A civilian inspects a crater caused by a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.

A civilian inspects a crater caused by a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. Khalid Mohammed/AP

Let’s Not Give Suicide Bombers So Much Credit—Sometimes They Have No Strategy

The Brussels attackers may have been responding to territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, but that's not the only possible scenario.

In his edited collection on “suicide missions,” the sociologist Diego Gambetta described his childhood admiration for Pietro Micca, a solider in the artillery regiment of the Duke of Savoy in what is now northern Italy.

“In 1706, as the French were besieging Turin,” Gambetta wrote, Micca “realized that a party of the besiegers had succeeded in penetrating the network of tunnels that were part of the city citadel, and would have no doubt been able to take it.” Instead of trying to save himself, Micca heroically fought back, sacrificing himself for his comrades and city: “Despite having too short a fuse to run away in time, Micca ordered his companion to go before blowing himself up with a few barrels of gunpowder so as to destroy and block the tunnels.”

Micca’s memory lives on, and he is commonly regarded in Turin as a war hero. (A museum there is dedicated to him.) But the difference between Micca’s actions and those of the Brussels suicide bombers could not be more different. First, and most obviously, by Gambetta’s account Micca had no wish for martyrdom. On the contrary, Gambetta wrote: “Losing his life was a pure cost to him, not a means to achieve anything pertaining to his own self, not even a heavenly reward.” Second, his act was not intended to impress an audience. It was, rather, purely instrumental in purpose: to stop the French assailants, regardless of his deed being known.

Micca, Gambetta suggested, “could be dubbed a proto-suicide bomber.” But is he a paradigmatic one? The political scientist Robert Pape, to judge by Uri Friedman’s recent interview with him, might think so. It is just over a decade on from the publication of his seminal study on suicide bombing, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, in which he argued that “the bottom line is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation.” From a dataset of 315 suicide attacks from 1980 to 2003, Pape concluded that strategic logic, rather than ideology or religion, explains 95 percent of all suicide attacks around the world. They are “organized, coherent campaigns” to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from a group’s domestic territory. “Suicide terrorism,” he wrote, “is mainly a strategy to compel democracies to make concessions that will enable a community to achieve self-determination.”

See also: The Changing Logic Behind Suicide Bombings

Given that neither the United States nor its Western democratic allies occupy territory in Iraq or Syria, and given also that ISIS constitutes the occupying force in parts of those two countries, how does Pape’s explanatory model—based on pre-ISIS datasets—apply to the recent attacks in Belgium? Friedman summarizes Pape's view in this way:

ISIS has trained its sights on countries like Belgium, France, Russia, and Turkey because the U.S. coalition’s air and ground campaign, along with military operations by Russia and its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have significantly eroded ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq in recent months.

Friedman quotes Pape as saying, “ISIS is now losing in Iraq and Syria—they’re losing actually quite badly—and so they’re now in a position where they’re trying to change a losing game.” In other words, per Friedman: “The less in control the organization is at home, the more it strikes at targets abroad.” This would suggest that the Brussels attack, just like the Paris attack before it, had a strategic logic: to compel the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS to stop its bombing campaign against the group, its assets, and—in particular—its territory. This certainly appears to be Friedman’s understanding of what he describes as “Pape’s secular thesis,” according to which “Brussels was being targeted for the participation of Belgium, and European countries more broadly, in the anti-ISIS coalition.”

There is, however, a problem with this thesis and the broader explanatory account on which it draws: It obscures or minimizes the various non-coercive purposes to which suicide terrorism can be put.

A suicide attack might, for example, be intended as punishment for some real or imagined past offense or wrong, and not calculated to achieve anything beyond that. Belgium, as Friedman points out, “has participated in air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, but not Syria.” It is clear that ISIS’s leadership views Belgium as a deserving target of retributive punishment for its role in these strikes—and perhaps also because it sees the country as part of a wider cesspool of satanic wrongdoing. But it isn’t clear the attacks were informed by any strategic logic, and it’s possible that ISIS just wants Belgium to suffer and feel pain. Certainly, ISIS has taken some heavy hits recently, most notably the reported killing of senior commander Omar al-Shishani earlier this month. (In recent days, ISIS supporters have insisted, implausibly, that reports of al-Shishani’s death have been greatly exaggerated.) Attacking Belgium, a soft target if ever there was one, is certainly one way of leveling the score.

Another possibility is that a suicide attack may be intended simply to gain maximum publicity. Here is terrorism scholar David C. Rapoport:

When a bomb explodes, people take notice; the event attracts more attention than a thousand speeches or pictures. If the terror is sustained, more and more people will become interested, wondering why the atrocities occurred and whether the cause seems plausible.

As Charlie Winter recently explained, “ISIS has prioritized propaganda of the deed,” radiating its message across the world’s media with ever more shocking acts of violence and brutality. Publicity, as the philosopher Jeremy Waldron has observed, “is itself a strategic asset” for a terrorist group, which “it can use for all sorts of purposes, not just for the narrow range of intimidatory purposes.” “It may be used,” he writes, “to win recruits, or to put an issue on the political agenda, or to attract international attention to some situation which the terrorist manages to associate with the campaign.” Or, more pertinently in the case of ISIS, given its recent military setbacks and defections, the publicity associated with suicide attacks may be used to fortify wavering followers. As the terrorism expert Clint Watts has argued:

Recent European attacks, viewed from afar, might imply that the Islamic State is stronger than ever, but it’s the reverse: The group desperately needs to show signs of success to shore up its ranks and inspire international popular support. And since those wins are harder to come by in Syria and Iraq, they have started looking elsewhere.

Connected to this is the idea of what the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer has called “performance violence.” Referring to the 9/11 attacks and other “dramatic displays of power,” he wrote that “these creations of terror are done not to achieve a strategic goal but to make a symbolic statement.” They are, he contended, theatrical expressions of rage and empowerment, an attempt to shake off feelings of humiliation and impotence.

This seems very close to Frantz Fanon’s notion of violence as a form of therapy for the perpetrator, particularly where he has suffered ignominy and dishonor at the hands of others. As Fanon famously wrote:

To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man. ... At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.

Or, as Juergensmeyer put it, performance violence is “empowering in a special way,” not because it leads to “conquests of territory or personnel in the traditional definition of military success,” but because it’s a “sacred drama” in which the perpetrators are dramatically elevated to the status of epic and heroic figures in a cosmic battle. As Will McCants and Graeme Wood have prominently argued, this is exactly the lens through which ISIS sees itself.

A further possibility is that a campaign of suicide bombing seeks to provoke the targeted state into responding in ways that will be perceived as repressive and unjust in the eyes of the international community, undermining the state’s self-image as a model of freedom and human rights. This seems to be one of ISIS’s goals. In an audio message issued by ISIS’s al-Furqan Media last May, ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warned:

[I]f the Crusaders today claim to avoid the Muslim public and to confine themselves to targeting the armed amongst them, then soon you will see them targeting every Muslim everywhere. And if the Crusaders today have begun to bother the Muslims who continue to live in the lands of the cross by monitoring them, arresting them, and questioning them, then soon they will begin to displace them and take them away either dead, imprisoned, or homeless. They will not leave anyone amongst them except one who apostatizes from his religion and follows theirs.

Notice that this message has nothing to do with defending territory or compelling the cessation of coalition airstrikes. Rather, it is about fomenting discord between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe, or in ISIS’s terminology, eliminating “the gray zone,” a liminal—and, as ISIS sees it, fundamentally corrupt—public space in which Muslims and non-Muslims peacefully co-exist, and maximizing division. It may in fact be the case that, despite the complexities in deciphering what ISIS “really” wants, ISIS’s aim is to provoke an intensification of military hostilities, leading to a violent ​apocalyptic denouement in which it believes it will triumph. It is beside the point just how fanciful that aim is.

The idea that ISIS’s decision to launch attacks in Europe is a direct response to its imperiled position at home makes intuitive sense, as does the notion that it is targeting coalition states to coerce them into withdrawing from the coalition. But it is not the only possible scenario. Not all suicide terrorism is Pietro Micca-style suicide terrorism, although Pape’s worldview seems to preclude him from acknowledging that.