In the last few years, there has been an increasing focus among terrorist scholars on suicide terrorism because of the United States wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflict between the Russians-Chechens, and the ever present Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others. There are several good books on the subject including: Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror by Mia Bloom and Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert A. Pape. These books offer various rationale for why suicide bombing is so alluring to various groups that practice it and in some cases what we can do about it.
The prevailing axiom is that suicide terrorism is a weapon of the weak against a stronger better armed force. No doubt the images of torsos upper bodies and severed heads are gruesome and stomach churning to a public unaccustomed to such violent images, but what does suicide terrorism really accomplish? Even though it creates great propaganda for groups looking to recruit worldwide like Al Qaeda, or draw attention to a cause like Palestinian liberation or an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, suicide terror really isn’t all that effective. Please consider the following examples:
The United States in Iraq and Afghanistan - Lets start with terrorist successes…their actions have led an increasingly war fatigued America to question our involvement in both conflicts and our leaders have agreed to withdraw limited numbers of troops within the coming months and years. But this process has taken at least a decade and often alienated segments of the Iraqi and Afghan population.
Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Three decades of suicide bombings have netted the Palestinians greater exposure for their grievance, but not much else. For the piles of Israelis and Palestinians killed or disabled, Israeli is still building settlements along the West Bank, the two sides still share a healthy disdain for one another, and we are only now going to have discussions about Palestinian statehood.
Russia and Chechnya - Chechens have launched a series of high profile attacks throughout Moscow and the North Caucasus against perceived Kremlin injustices, seeking independence. They lose on two accounts: 1. Attacks such as Beslan in 2006 largely alienated the international support they had and 2. The Kremlin reacted with even more repressive policies to pacify the insurgency, which made the situation for the average Chechen worse. There’s a healthy hatred that’s intensified between some Russians and Chechens.
Sri Lanka - At one time, they were seen as the legitimate voice of the Tamil people controlling much of the North and Eastern portions of Sri Lanka. But they overreached creating a culture of fear among the Tamil population, using them as human shields during the Tigers final days in the Summer 2010. All that was left was an increasingly fractured country that just wanted peace after a thirty year civil war that killed 50,000 people.
There are many other examples of suicide terrorism, but I hope that I’ve illustrated that the weapon of suicide terror is a cumulative one that often takes years to bear fruit, if it ever does. The tactic may have difficulty gaining traction where ethnic hatreds are deeply entrenched (Sri Lanka, Russia, Israel) because its much easier for the democratic side to keep fighting if there’s an enemy to be put down, or if there’s a divine justification for mission. Suicide terrorists are failing in three of the four cases to achieve their goals and other suicide campaigns have resulted in fragile peace deals that could go up in smoke at any moment.