A Look at the History of Suicide Attacks

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The London bombings are only one example of suicide terrorism, a technique that goes back to 1 A.D. Robert Pape, the author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, discusses the history of suicide attacks.


When investigators announced that the attacks in London were carried out by suspected suicide bombers, Robert Pape wasn't surprised. He's the author of "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism."

Mr. ROBERT PAPE (Author, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism"): The purpose of a suicide attack is not so much to die as it is to kill.

MONTAGNE: To kill and to spread fear and to force political change; in particular, he believes, to throw off an occupying force. Robert Pape says the London bombers were the latest to use a technique that goes back to antiquity.

Mr. PAPE: The very first suicide attacks are the Jewish zealots in Zakari(ph) in the first century AD. The Jewish zealots sought to foment a rebellion against Roman occupation by often walking up to a Roman soldier in a square and pulling out a knife and killing the soldier, often cutting his throat, knowing that there were other Roman soldiers standing right by that would immediately execute or kill the zealot.

The next most famous group in history to use suicide attacks were the Ismaili assassins in the 11th and 12th century. They would attack a sultan and leave a message, which would say, `There will be further attacks unless you leave our community alone.' This was where we get the word `assassin' from because of their propensity to assassinate enemy leaders with a suicide attack.

MONTAGNE: There is an expression used in Western Europe, falling on one's sword. Is that part of this history of, in some sense, a suicide or attack or is it merely a suicide?

Mr. PAPE: There is a whole history of the use of suicide to avoid capture, and there can be multiple reasons why attackers do that. Sometimes they're trying to preserve intelligence information. Sometimes it's literally because the individual or the group does not want to be in the hands of the capturing forces. The famous Masada incident, where nearly 800 Jews decided to kill themselves rather than accept capture by Romans, was, in large part, because they just simply couldn't stand the thought of having their women and children abused by the Romans, as they understood they would be, and many of the men in that case believed that they were going to be executed.

MONTAGNE: That does move us to the Japanese in World War II, who killed themselves rather than be captured, but also used kamikaze tactics to kill others even as they died.

Mr. PAPE: The kamikaze efforts began in October 1944, right at the moment when the Japanese military realized we were on the verge of consolidating our island-hopping campaign to the point where it would be almost impossible to prevent us from soon attacking and invading the Japanese home islands. They failed in their purpose of stopping our invasion of Japan. However, tactically, they did increase the number damage or sunk by four or five times using kamikaze tactics.

MONTAGNE: Why did it take until 1980 for suicide attacks, and then they were suicide bombings mostly, to really spread?

Mr. PAPE: Suicide terrorism began in Lebanon in the early 1980s as a response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. The Hezbollah appears to have simply experimented with a handful of suicide attacks. Their fourth suicide attack was the famous suicide truck bombing against the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines. Well, that attack was not only spectacular in the number of deaths it produced, but it was also spectacular in the political results it produced. That attack caused Ronald Reagan, no pacifist, to withdraw all American forces from Lebanon and to virtually abandon the country politically and economically. That attack stands as a lesson in Hezbollah's history. It's repeated by Hamas, by al-Qaeda, as the prime instance that demonstrates suicide terrorism pays.

MONTAGNE: Robert Pape is the author of "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism."

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