The Unlikely Case for Suicide Attacks

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

A picture taken on July 11, 2016 shows Iraqi municipality cleaners looking at posters commemorating the victims of a suicide bomb attack at the site of the explosion which killed nearly 300 people in Baghdad's Karrada district. The blast was one of the deadliest single attacks in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on July 11, 2016 shows Iraqi municipality cleaners looking at posters commemorating the victims of a suicide bomb attack at the site of the explosion which killed nearly 300 people in Baghdad’s Karrada district. The blast was one of the deadliest single attacks in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

The complex logic behind suicide attacks has baffled and fascinated the Western world since 9/11. The news media portrays them as symptoms of radicalism stemming from extreme interpretations of Islam, which some conservatives blame for the birth of the phenomenon. Political scientists such as Robert Pape and his supporters, on the other hand, argue that terrorist organizations only conduct suicide attacks against democratic governments occupying foreign countries.

I wanted to know what the radicals and terrorists themselves thought, so I asked around. A subtler reality emerged: they use suicide attacks not when their opponents have military supremacy alone but when, in addition, a political solution to a war appears out of reach.

Representative of Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine to Iran Nasser Abu Sharif gives a speech during the 5th International conference of Gaza, Symbol of Resistance at Shams Hall in Iran's capital Tehran on January 18, 2015.

Representative of Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine to Iran Nasser Abu Sharif gives a speech during the 5th International conference of Gaza, Symbol of Resistance at Shams Hall in Iran’s capital Tehran on January 18, 2015.

Nasser Abu Sharif, the representative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Tehran, told me PIJ’s reason for relying on suicide attacks. “We have come to believe, based on our experience, that the Zionist Entity is unbeatable through negotiations,” he explained. “Martyrdom operations are a weapon to change the enemy’s thinking and force it to reconsider its occupation. Under negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Israel has increased its settlements exponentially.” [1]

The anti-Semitic, Islamist terminology (“martyrdom operations” instead of suicide attacks and “the Zionist Entity” instead of Israel) might obscure Abu Sharif’s true message: PIJ has chosen suicide attacks as an alternative to the peace process, which, according to PIJ, has gone nowhere. “If Israel left Palestine now, we would throw roses in response and would not cast a stone,” he said.

Whether you believe PIJ or not, countless observers have acknowledged the intractability of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. Two years ago, Israel suspended negotiations with the Palestinians; last year, it ended contact with EU officials involved in the peace process. Palestine, meanwhile, has accused Israel of genocide and threatened it with the International Criminal Court.

As political solutions seem less likely, military responses such as suicide attacks become more attractive to insurgents. “In suicide bombers, the terrorist organization dispatching them gets a weapon that is horrifying, that can be precisely targeted, that can infiltrate into heavily protected places, and can cause considerable damage,” Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, said in an email. “In that sense, the suicide bomber is a terrorist group’s ultimate weapon — their version of a cruise missile.”

Taliban Spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi.

Taliban Spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi.

Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi, the Taliban’s spokesman for the south of Afghanistan, agreed. “When martyrdom operations are used effectively, the enemy flees, and entire villages and regions are therefore liberated,” he said. “Martyrdom operations are the best, most powerful way to defeat the enemy in the military arena, and the enemy’s defeat also ensures changes in his political strategy.”

In Afghanistan too, the peace process has struggled. Problems ranging from Pakistani interference and hardliners in the Taliban to targeted killings of Taliban leaders and the Afghan government’s dependence on Western militaries have prevented a meaningful engagement between both sides. Indifferent to the peace process, the Taliban has reinvested its political energies in military assets: car bombs and suicide attacks. Earlier this year, a Taliban truck bomb killed sixty-four in Kabul.

Suicide attacks are neither an Islamic phenomenon nor a recent one. A nineteenth-century Russian socialist staged the first suicide attack in modern history. During World War II, Japanese pilots conducted Kamikaze raids as the Allies’ strategy of leapfrogging cut supply chains to Tokyo. Throughout the Sri Lankan Civil War, Hindu rebels launched suicide attacks against Buddhist civilians and soldiers. In all three cases, peace processes collapsed and faltered or never started.

Turkey offers the most illustrative example. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist, secularist resistance movement and terrorist organization seeking autonomy for the country’s Kurdish minority, waged a campaign of suicide attacks for years before a ceasefire and peace process lasting 2013-2015. During negotiations, the suicide attacks stopped. After the Turkish government suspended the peace process, PKK suicide attacks hit Ankara and Istanbul, killing dozens.

A man looks out at ruined houses after returning to Cizre, Turkey, on March 2016. The buildings were damaged during clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants associated with the PKK. Cizre, is home to about 130,000 residents, many of whom were allowed back home in March 2016 for the first time in months, discovering widespread destruction resulting from the military operation. (Photo Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images).

A man looks out at ruined houses after returning to Cizre, Turkey, on March 2016. The buildings were damaged during clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants associated with the PKK. Cizre, is home to about 130,000 residents, many of whom were allowed back home in March 2016 for the first time in months, discovering widespread destruction resulting from the military operation. (Photo Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images).

Analysts should note that some Islamist resistance movements have even declined to use suicide attacks. “Martyrdom operations are not part of the philosophy behind our military actions,” an official from Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist paramilitary in the Syrian opposition, told me over WhatsApp. “We can use remotely detonated car bombs to hit the military checkpoints of the regime and its allies. There is no need for martyrdom operations. The lives of our fighters are expensive.”

As Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War last year and interfered in a difficult peace process, a captain in the Free Syrian Army proposed conducting suicide attacks against Russian soldiers. Though he shunned al-Qaeda’s violent excesses, the commander assured me that he would use any means necessary to defend his country from an enemy who refused to negotiate.

History has proved suicide attacks a multifaith phenomenon if atheists, Hindus, Muslims, and secularists from the PKK to PIJ are willing to use them. Many terrorist organizations see suicide attacks as a last resort and a means to an end. “In principle, we oppose violence and try to avoid violent tactics,” said Abu Sharif. “Of course we are against civilians paying the price for their political leaders. […] When Japan struck Pearl Harbor,” the PIJ representative reminded me, “America responded with nuclear bombs and justified it as necessary to stop the war.” If the West wants to stop suicide attacks, then, it should focus on political solutions to the conflicts that produce them.

Footnotes
[1] With negotiations stalled between the Palestinians and Israelis, the number of settlers in the West Bank now exceeds 350,000 — including about 80,000 living in isolated settlements like Eli and Ofra that are hard to imagine remaining in place under any deal. In addition, there are another 300,000 Israelis living in parts of Jerusalem that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and later annexed in a move most of the world considers illegal. (Jodi Rudoren and Jeremy Ashkenas, “Netanyahu and the Settlements“, The New York Times, 12.03.2015).

This entry was posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Security Policy, Terrorism.

One Response to The Unlikely Case for Suicide Attacks

  1. SKYHOOK47 says:

    Actually history has showed us a way how to deal with this kind of suicide attacks.Just look up what the US army did against the Moros in Philippines.The tactics were brutal but effective.If the fanatics are useing religion as a weapon then that weapon should be turned against them.This is the only language the fanatics understand.

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