Promises of motorcycles, cell phones for suicide bombers

Martha Crenshaw

Martha Crenshaw

Suicide bombers are not all alike. Palestinians prepare elaborate martyr videos before their killings and become celebrities afterward, while Iraqi Sunnis kill their fellow citizens in obscurity. In Afghanistan, the suicide bombers have their own distinction: They are known for their ineptness, often blowing themselves up without killing anyone else.

"They're not efficient,'' said Martha Crenshaw, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. She arrived at Stanford this summer, after several decades of studying terrorism as a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Afghan suicide bombers tend to be poorer, younger and less educated than suicide bombers elsewhere, Crenshaw said during a recent CISAC seminar. She cited a United Nations report that accused the Taliban of strapping explosives to boys, despite a commitment not to recruit those too young to have facial hair. Promises of motorcycles and cell phones have been used as inducements.

One boy whose mission failed was interviewed by U.N. workers. "He somehow thought he would survive the attack and get to spend the money they had promised him, not quite understanding that he would not be there," Crenshaw said in an interview following her talk.

In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the person wearing the explosives belt or driving the car bomb is the least valuable person in the terror group, Crenshaw said. The key people are the bomb maker and the organizer: "They never send the bomb maker with the bomb." In Israel, security officials target the bomb makers for assassination.

"It's the organization that decides who's going to be attacked and when and where and why," Crenshaw said. "Then they recruit somebody to carry it out. So the person carrying the bomb really is just a foot soldier."

Afghanistan's most famous suicide attack happened in 2001, just two days before the 9/11 assault on the United States. Al-Qaida operatives masquerading as journalists preemptively blew up tribal warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud in anticipation that he might aid U.S. troops if they eventually invaded Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden.

Today, al-Qaida, the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami (the group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) aim their suicide attacks at U.S. and Afghan government forces, but the victims are overwhelmingly civilian bystanders, often large numbers of children. Many of the bombers, Crenshaw said, are recruited from religious schools across the border in Pakistan.

The predominant motivation for terrorists to employ suicide attacks is strategic, not religious, according to Crenshaw. One suicide bomber kills many people, a perfect example of what the U.S. military calls asymmetric warfare. According to the United Nations, since the 1980s suicide bombers have been involved in only 4 percent of the world's terror attacks, but have caused 29 percent of the deaths.

Crenshaw gave her CISAC talk the day of the bloody suicide-bomber attack on Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. With some 140 deaths and 500 injuries, it was the deadliest of more than 50 suicide attacks in Pakistan in recent years. Bhutto survived without injury, but if she had died, the volatile country could have come unglued, according to Crenshaw. "It shows you how one major suicide bombing could make a big difference," she said.

Her interest in terrorism began in graduate school in the late 1960s. Her first book, Revolutionary Terrorism (Hoover Institution Press, 1978), was on guerilla warfare against the French during the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962. It still sells on Amazon, for $100.

How does one research suicide bombers, since most of them, by definition, are dead? "We don't have very many studies that are based on extensive interviews," Crenshaw says. The one well-known body of work based on interviews involves failed Palestinian suicide bombers held in Israeli prisons. But the prisoners have told their stories so often that it is difficult to separate truth from imagination, according to Crenshaw.

Scholars of terrorism in general can turn to trial transcripts, databases of newspaper stories or the "Harmony Project" documents captured from al-Qaida and posted online by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

But less has been written specifically about suicide bombers. "In Iraq, it's very difficult to know who they were, even. They're dead and they're blown to bits, too," Crenshaw said. "You might not have a hand with fingerprints, for example. Surprisingly enough, often they do seem to find heads. But still, how do you identify someone in Iraq, where you don't have a record of who the population is to begin with? There are no identity cards, no nothing. Really, we're just guessing."

Crenshaw's most recent paper, "Explaining Suicide Terrorism: A Review Essay" (Security Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, January 2007), relied on the bookstore: She bought and read 13 books about suicide bombers, then produced a review of them all as a guide to other researchers.

Crenshaw’s reading list on suicide terrorism

  • Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

  • Joyce M. Davis, Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance and Despair in the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

  • Diego Gambetta, ed., Making Sense of Suicide Missions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • Mohammed M. Hafez, Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2006).

  • Raphael Israeli, Islamikaze: Manifestations of Islamic Martyrology (London: Frank Cass, 2003).

  • Farhad Khosrokhavar, Suicide Bombers: Allah's New Martyrs, translated from the French by David Macey (London: Pluto Press, 2005).

  • Anne Marie Oliver and Paul F. Steinberg, The Road to Martyrs' Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005).

  • Ami Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).

  • Ami Pedahzur, ed., Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism: The Globalization of Martyrdom (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

  • Christoph Reuter, My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing, translated from the German by Helena Ragg-Kirkby (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

  • Shaul Shay, The Shahids: Islam and Suicide Attacks (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004).

  • Barbara Victor, Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers (Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale [distributed by St. Martin's Press], 2003).