Suicide Bombing as a Problem in Asymmetric Warfare
The suicide bomber has become the symbol of this particularly difficult stage of the Palestinian uprising, and has provoked Israel's full-scale operations in the West Bank, the military wisdom of which was questioned in the Dossier in the last issue of The Estimate. But what about suicide bombing itself as a military tactic? And how does one defend against it, since deterrence can scarcely work when the attacker is determined to give up his or her life anyway? This Dossier looks at suicide bombing as a challenge in what is known as "asymmetric warfare", the use of unconventional tactics or weapons to counter the massive conventional superiority of one's enemy. (On the asymmetric warfare debate, see the Dossier, "Asymmetric Warfare, the USS Cole, and the Intifada" in The Estimate for November 3, 2000.)
Asymmetric warfare has sometimes been defined as "not fighting fair"; to the rebel or insurgent faced with overwhelming conventional military power, however, it is seen more as a case of leveling the playing field. Just as some have called chemical and biological weapons the "poor man's nukes", so some Palestinians have said that the suicide bombers are "our tanks and F-16s". In some ways, the suicide bomber is the most difficult sort of "weapon" to defend against: you cannot deter its use, it is difficult to detect beforehand, and a genuine retaliatory response is difficult because the immediate perpetrator is dead and the authority authorizing the attack may or may not be identifiable. Israel has chosen to strike back against the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, but it has not prevented additional attacks (though not of such frequency as the daily blasts during Passover which provoked the military response).
It is easy enough for editorial writers to deplore the civilian casualties and denounce the attacks as barbaric; it is quite another matter to find a way to defend against them. In microcosm, suicide bombing is a useful way to consider the challenges of asymmetric warfare against a sophisticated military power.
The predecessors of the current wave of suicide bombers are found throughout history. While most cultures look with horror on someone killing himself or herself in order to kill others, in fact most of the same cultures make heroes of those who fight to the last man: the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Texans at the Alamo. Israel has always made a powerful symbol of Masada, where Jewish fighters committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman besiegers. But, of course, the defenders of Masada killed themselves, not innocent Roman civilians. In the Islamic Middle Ages, the Order of the Assassins sometimes died in their assassination attacks, and many have compared their tactics to those of Usama bin Ladin today; like Bin Ladin, they were from a highly heterodox variety of Islam. But suicide bombings have also occurred in situations not directly related to religious conviction. The leftwing Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey has used suicide attacks against Turkish targets. The largest number of suicide bombings in any one conflict, at least until recently, was not in the Middle East at all but among the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. Among the victims of pro-LTTE suicide bombers was Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose 1991 assassin, like some of the recent Palestinian bombers, was a woman; Sri Lankan leaders have also been targets.
The large-scale suicide attack has also become all too familiar: the destruction of the US Embassy in Beirut in April 1983 and of the US Marine Barracks and French Multinational Force headquarters in October 1983 were the first major attacks on US targets, and of course the events of September 11 are the largest-scale suicide attacks against civilian targets in history.
Against military targets, there is the organized use of suicide attacks by Japan against the US fleet off Okinawa and elsewhere in the closing days of World War II, the kamikaze; thousands of more kamikaze were being prepared in the event the US invaded the home islands. American shock at the desperation (and perceived fanaticism) of the kamikaze attacks helped fuel the conviction that Japan would not surrender under normal military pressure, and thus helped influence the decision to use the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The kamikaze were the most systematized suicide fighters in history: a special type of aircraft was even designed specifically for suicide missions.
Suicide attacks are not new. Israel has dealt with them for years. What is different in recent weeks is the intensity of the attacks, sometimes daily, as suicide bombers specifically target public areas in order to create fear and induce terror in the Israeli civilian population. US officials have denounced suicide bombers as terrorists. Of course they are. The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and suicide bombers have become a very effective means of doing so. But denouncing terrorism does not defeat terror, and denouncing suicide bombers does not defend against them.
There is nothing particularly Islamic about suicide bombers; Islam considers suicide a grave sin. But there is also a long tradition of venerating the shahid, the martyr who dies fighting for God's cause, even if he (or she) dies through their own action. To its defenders, it is seen as little different from the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades, or the heroes of Thermopylae and the Alamo and Masada who fought on though they knew they would die. Not all Muslims accept that interpretation, of course, but most countries have in their pantheon of heroes fighters who tried to take out as many of the enemy as they could when they died.
The increasing use of suicide bombers against civilians is of course also a cause for alarm; Hizbullah in Lebanon often used suicide bombings against Israeli military patrols, but those were arguably an invading army of occupation being attacked by a military resistance, and thus a fair target under the laws of war, which civilians are not. Then again, to a Palestinian fighter, the devastation being inflicted on Palestinian cities by Israel is also an attack on civilians, and no one who looks at the history of the 20th century can argue seriously that the West has shown great scruples about civilian casualties in war.
The problem is that the war between Israel and the Palestinians is part urban civil war (between two different peoples, it is true, but sharing the same territory) and part what Mao called People's War, a popularly based insurgency. Such wars are always going to involve, if not even primarily be directed at civilians. Suicide bombing is suddenly the weapon of choice, and because it is a terror-inducing weapon targeting civilian populations, popular opinion demands a response.
That brings us to Asymmetric warfare and how one responds to it.
One classic and rather clear definition appeared in the 1998 Strategic Assessment of the US National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies: "Put simply, asymmetric threats or techniques are a version of not fighting fair,' which can include the use of surprise in all its operational and strategic dimensions and the use of weapons in ways unplanned by the United States. Not fighting fair also includes the prospect of an opponent designing a strategy that fundamentally alters the terrain on which a conflict is fought.
Asymmetric warfare includes any method used against a stronger opponent, not merely against the United States. During the Cold War, when Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces enjoyed a massive superiority in conventional armor in central Europe, NATO refused to rule out first use of nuclear weapons in order to stop a Soviet armored thrust into West Germany. That was a case of using the nuclear option to rectify an asymmetry in armored capability.
Terrorism is, by its very nature, an asymmetric tactic. The attack in 2000 on the USS Cole in Aden Harbor is a classic case, already cited in the November 3, 2000 Dossier in The Estimate cited in the introduction. The Cole is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer; its Aegis battle management system is the most sophisticated afloat. It is designed to counter a wide range of threats from sea-skimming missiles, aircraft, and hostile surface units. It was badly damaged by two men in a small rubber boat, killing 17 US sailors and wounding 39, while also killing the bombers.
There has been a lively debate about whether the Cole could have (or should have) been better defended, but the incident is a reminder that one cannot always adequately forecast the potential nature of the threat. Despite the discovery of plans to crash aircraft into buildings in a Philippines plot from the mid-1990s, the US was unprepared to defend against the attacks of September 11. Another attack, if it occurs, would probably use an entirely different approach, since US homeland security has now been beefed up to prevent a repeat of September 11, but may not have anticipated other asymmetric tactics.
Suicide Attacks as a Tactic
Suicide bombing has an impact because it strikes directly at the heart of civilian society: the bomber could be almost anyone on the street, and if one target appears too secure, the bomber can simply select another. As already noted, you cannot really deter someone who is ready to die, since what coercive force can you threaten to use: blow yourself up and I'll shoot you? And retaliation must always be indirect. You can retaliate against those who gave the orders, if you can identify and find them, or you can retaliate randomly against the community from which the bomber came, or against his or her families in a sort of blood retribution, but that goes against the grain of most societies.
In many ways, it is much easier to plan a suicide attack than a terrorist attack in which the attackers intend to escape, or a conventional military operation. Those require an escape plan, an ability to protect and secure one's exit from the scene after the attack. The suicide bomber needs no escape plan.
This does not mean that suicide attacks are a perfect weapon. For one thing, it requires a certain amount of training and indoctrination to steel an attacker sufficiently to take his or her own life, and that training is lost when the bomb goes off. The suicide bomber has a 100% casualty rate. Frequently in Israel, suicide bombers have been stopped prior to reaching their target, and have detonated the bomb with only one or two policemen present. That still takes casualties, but lacks the same impact as a bomb in a crowded public place, and still costs the investment in the bomber. And, of course, there have been cases where the suicide bomber was killed in a premature detonation and no one else was injured: a weapon spent without any gain.
So far as can be determined, there is indeed training, not only in issues such as explosives and concealment, but also basic combat skills in order to instill a self-confidence and willingness to die that is essential to carrying through on the act.
Despite its potency as a means of spreading terror among the civilian population, suicide bombing is ultimately an act of desperation, only likely to be employed when a movement's back is to the wall. The Japanese kamikaze made their appearance only when the Imperial Japanese Navy had effectively been removed from the seas.
Suicide bombing in Israel and the territories first began in the early 1990s as a means for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to counter the Oslo Accords; bombings tended to occur at critical times in the negotiating cycle, aimed at disrupting the process. But the bombings were limited in number, largely because many, most likely most, Palestinians believed that the Oslo process had a chance of success, and were not desperate enough to support the use of suicide tactics. Whether a valid conclusion or not, it is clear that many Palestinians today have decided that the situation is desperate enough to justify the tactic, and there are more and more volunteers.
The next level of defense, until and unless one can remove the causes of desperation, is good intelligence. If one knows that a potential suicide bombing is likely in a given place, or at a given time, one can increase security measures and reduce the casualty toll, perhaps forcing the bomber to abandon the mission or at any rate to expend the bomb on one or two security forces rather than the general public.
But good intelligence is hard to come by. One cannot, obviously, interrogate a successful suicide bomber, and failed ones often are killed by their own bomb. Clearly, the Israelis have hoped to gain intelligence in their operations against the Palestinian Authority which would allow them to forestall future attacks; their capture of Marwan Barghouti, they claim, is aimed at precisely that. But it is unlikely that Barghouti (if he is indeed in overall charge of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades) has knowledge of individual planned actions; basic guerrilla tactics ought to guarantee a compartmentalization of such planning. If targets are selected by local cells or even by individual bombers, then it is extremely difficult to come up with adequate intelligence in time to prevent the act.
Attacking the command structure of the bombers is another option, and this is clearly part of what Israel has been trying to do in the West Bank. If one can seize bomb-making materials, capture the training camps or the trainers, and disrupt the infrastructure, one may prevent some bomb attacks. However, precisely because the organizational structure is probably highly compartmentalized, and because the heavy-handed raids on Palestinian cities are making new recruits for suicide bombings, this can be a self-defeating tactic. The escalation on one side leads to escalation on the other.
Suicide bombers have often used the tactic precisely to escalate the conflict. Initially, suicide bombings were used to disrupt key stages in the Oslo process. In recent weeks, the attacks during Passover were used to provoke Israel into stronger countermeasures, which in turn produces new recruits and radicalizes the moderates in the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, the frequency of attacks on the civilian population makes it difficult for any Israeli government (even one led by someone other than Ariel Sharon) to seem to back down under US pressure.
Will it Spread?
It is not impossible, but outside the refugee camps and occupied territories there is not the large reservoir of despair upon which the organizers of the bombings draw. It is one thing to strongly disapprove of US or European policies in a given matter, and quite another to be willing to give up one's life. The first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 was not a suicide attack; neither was the Oklahoma City bombing.
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