My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombingby Christoph Reuter, Helena Ragg-Kirby
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What kind of people are suicide bombers? How do they justify their actions? In this meticulously researched and sensitively written book, journalist Christoph Reuter argues that popular views of these young men and women -- as crazed fanatics or brainwashed automatons -- fall short of the mark. In many cases these modern-day martyrs are well-educated young adults who turn themselves into human bombs willingly and eagerly -- to exact revenge on a more powerful enemy, perceived as both unjust and oppressive. Suicide assassins are determined to make a difference, for once in their lives, no matter what the cost. As Reuter's many interviews with would-be martyrs, their trainers, friends, and relatives reveal, the bombers are motivated more by how they expect to be remembered -- as heroic figures -- than by religion-infused visions of a blissful life to come. Reuter, who spent eight years researching the book, moves from the broken survivors of the childrens' suicide brigades in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, to the war-torn Lebanon of Hezbollah, to Israeli-occupied Palestinian land, and to regions as disparate as Sri Lanka, Chechnya, and Kurdistan. He tells a disturbing story of the modern globalization of suicide bombing -- orchestrated, as his own investigations have helped to establish, by the shadowy al-Qaeda network and unintentionally enabled by wrong-headed policies of Western governments. In a final, hopeful chapter, Reuter points to today's postrevolutionary, post-Khomeini Iran, where a new social environment renounces the horrific practice in the very place where it was enthusiastically embraced just decades ago.
William S. Kowinski
John C. Zimmerman
"Against the violent Manichean rhetoric of the times, and its brute interventionism, Reuter offers a counter-narrative: suicide attacks in Israel-Palestine will stop when Israel withdraws from the Occupied Territories; more generally across the region, the West should keep out."Jacqueline Rose, London Review of Books
"This is a journalist's history . . . with solid exposition, sharp observations and flashes of insight. . . . For instance, in invading and occupying Iraq, he maintains, the Bush administration is playing into the hands of terrorists like Osama bin Laden, creating exactly the context of humiliation that provides new recruits."William S. Kowinski, San Francisco Chronicle
"[A] well-researched history of suicide attacks, which touches on the 12th century Assassins but concentrates on today. . . . Suicide attackers can be educated and uneducated; religious and secular; comfortably off and destitute: their link is the decision they make to transform their powerlessness into extraordinary power."The Economist
"Christoph Reuter . . . interviewed as many families of suicide bombers as he could find, canvassed their countries of origin for insights, and has compiled the results in a short, readable book. The windows Mr. Reuter makes into suicide terrorists' family lives . . . show how lamentable is the ethos of chauvinism and pride that supports suicide terrorism. But they also show how fragile and contrived that support can sometimes be."Brendan Conway, New York Sun
"[Reuter] integrate[s] impressive research with personal interviews and experiences that give the material immediacy and emotional force. . . . [H]is message is an important one, and it is this: the myths that poverty, or deprivation, or humiliation, or paradisiacal virgins or religious zealotry or hopelessness or plain ignorance are ultimately driving suicide attacks are 'simply wrong'. . . .. What is driving the spread and intensification of such attacks, he suggests, is a record of apparent success in attaining strategic objectives from 1980 to 2000, even if such success was bought at a horrible cost."Avery Plaw, Montreal Gazette
"Everyone frustrated by the spread of suicide bombing as an extension of politics by other means would be wise to read and dwell on My Life is a Weapon. . . . Reuter's book offers rich data for mulling the topic."Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
"This insightful, sensitively written book deserves a wide audience."Jane Adas, Christian Century
"Likely to become the standard text on the subject."Washington Post Book World
"Fine first-hand reporting is combined with a sensitive effort to explain."Foreign Affairs
"Reuter has provided an excellent overview of the nature of contemporary suicide attacks. The book is well worth reading for all students of this topic."John C. Zimmerman, Terrorism and Political Violence
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My Life Is a WeaponA Modern History of Suicide Bombing
By Christoph Reuter
Princeton University PressPrinceton University Press
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IntroductionTHE POWER OF THE POWERLESS, THE POWERLESSNESS OF THE POWERFUL
You will notice that the plane will stop, then will start to fly again. This is the hour in which you will meet God. -Extract from the spiritual "instruction manual" for the suicide attack on the World Trade Center, found in Muhammad Atta's briefcase
In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards. -Susan Sontag
In the mid-1990s, when I began my research on suicide bombers, first in Israel and, later in Lebanon and Iran, they were a rare phenomenon. They were a part of the Middle Eastern terrorism scene-noticed only occasionally, and attributed to Islamic fundamentalism, by the West-although in fact no one knew much about who was committing these attacks and what motivated them. The name of al-Qaeda was known, at most, to Afghanistan experts. For us, there is something unnerving, something disturbing, about the notion that human beings would sacrifice their own lives in order to kill others, in the belief that their lives have value only as a weapon. In more remote areas-in Lebanon, in Israel-this is how it has always been: but not in the great cities of Europe or in theUnited States of America. It didn't affect us-or so we thought. We barely noticed that the explosions of these human bombs had reached epidemic proportions, and that the tactic had made its way to Sri Lanka in 1987 (long before it reached as far as Israel), or that, by the 1990s, it had arrived in Turkey, Kashmir, and Chechnya.
By the summer of 2003, suicide bombers had changed the world. The "end of history," hailed by winners of the Cold War, now appears in reality to have been merely the end of the old rules. On September 11, 2001, four attacks by nineteen suicide bombers, armed with nothing more lethal than a couple of box-cutters, suddenly forced America to start waging a new type of world war. As this is being written, George W. Bush's "war on terror" has toppled regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq; has deeply divided America from many of its Western allies; has enflamed anti-American prejudice in the Islamic world-and no one can say how it will end. To this date, the real enemy-the followers of Osama bin Laden, trained in suicide and murder, and embodying his nihilistic version of the ideology of a jihad bent on destroying everything-remains undefeated, as we see by the unending string of new attacks in such places as Casablanca, Riyadh, Mombasa, Karachi, Indonesia, Tunisia. Indeed, here is an opponent who cannot be defeated by superior military force; it has moved outside all the conventional rules of power and war in which we have always trusted.
"Cowardly" is how the early commentators, in their initial helplessness and horror, characterized the events of September 11; but they quickly came to see that the one thing these attacks most certainly were not was cowardly.
Suicide attacks affect us profoundly and powerfully. They remind us that there are people who consider their struggle-whatever the cause-to be more important than their own lives. They stir up fear in us; they pull the rug out from under our feet. For there is no way to retaliate against attackers who strike, not merely in order to kill people, but to die at the same stroke. They annihilate the entire logic of power, since no credible threat can be made against someone who has no desire to survive.
All our notions of security and our civilization have been based on this unspoken assumption, which we heretofore have believed to be self-evident. For example, consider that for airport security checks, up until now, the only precaution thought necessary was the matching of every piece of luggage with an on-board passenger, since, as everyone knew, nobody would think of blowing themselves up in midair. Or so we thought.
The presumption of individual rational self-interest and fear of death underlies the functioning of the market economy and the power of the state: suicide bombers cancel these out. Deterrence, punishment, and retaliation all become meaningless when faced with an aggressor who will impose the utmost penalty on himself at the very moment of his victory. The fear of death has long been the ultimate instrument of power wielded by the state and the priesthood, whether in the Christian church or in Islam: neither the state nor any other power can threaten us with anything worse than death. By the same token, the taboo against suicide has typically reinforced the power of religion, because of the conventional monotheistic belief that only God may decide who will live and who will die. But in the present case, we are faced with people in revolt not only against the state but also all other candidates for supreme authority, religious or secular. Suicide bombers simultaneously defy the ultimate sanction, rendering the mightiest power impotent. There is no sanction beyond that of death.
What we have experienced in recent years is the reinvention of a historical archetype that many political historians thought had long since disappeared: the martyr. Martyrs today are of incalculable propaganda value. They say to their own people: Follow our example-the cause is greater than our (and your) lives. And they say to the outside world: We fear humiliation more than we fear death, and, therefore, we have no fear of your well-trained and well-equipped armies, your high-tech arsenal. To the potential recruit for a suicide mission, the more powerless he may have felt before committing the attack, the more dramatically death will exalt him. After a life devoid of any previous significance, he now becomes a powerful ideal; his very name inspires fear. In his own person, he has realized Andy Warhol's dictum that everyone is allotted "fifteen minutes of fame."
Just as important as the killing is the dying that it makes it possible. The suicide attack that took place on August 12, 2001 (just a month before the attacks on New York), at the Wall Street Café in Shiriat Motzkin, a suburb of Haifa in northern Israel, seems in retrospect but a small, insignificant precursor of what was to come. It was barely reported at the time, and is now all but forgotten. On that day twenty-eight-year-old Muhammad Mahmoud Nassr, carrying enough explosives strapped to his waist to cause carnage, approached the waitress at the café bar, lifted his T-shirt, and asked her if she knew what "that" was. People started screaming and throwing chairs in his direction; everyone rushed outside. Muhammad Mahmoud Nassr, alone in the empty café, cried "Allahu akbar"-God is great-and then blew himself up: his torso was ripped apart, while his head landed on a table. It was a baffling and, fortunately for those in the café at the time, futile attack-and it was met with the same blank incomprehension that all such acts tended to evoke. The international and Israeli media passed over it, generally relieved that nobody had died-except the attacker, and that was his problem. Yet what looked like failure concealed an urgent hidden meaning: Look at how easily I could terrify you. And you are absolutely right to be afraid.
In its early centuries, Christendom was teeming with martyrs; early Islam was no stranger to them either. Even today, the city squares in the heart of Beirut and Damascus, for instance, are both called "Martyrs' Square." And today, in a modern world that knows only one, asymmetric superpower, the experience of total subjugation has returned. In an era when de facto suicide missions are routinely launched against political and military allies of the remaining superpower, the old ideals of martyrdom are gaining a new currency. The problem now, however, is that the ideal has been equipped with weapons and technologies of unprecedented destructive power.
Two thousand years ago, there were already certain groups who went into battle with the specific goal of dying, among these the Jewish Sicarians in the Imperial Roman world. Later, in the medieval Crusades, the assassins appeared; and such fighters took part in the Muslim revolts in the eighteenth century against Western colonial powers based on the Malabar coast of southwest India, in northern Sumatra, and in the southern Philippines Islands. These activists were inspired by feelings of religious duty and personal heroism. They exalted the memory of slain warriors in poems and songs, thus inspiring others to imitate them. For a brief time, in very different conditions, suicide attacks were revived, among the Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II, but the movement faded again after the war had ended, and in any case it is difficult now to determine to what extent these suicides were indeed "volunteers."
That someone might deliberately set out to murder others by killing himself is deeply shocking, which is why the names of these assassins and kamikaze pilots, notwithstanding their military ineffectuality, have become seared into the collective memory of every nation, and are now synonymous with either cold-blooded murder or world-renouncing heroics. But before the dawn of the modern age, the options available to any one individual bent on murdering another individual were limited to such weapons as daggers, swords, or bows and arrows. Then firearms appeared; Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, and contemporary newspapers wrote: "Dynamite: politicians don't like the sound of it." This assessment was ironic in a macabre way: the "sound" of explosives was certainly audible in Russia when anti-czarists (who were already proud to be known as terrorists) used dynamite in their attacks on Czar Alexander III and his supporters. Explosives had become the weapon of the future for terrorist groups of all persuasions.
Cars were invented, and, soon after that, airplanes-and with flight came the ability to turn four passenger planes into weapons capable of murdering three thousand people, requiring only a readiness to sacrifice oneself, a limited knowledge of piloting, and a few box-cutters. The ever-increasing rate of technological advances has made our world more vulnerable, and has powerfully enhanced the rewards of the suicidal will. All one need do is strap a couple of kilos of TNT around the waist, or grab the steering wheel from a bus driver, and dozens are dead; wield a couple of box-cutters, thousands lose their lives. And yet, despite this capability, the phenomenon seemed to have disappeared from global conflict in the decades after Japan's kamikaze attacks.
For the last twenty years, however, these attacks have become more widespread-as the profile of those who commit them has also expanded: Islamist and nationalist Palestinians attack Israelis; Chechen women crash trucks filled with explosives into Russian barracks; the remnants of Saddam Hussein's followers bomb U.S. soldiers, as well as themselves, to death. Moroccan Jews in Casablanca, French engineers in Karachi, American guest-workers in Riyadh, Australian tourists in Bali-all are targets for sudden strikes by Islamist groups.
Yet, while these attacks have become ubiquitous, real intelligence on who is committing them, and where, and why, is only gradually emerging from the shadows of false political assumptions and plain ignorance. Suicide attacks are a highly complex phenomenon. This book aims to piece together, in a logical sequence, what is known about its origins-which societies facilitate its development, what conditions are most favorable for its spread, and how the various tactics used have been developed. It undertakes, in a sense, a series of journeys: back to the early days of the Islamic warfare, and out into the specific locales of individual wars and peoples. For if one begins simply by lumping together all the groups that have resorted to using suicide attacks as a weapon during the last two decades, one is drawn invariably to the point where they intersect: the attacks themselves. If instead, however, the analysis is focused on such specifics as whether an isolated group or the majority of the population is behind an attack; whether the attack is initiated by nationals or foreigners; whether Islam or some other religion, or no religion at all, plays a role; whether the attackers are slum-dwellers or university students; and whether their opponents are hostile neighbors, openly declared enemies, or random Westerners-then individual cases will be seen to be very different from each other.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, many journalists, politicians, and psychologists conjured up pictures of demons: suicide bombers were described as fanatics and lunatics. These fanatics believed, it was said, that they were bound for a Paradise, where they imagined there would be seventy-two virgins awaiting them. But even if this explanation were accurate, why would such "lunatics" turn up just now? Terrorists were already around in the 1960s and 1970s, but they didn't include their own death in their plans. When Peter-Jürgen Boock, a former member of West Germany's Red Army Faction, was asked whether German terrorists had studied suicide attacks in the South Yemen training camps in the 1970s, he said, no-"nobody who trained there wanted to commit suicide-and that includes the Palestinians. We wanted to achieve certain aims: we wanted to hijack airplanes, free prisoners, get money, take hostages. We all knew we could die doing it. But that wasn't our intention."
Since September 11, a vast amount of information has been collected from many sources, and the last hours, days, and weeks of most of the attackers have been painstakingly reconstructed, down to the weight (to the nearest tenth of a gram) of the piece of soap found in the motel room where the leader of the attack, Muhammad Atta, spent his last night. But when it comes to the crucial question of how the plan could work-finding nineteen young men bent on taking along with them in death the greatest possible number of innocent people-these detail-happy reconstructions remain curiously opaque. The attackers weren't poor; they didn't come from the ghetto that is Gaza; they hadn't personally been mistreated by any Western power, far less robbed of their freedom. They were neither hermit-like fanatics, nor had they undergone years of brainwashing in isolated camps before being sent out as robots to steer the captured planes to their doom. On the contrary, the three attackers who had lived in Germany for years fell within the everyday spectrum of normality. Although they were at times introverted and antisocial, they could also be warmhearted and friendly. Muhammad Atta, believed to be the head of the group, spent years studying at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University; his professor, Dittmar Machule, considered him to be a talented urban architect, giving him the equivalent of an "A" grade on his final dissertation, which took as its topic the preservation of a multi-faith neighborhood in the traditionally tolerant Syrian city of Aleppo. Atta would turn out to be the greatest enemy and destroyer in the history of another multi-faith, traditionally tolerant city-New York.
The attackers were strictly religious and, like Muhammad Atta, would scrape the frosting off the American muffins they ate, lest they contain pork fat. They could live in the present: they enjoyed the occasional drink, danced, and flirted, like the Lebanese Ziad Jarrah, who, on the morning of September 11, called his girlfriend on the phone to say good-bye. They draped hand-towels over the innocuous pictures of semi-naked women that hung on the wall of a motel room in Florida, yet they watched (at the same motel) a pornographic movie on a pay-per-view channel on television. These men simultaneously embodied two extremes, although, on the surface they didn't exhibit the kind of profile that would have made it even remotely possible to predict what they planned to do. And as for the appeal of the seventy-two virgins in Paradise-what use would Muhammad Atta have for them? This was a man so terrified of women that in his will he decreed that no woman would be allowed to visit his grave, that his corpse was to be prepared only by women wearing gloves, and that no one should touch his genitals. A man with such a pathological fear of women-aspiring to endless sex in Heaven? Unlikely.
Excerpted from My Life Is a Weapon by Christoph Reuter Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
Jessica Stern, author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill"
Mark Juergensmeyer, author of "Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence"
Robert Pape, University of Chicago
Meet the Author
Christoph Reuter is a reporter and international correspondent for the German magazine "Stern".
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