Why Suicide Terrorism Takes Root
By Shibley Telhami
New York Times
April 4, 2002
PARK, Md. — The Israeli government's strategy of massive
military reprisal against Palestinian violence has not
worked in the past and is proving even more disastrous
in the era of suicide bombings.
We must not misunderstand the nature or the magnitude
of the danger the Middle East now faces. The true horror
of suicide bombings is that they are immensely empowering
to many people in the region who no longer believe that
their governments can do anything to relieve their
humiliation and improve their conditions. The fact that
some factions within Yasir Arafat's own Fatah movement
seem to have endorsed suicide attacks is the result, not
the cause, of popular support for a method first embraced
by Islamist groups.
When a teenage girl suicide bomber recently left a
taped message speaking of "sleeping Arab armies" and
ineffective governments allowing girls to do the fighting,
her handlers knew well how this would play among the
masses. The most pervasive psychology in the Arab world
today is collective rage and feelings of helplessness —
and the focus of this psychology is the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While Israeli television
shows the horror that innocent victims of suicide bombings
endure today, Arab television is showing Israeli tanks
smashing into Palestinian cities, the mounting Arab
civilian casualties, and the scars of 35 years of
In this climate, suicide bombings take root because
they free the desperate from the need to rely on
governments altogether. Rather than being sponsored by
states, this form of violence challenges states.
Those who have tried to explain suicide terror by
religious doctrines have been proved wrong. Increasingly,
secular Palestinians are adopting this method because they
think it is effective in making occupation unbearable to
Israel. From nonreligious young women to members of the
semi-Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
to the secular Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, groups and
individuals have begun emulating the suicides of Hamas,
the radical Islamist group.
Suicide bombings thrive in anarchy. The absence of
effective government is their primary source of power.
They are antigovernment, the lethal weapon of individuals
and small groups. While deterrence works against states,
even against states like Iraq, it is ineffective against
dispersed and shadowy groups that do not have significant
infrastructures to target. And even when one knows whom to
target, retaliation is not generally effective against
those willing to die.
The next stage of suicide terror may be more ominous.
The method is likely to be copied and made more lethal
beyond Palestinian areas, particularly in the era of
globalization, when information, technology and weapons
are readily available.
Like all terrorism, suicide bombings must be
delegitimized by Arab societies and stopped because no
ends can justify these horrific means. At the same time,
there has to be a way of dealing with the realities that
have made suicide bombings acceptable to a large number of
Palestinians and others. To pretend that this issue is
simply one of a choice between good and evil is to know
nothing of human psychology. Today many Israelis support
the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes as a way of
stopping the unbearable horror of suicide terror; and many
Palestinians support terror as way of ridding themselves
of the unbearable pain of occupation. This was not the
case only months ago.
President Bush is right that suicide bombings cannot be
tolerated or rewarded because the consequences to the
international system could be devastating. But there is
only one way to reduce these acts of terror: putting forth
a better alternative, a peace plan that revives hope.
Violent retaliation is unlikely to end suicide terror, and
may even increase it by adding to the humiliation that
hardens the hearts even of decent people.
Shibley Telhami is professor of government and
politics at the University of Maryland and co-editor of
"Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East."
Copyright © 2002,
The New York Times