Review by Clark McCauley

Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers, by
Mohammed Hafez. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2006.
75 pages. Appends. to p. 98. Notes to p. 109. Resources for further
research to p. 113. Index to p. 124. $10.

Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom, by
Mohammed Hafez. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2007.
241 pages. Appends. to p. 258. Index to p. 285. $14.

Understanding and Addressing Suicide Attacks: the Faith and Politics of
Martyrdom Operations, by David Cook and Olivia Allison. Westport, CT:
Praeger Security International. 148 pages. Notes to p. 169. Gloss. to p.
177. Bibl. to p. 192. Index to p. 202. $44.95.

Reviewed by Clark McCauley

What is the importance of Islam for understanding Muslim suicide attacks?
At one extreme is the view that suicide attacks are the expression of a
fanatic strain of Islam; at the other extreme is the argument that such
attacks are the expression of desperate politics — the warfare of the
weak. In the first view, Muslim suicide terrorism cannot be understood
without understanding Islam in all the complexity of its competing sects
and schools. In the second, Muslim suicide terrorism can be understood
with the same concepts and mechanisms that make sense of Tamil Tiger
terrorism in Sri Lanka or PKK terrorism in Turkey. The three books
reviewed here offer a mix of political and religious analyses, with Hafez
heavier on the politics than Cook and Allison.

Hafez’s take on Palestinian suicide bombers is neat, clean, and brief.
Chapter 1 offers a quick survey of explanations of suicide terrorism.
Chapter 2 presents results from a database of Palestinian suicide attacks.
Chapters 3-5 examine organizational, individual, and cultural motives for
such attacks. The concluding chapter summarizes policy implications.

The three appendices are useful contributions in their own right. Appendix
A lists suicide bombings in Israel, West Bank, and Gaza between September
1993 and February 2005. Hafez generously offers access to this database to
other researchers. Cases are listed by date, including information about
the group sponsoring the bomber, number of bombers, number of victims,
name, and, where available, the age of each bomber. Appendix B provides
English translations of the “last will and testaments” of four bombers,
each document posted shortly after the attack on the web site of the
sponsoring organization (two for al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and two for
Izzedeen al-Qassam Militias). Appendix C provides organizational profiles
for these and other groups that deploy suicide bombers.

Hafez argues persuasively for a distinction of levels of analysis:
Palestinian suicide attacks are a strategic choice for the groups
deploying suicide bombers, an act of personal and religious redemption for
the bomber, and an expression of Islamic revivalism and nationalist fervor
in a culture that venerates martyrdom and martyrs. All three levels are
required to understand Palestinian suicide attacks.

The three levels are indeed useful, but perhaps not so neatly divisible as
represented. Two of five failed suicide bombers quoted on pages 49-50 seem
to have had strategic motives. One says, “I believe the operation would
hurt the enemy… Also [a] successful mission greatly influences society. It
raises the morale of the people….” Another says “I know the bombing will
hurt the Israelis and prove to them we are still ready to fight … The most
important thing was that we should make an operation in the heart of
Israel after the [Israeli military] penetration in order to prove that we
were not influenced by the military attack.” There is no doubt that
personal redemption is important for many suicide bombers, but perhaps
many also participate in the strategic goals of the group that sends them.

In sum, this little gem of a book about suicide bombers in Palestine is a
very useful addition to any course on terrorism. In contrast, Hafez’s book
about suicide bombers in Iraq is not as tight and tidy a package, though
it offers a wealth of interesting ideas and observations. At least a few
of the many highlights deserve to be mentioned here.

Hafez’s identification of Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq between 2003-2006
is, itself, a notable contribution. These groups are bewildering in their
variety; they use multiple names at different times and in different
locations. The listing of these groups and their aliases in Appendix 1 is
an essential scorecard with which to track insurgent players in Iraq.

In addition Hafez provides what must be the most reliable identification
of suicide bombers in Iraq, from 2003 until February 2006D when his data
collection ended. Appendix 2 lists names and origins for 99 male and 3
female suicide bombers: 44 from Saudi Arabia, 8 from Italy, 7 from Kuwait,
7 from Iraq, 6 from Syria, 3 from Libya, 3 from Jordan, 2 from Belgium, 2
from France, 2 from Spain, 2 from Egypt, and one from each of Lebanon,
Tunisia, Morocco, Britain, and Turkey. Country of origin is unknown for
11. The data came from jihadi web sites, including martyrdom videos. Many
readers will wish that the listing had included more information about the
backgrounds of the bombers (e.g., age, education, occupation) and
about the characteristics of the attacks (e.g., solo vs multiple suicide
attackers, ethnicity of targets).

Most suicide bombers in Iraq have never been identified. Hafez indicates
that there were 514 suicide attacks in Iraq between 2003 and August 2006,
as against only 102 identified bombers. Presumably the number 514 is the
denominator of percentages presented in bar charts and pie charts to show
the patterns of these attacks. For instance, only 15% of suicide attacks
have targeted coalition forces; the most common targets are Iraqi security
forces (44%) and civilians (23%). Over half of all of the suicide attacks
(58%) are not claimed by any insurgent group. The latter result is
surprising, given that suicide attacks had in the past often been claimed
by more than one group.

Of attacks that were claimed, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) claimed about 75%,
Baathists claimed about 12%, and Ansar al Sunna claimed about 12%. It is a
striking result to find Baathists, along with AQI and Ansar al Sunna, as
one of the top three groups claiming suicide attacks. The Baathists are
secular Iraqi nationalists, whereas Ansar are Islamist revolutionaries
seeking a Sunni version of the rule of the mullahs in Iran, and AQI are
jihadi Salafists seeking to unite all Muslims in a new caliphate. What
does it mean that secularists have turned to suicide attacks?

Suicide terrorism, Hafez suggests, is the weapon of the weakest factions
of the insurgency — the jihadists and the Baathists. Neither of these
groups can depend on any popular appeal; their only hope of influence is
in destabilization and chaos. In contrast, the major Sunni factions, who
want to restore as much as possible of the previous Sunni hegemony in
Iraq, have broader support and no shortage of trained militants. They do
not need the shock power of suicide attacks to inflict heavy damage on
Shi’a, Kurds, and, until summer 2007, Sunnis who collaborate with
coalition forces.

Of course the example of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka has already
demonstrated that religious motivation is not necessary for suicide
attacks. Indeed Robert Pape has suggested that suicide attacks are
associated with nationalist struggle against foreign occupation. But Hafez
argues that a nationalist struggle cannot explain why 98 of 102 identified
suicide bombers in Iraq came from outside Iraq.

Instead, Hafez offers a “push-pull” theory to explain the motivations of
foreign volunteers. He suggests that they are pushed from their countries
of origin by the new pressure on radical Islamists that accompanies the
war on terrorism. And they are pulled by a culture of martyrdom in which
Western domination of Muslims is a humiliation that can only be redeemed
by the ultimate personal sacrifice.

From a psychological perspective, the culture of martyrdom that draws
foreign volunteers to Iraq might itself be interpreted as a new form of
nationalism. Jihadi Salafists identify with an Islamic umma that
transcends state borders, a nation in which religious identity converges
with political identity. From this perspective, at least the AQI suicide
attackers in Iraq can be seen as part of a nationalist resistance to
foreign occupation of Muslim lands.

Finally, Hafez provides a very interesting graph of number of suicide
attacks in Iraq by month, from March 2003 to August 2006. The chart
indicates that peaks in suicide attacks tend to occur in association with
two kinds of events. First, suicide attacks tend to increase after major
counter-insurgency operations, presumably to show that the operations did
not succeed. Second, attacks tend to increase during or after political
developments that might suggest a return to normalcy (e.g., election of
the new Iraqi parliament in December 2005), again presumably to show the
continuing power of the insurgents. This is a striking demonstration of
the dynamic political competition that links terrorist attacks with state

It is interesting to note that the graph of all insurgent attacks
(including suicide attacks) does not look like the graph of suicide
attacks alone. More might be made of the comparison of suicide attacks
with conventional attacks; indeed, the book is full of ideas for analysts
and researchers working on suicide terrorism.

Like Hafez, Cook and Allison examine both politics and Islam in order to
understand suicide attacks. Although their title is more general, they
focus mostly on jihadi suicide attacks with only occasional reference to
martyrdom operations by the Tamil Tigers and other groups. They agree with
Hafez about the importance of the distinction between organizational
motives and individual motives, and they unpack much of the same history
of conflicting views and interpretations of Islam.

A unique contribution of the book by Cook and Allison is the beginning of
an analysis of successful suicide attacks that are not repeated despite
continuing terrorist capacity and no government concessions. The authors
suggest that these are failed attacks from the perspective of the
organization sending the bombers, and point to several examples including
Bangladesh and Morocco. Bangladesh experienced two jihadi suicide attacks
in late 2005, and none since. Morocco suffered a coordinated attack of
multiple suicide bombers in 2003, and then no more such attacks until
2007. It would be useful to know more about when suicide attacks do not
work for the organization employing them.

Another valuable contribution is a database of 61 fatwas regarding the
legitimacy of suicide attacks. These come from 15 Muslim countries, four
non-Muslim countries, and Al Qaeda. The fatwas agree with most of the
Muslim world that Palestinian suicide terrorism against Israelis is indeed
martyrdom, with less support for martyrdom operations that kill Muslims.
The examples given suggest that the fatwas appeal as often to political as
to religious arguments. Readers may wish that translations of these fatwas
had been made available as an appendix.

Also worth noting is the recognition, shared by Hafez, that most radical
Muslims are not violent. Many Salafis try to keep clean of the world
rather than trying to change it. Salafis who want change go usually to
education, missionary work, and social work. It is important in responding
to suicide terrorism to recognize how few are those who are dangerous —
not least to avoid generating new grievances by overreaction.

Finally, there are two chapters about mass media representation of suicide
attacks on television and on the Internet. Here Cook and Allison show that
news coverage of suicide attacks has changed between 1995 and 2003: CNN
and NBC reported about a quarter of such attacks before 9/11 but reported
about 60% after 9/11. Qualitatively, explanations of suicide attacks are
rare on television, and the rare attempts at explanation tend to favor
political over personal motivations. To the extent that response to
terrorism in a democracy is conditioned by public views of the problem,
further analysis of terrorism in the media may be warranted.

Taken together, the three books represent a strong second wave of research
on suicide terrorism. All three recognize that the motives of suicide
bombers can differ from the motives of the organizations that send them.
All three emphasize the need to include personal, political, and cultural
factors in order to understand suicide bombing. Compared with earlier
books about suicide terrorism, all three studies profit from the authors’
expertise in Arabic language and the religion and culture of Islam to
enrich analysis with translations of original documents and web sites. The
result is a substantial improvement in our understanding of the

Perhaps the next wave of research will illuminate some major uncertainties
remaining: given broad acceptance of suicide bombing as martyrdom in the
Muslim world, and broad acceptance of the view that the war on terrorism
is a war on Islam, why do so few become suicide bombers? How does this
kind of radicalization occur? What can be done to prevent or reverse
radicalization? Hafez, Cook, and Allison agree in suggesting better use
of Islamic arguments against suicide and killing of civilians, but it is
possible that radical religious interpretations are less cause than
rationalization of a tactic originating in political desperation.

Clark McCauley, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010,

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