What’s behind the ‘cult of the suicide bomber’?

Kevin Toolis, producer of a fascinating new film on suicide attacks, discusses pathology, Palestine and why he left out the Tamil Tigers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is watching a TV programme that has scary-sounding background music. ‘That man is evil!’ he says. ‘Just listen to the music!’ I had a similar feeling watching a DVD of the first episode of The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, a two-part documentary that kicks off on Channel 4 tonight. It opens to the strains of eerie-sounding Middle Eastern music playing over an aerial shot of the distinctly foreign-looking city of Tehran – capital of ‘the only Islamic state in the world’, says the narrator ominously, where, look, they even put up posters of what appears to be a mother and child who are both holding rocket launchers. The message seems clear: weird music, weird city, weird practices.

The filmmakers say the ‘cult of suicide bombing’ was born in Iran. The two films – which are by far the most interesting on this subject to date – are written and presented by former CIA man Bob Baer, and produced by Kevin Toolis of Many Rivers Films (who’s also a well-known commentator on all matters terroristic). Toolis says the films are an attempt to trace the spread of the ‘pathological virus’ of suicide bombing from the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 to Palestine, Chechnya and postwar Iraq today, and to isolated assaults such as 9/11 and the Tube bombings in London on 7/7, when four otherwise normal Brits blew up themselves and 52 others. ‘Pathological virus’? ‘It’s a metaphor’, he says. ‘And metaphors can mislead, but they can also enlighten.’

The first film starts with the fascinating story of the very brief life of Hossein Fahmideh, which will be new to most viewers. He was only 13 when, in 1980, as Iraqi forces were advancing in southern Iran, he threw himself under an Iraqi tank and blew up himself and the tank’s occupants. He was the first suicide bomber and is now a hero in Iran. In tonight’s film Baer visits a graveyard of martyrs – ‘it’s like a city of the dead’, he says – where hundreds of those who martyred themselves in the cause of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Holy War against the invading Ba’athist infidels are buried.

Can we really say that the ‘pathological virus’ of suicide bombings has its origins in the Iran-Iraq war? Watching the first film I was struck by how different those suicide attacks were from today’s. Then, suicide bombing was a tactic, part of a battlefield strategy in an often gruesome trench war. Those Iranians who knowingly killed themselves will have done so in conditions where either death or serious injury was a likelihood anyway, and for a cause that an entire nation was rallying behind. That seems more comparable to the Kamikaze pilots of the Second World War than to al-Qaeda-style attacks today, where a bunch of middle-class students in Hamburg or four blokes in Leeds – who were not part of any war (however much they might have fantasised to the contrary) and who had everything to live for – spent months plotting their own suicides in primetime, spectacular attacks on Western targets.

In the Iran-Iraq war, suicide attacks were one tactical aspect of a collective endeavour; today’s nihilistic suicide assaults seem entirely individualistic. They are less rational attempts to defeat an enemy or gain territory than they are, in the words of Max Rodenbeck in the current New York Review of Books, ‘intended as a message, a declaration of belief, an ultimate signal of total commitment to martyrdom’ (1). Or as Faisal Devji puts it in his book, Landscapes of the Jihad, contemporary martyrdom ‘only achieves meaning by being witnessed by the media’ (2). These attacks, or more accurately media events, seem to be more about an individual making a statement than achieving a discernible aim. Toolis agrees that suicide attacks were tactical then and are something different now. ‘But you will have to wait for the second film, where we trace that shift’, he says, tantalisingly.

There is one big omission from the first film: the Tamil Tigers. This fairly secular guerrilla army, which was founded to fight against the Sri Lankan authorities’ oppression of the Tamil minority, also used suicide attacks in the 1980s, yet they are not discussed in the film. Why not? ‘The first suicide attack by Tamil Tigers was in 1987’, says Toolis, meaning that they came after the use of suicide in the Iran-Iraq war and against US forces in the Lebanon. ‘Essentially they were copycat. And if you take our central metaphor, of a pathological virus, well, the Tamil use of suicide attacks remained confined to that conflict.’

I can’t help wondering whether the reason why Baer left the Tigers out is because they do not fit into his theory that suicide bombing has its origins in the peculiar religious hysteria of Iranian society. The fact is that both the religious Iranian army and the not-so-religious Tigers used suicide attacks tactically: one of the few ways that the Tigers could get to Sri Lanka’s leaders, who had taken to surrounding themselves with extraordinary layers of security, was by sending individuals trussed up as human bombs. The Tigers may have copied this tactic from others but they, in turn, influenced tactics in the Middle East and elsewhere. As Philip Gourevitch pointed out in last week’s New Yorker, it was the Tigers who perfected the ‘suicide belt’, which is now used by Palestinians and Chechens (3). Iran may have celebrated its suicide attackers as martyrs for God and all the rest of it, but all authorities dress up wartime sacrifices in superhuman lingo; the Tigers, for example, celebrate their suicide bombers as paragons of selflessness. The Iranians and the Tigers shared one thing in common, though: both used suicide tactically within a conflict scenario.

Today, suicide attacks mostly take place outside of traditional wartime settings and are not so easily explicable as tactics. Toolis points out that, while there were suicide bombings against the Israelis in Lebanon as early as 1982, the first suicide bombing by a Palestinian inside Israel proper did not occur until 1994 – after the Israeli-Palestinian war had officially ended. That attack was in revenge for the actions of Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Arabs on a holy site in Hebron in February 1994. This suggests that suicide bombing came to the fore as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became degraded, as it shifted, post-peace process, from being a national struggle between Israel and Palestine to being a squalid clash over patches of territory overseen by just about every international body.

By effectively removing the political destiny of the Middle East from the people who live there, and by depoliticising the conflict, this process exacerbated terrorism on the fringes of Middle Eastern society. Palestinians once engaged in a war of liberation are now more likely to throw themselves against Israel, in a cry of individual frustration more than as a tactical manoeuvre. The rise and rise of suicide bombings in postwar Iraq suggests a new and degraded form of conflict is unfolding there, too. Such attacks, it seems to me, have their origins in recent political shifts rather than being the remaining ‘viral’ strains of an Iranian tactic from 25 years ago.

Research suggests that today’s suicide bombers tend to be middle-class. According to a study from 2003, where one third of Palestinians live in poverty, only 13 per cent of Palestinian suicide bombers lived in poverty; 57 per cent of suicide bombers had been educated beyond high school compared with 15 per cent of the general population (4). The most notorious suicide attack – 9/11 – was organised by middle-class Arab students based in Germany. Of the four British bombers of 7/7, one was a teaching assistant, another was at college. We await the second instalment of The Cult of the Suicide Bomber to see whether today’s self-destruction of bright, well-to-do young men also has its origins in the Iran-Iraq war or in more contemporary political and moral crises.

Toolis argues that suicide bombing is ‘alien’ to Western concepts of the self. The West was not always so bamboozled by the idea of self-sacrifice, especially during wartime. In tonight’s film, Baer interviews the relatives of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war who say that those who killed themselves ‘are more alive than we are’. This brought to mind ‘The Soldier’ by First World War poet Rupert Brooke, in which he said that if he were to die he would remain ‘a pulse in the eternal mind’. Yet today, the West seems incapable of contemplating such self-sacrifice, or understanding how an individual could be so committed to a cause. In one sense, it is this self-doubt within the West itself that gives suicide bombings their power today, and which certainly seems to explain Western fascination with and fear of these strange acts. Indeed, some suicide bombers define themselves directly in contrast to what they perceive as a weak and fickle West. ‘You love life and we love death’, they say.

Perhaps that is one way of explaining the recent rise and rise of suicide attacks (three quarters of all suicide attacks in the past 25 years have taken place since 9/11): At a time when the West seems fearful and uncertain, these seemingly alien, self-destructive attacks have become the perfect weapon with which to frighten us even more.

The Cult of the Suicide Bomber starts on Channel 4 at 9pm on 4 August 2005.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) The truth about jihad, Max Rodenbeck, New York Review of Books, 11 August 2005

(2) The truth about jihad, Max Rodenbeck, New York Review of Books, 11 August 2005

(3) ‘Tides of war’, Philip Gourevitch, New Yorker, 1 August 2005

(4) The surprises of suicide terrorism: An interview with Scott Atran, Discover, October 2003

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