The “Rational” Suicide Bomber

Hamas’s surprise victory in the Palestinian parliamentary election has made the question of who is a terrorist, and how terrorism should be tackled, more urgent than ever. How Hamas behaves in government will reveal whether terrorists and suicide bombers are alike in their implacability.

The test is suicide bombing. Few weapons in the terrorist’s arsenal are as devastating as suicide bombing – or as poorly understood, for serious analysis has apparently given way to the desire to avoid conferring on the attackers any legitimacy whatsoever. But this attitude thwarts urgently needed insight into who the suicide bombers really are, what motivates them, and thus how they might be stopped.

In fact, there are basically two categories of suicide bombers. The first includes the perpetrators of the attacks on the United States in 2001, the Bali bombing in 2002, the Madrid train bombing in 2003, and the London bombings in the summer of 2005. The perpetrators are indifferent as to whether their victims, both direct and indirect, are Muslim or non-Muslim; their goal is to terrorize and eventually to destroy a way of life in the name of a nebulous Dar-al-Islam, a utopian entity that will supposedly solve all of life’s problems.

Suicide bombers of this type, while difficult to hunt down and neutralize, can easily be identified and their criminality exposed, given their vicious and wanton disdain for ethical, moral, and religious norms. Muslim religious and political leaders have the intellectual capital to refute their misplaced religious convictions, and can repeat sura after sura, hadith after hadith, detailing Islam's rejection of violence and repudiation of the killing of innocents.

But the second category of suicide bombers presents a far greater challenge, for it comprises organizations, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that fight for avowedly nationalist goals. While terrorism is rightly viewed as an illegitimate means, nationalism is a rational, and often legitimate, goal, and it is shared by many people who are not terrorists. Unlike in the case of millenarian terrorists like Al Qaeda, for whom the goal is amorphous–nationalist extremists’ more realistic objectives might make it possible to neutralize them by addressing the root issue (for example, the creation of a viable Palestinian state).

The distinction between the two types of suicide bombers is not always stark. Many people enthralled by nationalistic struggle, end up rejecting all reasonable compromise and advocating genocidal goals.

Nevertheless, the distinction is important and seems lost on the US – and a host of other countries – which have lumped the nationalist groups together with Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in their lists of terrorist organizations. This one-size-fits-all approach may be convenient, but the failure to differentiate among suicide bombers vastly oversimplifies the realities that define the fight against terrorism.

To be sure, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are often no less brutal than Al Qaeda or JI. But this does not mean that they should be dealt with in the same way. Indeed, while the demands of millenarians can never be met, thus leaving repression as the only means to deal with them, nationalism may be (and often is) effectively addressed through political means: when the legitimate and more widely shared nationalist goals are met, the radical fringe often loses its wider appeal and withers away.