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History of Suicide Bombers. Was Reagan to Blame?

John Simkin

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Robert Pape is professor of political science at the University of Chicago. In “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” Pape argues that the use of suicide attacks dates back to at least 2,000 years.

The great historical irony of this is that the first suicide bombers were Jews attempting to remove occupying forces from their homeland. In the 1st century the Jewish Zealots, an extreme resistance group in Judaea, began sacrificing themselves by making individual attacks on Roman soldiers with knives. They mounted daily attacks and this led to the Jewish War of AD66 which ultimately brought about the exodus of the Jews from the region.

Another significant group that employed these tactics were the Hashshashins (also known as the Assassins) in Iran. They used suicide attacks to deter neighbouring sultans in Persia and Iraq from invading. The strategy continued until the mid-13th century when the Hashshashins were wiped out by the Mongols.

The best known example of suicide attacks came in the Second World War. The Japanese, facing defeat in 1944, sent in kamikaze planes against the US navy. More than 30 ships were sunk and thousands of US military personnel were killed or wounded.

All three examples ended in failure. However, it did not mark an end to this tactic. In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with 17,000 men, tanks and heavy artillery. The following month Hezbollah was created and by November, 1982, the began using suicide bombers against the invaders. This included the truck bombing in Beirut that killed 241 Americans. As a result Ronald Reagan decided to withdraw all military forces from Lebanon. By giving into suicide bombers Reagan is the man who did more than any other to encourage the use of this tactic.

The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka now began to use this strategy. Over a ten year period they carried out 143 individual attacks and killed 900 people, including Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian prime minister.

Most importantly, Reagan’s actions inspired a generation of Islamic suicide bombers. There have been more than 160 suicide attacks in Israel. Since 2003 there have been over 350 in Iraq. This has been increasing. In the first half of July there were over 40 suicide bombings in Iraq and 4 in London.

Robert Pape challenges the assumption held by people like Tony Blair and George Bush that there is a finite pool of terrorists willing to sacrifice themselves in suicide bombings. Given their limited resources, the suicide bomber is the most effective strategy that people can adopt against the occupation of their country by a major foreign power. They also have several examples of how this strategy has resulted in success (US in Lebanon and Spain in Iraq). Therefore we can expect an increase in the use of this tactic until Israel leaves Palestine and the US and the UK withdraw from Iraq.

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