Suicide Bombers: Heroes or Villains?
On the morning of 7 July 2005 the inhabitants of London awoke and prepared to go out for the day. Fifty-six of them were to die the victims of terrorist bombings. For twenty years in countries across the globe members of our class have been subjected to other such murderous outrages. What motivates the bombers and who supports their actions?
One common response to an unpleasant or disturbing occurrence is to attribute bad intentions to others more often than we should given the evidence we have about their states of mind. If we believe we are under threat or are likely to be harmed by others there are at least four explanations we can adopt for their behaviour:
1. It was unintentional – an accident.
2. It was unintentional but arose from an unavoidable clash of interests.
3. It was intentional and arose out of malice or the wish to cause deliberate harm.
4. It arose from some personality or character defect in the other.
In the case of terrorist attacks a common reaction is to attribute malice or other defect –an understandable reaction to emotionally disturbing events. But politically it is a dangerous one as it disposes of the need to examine the actions of the perpetrators more closely. This unconsidered reaction can be encapsulated in a catchy slogan such as “axis of evil”. Each subsequent event can then be explained by this slogan and difficult or time-consuming analysis can be avoided. Thus in the popular imagination terrorist bombers remain “lunatics” and their activities labelled “irrational”.
Socialists challenge these reactions. We insist that emotion itself is not enough. Indeed while we share the understandable revulsion expressed by the majority of our fellow workers we insist that emotion must be accompanied by careful thought and analysis. Explaining suicide terrorist activity by reference to the make-up of the individual perpetrator while ignoring the social and political environment from which they come is inadequate. What needs to be understood is that far from being mad or lunatic or irrational, people and organisations who engage in suicide terrorism are in reality rational killers who employ violence to achieve specific political objectives.
Terrorism uses violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve its ends. It is designed to have far reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target. It is at bottom political in its aims despite the high sounding phrases used to disguise that fact.
One political analyst has examined the phenomenon in depth and has produced the following useful summary:
“Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.” (Bruce Hoffman: Inside Terrorism)
The suicide terrorist differs from the “ordinary” criminal or lunatic assassin in that the suicide terrorist is not pursuing purely egocentric goals. They are not in the main driven by the wish to line their own pockets or to satisfy some personal grievance. It is important to see the suicide terrorist as fundamentally an altruist. He or she believes that they are serving a ‘good’ cause designed to achieve a greater good for a wider constituency (real or imagined) which the terrorists and their organisation purport to represent.
Suicide terrorism has its own strategic logic. To treat it as “irrational” or driven by religion or personal economic gain fails to take account of the facts concerning the social, historical and political conditions which give rise to it. Academic and other research in the field reveals a number of things not commonly believed or understood about suicide terrorists.
Audrey Cronin – a researcher for the United States Congress – has reported that “most terrorist operatives are psychologically normal”. Their attacks were always premeditated and the perpetrators were aware of the consequences of their actions to themselves and others. Scott Atran – a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan – concludes that “Suicide terrorists on the whole have no appreciable psychopathology”. A CIA study concluded from their investigations that there was: “No psychological attribute or personality distinctive of terrorists.”
The findings of a number of studies can be briefly summarised as follows:
· Terrorists tended to be young men aged between 18 and 30.
· They are in the main well adjusted in their families and liked by their peers.
· They are often better educated and economically better off than their surrounding populations.
· Personal despair is not a significant factor in their actions.
· They are willing to sacrifice themselves for others and for what they see as the welfare of future generations.
Not motivated by religion
Despite the religious language in which the claims and statements of some terrorist organisations are made when looked at in a world wide perspective it has been found that religion is not a strongly motivating factor. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has compiled the world’s largest database on suicide terrorism including information on every attack reported between 1980 and 2004. His conclusions are:
“The data show that there is far less of a connection between suicide terrorism and religious fundamentalism than most people think”, and “Overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that terrorists view as their homeland”. Such attacks are: “Mainly a response to foreign occupation and not Islamic fundamentalism”.
To underline this one has only to recall that at the top of the suicide bomber league table are the secular nationalist Tamil Tigers operating in Sri Lanka and India. Other secular nationalist or separatist organisations who indulge in suicide bombing include the PKK and PFLP. Even in ostensibly Muslim countries secular groups are responsible for one third of all attacks.
What then is there in it for the terrorist organisation?
The characteristic mode of a terrorist attack is that of hit and run. For a relatively small organisation to directly take on the might of the armed state invites complete annihilation. Instead terrorist organisations use “cowardly” tactics such as ambush or hidden explosive devices set off by remote control. These tactics ensure a high survival rate for the terrorists. This is not the case with the suicide bomber where success inevitably means death. What are the calculations made by groups using these tactics?
Suicide attacks are attractive as they offer a range of advantages:
· The suicide terrorist has been described as the ultimate “smart weapon”. The bomber can control the time and location of the attack so as to maximise the number of casualties and/or damage done to the target.
· Suicide attacks attract wide media coverage giving maximum publicity to their supposed grievances and their determination to have them resolved.
· The publicity for their cause leads to increased support by way of new recruits and political influence locally and also to increased funds. Following one female bomber’s attack on an Israeli supermarket Saudi TV ran a ‘telethon’ which raised $100m for the organisation concerned.
· Suicide bombings are often spectacular – think of those images of the Twin Towers – and they are frightening, disorientating, intimidating and psychologically disturbing.
· They are cheap – typically around less than $100 for an attack on a target in Palestine – and success is virtually guaranteed. Moreover they do not need complicated and potentially expensive mechanisms of escape and safekeeping.
· A successful suicide attack leaves no survivor to be captured and interrogated with the danger of their passing on information that might endanger other activists.
· As killing operations they are effective – in the period mentioned earlier suicide bombings formed 3 percent of all attacks world wide but accounted for 48 percent of all deaths due to terrorism. In Palestine 2000-2002 suicide bombers accounted for 1 percent of all attacks but for 44 percent of all deaths due to terrorism.
This is an impressive list of operational advantages for the organisation using such tactics. What then are the advantages or benefits for the perpetrators themselves?
Researchers have found that what motivates most suicide bombers is a sense of outrage at a situation they find both oppressive and undignified. What must be understood here is that the term “suicide” is misleading. Those of us from a different culture find it difficult to comprehend that young people should deliberately undertake a course of action knowing with almost complete certainty that they will not survive the experience.
The perpetrators and their families and communities do not see it like that. In particular activists operating within an Islamic frame of reference know that committing suicide is forbidden by the Koran. However they believe that there is a divine command to protect their religion and way of life from attack by infidel unbelievers. Verses from their holy texts can be quoted to justify this. By undertaking such attacks the activist is seen not as a suicide but as a martyr and as acting in a highly commendable way in line with a long and noble tradition.
In addition a potential Islamic martyr is assured by elders and clerics that they will suffer no pain, will avoid the supposed horrific purification period in the grave, and will go straight to heaven. Martyrs are also allowed the privilege of ensuring that 70 members of their family also go to heaven.
In the meantime the families left behind are assured of material support from various religious, charitable and philanthropic organisations – many of them with their own
political agendas. The martyrs’ families are also the recipients of a number of less economically tangible but nevertheless real benefits – the honour and respect of the community for example.
Where they exist then the religious beliefs of suicide bombers act as an enabling factor and not as a motivating one – they are the lubricant in the engine not the petrol in the tank. And just as the IRA bomber did not intend to turn Protestants and agnostics into Catholics so Muslim suicide bombers are not in the business of religious conversion.
There are patriotic, political, and nationalistic aspects to these altruistic acts which demonstrate how altruism – the undertaking of tasks primarily for the benefit of others – can be warped and distorted by political interests. The result is that this otherwise admirable human trait is made to work for the political interests of a minority bent on achieving political change often of an overtly nationalist kind
A brief examination of the political agendas of three organisations among many that advocate and pursue a policy of suicide bombing will illustrate what has been said above.
Osama bin Laden’s messages to the world are invariable couched in religious terms but in reality his first and abiding concern relates to political conditions in Saudi Arabia. He is driven by a strong desire to replace the present rulers there – possibly with himself though this is never explicitly stated – and with an obsession to end United States presence in the Middle East. Two thirds of all Al Qaeda attacks originate from countries with a US military presence not from for example Sudan or Iran – both strongly Islamic states.
He castigates the United States because it supports regimes that he considers are corrupt, and because “It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources” They should “Deal with us on the basis of mutual interests and benefits, rather than the policies of subjugation, theft and occupation.”
These demands seek alterations to geopolitical realities rather than changes in religious affiliation. After an analysis of bin Laden propaganda video tapes Fawaz Gerges of Columbia University has concluded that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are “religious nationalists” and that “under the thick layer of bin Laden’s rhetoric and Islamic trans-nationalism lies an unconscious Saudi nationalist.”
The Islamic Resistance Movement – better known as Hamas – aims “to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” That phrase is of course is double speak for the destruction of the state of Israel – not for religious reasons but for economic and political ones mainly to do with the dispossession and displacement of the Arab population living in Palestine prior to 1948.
Article 12 of their “Covenant” or manifesto reads: “Nationalism, from the point of view of the Islamic Resistance Movement, is part of the religious creed. If other nationalist movements are connected with materialistic, human or regional causes, [the] nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement has all these elements as well.” (Emphasis added).
Islamic Jihad—also known as Hizballah (the Party of God)—is a radical Shia group formed in Lebanon in 1988. Their stated objectives include the expulsion of the United States and the French from Lebanon thus “Putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land” also expressed as “destroying American hegemony in our land.” They claim to reject both Capitalism and Communism as both are incapable “of laying the foundations for a just society.”
Here again we have a radical group that has gained seats in the legislature of a country only to find that the economic realities are not capable of political manipulation to the extent that they might wish. Faced with a number of intractable economic problems and increasing social unrest Hizballah has had to act like any other capitalist party and enter into negotiations over competing interests so as to maintain a hold on political power.
One further thing unites these organisations. They are led almost exclusively by members of what is an emerging privileged class. This class has its sights on political power and is intent on replacing the existing elite in societies and states that are not yet fully formed capitalist ones. They encourage and facilitate others to carry out acts of murder that they themselves are unwilling to undertake. In effect they are attempting to emerge as a new ruling class by clambering through the blood and over the bodies of our class.