The American Prospect reviews two books about the motivations behind suicide bombing as a terror tactic. I haven’t read either, but the review of the more interesting sounding of the two, Mia Bloom’s Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, has this to say:

Bloom’s insight is that suicide bombing is a tactic used by competing groups trying to appeal to a generally sympathetic population for allegiance in a process she calls “outbidding.” Hence, in both the Middle East and Sri Lanka, suicide bombing is adopted by groups seeking to show that they are more ruthless, determined, and effective than others — and thereby to gain public support. Suicide bombing, in this light, is as much marketing ploy as weapon. Bloom bolsters her analysis by highlighting how Kurdish groups in Turkey used suicide bombing, but found that the cost in support among their own core constituencies was so great that it wasn’t worth the candle. Similarly, in Ireland, nationalist groups concluded they would lose, not gain, support thanks to suicide bombing.

Bloom persuasively shows that the perception of suicide terrorism among a group’s audience matters. But Bloom does not fully account for how such attitudes form or change. As al Qaeda uses suicide terrorism to appeal to a new, global audience, this question takes on increasingly important. [sic]

Actually, when I read that, my first thought was of the Long Tail. It’s not an entirely relevant analogy, but does bring up an interesting point concerning suicide attacks encouraged by an amorphous, globalized organization such as Al Qaeda.

When we think of tactics employed by resistance groups, we tend to think of them as being formulated with a classic strategic goal in mind. This group wants independence and self-determination…this group wants control over land or economy…this group wants this other group to go away. While violence begets violence, and as a result individualized acts might become more and more strategically irrational, the conflicts we’ve seen throughout the last century tend to fit those roles.

But what does Al Qaeda, as an organization, want? Ostensibly Islamic revolution against secular nationalist governments and a withdrawal by the West from influencing and supporting those governments, originally focused on Saudi Arabia. However, the actual efforts don’t fit that very well. There doesn’t seem to be a concentrated effort to overthrow any particular government in the area using coordinated tactics and higher-level organization. (Iraq and Afghanistan are currently special cases, due to our involvement. Before we destablized it, Iraq wasn’t a primary target for Al Qaeda. Afghanistan had the Taliban, which took over without help from Al Qaeda, but there we did see some coordinated action in the assaults on the rebel forces. That ended disastrously for each group, though.)

I’m thinking that Al Qaeda is a truly globalized organization, spread thin and with far too many constituencies to establish real strategic goals. They aren’t The Organization; they are an organization of organizations that are themselves split into factions and groups, many of which don’t agree on or even care about the same things. In other words, the classic conflict of Global and Local.

So what do you do when you’re trying to do something that will work across the board? In Al Qaeda’s case, terror across the world equals destabilization and uncertainty, which puts them closer to having some government fall and scaring the West. That’s the strategy. In that case, without a true constituency with much power over them, Al Qaeda’s tactics don’t have to appeal to the masses they might otherwise need for revolution. They just have to appeal to enough people to keep the uncertainty going. An almost universal media space performs the same function as search; it makes the information available to everyone, and some people will be much more interested than the majority.

Where the analogy breaks down is the fact that suicide bombing is, in general, local. A suicide bomber in Iraq is far more likely to be doing it because of some goal they see involving themselves or their group than they are because suicide-bombing has some sort of Al Qaeda Seal of Approval. However, I wonder if what we’re seeing nowadays isn’t an increasing mixture of global and local strategies and tactics that, in the end, benefits the global aims over the local. In other words, is it about actually achieving any of those classic aims, or is it about continuing to send an abstract message of uncertainty and insecurity? And, if the latter, how much do we in the West, so used to responding to marketing, play into that goal?

Other books on the subject of suicide bombing: