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Suicide Terrorism: Theory and Practice

Suicide Terrorism: Theory and Practice

Mia Bloom warns that heavy handed approaches to combating terrorism can backfire

By Anson Musselman

Dr. Mia Bloom, of  the Rutgers University Center for Global Security and Democracy, spoke at a Burkle Center Seminar on Friday, February 27, about her research in Palestine, Europe and Sri Lanka on why suicide bombing has been effective in some conflicts, but rejected or abandoned in others. (Click here for Dr. Bloom's paper.)

The Problem With the Study of Suicide Bombing

"As I come to you I am wearing two hats," Bloom began. "I come to you as an academic who is interested in this kind of political science work, but I also come to you as someone who works part time for Homeland Security; who tries to ensure that the events of 9-11 do not repeat themselves."

Bloom asked, "What is the problem with suicide bombing?" Part of the problem, she said, is that for a long time people have refused to view terrorism as a rationally calculated phenomenon. Instead, Bloom observed, there was a tendency for scholars to look at terrorists as "disgruntled psychologically defective individuals suffering from personal deficiencies and expressing it thusly in forms of violence." Only a handful of individuals, Bloom said, have considered violence as part of contentious politics and rebellion. "This is part of a phenomenon we saw a great deal of in the postcolonial world in which groups were jockeying for their rights for power and independence. These groups would ultimately use violence not often as a first choice and not necessarily as a last choice."

Dr. Bloom believes that if the motivations of terrorists can be understood, states will be able to find better ways of deterring them from extreme sorts of violence such as suicide bombing.

The Evolution of Suicide Bombing

The "idea of marrying of suicide and violence was not something created on 9-11," Bloom declared, nor was it created in 1983 when the Lebanese Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut. "You can see traces of this concept of martyrdom going all the way back."

For instance, the Amok, a group in the Philippines, killed until they were killed. "The idea that you don't stop until you yourself die is something that is historically grounded. Not just going back to the ancient groups, it goes to the kamikaze, the idea that you are willing to make this personal sacrifice in the process in killing others."

Dr. Bloom explained that in conflicts throughout history people often used violence against themselves as a form of protest. Examples include the anticolonial movement in India in which people refused food as a means of protest, and the Vietnamese Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Diem's government. These individuals were showing themselves to be willing to give their lives for a greater cause. "That's something different from strapping on a bomb and giving your life for the greater cause but taking many people with you."

"If you are going to plant a bomb in a pub and you are trying to mobilize support and gain popularity, what are you going to put on the poster? A bomb? Let's say you put the person that planted the bomb on the poster. That's basically a wanted poster." But putting the visage of a person who was willing to sacrifice him or herself for the cause while killing "the enemy" is a powerful psychological tool, she explained.

Internal Support and Types and Levels of Violence

Dr. Bloom argued that when when multiple groups compete for attention and the hearts and minds of a population, they often use to violence a litmus test of one's commitment to the cause. Violence is also often used to increase a group's legitimacy in the eyes of the movement's supporters.

In the various cases Dr. Bloom studied, "we started to see processes where violence got ramped up over the course of time, in part because the level of violence got raised and you needed to do something a little bit more extraordinary in order to stand out from the crowd." 

Dr. Bloom spoke of the relationship between the levels and types of violence used by groups and the response from the local populations in whose name these groups were fighting. "There is the trial-and-error side of terrorism, and this explains why some groups did not engage in suicide bombing."

Dr. Bloom looked at various terrorist organizations, regardless of location or underlying motivation, and compared them with organizations that were similar but did not kill civilians, in order to find out why some continue using this tactic and others do not. Two examples Bloom gave of groups that have scaled back attacks on civilians are the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the ETA (a Basque separatist movement in Spain).  According to Bloom, support for these organizations began to fall as violence against civilians increased. Without popular support, funding dried up; without funding they were less able to act. Bloom found that terrorist groups'ability to keep money flowing into their organizations depended heavily on the reaction of their constituencies. "It either constrained the use of violence, or it allowed the use of violence to run rampant." Where a group's supporters rejected attacking civilians, the money ceased to flow, leading these terrorist organizations to change their tactics. In short, the acceptance or rejection of civilian casualties by a group's supporters directly affected whether terrorist organizations continued to attack civilians or abandonded violence.

In other ways also, Dr. Bloom pointed out, internal pressure from terrorist constituency groups can be effective in changing the tactics of terrorists.  For example, the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) of Sri Lanka found particularly disturbing the fact that in 2000 and 2001 many Tamil mothers started to protest the tactics of the Tamil Tigers. "There was a whole movement on the east coast where a lot of Tamil women started . . . saying 'we want our children back.' . . . The LTTE found it increasingly difficult to mobilize people and get them to join, so they started kidnapping people and using different kinds of mechanisms to induce Tamils to join the organization."

Bloom reported that she often found it difficult to get Sri Lankans, especially those in the older generation, to answer her public opinion surveys since they feared that she was working for the Sri Lankan security forces or for the LTTE. "If they said they favored suicide bombing and I worked for the government, they feared they would be killed. If the person being surveyed said they did not support suicide bombing and I worked for the LTTE, the same result would follow."

When is Suicide Bombing More or Less Likely?

Dr. Bloom found that rigid social structures characterized by sharp divisions between "in groups" and "out groups," especially where populations are defined by ethnicity, increased the likelihood of suicide violence directed at civilians. In conflicts where the definition of groups was less fixed, such as ideological battles that allowed people to defect or switch sides, she found the incidence of suicide bombing decreased.

"In ideological wars, you could use suicide bombing, but that wasn't a way to win the war. You won the war by winning over the people. Blowing these people up wasn't a way of winning them over."

While Bloom agrees that the suicide bombing is usually relatively prevalent in ethnic and religious conflicts, she disagrees with those who argue that suicide bombing is found exclusively in religious conflicts. In her research, Bloom found a number of instances where the combatant groups may have been divided along religious lines, yet the religiousness of the individuals engaged in the conflict was "tangential and coincidental." "I want to make this statement," she declared. "One, it isn't about religion. Two, if it has something to do with religion, it isn't only about one religion."

When State Policies Backfire

Dr. Bloom said that her research has shown a relationship between the strategies a state employs to fight terrorism and the likelihood of either an escalation or decline in terrorism. "It is interesting that in instances where a state responded very violently against the terrorist group in a way that lumped together the civilians, the terrorists, the non-combatants, punishing everyone, the domestic environment becomes a little bit more hospitable [for terrorism]. However, in instances where the state's use of counter-terrorism was less heavy handed, it was possible to appeal to the people and make suicide bombing something that they found unpalatable."

Bloom found that the acceptability or unacceptability of suicide bombing on the part of the domestic population can change over time. "If nothing else, I try to provide a positive hope for the future that says these conflicts may appear intractable [but that] if you haven't passed a certain threshold where all is lost, this could give policy makers an opportunity to adjust accordingly."

In looking at the variety of counter-terrorism strategies states have introduced, Bloom found that heavy handed strategies appear to work well in the short term, but usually invite more violence in the long term. "In some cases, Israel-Palestine in particular, it looked like Israel had managed to stem terrorism after 2002 by engaging in fairly heavy-handed practices. I got a lot of e-mails from friends and colleagues saying I was completely wrong because they thought I had allowed my personal beliefs in human rights to enter into my thinking. And sure enough, now we're seeing increasing amounts of violence even in areas that appeared calm for a while. So the policies enacted by certain governments can really backfire. Maybe not in the short term, but in the long term."

Dr. Bloom reported that she interviewed bombers that had been preempted, ones who were in jail because they had failed, and the ones that were on their way to becoming martyrs. "Ultimately when you ask the individuals what motivated them, a lot of it had to do with counter-terror strategies that had been employed by the states. And I thought that it was very significant in terms of the state's ability to either deter violence or to actually create incentives for violence."

Bloom stressed this point by citing the example of a female suicide bombing unit in Sri Lanka called the Birds of Paradise. Many of these women, she found, had been raped by the Sri Lankan army at checkpoints or by the security services. Bloom said the she believed that these women were not only motivated by revenge or an egalitarian notion that they were as willing to fight as the men, but by a sense that they had to recoup their family honor while expressing their anger and humiliation.

As a matter of state policy, Bloom continued, it is much easier for governments to control their actions rather than to control terrorists' actions. In her view, it is preferable for states to adjust their counter-terrorism policies to "appeal to the people who are suffering from terrorism or creating a hospitable environment for it to flourish."

Terrorists Winning the Hearts and Minds

Dr. Bloom believes scholars need to look at terrorism at both the individual and group levels. Bloom directed most of her analysis on the leadership of terrorist organizations and less on the rank-and-file. What she found particularly shocking in her research was the ease with which individuals were convinced that it was in their best interests to blow themselves up.

In order to understand the ability of terrorist organizations to recruit people and raise funding, she looked at instances where the popularity of a particular group had fluctuated depending on its tactics. In her talk, she focused on Palestinian and Sri Lankan terrorist groups. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Bloom explained, was very popular in the 1960s. This group, founded by a Palestinian Christian dentist, was at the forefront of airplane hijacking campaigns. "In 1968 the PFLP and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) were able to hijack multiple planes at the same time. The PFLP petered out through the first intifada, and through the second Al-Aqsa intifada support for the PFLP was on the decline. There were an increasing number of supporters who started looking to the Islamic inspired organizations. We started to see these rivalries between the Islamic oriented groups like Hamas or the Islamic Jihad and then other groups that were more secular like Fatah. And to a lesser extent the alphabet soup of Palestinian organizations; the PFLP, PDFLP, PDFLPGC, and the others."

According to Bloom, the PFLP was losing credibility because it was not as bold as the Islamist groups. It was not capturing the hearts and minds of the people in the same way the fundamentalist organizations were able to.

Bloom argued that the PFLP saw the writing on the wall. If the PFLP did not engage in suicide bombing it would lose popular support, fail to gain new members, and decrease in influence. After engaging in suicide bombing, the PFLP saw an increase in it numbers, and as it had proceeded. Bloom argues that this positive reinforcement is what encourages the escalation of suicide bombing. Bloom concluded that the PFLP's use of suicide bombing is thus directly related to its resurgence.

"With the PFLP we had a secular organization that had repudiated the use of suicide bombing, now not only using suicide bombing, but using the language of jihad, using Koranic verses, making religious an organization that was founded on secular Marxist principles."

Bloom's other example comes from her research in Sri Lanka. She had managed to gain access to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Her goal was to conduct the same the kinds of public opinion research in Sri Lanka that she had conducted in Palestine. She wanted to explore how the civilians and the LPTE felt about suicide bombing.

What she found was that the Tamil Tigers had decided to shift away from violence against civilians to targeted assassinations. "They did not want to go and kill lots of Singalese teenagers. And I finally worked up the courage and I asked the leadership, 'What's the difference between you and Hamas since you both using suicide bombing?' His response was, 'We don't go to the Pizza Hut.'"

Bloom explained that the average Tamil individual does not support the use of violence against civilians. "Are people going to march in the street against this? No. You're not going to see that among Palestinians either. But you see the erosion of popularity. And the erosion of popularity has to be measured in more subtle ways."

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Mia Bloom, Ph.D. in Political Science, Columbia University, has studied at the American University of Cairo and at Tel Aviv University, and held a predoctoral position at Harvard University's Program on Non-Violent Sanctions and Cultural Survival. She is fluent in Arabic, French, Hebrew, and Russian.

Dr. Bloom is currently affiliated with the Rutgers University Center for Global Security and Democracy and has recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for International Studies at Princeton. She also works part time for the Department of Homeland Security.

Her book Dying to Kill: The Global Phenomenon of Suicide Terror will be published later this year. She is now working on a second book, Out of their Cages and Into the Streets: Tiger Violence and Counter-Terror Strategies in Sri Lanka.

Burkle Center for International Relations