What makes a human bomb tick

The following review appears in today’s Sydney Sun Herald:

What makes a human bomb tick

Reviewed by Antony Loewenstein
September 11, 2005

Dying To Win: The Strategic Logic Of Suicide Terrorism
Robert Pape
(Scribe, $35)

BACK in June, Britain’s foremost foreign correspondent, Robert Fisk, noted something extreme about the conflict in Iraq: “How many suicide bombers have now immolated themselves against the Americans and their mercenaries and the new Iraqi army and the new Iraqi police force and their recruits? The figure appears to stand at around 420. Back in the days of Hezbollah’s war against Israeli occupation in Lebanon, a suicide bomber a month was regarded as phenomenal. In the Palestinian intifada, one a week was amazing. But in Iraq, we reach seven a day; Wal-Mart suicide bombing that raises the darkest questions about our ability to crush the uprising.”

It is a phenomenon that interests University of Chicago professor Robert Pape and his latest study challenges Western understanding of suicide bombing and its motivations. Al-Qaeda is stronger today than before 9/11, he argues, because more than 95 per cent of suicide attacks around the world are, in fact, not about religion but serve a specific strategic purpose, namely to pressure countries to withdraw military forces from occupied territory. Despite the rhetoric suggesting an irrational opponent hell-bent on Western destruction, Pape offers a perhaps more confronting reality. As he told ABC TV’s 7.30 Report in July, “the link between anger over American, British and Western military forces stationed in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit suicide terrorists to kill us couldn’t be tighter”.

Pape has compiled a database of every suicide bombing from 1980 to 2003 315 attacks in total. There is little connection between Islamic fundamentalism and suicide terrorism, he writes, and finds that the leading instigators of suicide attacks are Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist group opposed to religion. They committed 76 of the 315 attacks, more than Hamas.

Pape is brave enough to state that although September 11 was a horrific event it was not unique. Non-Western nations had been suffering under the yoke of similar attacks for years but it took the lethal swipe at America’s heartland to awaken some in the West to the idea that terrorist strikes come for a reason. The world may have shifted for George W. Bush and his supporters, but many others know well the tragedy of indiscriminate killing.

There were 36 suicide attackers in Lebanon between 1982 and 1986, many directed at the Israeli and American occupation. Pape finds that 71 per cent of the attackers were, in fact, Christian with only 8 per cent Islamist. “What Lebanon’s suicide attackers share is not ideology,” he writes, “or organisational indoctrination, but simply a common commitment to resist foreign occupation. Alliances among disparate groups and individuals are common in nationalist rebellions”.

The most fascinating chapter in the book explores the background of three suicide attackers, their lives and possible reasons behind their action. Saeed Hotari killed 21 Israelis outside a nightclub in Tel Aviv in 2001. He came from a poor Palestinian family and resented the Israeli occupation. Before his death, he left a statement that reveals his thinking: “If we don’t fight, we will suffer. If we do fight, we will suffer, but so will they.”

This Australian edition of Dying To Win includes the Bali bombings and the ramifications. Pape urges an understanding of the motives behind all suicide attacks and a rejection of the simplicity of John Howard, who announced in the wake of the July 7 London attacks that “we are freedom-loving people” and our foreign policies would not change in the face of such atrocities.

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