is convincing in its acknowledgment that there is no unified theory of the creation of individual suicide bombers, that they can be inspired by many different causes and events.

When it comes to terrorist groups, Bloom explains that suicide bombing is such an effective tactic because
[the] perpetration of the act signals operatives’ complete dedication to the group and its cause. This adds a degree of legitimacy to the organization, which can claim the operative as its own, and use his or her dedication to inspire others. Each operation sacrifices one supporter and yet enables the organization to recruit many more people. The perpetrator is dead and so can never recant his or her decision. Finally, any potential negative costs associated with an attack (like the death of civilians) are mitigated by the logic which argues that the brutal state is so horrendous that its victims (the perpetrators of violence) have no other means of expressing their anger and no other avenues to channel their grievances than this ultimate sacrifice.
To Bloom, suicide bombing is a perfectly rational strategy for terrorist groups. She illustrates the point by way of several chapter-length case studies, each showing the many benefits of the tactic for a terrorist group, such as instant media attention, greater notoriety, and better recruitment and fundraising. Even groups that were initially disinclined to use suicide terrorism, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), ultimately succumbed as a means of “outbidding” their terrorist competitors.

Finally, Bloom predicts where suicide terrorism will predictably take place, linking its occurrence to the support of the wider population: “Militant groups are more likely to adopt suicide bombings as a strategy, and the tactic is more likely to resonate positively with the population, after other strategies have been tried and failed.” This often means that we can count on suicide bombing to occur in “second iterations” of a conflict, such as the second Palestinian Intifada or the second Chechen conflict.

Her analysis begins to break down, however, in her assertion that the presence of this tactic depends on whether a society is willing to tolerate the method among its fighters. That tolerance, she says, is based on whether the society is accepting of civilian casualties, and that question, Bloom concludes, depends on whether it has been the victim of heavy-handed counterterrorism measures. While Bloom offers examples to support this hypothesis-such as the Kurds in Turkey, the Palestinians, and the Chechens-she nonetheless fails to take seriously the examples which undermine her theory, such as those of the IRA and the ETA. Both groups have avoided employing suicide terrorism, yet the Irish Catholic and Basque societies have experienced curfews, checkpoints, house arrests, torture, assassinations, and civilian casualties. If Bloom seeks to present a theory for the motivations behind suicide terrorism-and she claims that she does-surely she must also account for the failure of these groups to adopt the tactic.

Clearly, there are other factors at work in creating suicide bombers, such as culture and religion. Ireland and Spain, for instance, boast long traditions of sacrifice on the altar of nationalism, but neither country glorifies the concept of self-martyrdom that underlies the act of suicide bombing-the view that killing oneself in the process of killing one’s enemy is an achievement of the highest good. By contrast, the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, host to one of the world’s most notorious suicide groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), raise their sons, and their daughters, in a culture of self-sacrifice. “The idea of sacrifice is ingrained in Tamil culture,” Bloom says. “Women are taught from an early age to subordinate themselves to the needs or desires of men. The self-sacrifice of the female bombers is almost an extension of the idea of motherhood in the Tamil culture.” So, conversely, do cultures that lack such a tradition find it difficult to create suicide bombers.

Undeterred, Bloom consistently downplays the role of religion in suicide terrorism, especially when it comes to Islam. She writes that there is “nothing inherently dysfunctional about the Islamic faith per se that predisposes its adherents towards violence… all religious groups have been susceptible to terrorism at one point or another. Further, many groups engaged in suicide terror described in this book are decidedly secular and, for them, religion is incidental.” Bloom points to the secular LTTE, which, until it was surpassed by the Palestinians in 2003, “perpetrated the most suicide bombings of any single organization and more than those of the twelve other organizations using this tactic put together.”

Of course, Bloom is right to argue that no specific religion—nor, for that matter, religion in general—can be identified as the cause of suicide terrorism. What Bloom misunderstands, however, is that secular groups that engage in suicide terrorism function very similarly to religious groups in an extremely important way: They are usually led by a charismatic, authoritative figure who is accorded a godlike status. This partially explains, in the analysis of Columbia University terrorism expert Brigitte Nacos, why some nationalist groups, like the Palestinians or the LTTE, embrace suicide bombing, while groups such as the IRA and ETA, lacking such leaders, did not. To succeed where Bloom fails, a better theory is needed.

A clue to such a theory may be found in Stanley Milgram’s renowned 1963 experiments, in which average Americans proved willing, under instructions from scientists, to severely “shock” unseen subjects despite their screams of pain (Milgram’s experiments, of course, did not involve actual electrical shocks, but the subjects of the experiment did not know this). Various analyses of suicide bombing, most notably those by University of Michigan researcher Scott Atran, have touched on the Milgram experiments in order to show how even the most independent-minded individuals can be influenced by authority figures, and to horrific outcomes.

Generally ignored, though, are the subsequent stages of Milgram’s experiments, which provide an interesting model for the production of suicide bombing. The first stage of the experiment was conducted at Yale University, with clearly identified Yale researchers encouraging participants to raise the shocks to increasingly dangerous levels. When Milgram moved the experiment off Yale’s campus to a less august setting, he found that fewer people were willing to increase the voltage. And later, when he removed the clearly identified Yale researcher, even fewer were willing to deliver the shocks.

The subsequent stages of the experiment show that both an abetting context and the presence of authority figures are crucial to convincing someone to engage in extreme or dangerous behavior. Further adding to the participants’ willingness to hurt other people is their ingrained cultural acceptance of the virtue and legitimacy of scientific experiment. The parallel to suicide bombing is obvious, as the ingredients of an environment of suffering and repression, leaders who provide authority and encouragement, and a cultural tradition of deliberate self-martyrdom create a deadly combination. Without the first two elements, as Milgram discovered, willingness to commit extreme acts is reduced; absent the third, it should be gone altogether.

A sober look at the causes of suicide terrorism indicates that reducing a population’s feeling of oppression may be useful, but only when the leaders who cultivate the population’s sense of outrage and encourage violence are removed from the scene. Unfortunately, Bloom’s failure to acknowledge this factor leads to misguided policy prescriptions, such as her assertion that assassinating terrorist leaders causes the opposite of the intended effect. Yet the very example she cites to prove her point puts the lie to her theory. Bloom insists that Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations has led to an increase in suicide bombings, but this assertion is utterly divorced from actual numbers. In 2002, there were close to 50 suicide attacks; by 2004, that number had dropped to around 15 per year, and in 2005 there were only 7. While this dramatic reduction can be attributed to several factors, such as the security fence and improved intelligence, it is also clear-and has even been admitted by members of the targeted terrorist organizations themselves-that the systematic elimination of terrorist leaders has crippled their organizations with fear, disorganization, and a lack of leadership.

Bloom’s study takes us deep into the underworld of suicide bombing, and makes some worthwhile observations along the way. Her chapter on the intersection of gender and suicide terror, for example, argues that women’s participation in suicide terror is not the mark of increased independence or liberation, as some claim, but rather a further entrenchment of repression. Moreover, Dying to Kill leaves us with a better understanding of the effects of oppression on populations, and the rationale behind the adoption of suicide bombing as a strategy by both groups and individuals. But ultimately, hers is a theory-driven journey, not a search for truth. For that, we have to adopt a much broader view.

Aharon Horwitz is an Editorial Assistant at AZURE. He is also the coordinator of the Azure Student Journals Project, and a co-editor of the “Blogs of Zion” weblog.

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