Only a few years ago, security experts could describe the kind of person likely to become a suicide terrorist. He usually sounded vaguely like a serial killer: male, late teens or early 20s, uneducated and unemployed as well as unmarried, something of a social misfit, probably a religious fanatic.
Today, none of this applies. That profile has become obsolete, not because those who wrote it were mistaken but because suicide terrorism keeps evolving. Like so many aspects of contemporary life, it changes with terrifying speed. For those who want to understand it, as well as for those who fight it, suicide terrorism has become a moving target.
Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, recently assembled data on all the known suicide bombings from 1980 through the end of 2001, 188 of them. He's discovered that a suicide terrorist today may be educated or uneducated, single or married, male or female, poor or well-to-do, religious or a secular. The bomber may be as young as 13 or as old as 47.
Pape gives his findings in The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, a brilliant and succinct 19-page article for the American Political Science Review. The points he makes are absolutely obvious, except that they weren't obvious until he made them.
Much of what we are accustomed to saying on this subject is quite wrong. Many journalists have described suicide bombers as desperate (I've made that mistake myself) but in fact, neither the bombers nor their bosses show signs of desperation. Far from it. They deliberately pace their activities to fit political goals, speeding up the frequency of attacks, or slowing them down, as the situation requires. They will cancel a planned bombing when it seems strategically wise.
These are not the actions of desperate people. Nor are the actual bomb-carriers undisciplined hysterics. They obey orders. Freelance bombings are extremely rare: Of the 188, all but nine were controlled by well-established terrorist networks, such as the Liberation Tigers in Sri Lanka or the Islamic Jihad in the Middle East. The Tigers, incidentally, used this technique more than anyone else in the period studied; they were responsible for 75 suicide bombings.
Pape points out that modern dictatorships have never been targets for suicide bombers, a point that struck me with some force. In all the decades of Soviet imperialism, when Moscow's troops occupied many formerly independent states, I never heard of suicide terrorism against the U.S.S.R. When the Afghans were fighting a ferocious and daring war against the Soviets, they never once tried suicide bombing. And while Iraq under Saddam Hussein was far more brutal to the Kurds than Turkey, the Kurds used suicide only against Turkey, never Iraq.
Suicide bombing is more convenient and lethal than any other kind of terrorism, because the killer doesn't need an escape route and because the bomb can be taken to within inches of the target, in a belt or a car. Its effectiveness has made it the perfect way to intimidate democracies, which give each atrocity such enormous publicity that citizens may come to believe a bomb awaits them on every bus or street corner.
In fact, Pape's most striking conclusion is that suicide terrorism is used only against democracies, countries with elected leaders who are highly sensitive to public opinion. That's why suicide terrorism often succeeds, at least in the short run -- and that's why it's spreading swiftly (like democracy). It forced the Americans, the French and the Israelis out of Lebanon, it forced the Israelis to leave the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1994 and 1995, and it caused Sri Lanka to agree that a Tamil state must be created. (On the other hand, Kurdish assaults on Turkey have produced no results, so far.)
In every case, Pape argues, the central motive of suicide bombers is territory, not ideology or religion. The terrorists always want foreigners out of land they consider their own. Even the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were in part a reaction to the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Pape suggests that the plans of these terrorists are not the result of wild-eyed wishful thinking. "They are, rather, quite reasonable assessments of the outcomes of suicide terrorism campaigns during this period." About half the time, suicide bombing produces gains. The leaders of Islamic Jihad believe the techniques used to expel Israel from Lebanon will eventually, "through jihad and martyrdom," destroy Israel itself.
Many of us consider suicide bombing perverted and insanely cruel, but our feelings do nothing to make it less effective or less popular. This week I became the 266,962nd person to sign a petition, organized by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, that asks the United Nations to declare suicide terrorism a crime against humanity, opening the way to prosecution of those who organize it. I hope our views are considered, but it would be far more effective if the democracies could steel themselves to deny the suicide terrorists any further victories, no matter how painful that may be for those under attack.