Understanding suicide attacks

About the author
Olivia Allison is co-author with David Cook of Understanding and Addressing Suicide Attacks: the Faith and Politics of Martyrdom Operations (Praeger 2007)

Overly simplistic questions dominate debates about Islamist suicide attacks in recent years. Should suicide bombings be understood as a pragmatic tactic or a religiously-motivated sacrifice? Are suicide attacks preventable, or not?

These questions have driven policy papers and leading journalists to succumb to hopelessness. One guest on a CNN news broadcast in 1996 remarked, "Look, when you have fanatical young men who are prepared to commit suicide and they're strapping dynamite to themselves, there's very little you can do about it". Member of Parliament Charles Clarke, interviewed on BBC on the day of the 7/7 bombings, alluded to the impossibility of preventing a suicide attack because of the freedom of British "open society".

In researching our recent book, Understanding and Addressing Suicide Attacks: The Faith and Politics of Martyrdom Operations, David Cook and I found such defeatism counterproductive. Policymakers ignore several fundamental aspects of recruitment and support for Islamist suicide attacks - aspects that could be useful in the prevention and detection of such attacks.

Justifying suicide with religion

Policy discourses tend to de-emphasise the religious justifications for suicide attacks, which range from the fiery invocations of Muslim clerics to the use of Quranic texts in martyrdom videos. Various commentators including Robert Pape have downplayed the religious rhetoric surrounding suicide bombings for several reasons, including that: several secular organisations in western Asia have used suicide attacks; organisations have overtly political goals (especially anti-occupation strategies and territorial goals), and the vast majority of Muslims around the world do not wholeheartedly agree with suicide bombing as a religiously justifiable tactic.

Increasingly after the 9/11 attacks, however, militant Islamist organisations draw upon religious fervour to appeal to recruits, and to justify a seemingly indiscriminate tactic. Leaders use interpretations of Islam to legitimise both the "suicide" aspect of martyrdom operations and the possibility of killing civilians or other Muslims. Both are forbidden in Islamic tradition and law, and require flexible interpretations to appear legitimate. Most fatwas justify the attacks based on the tradition of martyrdom, which requires Allah to judge the attacker's intentions - if the attacker's motivations are pure, then the killing of civilians in certain circumstances is permissible, and the attacker is a shahid (martyr).

Many policymakers and liberal Muslim leaders have countered this ideology by claiming that those who plan and support these attacks are not Muslims because they do not follow a true interpretation of Islam. The debate on the authenticity of their Muslim belief continues within the Muslim community itself, but to brand certain radical groups as "not Muslim" is an insufficient response to their religious invocations.

Suicide bombers and jihadist groups situate their actions within the Islamic canon of law and scripture. Therefore, these arguments must be taken seriously, and countered systematically through rigorous interpretation of Islamic tradition.

This emphasis on religion should not be understood as advocating a "clash of civilizations" theory, or for suggesting that Islam as a religion inherently supports suicide attacks (or, indeed, that justifications of this nature are confined to Islam). Suicide bombing - the killing of oneself to kill others (often civilians) - has thus far, however, generally required a bedrock of zealous belief and the acceptance of a community.

The majority of the attacks and attackers that threaten the United States and Europe are justified in Islamist terms. The attackers believe themselves to be serving a god, and these beliefs must be addressed if the attacks are to be stopped.

What motivates whom

On the other hand, there is often a gulf between the motivations of individual attacks and the overarching organisational or ideological goals of the planners. Understanding this disparity, and why the planners' ideology appeals to attackers, is essential to detecting and preventing suicide attacks.

Our research, complemented by that of Robert Brym and Bader Araj in 2006, found that attack organisers and planners were more likely motivated by grander strategic, ideological and territorial goals. Individual suicide attackers' goals, however, were far more likely to be personal: revenge, redemption, desperation, and eternal reward.

This distinction is vital for two reasons. First, personal considerations (especially those that are based on being morally compromised, such as divorce or illegitimate pregnancy) can be used to counteract the image of purity that surrounds martyrdom operations among their followers.

Second, clerics have said the main difference between suicide and a martyrdom operation is that, in suicide, a person kills himself out of despair, while a martyr kills himself as a pure act. Yet, so many suicide bombings spring from a well of despair and loss that the supposedly pious nature of the tactic seems dubious.

Nonetheless, one theme unifies much of the Islamist rhetoric supporting militant activity and especially suicide bombing. The global Muslim narrative of western oppression and humiliation is a powerful one. Indeed, thorny symbols like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the Iraq War have fuelled a very real sense of persecution in western Asia. The sources of such humiliation must be addressed.

Media messages

The current Bush administration has been particularly critical of Arab media and policymakers suggest the attention paid to suicide violence in the media galvanises future suicide bombers. Policymakers still maintain a version of the 1980s truism that media is the lifeblood of terrorism. The version of this truism after the 9/11 attacks is that Arab media is the lifeblood of terrorism, and western media re-broadcasts these terrorist messages.

In a content analysis of mainstream western news channels' coverage of suicide bombing, we found that TV news reporting in the US and UK generally followed the political priorities in their home countries. And even while western governments' continue to criticise Arab media coverage of west Asian wars, militant Islamist leaders and religious clerics have expressed disgust at Arab media reporting as well. Al-Jazeera often gets the story wrong, Islamist leaders claim, and other Arab media is an extension of the state. This frustration leads militant leaders to look elsewhere to get their message out. Mainstream news channels - even the often-criticised al-Jazeera - cannot convey the same propaganda or have the same persuasive power of a martyrdom video widely circulated on YouTube or on militant Islamist websites.

Meanwhile, al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and hundreds of local news stations are addressing a vast Muslim public on a daily basis, largely without any direct statements from US and European governments. Western governments have taken far too long to recognise the powerful broadcasting mechanisms in place in western Asia. Although outreach efforts are improving, western governments are still doing far too little. Furthermore, unless western governments directly speak to the real and perceived grievances mentioned above, such public relations manoeuvres will have little effect.

All attacks are not the same

Media coverage and policymakers tend to simplistically lump all suicide attacks into a monolithic global Islamist threat, often stacked under the "al-Qaida" umbrella. In order to fully understand the spread and appeal of martyrdom operations, local factors must be recognised. Idiosyncratic circumstances are highly important - occupations or perceived occupations, territorial and landholding issues, dissatisfaction with governments, and inter-factional rivalries are primary motivating and justifying factors.

Furthermore, suicide attacks receive passive and active support for a variety of reasons. Support for anti-occupation suicide bombings remains high around the world, but there are further shades of complexity. In interviewing journalists in Yemen and Syria, I found varying degrees of support for suicide attacks even in occupation situations. While most agreed that suicide attackers in Israel are likely to be martyrs, the interviewees were less likely to recognise martyrdom in Chechen suicide attacks, or even those carried out in Iraq or other areas of west Asia.

Clearly, public perceptions of suicide attacks are rooted in understandings of local situations, and not in an overarching belief in the global caliphate. Likewise, bombers and would-be bombers in the UK are heavily influenced by ties to political dynamics in other areas of the world, especially Pakistan. North African attacks stem from both global and local factors. Uzbekistan's 2004 suicide attacks may have been viewed as legitimate by large segments of the population, but this was not because of a widespread global Islamist agenda - it was due to dissatisfaction with the Uzbek regime.

Suicide attacks are not always motivated by a jihad for a global caliphate, but they are also not always nationalistic. Suicide attacks in Uzbekistan cannot be lumped together with those in Algeria and those in London. These attacks are part politico-military tactic, part complex internationalised religious ideology, and part local grievance. All of these factors converge with varying levels of importance every time a suicide attack occurs.