Michael Radu: Most Suicide Bombers Are Islamists





Michael Radu, Senior Fellow and Co-Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia (Oct. 9, 2003):

To most Westerners, especially Americans, the almost regular and predictable murder of Israeli civilians of all ages seems both incomprehensible and, precisely because of its regularity and frequency, unsurprising. The phenomenon has, however, stirred some interest in a media previously immune to serious analysis of terrorism in general and within American academia, which was traditionally uninterested in terrorism.

Since the early 1980s, when the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah (with Iranian Khomeinist funds and training) and the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam–LTTE (Marxists/Hindus/Tamil secessionists) initiated the routine use of suicide terrorists as an instrument of war, suicide bombers have been active in Sri Lanka, Turkey, Kashmir, India, Lebanon, Israel, Russia, the U.S., and Indonesia. Failed suicide bombing attempts ( including the use of aircraft ) are known from France, Spain and Turkey, and successful attempts have been made elsewhere by citizens or residents of Germany and the UK. A New York Times op-ed by Robert A. Pape, “Dying to kill us” (Sept. 22, 2003), therefore concludes that suicide terrorism transcends religious, ethnic, and political boundaries.

But with the exception of the LTTE’s acts, all other terrorist acts were committed by Muslims, and of those, all except those by the PKK/Kadek in Turkey and Arafat’s Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades were committed by members of openly Islamist groups. The LTTE/PKK cases led some to dismiss the role of religion in the motivation of suicide terrorists, but on further analysis, the exception indeed proves the rule.

The LTTE are Marxists, Hindus, and Tamil separatists; the PKK/KADEK are self proclaimed Marxists and Kurdish separatists; and Arafat’s Fatah is “secular.” But the religious element, properly and unconventionally understood, applies equally to these apparent exceptions. Indeed, the LTTE under Velupillai Prabhakaran (who has been involved in this year’s Norway-arranged peace talks between LTTE and Sri Lanka but remains wanted around the world) and the PKK under Abdullah Ocalan (who has been imprisoned in Turkey since his 1999 arrest) are groups that operate more like religious sects under the absolute control of a charismatic leader.

An excellent case could thus be made that the LTTE and PKK are in a sense “religious” despite their Marxist/separatist claims, inasmuch as they operate like sects (Jim Jones of Guyana fame was also mixing Marxism and religion) and the leaders are God-like figures of absolute political and spiritual authority. Ocalan was known as “Apo” (uncle), a mysteriously grand and omnipresent figure.


By contrast, “orthodox” Marxist-Leninist groups, including Sendero Luminoso and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), do not use suicide bombings, presumably because they claim a “scientific” ideological base, hence one critical of religious fanaticism. Al Aksa’s bombers, some of whom had been rejected by Hamas (!), operate in a political and cultural, not to mention educational environment increasingly dominated by Islamism, and thus are more the result of peer pressure than of secularist convictions. Chechens began to use suicide bombers only once they were infiltrated by Wahhabis.

And then there is suicide bombers’ targeting, again a religiously related variable. The LTTE targeted politicians—they murdered a former Indian prime minister and a Sri Lankan president—but not civilians, unless as “collateral damage”; the PKK suicide bombers also targeted Turkish military or jandarma, not civilians. By contrast, the Islamist terrorists have targeted civilians since the start: Jews if possible, Americans, Australians, Indians, or other Western “crusaders” and assorted “non-believers.”

The suicide bomber terrorist phenomenon is a growing element in international terrorists’ arsenal, but it remains a weapon with religious background. It was, and is everywhere, a weapon of the relatively educated: Tamil Hindu women who were able to mix well at Buddhist electoral meetings in Sri Lanka, Palestinian high school and university students posing as Israelis; and it was Western-educated Islamists who trained to murder thousands in America on 9/11, hundreds in Bali, many in Casablanca and Riyadh.

Ultimately, the suicide bomber is just another tool in the arsenal of the international terrorist groups. For the bomber, religion is the basic motivation or excuse. Their mission is legitimized by a supreme charismatic leader or Islamic cleric; special recruiters bring the suicide candidate together with the group. Eliminating the enablers—the recruiters and ideologists—wherever they are (mostly in London, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) must therefore be the first step in eliminating the problem.

Who, exactly are these suicide bombers, widely described as “martyrs” in Moslem, not just Islamist opinion? They are not certainly “martyrs: in the Christian sense - people who were killed for their faith, but murderers – people who killed themselves in order to murder others. Most choose innocent and defenseless victims simply for the psychological value of their actions – the “theater” aspect of terrorism. Most are relatively privileged, educated young people, and a growing number are women. A few (such as Chechnya’s “black widows”) have deeply personal reasons, primarily revenge for the loss of family members; others are simply lost souls who have lost all moral standards; but most are fanatics, products of well planned recruitment and indoctrination schemes. But what they all share is Roman philosopher Seneca's opinion that he who does not prize his own life threatens that of others. And suicide terrorism works – according to Israeli souces, during the past three years suicide bombers were responsible for 50% of Israeli fatalities, while making only 0.5 % of the total number of terrorist attacks.

Is there a “solution” to the suicide bomber phenomenon? If “solution” means putting a stop to it in absolute terms the answer has to be negative – precisely because Seneca was right. Could the incidence of such actions be limited and drastically reduced? Yes, and it has been done, in Algeria, Turkey and Israel. At the same time, we must provide support and understanding for, rather than persistent criticism of those Muslim regimes, whether in Cairo, Islamabad, Rabat or Algiers, undemocratic as they may be for the human rights fundamentalists of the UN and nongovernmental organizations, not just because perfection is often the enemy of good, but also because, being the first on the line of fire from terrorists, they have the motivation and the record of success against them. It remains a mystery why the World War II alliance between Western democracies and Stalin’s criminal and aggressive regime was and still is seen as acceptable, and the one between Washington, Riyadh, Cairo, and Islamabad should be rejected for human rights reasons. The war is similar in scope, the danger is similar in nature, and the future hard to predict, but the essential point for now is that the enemy is the same.


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