Sunday, April 05, 2009

How long do these fads last?

In my last lecture for the Islamic civilization course, I tried to balance negative and positive aspects of the current situation (current being since September 2000). One thing I felt compelled to point out to my young students, who might be under the impression that suicide bombing was a long-standing phenomenon in the Islamic world or the Middle East, was that this is not the case. The very first suicide bombing in Afghanistan was on September 10, 2001. Now it is a standard part of the operations of the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban to praise suicide bombing as an Islamic act and to indoctrinate children in preparation for using them later; but before 2001, that was never done.

I thought about this for quite a bit after the lecture was over. I thought back to the end of the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a common figure. One day, even though they were still violent dissenters and explosive materials, the symbolism of throwing bombs to express dissent lost its charm, and people who in another time would have been bomb-throwing anarchists started doing something else. One can hope that a few of them found something constructive to do. But in any case, there were no longer recognizable bomb-throwing anarchists except in cartoons.

I wonder why? How do these violent fads get started, and why do they end? Is anyone investigating the life and death of such trends? It strikes me as a crucial topic in both mass psychology and history as a whole.

One phenomenon worth investigating and comparing to so-called Islamic terrorism would be terrorism in Ireland, which seems to be winding down. Of course, even in Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland, most people of whatever religious identity took no part in terrorism, but there were enough looking for freedom or revenge or religious liberty or whatever who believed their cause justified killing. Now just about everyone is sick of it, and they have leaned on the rest in an effort to discourage the hardest of hardliners continuing the cycle. It took, however, decades to reach this point, and as we've recently seen there is no guarantee that the old grievances can't be brought back to life in the short or long term. If it is over, why now? If it is not over, how come? If everyone lives peacefully for half a century and then the old hatreds are revived and bombs start going off, why will it have happened?

Think of this as a problem in public health.

If you're interested in the recent history of suicide bombing, I found a well researched article on in the Washington Post from from 2005. Here are a few excerpts:
Unheard of only a few decades ago, suicide bombings have rapidly evolved into perhaps the most common method of terrorism in the world, moving west from the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s to the Palestinian intifada of recent years to Iraq today. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide attacks in the United States, suicide bombers have struck from Indonesia to India, from Russia to Morocco.

Now governments throughout the West -- including the United States -- are bracing to cope with similar challenges in the wake of the deadly July 7 subway bombings in London, which marked the first time that suicide bombers had successfully mounted an attack in Western Europe.

The pace of such attacks is quickening. According to data compiled by the Rand Corp., about three-quarters of all suicide bombings have occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The numbers in Iraq alone are breathtaking: About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In May, an estimated 90 suicide bombings were carried out in the war-torn country -- nearly as many as the Israeli government has documented in the conflict with Palestinians since 1993.

Yesterday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body inside a Shiite mosque south of Baghdad, triggering a huge fuel-tanker explosion that killed at least 54 people, according to police.

The bombings in London, which killed 55 people, illustrate the profound difficulty of preventing such attacks, experts say. Intelligence officials believe the bombers, in a common pattern, were foot soldiers recruited for the occasion, young men of Pakistani and Jamaican backgrounds reared in Britain who had recently converted to radical Islam. The four bombings required no exit strategy and were pulled off with devices that apparently were made in a bathtub and were small enough to fit in backpacks.

"With the exception of weapons of mass destruction, there is no other type of attack that is more effective than suicide terrorism," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand, a California think tank. "The perception is that it's impossible to guard against."

The motives behind suicide bombings are often mixed. Terrorism experts and intelligence officials disagree on the extent to which political strategy and religious fervor have led to the rising frequency of such attacks. But in addition to the death toll, a key objective of such bombings is clearly to sow terror by violating deeply held cultural and religious taboos against suicide, experts say.


History of Suicide Attacks

The use of suicide attacks is not new. Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II tried to cause maximum damage by crashing their fighter planes into U.S. ships. Walter Laqueur, an expert in the history of terrorism, also says that, for centuries, any attack on military or political leaders was a form of suicide because the act usually occurred at close quarters and brought swift and certain death for the killer.

One watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. service members in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out several dozen more suicide attacks.

Most experts agree that the modern style of suicide bombings first gained its greatest prominence outside the Middle East, in the island nation of Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, is an avowedly secular rebel movement of the country's Tamil ethnic minority. It carried out scores of suicide bombings from the late 1980s until a cease-fire in 2002. The conflict between the Tigers and the government, which is dominated by members of the Sinhalese majority, began in 1983 and claimed an estimated 65,000 lives.

Though dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions. The Tigers' early and aggressive use of suicide attacks, analysts say, reflected a pragmatic calculation of the need to level the military playing field against a larger and better-equipped foe.

The group created an elite force to carry out such attacks, the Black Tigers, whose members underwent rigorous training and were reportedly treated to dinner with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before being sent on their missions.

The rebels carried out their first suicide bombing in 1987, when a captain blew himself up along with 40 government troops at an army camp in the northern part of the country...
As you might guess from my remarks above I am not so sure that continued suicide bombing is really simply a pragmatic choice of the weaker side. As the article says somewhere else, in reference to the West Bank,
The boys all know the way to Ahmed Abu Khalil's house, tucked along an alley in a neighborhood of the West Bank town of Atil known as Two Martyrs. Abu Khalil, 18, became its third after he blew himself up Tuesday near a shopping mall in the Israeli city of Netanya.

It is safe to say Abu Khalil knew how he would be remembered here for his twilight attack outside the HaSharon Mall, which killed five Israelis, including two 16-year-old girls who were lifelong best friends. Scores more were injured in Israel's third suicide bombing this year.

The neighborhood is named for two local members of Islamic Jihad, the radical Palestinian group, who died fighting in the West Bank city of Jenin in 2003. The stylized posters of young men, posing with assault rifles and draped with ammunition belts, wallpaper the city. Graffiti urges uprising.

"This has given us a lot of pride, what he has done in Netanya," said Ibrahim Shoukri, 14, who used to follow Abu Khalil to prayer at the mosque. "We hope all of us will be like him."

The cult of glorification -- a mix of nationalist, personal and religious fervor -- that surrounds suicide bombers has long been one of the most difficult challenges facing Israeli security officials. Religious justification taught in the more radical West Bank mosques and intense familial pride -- at least in the days immediately after the attacks -- often outweigh the Israeli deterrent measures designed to make would-be suicide bombers think twice.
Just at a guess, as long as the neighborhood is named after the two martyrs, and their story is known there and the underlying conflict still exists, that neighborhood has a chance of producing more of the same, as in the case of Abu Khalil. And as long as there is a big deal sectarian marching season in Northern Ireland, there is a chance that those who take part or do not take part in those marches may remember the old causes and act on those memories.

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