What Makes Them Tick?

Reviewed by Walter Laqueur
Sunday, July 24, 2005

DYING TO WIN

The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

By Robert A. Pape

Random House. 335 pp. $ 25.95

DYING TO KILL

The Allure of Suicide Terror

By Mia Bloom

Columbia Univ. 251 pp. $24.95

Now that the police have established that the July 7 terrorist attacks in London were carried out by suicide bombers, the first such incident on British soil in living memory, many fear that the bombings could be the beginning of a series of such attacks. But the political effects of these atrocities were largely counterproductive, and London could well prove to be the Luxor of Islamist terrorism in Britain. A 1997 jihadist attack in that southern Egyptian town killed about 60 foreign tourists -- and generated so much opposition and revulsion that it caused the downfall of homegrown Egyptian terrorism.

Suicide terrorism, which has exerted such great horror and fascination in our time, has also generated an exponentially growing literature; these similarly titled new studies by Robert A. Pape and Mia Bloom are among the more interesting and enlightening in this genre. For one thing, they are dispassionate and based on wide reading. For another, they evade most of the prevailing basic mistakes, such as the belief that suicide terrorism (and terrorism in general) is the last refuge of the desperately poor and exploited.

Nor do they share the belief, widespread until recently, that suicide terrorism is an exclusively religious phenomenon; fanaticism can be found equally often among secular movements such as extreme nationalism. In fact, Bloom who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, has paid special attention to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a secular group that until recently was among the most prominent and most frequent protagonists of suicide terrorism. This sheds interesting light on a phenomenon often mistakenly believed to be restricted to the Middle East. For his part, Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist, has amassed a formidable database, earning the gratitude of students of terrorism. Using charts, tables and statistics, he analyzes suicide attacks all over the world and explores the background of the perpetrators.

To some extent, the two authors cover the same ground, but they also have their special interests. Bloom, for instance, is intrigued by the participation of women in terrorist movements and their likely motives -- something akin to emancipation through violence. Indeed, a third of the Sri Lanka bombers and a significant number of those in Chechnya and among the Kurds in Turkey have been female.

Both authors start out with short historical surveys pointing out that contemporary suicide terrorism had its predecessors, such as the medieval Assassins in the Near East. They might have added that, prior to World War I, most terrorism was, in effect, suicide terrorism. The weapons used (the dagger, the short-range pistol, the unstable, primitive bomb) compelled the assassin to approach the victim very closely. As such, early terrorists were likely to be apprehended, and since capital punishment was still the rule, the prospect of returning alive from such missions was minimal -- a fact well-known to the terrorists.

On the basis of his statistics, Pape concludes that terrorism, including suicide terrorism, has almost always been directed against democratic societies (or, it should be added, ineffective autocratic ones). This is not exactly a new discovery, but it bears repetition from time to time. There was no terrorism under Hitler and Stalin, except of course terror from above; there was little if any terrorism under Gen. Franco and the Greek colonels. If Chechens had engaged in terrorism under Stalin or his successors, those surviving the journey would soon have found themselves on the wrong side of the Arctic Circle. Under Ottoman rule, Arab insurgents would have fared no better than did the Armenians.

Another example of what states under serious terrorist attack will do in their defense is the wall being built by the Israelis to keep Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel through the West Bank -- a step that has provoked tremendous opposition among Palestinians and in Europe. But today's partial barrier has significantly reduced the number of suicide attacks and, if completed, will probably be even more effective, unless Ariel Sharon's government in its wisdom decides to erect it deep in Palestinian territory. The dramatic building of the wall helps underscore the political calculus at work here: Until their core interests (above all, their survival) are threatened, democracies will be reluctant to take drastic counterterrorist action bound to cause significant political damage. But as the threat grows, the rules change.

Political scientists always feel strongly tempted to design theories on the basis of their findings, and these two authors are no exception. This, after all, is the purpose of the exercise -- not just to collect facts but to detect patterns and common features, to make the discipline scientific, perhaps even to make predictions. It is a legitimate endeavor, but there are great difficulties in applying social-science methods here; after all, terrorism, suicidal or otherwise, varies in motivation and strategy from country to country and time to time. The search for common denominators all too often results in findings that are obvious (recruits for suicide missions are not to be found in homes for senior citizens, for instance) or that lead to doubtful propositions.

Thus Pape believes that suicide terrorism is essentially a strategy for national liberation from foreign military occupation. This is certainly true in some cases, such as Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine. But in most cases -- from Algeria to Central Asia and the Philippines -- it is not. It is not even true with regard to Iraq, where in recent months more than 90 percent of the victims of such attacks have been the terrorists' fellow Muslims -- not by accident but quite intentionally. Suicide terrorism has increasingly become the preferred tactic in all kinds of civil wars, a fact ignored by Pape.

Dying to Win contains other misjudgments, some perhaps caused by squeezing the statistical evidence a little too hard. It is one thing to note that Islamism has no monopoly on suicide terrorism, but to state that there is "little connection" between the two is clearly overstating the case -- and is not borne out by the evidence, including the London bombings. Pape also offers other doubtful propositions: He writes about al Qaeda as if it were a strong central organization with tentacles in many parts of the world. But the evidence tends to show that the original group by that name probably no longer exists; there seems instead to be a loose network of like-minded groups, occasionally cooperating but largely autonomous. Moreover, Pape discusses ways and means to "win the war on terrorism." But this is a chimera. Terrorism is the main prevailing form of conflict in an age in which full-scale war has become too costly. Since conflict will not disappear from the Earth in the foreseeable future, terrorism may have its ups and downs, but there can be no "victory."

The great temptation for political scientists, especially in the present situation, is to offer advice; our two authors, especially Pape, have not resisted it very strongly. But since each case is different, there are no generally valid rules. Lessons learned in one country might be inapplicable or counterproductive in another. These two studies will be read with profit even if they exaggerate somewhat the importance of their chosen topic. Is there really a "ferocious escalation" of suicide terrorism in the world, as Pape claims? Only time will tell. But these authors cannot (and should not) try to offer recipes the way that cookbooks do or suggest prescriptions such as those found in medical handbooks; good doctors, too, tell us that each patient is different. ยท

Walter Laqueur is the author of numerous books, including "A History of Terrorism" and "Voices of Terror."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company