Terrorists and Their Tools – Part I

Suicide bombings driven more by politics than religious zeal

Riaz Hassan
YaleGlobal, 23 April 2004

Hamas suicide bombers rally: Religious recruits with a secular goal of coercing the Israeli government to change its policies.

ADELAIDE: At a time when the Western world worries about weapons of mass destruction in terrorist hands, a more basic device has emerged as the weapon of choice – a life itself. This use of life as a weapon – now exercised mainly by Islamic youth – is frequently presented as the manifestation of Islamic fanaticism. But studies by serious scholars and recent surveys show that the spate of suicide attacks in the Middle East is linked more to politics than to religion.

Data shows that the incidence of suicide attacks has increased from 31 in the 1980s to 98 in 2003 alone. The war in Iraq and escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have led to such an increase. Furthermore, American foreign policy may be contributing to an acceleration of this trend.

In particular, suicide attacks are now plaguing the occupying forces in Iraq. They are escalating among the Iraqi resistance groups because of their lethality and media impact. Suicide attacks are also being used by Iraqi Shiite and Sunni Muslim militants in their bloody sectarian conflict. In general, suicide attacks constitute about three percent of all terrorist incidents, but they account for almost half of the deaths due to terrorism. When the US troops entered an abandoned factory shed in Fallujah during their siege of the city on April 11, they found a dormitory of would be suicide bombers, complete with a cache of leather belts stuffed with explosives and bomb making instructions.

What motivates the perpetrators of such attacks? In a ground-breaking study, University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape has shown that there is little connection between religious fundamentalism and suicide attacks. The leading instigators of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2001 were the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a nationalist group whose members, though from Hindu families, are adamantly opposed to religion. Religion does not play as large a role as it is normally accorded. Religion is used effectively by the Palestinian radical groups Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the al’Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to recruit suicide attackers and to raise operational funds. But the leadership of these organizations has a secular goal: to coerce the Israeli government to change its policies and to leave Palestinian territories. Thus, even if some suicide attackers are irrational or fanatical, the leadership of the groups that recruit and direct them is not.

Pape’s study shows that suicide attacks follow a strategic logic designed to coerce modern liberal democracies into making political and territorial concessions. “Terrorists have learned that it pays,” leading to a rise in suicide attacks over the past two decades, according to Pape. Hezbollah- and Hamas-directed attacks succeeded in compelling American and French troops to leave Lebanon in 1983. They also prompted Israeli forces to leave Lebanon in 1985 and quit the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1994 and 1995. The Tamil Tigers succeeded in winning major concessions from the Sri Lankan government from 1990 onwards using this tactic.

The few studies that have tried to explain the motivations of suicide attacks have tended to focus on the attacker’s psychopathology, poverty and lack of education, or individual motives, such as religious indoctrination, especially Islamic fundamentalism. These explanations have been found to be seriously flawed.

After reviewing psychological studies of suicide attackers, University of Michigan psychologist Scott Atran concluded that suicide attackers have no appreciable psychological pathologies and are as educated and economically well-off as the surrounding populations. To understand why non-pathological individuals volunteer to become suicide attackers we must focus on situational factors, which are largely sociological in nature. In the context of the Middle East, these include a collective sense of historical injustice, political subservience, and a pervasive sense of social humiliations vis-a-vis global powers and their allies.

Understanding the dynamics of suicide attacks also requires understanding what drives humans to suicide. In modern psychiatry and sociology, suicide is regarded as an end, an exit from adverse social conditions in which the individual feels powerless. In my studies of suicide over the past 30 years, however, I have questioned this characterization. Suicidal behavior in a variety of settings may be used not as an end in itself, but as a means to achieve multiple ends, including self-empowerment in the face of powerlessness, redemption in the face of damnation, and honor in the face of humiliation. In my opinion, this is central to a more meaningful understanding and explanation of contemporary suicide attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Nasra Hassan, a United Nations relief worker in Gaza, interviewed 250 aspiring suicide bombers and their recruiters. She found that none were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, suicidal or depressed. But their social contexts displayed the dynamics of their actions.

According to her respondents, “If our wives and children are not safe from Israeli tanks and rockets, theirs will not be safe from our human bombs.” In an interview, the late spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yasin, told her that martyrdom was a way of redemption, “Love of martyrdom is something deep inside the heart. But these rewards are not in themselves the goal of the martyr. The only aim is to win Allah’s satisfaction. That can be done in the simplest and speediest manner by dying in the cause of Allah. And it is Allah who selects martyrs.” Humiliation has acted as a powerful magnet for recruiting suicide bombers. A senior recruiter told her, “After every massacre, every massive violation of our rights and defilement of our holy places, it is easy for us to sweep the streets for boys who want to do a martyrdom operation.”

Since Muslims professing religious motives have perpetrated most suicide attacks over the past two years, including those on September 11, 2001, it may be obvious to conclude that Islamic fundamentalism is the root of this phenomenon. This assumption has fueled the belief that future September 11 type attacks can only be prevented through liberalization and democratization of Muslim societies. This was a key rationale used by the United States to mobilize public support for the war in Iraq. Ironically, policies based on such an assumption may foster the development of domestic and foreign policies in the United States which are likely to worsen the situation.

One indication that this may happen is reflected in the results of the March 2004 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which showed that in several Muslim countries (Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan), a majority of respondents thought that the American government was overreacting to terrorism. The respondents also supported suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israel and against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq.

What strategies can be used to stem the tide of suicide attacks? Military actions and concessions to the groups sponsoring suicide attacks are not likely to succeed. According to sociologist Kathleen Carley of Carnegie Mellon University, eliminating the central actors with extensive networks and ties to other cell members actually spurs terrorists to adapt more quickly and is less effective in the long run. Thus the assassination of leaders, a favorite Israeli tactic, may be counter-productive. Pape has suggested that the most effective way to counter the challenge of suicide terrorism is to reduce terrorists’ confidence in their ability to carry out attacks on the target society, through better border defenses and homeland security.

To eliminate suicide attacks ultimately requires addressing and lessening the grievances of populations that carry them out. Support for suicide attacks is unlikely to diminish without tangible progress in achieving at least some of the fundamental goals that suicide attackers and those supporting them share.


© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization


2 Responses to “Terrorists and Their Tools – Part I”

  1. galleonroberts Says:

    COMMENT ONE by Michael Roberts

    The fascinated outrage that courses through analyses of suicide bombings in the corridors of Atlanticland says more about the cloistered world of the analysts in the West than the situation of the bombers. Riaz Hassan addresses this world critically and, quite validly, emphasizes the central importance of the political goals espoused by the Palestinians and Tamil Tigers (and now the Iraqis).
    Hassan brings to this commentary an expertise in the study of suicide in Westernized countries as well as a familiarity with the wider Islamic context. His stress on the anger aroused by the political humiliation encountered by Palestinians in their daily round as well as their general situation of dis-empowered weakness highlights the virtues – to the Palestinians — of suicide mission as a weapon of the weak that is as much symbolic-protest as a stratagem designed to breed anxiety in the heartland of one’s enemy.
    However, when Riaz relies on Robert Pape to assert that “there is little connection between religious fundamentalism and suicide attacks,” I cannot go along with him. Riaz is a colleague and a friend in the same city, so this is a voice in amiable disagreement, one posited by a person who has no expertise in the Islamic lands, only some cursory information.
    On a priori grounds I note that any large body of personnel directed towards suicide operations by an organization would be inspired by a range of motives. My counter affirmation here is partly conditioned by extensive reading about the kamikaze, and partly by an awareness of the religio-cultural conditioning that has supported suicide missions of various sorts in southern India and Sri Lanka.
    In any event Riaz hassan’s assertion is contradicted within the text of his own Note by the quotation from the spiritual leader, Sheikh Yasin, which stresses the desire “to win Allah’s satisfaction” as one of the imperatives for such missions among the Palestinians.
    It is, of course, not an either/or situation for the Palestinians (and, indeed, other radical Muslims). Political and religious inspirations surely intertwine. I do not think there is any social science methodology that can measure their relative significance precisely. It is about time that we gave up the fiction that we are part of the “behavioural sciences” in any positivist sense.

  2. galleonroberts Says:

    Comment TWO

    In discussions with Riaz from around 2004 I have been dismayed by the value he assigns to the work of Robert Pape. From my disposition towards giving considerable weight to the influence of cultural conditioning, Pape seemed to be closeted within rational choice theory and directed by instrumentalist reasoning. In subsequent exchanges with Donald Horowitz (mid-2006) I discovered that Pape adheres to a school of thought in USA that deems history and culture to be of little relevance to contemporary studies. Phew!!
    Critical review essays on Pape’s Dying to Win are now beginning to appear and one can point to them for counter arguments which modify and/or demolish several of the generalizations presented in his work. With my Sri Lankan expertise, however, it was immediately clear that his chapter on the LTTE was replete with errors, a few minor, but some quite colossal. These have been addressed in an article that will soon appear online. Here, let me address those errors that Riaz has incorporated into his Comment in the Yale Global Online issue of 2004.
    The most significant of these is the manner in which Pape deploys the use of suicide bombers by the LTTE to bolster the main thrust of his thesis: that the suicide attacks have succeeded in wresting negotiations and compromises from democratic governments. Reiterating this contention, Riaz says that “the Tamil Tigers succeeded in winning major concessions from the Sri Lankan government from 1990 onwards using this tactic.”
    This is a gross error rooted in Pape’s summary picture. No stable political gains have been derived by either the Tamils or the LTTE as a result of suicide attacks. Where the governments of the day entered into negotiations with the LTTE (in 1989/90, 1994/95 and 2001/02) the process arose from a complex of factors, including impending elections in the south on two of these occasions and the considerable success in conventional warfare achieved by the LTTE on the last occasion. Attributing these outcomes to suicide attacks is a species of Papesian fantasy.
    Pape’s wishful conjectures are compounded by poor homework and one dubious act of subterfuge. He is blissfully unaware that most South Asian peoples do not adhere to strict boundary lines in their religious practices so that Hindus, Buddhist and Christians approach deities and saints in each others’ precincts. In his initial article in 2003 Pape assumed erroneously that the Tamil Tiger suicide bombers were all Hindus. It is this article that seems to have influenced Riaz to argue that the LTTE are “from Hindu families [but] adamantly opposed to religion” (the latter is a strange formulation).
    In a bizarre twist Pape’s early article was spotted by an avid Tiger supporter residing in the Tamil diaspora. Dr. Sachi Sri Kantha promptly commenced a series of friendly email exchanges with Pape. Among other notes, he analysed the names of the 240 Black Tiger māvīirar (great heroes) listed in the LTTE’s Sooriya Puthalvargal 2003 Souvenir and told Pape that twenty of these ‘martyrs’ were Catholics (Sri Kantha to Pape, 24 July 2004 in http://www.sangam.org).
    Despite having this information in his files, Pape proceeded to give the American Conservative an interview for publication (on 18th July 2005) and carefully avoided any reference to Christian involvement in the LTTE (and Tamil) struggle. Not surprisingly, Sri Kantha was offended and chided him thus: “Why did you fail to mention the ‘Christian families’? Is it because, this would offend the sentiments of the American Conservative readership?” [Sri Kantha, “On Educating Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago,” http://www.sangam.org].
    Why indeed? In other words it is best not to build castles about Sri Lanka from Pape’s sand.

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