The entire world was spooked by the March 29 attack by two Chechen “black widow” suicide bombers who killed 38 people in the Moscow subway. As far away as New York, police squads armed with assault weapons were deployed to prevent a copycat strike.
There is no doubt that suicide attacks can be deadly -- and terrifying. But are they effective in furthering the larger goals of the attackers? Osama bin Laden & Co. would like us to think so. Jihadists crow that they “love death” while the West “loves life,” giving them an insuperable advantage that no conventional army can overcome. Some Western analysts have added to the hype by arguing, in essence, that suicide attacks are a “poor man’s smart bomb” and a tactic against which democratic states have only one recourse: giving in to the bombers’ demands.
Actually, the most comprehensive database of post-1980 suicide attacks -- compiled by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago -- suggests a very different conclusion. Terrifying as it is, suicide bombing is a tactic with a very low rate of return. As far as I can tell, there has been only one successful campaign utilizing primarily suicide attacks -- that waged by Hezbollah in the early 1980s to drive foreign peacekeepers out of Lebanon. In 1983, Hezbollah blew up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and both the U.S. Marine and French army barracks, killing 362 people. Because neither the U.S. nor France felt a keen strategic stake in Lebanon, these deaths were enough to drive them out.
Hezbollah suicide bombers also killed 197 Israeli soldiers between 1982 and 1985 -- but with less impact. True, Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon, but it would have done so even had there been no suicide bombings. International outrage over the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, when Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians, was a more important blow against Israel than any car bomb.
When Israel gave up its buffer zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, it was because of attacks by Hezbollah fighters who were skilled guerrillas but hardly suicidal. In fact, they often escaped after ambushing an Israeli patrol. In 2006, Israel fought Hezbollah again -- and again Hezbollah acquitted itself well on the battlefield without resorting to widespread suicide bombings. This time, Hezbollah’s most important weapon was the rockets it fired into northern Israel.
By moving away from suicide tactics, Hezbollah was tacitly conceding their limited efficacy. That lesson was driven home by the second intifada, launched in 2000. Palestinians with explosives belts blew up a Tel Aviv nightclub (22 dead), a Haifa restaurant (21) and a Jerusalem bus stop (20), among other targets.
Yet by 2004 the intifada was over. Suicide bombings have not been a serious threat to Israel since. This is because of the effectiveness of countermeasures such as erecting a security barrier along the West Bank and searching just about everyone entering a public premise in Israel, combined with targeted operations to arrest or kill militant leaders. Having seen their suicide campaign blunted, Hamas, like Hezbollah, decided to shift to rocket attacks, which could fly over Israeli defenses.
A similar lack of success has crowned efforts to drive the U.S. out of Iraq. Starting with the explosion that blew up the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19, 2003, Sunni terrorists staged the most costly campaign of suicide terrorism ever conducted, utilizing primarily cars and trucks, which can pack far more explosives than an individual bomber. They brought Iraq to the brink of civil war, but in 2007-08 they were largely defeated by American and Iraqi troops who erected concrete barriers and checkpoints around Baghdad and surged into the neighborhoods where terrorists hid.
Scattered bombs continue to go off in Iraq, but there is not, as the terrorists like to claim, a limitless supply of martyrs. As the war dragged on, there were increasing reports that suicide bombers had been either blackmailed or duped into setting off their explosives.
That the ordinary jihadist was hardly suicidal was confirmed by the fact that their most common weapon was the roadside bomb, which usually allowed the culprits plenty of time to escape.
Just as Al Qaeda in Iraq has failed to defeat the U.S. and its allies, so too the larger Al Qaeda organization has not achieved its primary strategic objectives following the deadliest suicide attack of all -- 9/11. Al Qaeda has not toppled any Middle Eastern regimes, much less established a fundamentalist caliphate. It is, arguably, further from achieving those goals today than it was before 2001, because the barbarism of its attacks spurred the United States and its allies to mobilize in response.
The only non-Islamic group to practice suicide terrorism on a large scale has been even less successful. The Tamil Tigers began blowing themselves up in 1990, and in spite of numerous successes (including the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991), they were declared defeated last year by Sri Lanka’s government.
The futility of suicide attacks should not be surprising given that they are the last resort of the weak and desperate. The Japanese did not make use of kamikazes until it was apparent they would lose World War II. Their attacks inflicted considerable damage on U.S. warships but also redoubled the American determination to defeat Japan.
The same phenomenon has been evident after more recent suicide bombings. Once the initial shock wears off, the very inhumanity of these attacks rallies public opinion against the perpetrators. That has already happened in Israel, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Now we see a backlash building in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia. Terrorism will continue to be a menace, but suicide bombing is hardly a super-weapon.
Max Boot is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to Opinion. He is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.