Roots of suicide terrorism

Published : Apr 20, 2007 00:00 IST

Nationalism, and not religious fundamentalism, drives suicide bombers, as this book shows with the help of detailed research.

A point is reached in the development of any social system where men will refuse to accept longer a burden they find too great to bear; and in that moment, if they cannot mitigate, they will at least destroy.

IT is not fashionable to quote Harold J. Laski but what he wrote in his mini-classic Communism in 1927 remains true. He did not stop at diagnosis. His prescription for justice as a precondition for legitimacy is as valid. He proceeded immediately to add: "The condition, in fact, upon which a state may hope to endure is its capacity for making freedom more widespread and more intense. It is not easy to achieve that end. Men prefer sacrifice by others to the surrender of their own desires" - and their vested interests, he might have added.

Frantz Fanon's seminal work The Wretched of the Earth (1963) exposed the degradation of imperialism and pointed the way forward - by violence, if necessary, which helps, in turn, to heighten national consciousness and strengthens the resolve to resist and overthrow. "The repressions, far from calling a halt to the forward rush of national consciousness, urge it on. Mass slaughter in the colonies at a certain stage of the embryonic development of consciousness increases the consciousness, for the hecatombs are an indication that between oppressors and oppressed everything can be solved by force."

In 1978 the United Nations General Assembly recognised "the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence ... from ... foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle". Palestinian Arabs see in Israel a "foreign occupation" of a country that was theirs for centuries and was grabbed by Zionists with the help of British imperialism (1919-1948). The conquest was consolidated with the help, mainly, of American imperialism. Six decades are nothing in national consciousness, especially if a people's readiness to accept a state of their own on 22 per cent of their country is spurned with yet greater repression.

Iraqis rightly see the United States and the United Kingdom as foreign overlords. Haifa Zangana, a novelist, was formerly a prisoner of Saddam Hussein. But he loathes the imperialists who came to "liberate" Iraq. His article on the Iraqis' right to rule themselves is a documented indictment of foreign occupation and a powerful endorsement of the Iraqi resistance movement. (The Hindu, November 21, 2005: "Thousands have been kept for more than a year without charge or trial, including the writer Muhsin al-Khafaji, who was arrested in May 2003. Women are taken as hostages by U.S. soldiers to persuade fugitive male relatives to surrender or confess to terrorist acts.")

"There were no jihadists in Iraq before we invaded," said David Benjamin, who served on Bill Clinton's National Security Council. "There are now thousands, Iraqi and foreign, and they're going to be an enduring problem because many have embraced the global jihadist agenda."

This is typical of Western comment, official, academic and in the media. They do not notice - do not wish to notice - the surge of nationalism, only "jihadism" or "fundamentalism" to which they shut their eyes when they exploited both in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Jimmy Carter is denounced when he draws attention to the giant walls and fences Israel began building since 2001, cutting deep into the West Bank, grabbing more land in the process, all to defeat the suicide bomber.

But very few care to ask what it is that drives a human being to give up his own life as a contribution to a political movement. Since Fanon wrote, the might of the modern state has increased; so have the wrongs. Terror is the weapon of the weak against the might of the state; the suicide bomber is a terrorist whose desperation and sense of injustice are so great that he is prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. It is disgusting to read an American columnist - toast of some New Delhi journalists - ask for a "moral surge" among the victim when he lacks the basic sense to identify the root cause of terror and the integrity and courage to denounce it. "The Arab-Muslim village today is largely silent," he moans. But he does not pause to ask "why"? Accepting the national agenda, his concern is to denounce, not to understand.

Curiously, few in the West care to recall that Israel itself is a product of terrorism; not by the weak against the mighty but by the well-equipped, united Zionists against weak and divided Arabs. The Hindu reported (March 6, 2006) Richard Norton-Taylor's report in The Guardian on disclosures from declassified MI5 files: Jewish terrorists planned to assassinate members of Clement Attlee's post-War British Labour government. Menachem Begin, then leader of the extremist Irgun Zvai Leumi resistance group and a future Prime Minister of Israel, had tried to trick it by having cosmetic surgery to disguise his identity.

The files include a telegram dated February 12, 1946, from Palestine saying that a reliable source claimed the Stern Gang was "training members to go to England to assassinate members of His Majesty's Government, especially Mr. Bevin" (British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin). The Stern Gang, in common with Irgun, was fighting against the British Mandate of Palestine and murdered Britain's Minister Resident in the Middle East (West Asia), Lord Moyne, in Cairo in 1944. A memo from the Officer Administering the Government of Palestine to the Secretary of State for the Colonies the following day warned: "The Stern Group have decided to assassinate both the High Commissioner and the General Officer Commanding. In addition, a number of CID officers are to be assassinated as well as police officers and any high government officials who are thought to be anti-Semitic."

In 1946, Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and attacked the British embassy in Rome. A year later, MI5 received a report about a rumour that Begin had "undergone a plastic facial operation and that his appearance is totally different from that displayed on police photographs".

In 1948, Begin founded the Herut party. He was appointed Prime Minister in 1977 and was awarded the Nobel Peace prize with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat after signing the Camp David Accords. The U.N. Mediator Count Bernadotte of Sweden was murdered by Israelis. Since the West was sympathetic to the Zionist plan to plant a Jewish state on Arab soil, it condoned the wrongs.

In the wake of 9/11, Western discourse was transformed. Not nationalism but "Islamic fundamentalism" was the root of terrorism in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on August 1, 2006 waxed eloquent on "a clash about civilisation". There is a "Global Islamist network", he said. Scholars like Olivier Roy refute this assertion as false. To Blair, "This is war, but of a completely unconventional kind. 9/11 in the U.S., 7/7 in the U.K., 11/3 in Madrid, the countless terrorist attacks in countries as disparate as Indonesia or Algeria, what is now happening in Afghanistan and in Indonesia, the continuing conflict in Lebanon and Palestine, it is all part of the same thing. It resembles in many ways early revolutionary Communism."

His recipe is clear. "We committed ourselves to supporting Moderate Mainstream Islam." None so blind as those who refuse to see. The "moderate" Muslim differs with the "extremist" on the techniques of resistance, but neither on his perceptions of injustice nor the need to resist wrong. This perception has influenced the British Muslim and European Muslims also.

Michael Jay, the Foreign Office Under-Secretary to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, warned him in a letter of May 18, 2004: "Other colleagues have flagged up some of the potential underlying causes of extremism that can affect the Muslim community, such as discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion. But another recurring theme is the issue of British foreign policy, especially in the context of the Middle East Peace Process and Iraq. Experience of both Ministers and officials working in this area suggests that the issue of British foreign policy and the perception of its negative effect on Muslims globally plays a significant role in creating a feeling of anger and impotence amongst especially the younger generation of British Muslims. The concept of the `Ummah', i.e. that the Believers are one `nation', had led to HMG's [Her Majesty's Government] policies towards the Muslim world having a very personal resonance for young British Muslims, many of whom are taking on the burden both of the perceived injustices and of the responsibility of putting them right, but without the legitimate tools to do so. This seems to be a key driver behind recruitment by extremist organisations [e.g. recruitment drives by groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and al- Muhajiroon]."

Blair could not have been ignorant of this professional assessment. But then, more than any predecessor, he has undermined the civil service.

However, one of the world's foremost authorities on the subject holds that "the taproot of suicide terrorism is nationalism" and "at bottom suicide terrorism is a strategy for national liberation from foreign occupation by a democratic state". Therefore, "the West's strategy for the war on terrorism is fundamentally flawed. Right now, our strategy for this war presumes that suicide terrorism is mainly a product of an evil ideology called Islamic fundamentalism and that this ideology will produce campaigns of suicide terrorism wherever it exists and regardless of our military policies. This presumption is wrong and is leading toward foreign policies that are making our situation worse."

Professor Robert A. Pape teaches international relations at the University of Chicago and is the Director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. Researching his book, which covered all 462 suicide bombings around the globe, he had his colleagues scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and biographies of the Hizbollah bombers. "Of the 41, we identified the names, birthplaces, and other personal data for 38. We were shocked to find that only eight were Islamist fundamentalists; 27 were from Leftist political groups such as the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union; three were Christians, including a woman secondary school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon. What these suicide attackers - their heirs today - shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation."

The author assembled a team of advanced graduate students associated with the University of Chicago who were fluent in the main relevant languages - Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, Tamil - for an intensive survey of regional newspapers, broadcast transcripts, and other materials not currently translated into English. This project also gathered literature documenting individual martyrs from the main suicide terrorist groups themselves - such as Hizbollah, Hamas, and the Tamil Tigers - as well as all publicly available lists of suicide attacks from the main organisations in target countries that collect such data (such as the Israel Defence Forces, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. Department of State). In addition, it also amassed all the relevant data that could be found in English. All information is based on public sources and the raw data are available at the archive for the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism housed at the University of Chicago.

Judging by the articles they have written after retirement, alumni of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) share the "Islamic fundamentalism" phobia of Western hacks, albeit for different reasons, not hard to discern. They should study those archives and this book, one of the ablest to be published. It covers the Khalistanis as well as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The book demolishes conventional wisdom on the strength of a formidable database, using charts, tables and statistics. Religion adds fuel to fire but the fire is lit by foreign occupation. Jihad provides a convenient battle cry.

"The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.

"Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal; to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations, in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the border strategic objective."

Three general patterns emerge. First, nearly all suicide terrorist attacks occur as part of organised campaigns, not as isolated or random incidents. Second, democratic states are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorists. The U.S., France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and the U.K. have been the targets of almost all suicide attacks of the past two decades. Third, suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective. "From Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir to Chechnya, the sponsors of every campaign have been terrorist groups trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democratic power to withdraw from the territories they claim."

While terrorist incidents of all types have declined by nearly half from a peak of 666 in 1987 to 348 in 2001, suicide terrorism has grown and the trend is continuing. Many Americans hoped that Al Qaeda had been badly weakened by U.S. efforts since September 11, 2001. The data show otherwise. In 2002 and 2003, Al Qaeda conducted 15 suicide terrorist attacks, more than in all the years before September 11 combined, killing 439 people.

"Since September 11, 2001, the United States has responded to the growing threat of suicide terrorism by embarking on a policy to conquer Muslim countries - not simply rooting out existing havens for terrorists in Afghanistan but going further to remake Muslim societies in the Persian Gulf. To be sure, the United States must be ready to use force to protect Americans and their allies and must do so when necessary. However, the close association between foreign military occupations and the growth of suicide terrorist movements in the occupied regions should make us hesitate over any strategy centering on the transformation of Muslim societies by means of heavy military power. Although there may still be good reasons for such a strategy, we should recognise that the sustained presence of heavy American combat forces in Muslim countries is likely to increase the odds of the next 9/11."

There is another factor. Terrorists, even if aided by a state, perform in their own right. "Modern suicide terrorist groups may receive material assistance from states that share some of their political aspirations, but they are independent actors who rarely follow the dictates of others blindly."

For over 30 years, from 1945 to 1980, suicide attacks had disappeared. Their perpetrators of today have been to college. They are educated ones. Poverty is a poor explanation for their conduct. It is a three-stage process, which Pape analyses by posing three principal questions: what is the strategic logic of suicide terrorism; its political aim; its social logic. "Why does suicide attack receive mass support in some societies and not others? Without social support from the terrorists' national community, suicide terrorist campaigns could not be sustained." Sri Lanka and Kashmir supports this finding.

"Community support enables a suicide terrorist group to replenish its membership. Other kinds of terrorists can try to husband their human resources by hiding from society, but suicide terrorist organisations cannot operate without losses. Most suicide attackers are walk-in volunteers. Second, community support is essential to enable a suicide terrorist group to avoid detection, surveillance, and elimination by the security forces of the target society. Given that recruitment needs oblige them to keep a relatively high profile, suicide terrorist groups cannot prevent many members of the local community from gaining basic information that would be useful to the enemy (for instance, the identity of recruiters, common locations for recruitment, and even locations of frequently used safehouses, means of communication, and other logistics). As a result, without broad sympathy among the local population, suicide terrorist groups would be especially vulnerable to penetration, defection, and informants. They must therefore be popular enough that society as a whole would be willing to silence potential informants. Everyone may know who the terrorists are. No one must tell." Why do Kashmiri women wail at the windows as funeral processions of slain militants pass by? The individual logic is important. What drives the individual action?

These questions are answered in detail in each chapter with the support of massive data. The suicide terrorist is the weaker actor, a desperate one who uses the weapon of last resort. His target is far stronger; but is vulnerable if it is a democracy. Hence the gains reaped by the bomber. It pays. Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, a spiritual leader of Hizbollah, stressed the coercive value of suicide attack: "We believe that suicide operations should only be carried out if they can bring about a political or military change in proportion to the passions that incite a person to make of his body an explosive bomb." Abdel Karim, a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said the goal of his group was "to increase losses in Israel to a point at which the Israeli public would demand a withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip". Or, as a Hizbollah leader in Lebanon, Daud, said: "Since we cannot fight the enemy with weapons, we have to sacrifice our lives." An LTTE leader put it tersely: "to ensure maximum damage done with minimum loss of life". It is dramatic; causes panic in the state; and raises the morale of the movement.

Nationalism, not religion, is the recurring thread. "Comparison of target selection for Hamas and al-Qaeda shows that combating foreign military occupation is more central than religious motives for both groups. If religious hostility were paramount, one would expect both Hamas and al-Qaeda to attack both Christians and Jews. Similarly, if revenge for perceived injuries were a central motive, one would expect both groups to attack both the United States and Israel. However, each group in fact concentrates its efforts against the opponent that actually has troops stationed on what it sees as its homeland territory. Hamas concentrates almost all of its effort against Israel and has not attacked the United States or American citizens outside of Israel and Palestine. Al-Qaeda's main effort has been against the United States and against American allies that have deployed troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; al-Qaeda has never attacked Israel and has rarely attacked Jewish targets elsewhere."

Why did Hamas and al Jihad adopt this desperate course? Palestine provides a good case study. In the June 1967 war, Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was immediately annexed to Israel, while the West Bank and Gaza have remained under Israeli occupation since then. As of 2001, there were about 2.7 million Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Although the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories detest Israel's occupation, and although strikes, protests, and other forms of non-violent resistance began as early as 1972, for many years most of the Palestinian population preferred to accept the benefits of the economic modernisation that occurred under Israeli rule rather than support violent rebellion. Beginning in 1987, however, Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation grew progressively from violent (but unarmed) rebellion in the first Intifada from 1987 to 1992, to protracted guerilla war and suicide terrorism in the 1990s, to large-scale suicide terrorism since the start of the second Intifada in September 2000.

During the first 13 years of the occupation (1967 to 1980), only about 12,000 Jewish settlers resided in the Occupied Territories. From 1980 to 1995, this number increased more than tenfold, to 146,000 and by a further 50 per cent from 1995 to 2002, to 226,000. The growth of Jewish settlements not only consumed more land and water, but also required progressive expansion of the Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza, including more and more checkpoints that made it difficult for Palestinians to travel or even carry out ordinary business. The second Intifada was a response to the failure of the Oslo peace process to lead to full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, and especially the failure of the Camp David negotiations in August 2000. The growing number of Jewish settlers contributed to this sense of failure.

Palestinian suicide terrorist attacks began in April 1994 and continued at a rate of about three a year until the start of the second Intifada, when the number rose to over 20 a year. Although two Islamist organisations, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, have conducted the majority of Palestinian suicide attacks (79 out of 110 attacks between 1994 to 2003), there is strong evidence that Islamic fundamentalism has not been the driving force behind Palestinian suicide terrorism.

It was nationalism; the deep sense of frustration, the sheer desperation that explains the popular support for Hamas, which won the elections last year. The Oslo Accords of September 13, 1993, are a wreck. They bound Israel to withdraw its military forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, beginning from December 13, 1993, to April 13, 1994. Both deadlines were missed. Hamas launched suicide attacks on April 6 and 13. The Knesset voted to withdraw on April 18.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said on April 13: "I can't recall in the past any suicidal terror acts by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation]. We have seen by now at least six acts of this type by Hamas and Islamic Jihad... The only response to them and the enemies of peace on the part of Israel is to accelerate the negotiations." On April 18, 1994, he went further, in a major speech in the Knesset explaining why the withdrawal was necessary: "Members of the Knesset: I want to tell the truth. For 27 years we have been dominating another people against its will. For 27 years Palestinians in the territories... got up in the morning harbouring a fierce hatred for us, as Israelis and Jews. Each morning they get up to a hard life, for which we are also, but not solely responsible. We cannot deny that our continuing control over a foreign people who do not want us exacts a painful price... For two or three years we have been facing a phenomenon of extremist Islamic terrorism, which recalls Hizbollah, which surfaced in Lebanon and perpetrated attacks, including suicide missions. ... There is no end to the targets Hamas and other terrorist organisations have among us." Each Israeli became a target. It was a new game, altogether different from the PLO's tactics.

The survey in Lebanon identified 38 of the 41 attackers. Thirty of them were affiliated to groups opposed to Islamic fundamentalism. Three were not clearly associated with ideology. All 38 were native Lebanese. The book contains pictures of four women suicide attackers; all are dressed in Western clothes with stylish haircuts and even make-up. One was a Christian highschool teacher. Nothing bound them together but a common and deep commitment to end Israeli occupation.

Al Qaeda also comes in for detailed analysis. It does not act in concert with Hamas or Hizbollah. "Each is driven by essentially nationalist goals." In Pape's view, "American military policy in the Persian Gulf was most likely the pivotal factor leading to September 11. Although Islamic fundamentalism mattered, the stationing of tens of thousands of American combat troops on the Arabian Peninsula from 1990 to 2001 probably made al-Qaeda suicide attacks against Americans, including the horrible crimes committed on September 11, 2001, from ten to twenty times more likely. This finding also sheds new light on al-Qaeda's mobilisation appeals."

Examination of Al Qaeda's mobilisation rhetoric suggests a picture of the organisation that is at variance with the conventional wisdom. "Al-Qaeda is less a transnational network of like-minded ideologues brought together from across the globe via the Internet than a cross-national military alliance of national liberation movements working together against what they see as a common imperial threat. For al-Qaeda, religion matters, but mainly in the context of national resistance to foreign occupation."

Pape adds: "Overall, examination of the nationalities of al-Qaeda's suicide terrorists from 1995 to 2003 shows that American military policy in the Persian Gulf was most likely the pivotal factor leading to September 11. This is not to say that al-Qaeda is not committed to Islamic fundamentalism or that it draws no important transnational support. The fact that we can assume that al-Qaeda's suicide attackers have been committed Islamists is sufficient reason to think that Islamic fundamentalism is at least a weak force driving the movement, even if this is not borne out by the statistics. However, it is important to recognise the fundamental role played by American military policy.

There is a most informative chapter on suicide terrorist organisations around the world; the LTTE receives detailed study. The U.S.' strategy is self-defeating. "Proponents claim that Islamic fundamentalism is the principal cause of suicide terrorism and that this radical ideology is spreading through Muslim societies, dramatically increasing the prospects for a new, larger generation of anti-American terrorists in the future. Hence, the United States should install new governments in Muslim countries in order to transform and diminish the role of radical Islam in their societies. This logic led to widespread support for the conquest of Iraq and is promoted as the principal reason for regime change in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states in the future." There is a subtext - U.S. policy would help Israel to crush Palestinians; another reason for domestic public support in U.S. elections.

The author's policy prescription is withdrawal of U.S. troops from the entire Gulf while ensuring the maintenance of the "critical infrastructure" for their rapid return, if need be. The name of the game is "off-shore balancing" - alliances plus troops deployment on the seas to facilitate return. It is doubtful if this will suffice given the inflamed wrath in the region. Besides, as the author hints, amends are called for in Palestine. Unless the peace process is invigorated, there is little hope for peace. The Palestine question has an appeal that moves the entire West Asia and spreads far beyond it.

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