Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1962

Suicide bombers — their bodies as weapons

This article is over 16 years, 5 months old
To dismiss suicide bombers as simply deranged individuals ignores compelling evidence of the political background, argues Kevin Ovenden
Issue 1962
The suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983 claimed 241 lives
The suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983 claimed 241 lives

The only explanation Tony Blair will tolerate for the atrocities in London is an empty one that serves himself. They are, he says, simply the product of an “evil ideology” that, in some mysterious way, has burst in to an otherwise tranquil world.

It is harboured by Muslims, who now have the prime responsibility for extinguishing it. George Bush, speaking days before the first London bombings in an effort to counter anti-war sentiment in the US, could have penned Blair’s script.

He said, “Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania.

“There is only one course of action against them — to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.”

But a new study by a Chicago professor whose team are the only researchers in the world to have meticulously documented cases of suicide attacks, destroys the attempt to use deaths in London to justify war abroad.

Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win, analysed 315 suicide terror attacks between 1980 and 2003.

He writes, “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 the 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.”

Pape’s concern is not to end US dominance in the Middle East, but how better to secure it. Nevertheless, he writes: “The presumed connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading and may be encouraging domestic and foreign policies likely to worsen America’s situation and to harm many Muslims needlessly.”

In the period he covers, the largest number of suicide attacks, 76, was committed by a secular nationalist group — Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.


The equally secular Kurdish PKK used suicide terrorism 14 times in Turkey. He calculates that Islamist groups were connected to about half the attacks from 1980 to 2003. In a recent interview Pape explains:

“If Islamic fundamentalism were the pivotal factor, then we should see some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world, like Iran, which has 70 million people — three times the population of Iraq and three times the population of Saudi Arabia — with some of the most active groups in suicide terrorism against the US.

“However, there has never been an Al Qaida suicide terrorist from Iran, and we have no evidence that there are any suicide terrorists in Iraq from Iran.

“Sudan is a country of 21 million people. Its government is extremely Islamic fundamentalist…Yet there has never been an Al Qaida suicide terrorist from Sudan.

“I have the first complete set of data on every Al Qaida suicide terrorist from 1995 to early 2004, and they are not from some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world. Two thirds are from the countries where the US has stationed heavy combat troops since 1990.”

As for the latest country to have large numbers of US troops imposed on it, he adds, “Before our invasion, Iraq never had a suicide terrorist attack in its history. Never. Since our invasion, suicide terrorism has been escalating rapidly with 20 attacks in 2003, 48 in 2004, and over 50 in just the first five months of 2005.

“Every year that the US has stationed 150,000 combat troops in Iraq, suicide terrorism has doubled.”

Two recently released reports make the same case. Saudi intelligence discovered that some of its citizens are going to fight in Iraq because “most were heeding the calls from clerics and activists to drive infidels out of Arab land”.

An Israeli report found, “The vast majority of non-Iraqi Arabs killed in Iraq have never taken part in any terrorist activity prior to their arrival in Iraq.”

The attacks on London on 7 July, of course, were the work of people who were brought up in Britain.


Blair wants to associate them with terrorism abroad and at the same time detach them from the rational explanations Pape and others give for that terrorism.

So pro-war commentators have poured over the London bombers’ lives in an effort to find some assumed psychotic character trait or, in the case of the right wing tabloids, to further incite hatred against asylum seekers.

But in their upbringing and position in society the most obvious features of the London bombers are the ones they share with those who have committed similar attacks abroad.

The neo-conservative right in the US likes to portray suicide bombers as uneducated misfits who rail against “our” modern values and hanker for a feudal obscurantist order.

Other fake explanations have centred on a supposed frustrated desire for sexual gratification, which entry into paradise will apparently fulfil.

The journalist Christoph Reuter, author of a history of suicide bombing, took apart the attempt by CBS’s 60 Minutes programme to claim that was a central motivation for the leader of the 9/11 hijackers.

Suicide bombers are, in general, more likely to have gone beyond elementary education, to be part of the modern world but bitterly alienated from it.

Some have directly experienced the injustice that feeds the swamp of bitterness out of which terrorism emerges.

Eyad El-Sarraj, the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, told Reuter that Palestinian suicide attackers are, for the most part, children of the first intifada in the late 1980s.


At that time 55 percent of children saw their fathers being humiliated or beaten by Israeli soldiers.

Much of the British media seemed perplexed that some of the London bomb suspects arrived here as refugees from the Horn of Africa, a part of the world more brutalised than most by decades of imperialist intervention.

Others, while not directly suffering at the hands of foreign armies, feel, often as middle class would-be leaders of their people, that they can strike back at injustice, not by mass struggle, but by terrorist means.

It is a disastrous strategy which ends up murdering innocent people on their way to work, but it can only find a well of new recruits thanks to the genuine grievances of many millions of people around the world.

The acting mayor of Khan Yunis in Gaza, Kamal Aqeel, told Reuter: “In 1996, practically all of us were against the martyr operations. Not any longer… We all feel that we can no longer bear the situation as it is. We feel that we’d simply explode under all this pressure of humiliation.”

And it is only by diminishing this sense of rage and despair that it is possible to begin to end terrorism. That requires, as a first step, a reversal of the policies that most directly feed that bitterness.


The first modern suicide terror attacks were in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Pape told his interviewer, “There were 41 suicide terrorist attacks from 1982 to 1986, and after the US withdrew its forces, France withdrew its forces, and then Israel withdrew to just that six-mile buffer zone of Lebanon, they virtually ceased.

“They didn’t completely stop, but there was no campaign of suicide terrorism. This is just more evidence that withdrawal of military forces really does diminish the ability of the terrorist leaders to recruit more suicide terrorists.

“That doesn’t mean that the existing suicide terrorists will not want to keep going. I am not saying that Osama bin Laden would turn over a new leaf and suddenly vote for George Bush.

“There will be a tiny number of people who are still committed to the cause, but the real issue is not whether Osama bin Laden exists. It is whether anybody listens to him.”

Part of addressing that injustice is rejecting the grotesque hypocrisy that says blowing up innocent people on tube trains is wrong but blowing up others with the most destructive technology the world has ever known is justified.

Cluster bombs

The academic and author Jacqueline Rose wrote last November, “Suicide bombing kills far fewer people than conventional warfare; the reactions it provokes must, therefore, reside somewhere other than in the number of the dead.

“It is, of course, feared as a weapon against which there appears to be no protection, and to which there is no viable response: targeted assassinations simply provoke further retaliation (and Israel’s security wall is already proving incapable of deterring attacks).

“The horror it inspires cannot, however, be explained in terms of the deliberate targeting of civilians… 100,000 people were burnt to death at the end of the war in the Allied attack on Tokyo.

“The horror would appear to be associated with the fact that the attacker also dies. Dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior. Why dying with your victim should be seen as a greater sin than saving yourself is unclear.”

There can be no appeal to the mass of enraged people from those who say that the kamikaze pilot who, through coercion or zeal, flew his plane into a US ship is more morally repugnant than the men who ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima 60 years ago.

If there is a responsibility on Muslim activists and others in Britain who opposed the war it is not to fall in behind a rebranded “war on terror” and an assault on civil liberties.

It is to offer hope by countering the cycle of war and despair through a militant, collective political fight against a government whose policies will only deepen it.


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