Suicide Attacks Prevent Terror Groups from Achieving Political Goals, So Why Are They Increasing?

2016 Sarinah-Starbucks Jakarta Attack 5

Memorial at the site of 2016 Jakarta, Indonesia attacks.

Why do modern terror groups seem to favor suicide attacks as the tactic of choice? Studies have shown that engaging in suicide terror tends to reduce the group’s chances of achieving their desired political outcomes. Suicide attacks are so loathsome and inhumane that they decrease the group’s ability to win concessions for their cause. If your foe is so fanatical and implacable as to engage in suicide terror, why would you attempt to negotiate with them? This is exactly what happened with Israel and the PLO in the 1990s, when the first wave of Palestinian suicide bombings drove Israel from the negotiating table.

Given that the tactic doesn’t help the terror group achieve its goals, why do they keep doing it? Indeed, suicide attacks are on the increase, with more than 5000 occurring in the years since 1980. According to an interview with an LSU terror expert published in today’s Washington Post, the answer may be group survival.

Militant organizations go through different trends or fashions. Organizations must either adopt the fashion or become irrelevant. In the 1960s, the “international revolutionary” and the “urban guerrilla” were in fashion, and they preferred to rely on hijackings and hostage taking. As we’ve moved into the era of fundamentalist Islamist terrorism, organizations have had to adopt the fashions of fundamentalist Islam to stay relevant, and the key fashion is the suicide bomb.

If you’re a smaller organization like Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, and you want to draw the support and attention of the Islamic State and other groups, you start conducting suicide attacks. A few months after Ansar Bait al-Maqdis adopted suicide attacks, they were recognized as Wilayat Sinai, a province of the Islamic State, and they received funding and fighters from the core group, improving their survival prospects.

To understand why group survival is prioritized over the group’s very reason for existence – achieving their political aims – it helps to understand that their goals are often abstract, lofty, and so difficult as to be practically unachievable for the foreseeable future. If your goal is to establish a world wide caliphate, for example, you must prepare for the long game. And when you are playing the long game, group survival becomes more important than short term, incremental gains.

MediaTech’s latest courseware offering, Suicide Terror, explores these issues in detail. Learning objectives include:

  1. Describe the advantages of adopting suicide attacks as a terror tactic.
  2. List the historical precedents of modern day suicide terror campaigns.
  3. Describe possible motives for participating in a suicide attack.
  4. Describe reasons for using female suicide attackers.
  5. Describe strategies for countering suicide terror.

The course is available in both web-based and lecture formats. Face to face courses are taught by Dr. Xavier Stewart, BG (Ret).