COMMENTARY | This week’s tragic suicide bombing in Bulgaria, where Israelis were killed on a bus en route to a resort, shone the spotlight back the deadly tactic. Possibly Iran is involved, though it denies it. But how frequent are such attacks? And are they really “the ultimate smart bomb,” capable of killing more people?
Ever since a series of suicide bombings rocked Americans in Lebanon (including U.S. Marines and American embassy staff, in the early 1980s) people have assumed that such tactics are always present. With high-profile cases like 9/11, the Madrid Train Bombing, and attacks in London, it’s no surprise.
According to one of America’s foremost experts on terrorism, Bruce Hoffman, “Suicide bombings are inexpensive and effective. They are less complicated and compromising than other kinds of terrorist operations. They guarantee media coverage. The suicide terrorist is the ultimate smart bomb. Perhaps most important, coldly efficient bombings tear at the fabric of trust that holds societies together.” This was published in 2003 in the Atlantic Magazine.
Robert Pape from the University of Chicago also published research on an extensive study of several terrorism campaigns where suicide terrorism was employed. From these 188 cases from 1980 to 2001, Pape finds that it is not only deadlier than other type of terror attacks, but that it “works” for achieving at least some modest aims. Some of these cases involve attacks upon Israelis.
To test whether this is the case, my undergraduate students and I collected data on all terrorism cases reported by the New York Times between 1920 and 2011, which occurred either in the United States or targeted Americans abroad. And I’m leaving tomorrow to present the results in England.
We found that out of nearly 1,000 cases, nearly 867 involved some tactic other than suicide bombing. This tends to surprise people, unless you realize that a lot of our views on suicide bombing are media-driven. If an attack involves suicide terrorism, it’s a lot more likely to get attention, so we tend to think of such events as being more prevalent.
As terrible as those 1983 attacks were, they really didn’t occur very often afterward, even though they had the desired effect that the terrorists wanted, which involved driving Americans from Lebanon. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that such terror tactics really took off in our analysis.
Yet suicide bombings are a factor to be reckoned with. Though less likely to be employed, they average 44.54 deaths per attack, whereas non-suicide terror attacks average 3.44 deaths per attack.
Now, critics often say “well those suicide terror numbers are inflated by one case: 9/11.” But taking 9/11 out of the equation, suicide deaths are still more than five times deadlier than attacks involving remote control bombs, bombs with a timer, gun or mortar attacks, etc. We also found that suicide bombs lead to more cases of two or more deaths, on average, than a random model would predict.
Suicide terror is thankfully somewhat rare, but its deadlier consequences still warrant our attention, as the Bulgarian attack on Israelis shows.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.