Why suicide bombers became the go-to weapon for terrorists

Fawaz Gerges

The myth of the suicide bomber grips the Western imagination. The public thirst for stories about them is insatiable. But of all the suicide bombings in the past 30 years, it was the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States that made real the terror of this destructive weapon. In addition to the tragic human toll that the suicide bomber inflicts on civilians, the act of weaponising oneself in the service of ideology shatters a deeply-held universal belief regarding the sanctity of life and self-preservation. Thus viewed, the suicide bomber is the antithesis of modernity and rationality.

A widespread opinion is that religion provides inspiration and motivation for wannabe suicide bombers. Time and again it is argued that they are religious zealots who seek paradise at the cost of hell on earth, through death by self-immolation.

For example, nowadays many hold Islam accountable for the manifold increase in suicide bombings and their spread to European and US streets. Proponents of this hypothesis include both the perpetrators of suicide bombings and their detractors — both believe in a clash of civilisations. Others hold that extremist ideologies and ideologues twist Islamic doctrine to carry out evil deeds.

In his sweeping survey of suicide bombings — from the first documented modern suicide bomber, Ignaty Grinevitsky, a revolutionary who murdered Tsar Alexandar II in St Petersburg in 1881, to today’s jihadists — veteran journalist and human rights activist Iain Overton sees a vision of utopia as a common thread.

Despite the different national, ideological and historical contexts of suicide bombers in countries as disparate as Russia, Japan, Iran, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, America, Europe and beyond, all are driven, we are told, by religious messianism and zealotry. A wish for paradise and an all-consuming religious sentiment unites nearly all of them, including secular revolutionaries, Marxists, insurrectionists and jihadis. Overton’s overarching and parsimonious argument erases core differences in motivation and ideologies between suicide bombers across time and space.Surely, the drivers behind their actions are more complex and multi-varied than a single cause?

A related argument, echoed in the book’s subtitle, is that suicide bombers have shaped the modern world. “We live in the age of the suicide bomber,” Overton writes. Do we really? And have they “become a defining feature of the modern era”, as the author asserts? One must question if suicide bombings are as important as globalism, the Arab Spring uprisings, or the rise of far-Right populism worldwide.

In my view, Overton inflates the importance of the suicide-bomber phenomenon, and he invests it with strategic and even existential overtones. For example, his claim that “suicide bombers are the real weapons of mass destruction” overlooks the central function and targets of these weapons.

Suicide bombs are the tactical weapon of choice for radicals in asymmetrical conflicts — a weapon that extremists with limited resources employ against more powerful states and entities. As tools of political violence and terrorism, suicide bombers are symptoms of broken politics, broken institutions and broken lives.

All of that said, this well-researched and well-written book was conceived in the midst of the spiralling suicide attacks unleashed by Islamic State beginning in 2014. Overton writes that the trigger for his book came in late 2015, when suicide bombings were increasing in frequency on Western streets.

It is no wonder, then, that the tone is dire, warning that suicide bombings are on the rise and that they are a greater threat now than ever. But, in fact, there has been a dramatic decline in terrorist and suicide bombings worldwide in the past two years, with the biggest decrease occurring in the West, owing mainly to the weakening of Islamic State. Only 10 attacks occurred in Western countries in 2018 compared with 168 at IS’s height in 2016-2017. If the trend holds, 2019 will likely witness even fewer deadly attacks.

Analysts should be cautious about generalising and allowing genuine fears to override facts and reason. Overton is right, of course, to curse the darkness. He cites raw data which shows that there have been over 3,500 recorded suicide attacks since 1881 (about 25 attacks per year over the past 138 years). Such numbers are dwarfed, however, when compared with other types of violence — for instance, gun violence in the US, which claims tens of thousands of lives each year.

Where Overton’s book excels is in explaining the consequences of the US’s (and Europe’s) overreaction to suicide bombers, particularly after 9/11. America’s global war on terror was costly in blood and treasure, as well as counterproductive. The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 devastated the country and likely is the precipitating event for many of the suicide bombings that occur to this day.

In November 2018 Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs released the Costs of War study in which it was calculated that the US will have spent $5.9 trillion on activities related to the global war on terror from 2001 until October 2019.

Despite this staggering sum, not to mention that incalculable human cost, the number of jihadist fighters only multiplied in the same period from about 37,000 to 66,000 fighters in 2001 to about 100,000 to 230,000 in 2018 (according to a report by the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies).

Overton also underscores the corrosive effects of the global counter-terrorism campaign on the rule of law and open society in Western democracies.

My criticisms of this book do not take away from its substance, clarity and richness. Overton has written an informative book on a timely topic that demands critical scrutiny.

Fawaz Gerges is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and the author of ISIS: A History (Princeton University Press) among other books

The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age by Iain Overton (Quercus, £25)