Does suicide bombing pay?

Are suicide bombers “crazy?” Or are they making rational strategic choices designed to achieve certain goals? Neither conventional interpretation is correct in the case of the second intifada, according to provocative new research from University of Toronto sociology professor Robert Brym.

Contrary to what most academic research has shown, says Brym, “revenge and retaliation seem to be the principal animus driving this suicide bombing campaign. We see this when we examine when attacks occur, what people say about why they’re taking place and when we look at the actual costs and benefits gained.”

Brym and his research team created a database of collective violence events that occurred during the second intifada, the term generally used to describe the Palestinian uprising against Israel that began in the fall of 2000. The team collected data on 138 attacks from existing databases, Hebrew and Arabic newspapers and the New York Times. They then mined the database for 128 variables, examining individual motives, organizational rationales and events that led up to each attack.

“We are drilling down to a level that hasn’t been examined in this conflict,” says Brym. “It’s time-consuming, but getting into individual cases is the only way you can make sound generalizations.” He and coauthor Bader Araj, a PhD student at U of T, published their findings in the June 2006 issue of Social Forces.

By examining statements made by bombers, their families or representatives from organizations they claimed to be working for, the authors found that attacks were not generally governed by a strategic logic, as is often believed to be the case, but were motivated by a desire for revenge. By examining events that preceded each specific attack, they found that particular Israeli actions such as killings prompted most attacks. “For the most part,” they write, bombers “gave up their lives to avenge the killing of a close relative, as retribution for specific attacks against the Palestinian people or as payback for perceived attacks against Islam.”

Even at the organizational level — when attacks were organized by groups like Hamas — where strategic concerns might be assumed to be more common, six out of ten rationales focused on avenging specific Israeli actions.

Brym situates his research in what he calls a “third wave” of studies of suicide bombing. The first attributed suicide attacks to pathology — either the psychopathology of individual bombers or the cultural contexts that created them. “It was a blame game with the blame clearly residing with the suicide bombers,” he says. “People believed they were crazy, irrational and sick or their culture led them to behave in ways that were crazy. It was a one-sided approach and little of the data supported these conclusions.”

This paradigm was shaken by the 2005 publication of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who posited that a suicide attack represents a rational and strategic approach to politics.

According to Brym, “Pape says we can figure out why waves of attacks occur by recognizing that they have a strategic advantage: they bring benefits and they’re timed to maximize those strategic benefits.” In other words, suicide bombing pays, at least as it relates to achieving goals such as ridding territory of perceived foreign occupiers. Though Brym believes that Pape’s argument may well hold true in some circumstances — Iraq may turn out to be a prime example, he says — it doesn’t explain the second intifada.

This suicide bombing campaign simply isn’t working in the sense that the Palestinians are not realizing any strategic gains as a result, says Brym. On the other side of the conflict, he says, “Israeli acts of oppression are also counter-productive. If you go out and engage in a targeted killing, as the Israeli security services often do, that can result in more suicide bombings taking place — which in turn results in more targeted killings. There’s a macabre dance taking place.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to say is that there’s a certain irrationality on both sides,” says Brym, who hopes that governments intervening in the conflict will heed the results of his study. “From a utilitarian point of view, the conflict is irrational. It doesn’t bring about intended results for either side. The idea of laying blame on one side or the other doesn’t get us very far, analytically speaking. Unless it’s understood as an interaction, it can’t be understood fully — or resolved.”

From University of Toronto

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