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Suicide as Foreign Policy

Author: Lionel Beehner
April 18, 2006


The world was reminded again of the fragility of calm in the Middle East after a lone suicide bomber killed nine (LAT) and wounded sixty outside a Tel Aviv fast-food restaurant. The bombing was the worst of its kind since August 2004 and the first such attack since Hamas took power three weeks ago. Hamas officials defended the bombing, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the slaughter of innocents.

While support for suicide bombing has declined across the Muslim world, according to a July 2005 Pew Poll, several political and clerical leaders continue to view it as a legitimate—and effective—form of resistance, particularly when the victims are non-Muslims. The purpose of these so-called martyrdom operations, as this BBC analysis explains, is killing or maiming as many people as possible, thereby instilling a high degree of fear among the targeted civilian population. Such attacks are notoriously difficult to detect. In addition, they provide a low-cost way to provoke a heavy-handed response from one's enemy, which then is used to justify further suicide attacks and creates a seemingly endless cycle of violence. This is the case between the Palestinians and Israelis, just as it was between the Tamil Tigers—often credited with inventing the suicide bomb as a tool of resistance (Economist)—and the Sri Lankan government.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, suicide bombing is not rooted in Islamic fundamentalism, but rather is a response to foreign occupation, argues Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. He points out the group that has carried out the most suicide attacks (WashPost) since 1980 is the predominantly Hindu Tamil Tigers. The Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II, the subject of the seminal book Sacred Warriors, are another example.

In the Middle East, such attacks have spread beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year in Iraq, for example, suicide attacks—most of them car bombs—briefly replaced kidnappings, beheadings, and improvised explosive devices as the preferred tactic of the insurgency, as this CFR Background Q&A explains. Other attacks have been mounted in Russia's North Caucasus region, in Bali, and in New York and Washington on 9/11. More recently, as reported by the Jerusalem Post, analysts have been warning of a possible wave of suicide bombings should the standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions turn violent.

Harvard's Jessica Stern suggests that radicalized religious zealots of the kind who might resort to suicide bombings share some important traits, chief among them the belief that they have a "moral mandate to murder" (FT).

The attack in Tel Aviv has put suicide bombing back in the news and renewed calls on Islamic and Arab governments to renounce such suicide tactics, something they seem reluctant to do. Israel responded promptly by making sweeping arrests of terrorist suspects in the northern West Bank, including the bomber's father, and shelled what it believed was a rocket factory. Further, Israel holds Hamas leaders responsible for the attack and has indicated it may take further action (CSMonitor).

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