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Speaker Looks at Suicide Bombings as a Military Strategy

July 3, 2008 By:
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Michael Horowitz

Between 1980 and 2003, suicide attacks accounted for only 3 percent of terrorists acts worldwide, but they resulted in 48 percent of the casualties -- a grim statistic that, at least in part, explains why so many more terrorist groups have adopted the tactic, noted Michael Horowitz, a recent addition to the political-science faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.

"You can't look at these groups and their decisions in a vacuum. There are lots of interrelationships between" them, remarked Horowitz, 29, in an interview after his June 25 lunchtime lecture focusing on the history of suicide terrorism. Held at the Center City offices of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the program -- attended by several dozen people -- kicked off the "Summer School at FPRI" series.

In 2007, Horowitz completed his Ph.D at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His dissertation was in the field of military innovation; he has also served as a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. The native of Lexington, Mass., noted that his father was a military engineer, and that he began graduate school shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks -- two reasons he pursued this particular field.

Consequently, he's looked at suicide terror from the point of view of organizational dynamics and military strategy, rather than trying to delve into the psychological, religious and political motivations of the bombers.

During his talk, Horowitz explained that prior to World War II, the notion of a suicide attack -- where the success of the mission depended on the assailant's death -- was virtually unknown. But in October 1944, the Japanese -- who were, by then, losing the war in the Pacific and also suffering from a shortage of skilled pilots -- began instructing aviators to turn their aircrafts into weapons and fly them directly into American warships.

All told, Horowitz reported, the Japanese Kamikaze took out about 70 ships and killed thousands of U.S. sailors. Of course, they, too, paid a high price: More than 5,000 Japanese pilots died in such attacks, a statistic that perhaps best explains why the tactic wasn't copied by other state armies in subsequent wars, argued Horowitz.

It wasn't until the early 1980s, when Hezbollah utilized suicide attacks against Israeli and American forces in Lebanon, that the era of the suicide bombing truly began -- an era that features nonstate actors, rather than armies.

Interestingly, Horowitz said that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist organization that carried out the most suicide bombings and was responsible for the most carnage was the Tamil Tigers. This is the shorthand name for a separatist group in Sri Lanka that, at least at first, directed its attacks at the military rather than civilians. The scholar said that the group devised both the suicide-bomber belt and vest, and were the first to use women as attackers, innovations that were noticed by groups like Hezbollah.

But perhaps the true watershed moment in the history of suicide terrorism came in the early 1990s, when Osama bin Laden sent representatives from Al Qaeda to meet with Hezbollah's leaders to learn about their tactics for the express purpose of devising a method to attack an American embassy -- something they carried out to deadly effect in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania.

It was then that groups like Hamas -- which also benefited from Hezbollah's know-how -- began primarily attacking civilian, rather than military, targets.

Now, with the sheer number of bombings that have been carried out in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, suicide bombings have gone from something that seems beyond the pale to familiar segments of nightly news footage.

Still, Horowitz noted, not all terrorist groups have adopted the tactic; usually, the more established the group, the less likely it is to order such attacks.

For instance, he pointed out, the Irish Republican Army has avoided the tactic, largely because its entire ethos is devoted to the physical survival of its members; the same holds true for ETA, the Basque separatist group in Spain. To bolster his theory, Horowitz noted that Fatah, the most established Palestinian faction, did not order suicide bombings until nearly 10 years after rival factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad had done so.

The speaker added that he doesn't see a way to eradicate such terror. Instead, he noted that countries like Israel and the United States need to keep doing what they've been doing -- working to keep would-be bombers from entering in the first place.

During the question-and-answer session, Horowitz was asked what he thought of the alternate term "homicide bomber," used during the second intifada.

He replied that the debate was largely about public relations.

Still, he noted that "in a literal sense, homicide bomber is just as good a term as suicide bomber." What it does most clearly is change the focus from the death of the attacker to the death of the victims.

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