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Book review

The political mind of the suicide bomber

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

Published August 18, 2005

By Robert A. Pape

Shock, awe and outrage in the aftermath of suicide terrorism in capitals around the world may prevent our taking time to understand the complex political realities and military logic these acts of violence conceal. As the casualties on all sides of the American-led war in Iraq rise, so too have daring retaliatory suicide terror strikes in London, Sharm el-Sheikh and Iraq. Real tragedies of life, Oscar Wilde reminds us, hurt us by their crude violence and their absolute incoherence.

Pundits and policymakers have cast suicide terrorism as pathological violence, especially after 9/11, even though this form of warfare has been prevalent for two decades. In the West, suicide terrorism has sometimes been the pretext for vicious campaigns of Islamophobia.

With suicide missions in Iraq almost a daily occurrence, Chicago University political scientist Robert Pape's enlightening book appears at a timely moment. His empirical, detailed study provides a compelling history of suicide terror from 1980 to 2003. It covers nine countries and includes the campaigns of the Tamils in Sri Lanka; a diverse group of actors in Lebanon (Christians, Communists and Muslims); the Kurds in Turkey; and Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which have received most of the media attention. Contrary to the public perception that Muslims chiefly use this tactic, Pape's study shows that until 2003, the Tamil Tigers, a largely Hindu group, headed the list of suicide warriors.

Pape's thesis is simple but largely accurate. Suicide as a tactic of war and terror occurs when regimes occupy land that belongs to people with a different religion. Case studies show that Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers did not use suicide tactics against thousands of Indian troops who briefly occupied part of that country's Tamil region because they were perceived as Hindu, but the Tamils targeted Sinhalese-Buddhist-led government forces. Similarly, Lebanese resistance groups did not deploy suicide warriors against the occupying Syrian army after Lebanon's protracted civil war.

Conflict across the religious divide exacerbates fears that the invader seeks to transform the society it occupies. This is evident in the response of many Iraqis to the U.S. occupation of their country. In some way it resembles Americans' response to learning that the 9/11 attackers were Muslims: a jingoistic resistance to a group perceived as wanting to change their way of life. Religious differences make it easier to demonize and then kill enemy civilians, and they transform what is ordinarily deemed suicide into martyrdom, Pape informs us.

One of the strengths of Pape's book is his refusal to treat suicide terrorism as irrational acts by attackers. He analyzes the political statements of all the major ideologues in each case study and measures the discourse against the military tactics. In this sense, Pape does what the Bush administration and its supporters have been urging the public not to do: listen to the political messages behind the violence of suicide bombings. Pape, however, cautions that explanation is never a justification. His caution is wise: Under the controversial legislation proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, any speech construed as justifying terrorism, regardless of intent or use - such as this book - would be outlawed and its author punished.

One of the major insights Pape provides is that the suicides are not egoistic acts, but a form of altruism in which a few sacrifice themselves for the good of the community. Explanations that many suicide attacks are theatrical in nature and effect are mistaken presumptions, says Pape. Without the special circumstances that motivate self-martyrdom, his study shows, the incidence of individual suicide is very low in the cultures where this tactic flourishes, with the exception of Sri Lanka.

One reason it is so difficult to flush out potential self-martyr operations and their planners, especially in places like Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan, is that they are well-integrated into the community. With very few exceptions, the respective communities agree with the political goals and understand the sacrifice made by those engaged in martyrdom operations.

Pape's book is going to offend many in the Bush administration, but it will probably be welcomed by military planners and intelligence agencies. This study is a strong policy critique of the Iraq war and the strategy to transform the Muslim world, prompted by the administration's neocon supporters, promoters of gun-point democracy.

This policy is the "principal cause of suicide terrorism," says Pape: It involves occupation and attempts to change the way of life for vast populations. Pape supports eliminating terrorist havens while preventing opportunities for further recruitment, but he does not offer any suggestions on how to achieve the first without increasing the second.

U.S. oil interests in the Arabian Gulf, Pape argues, can be preserved by offshore balancing, not through occupation or establishing large-scale bases in Muslim countries. This view is contrary to Pentagon thinking, which anticipates a large U.S. military presence in Iraq's future. Pape is forthright in his warning: "The longer that American forces remain in Iraq, the greater the threat of the next September 11 from groups who have not targeted us before."

In the light of Madrid, London and Sharm el-Sheikh - apart from the regular attacks in Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq - this book makes a major contribution to understanding the politics of suicide terrorism. Given the intense division and dissatisfaction over the war in this country, and in U.S. policies abroad, especially the fierce resistance it meets in the Muslim world, Pape's lucid, highly readable book should be compulsory reading for citizens who wish to be informed; it surely will be much debated.

-- Ebrahim Moosa is director of the Center for the Study of Muslim Networks at Duke University and author of "Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination."

-- "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," by Robert A. Pape, Random House, $25.95, 352 pages.

[Last modified August 17, 2005, 13:18:02]

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