From Michael Horowitz
Lindsey O’Rourke’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, “Behind the Woman Behind the Bomb,” is an interesting attempt to describe some of the issues surrounding the use of female suicide bombers in Iraq and elsewhere. As she points out, many of the groups that have utilized suicide terrorism have employed female suicide bombers. As such, her attempt to study the issue seriously is welcome and could significantly contribute to scholarship in this area.
Unfortunately, her piece contains a few misconceptions about suicide terrorism and the existing literature that deserve clarification. As someone also interested in questions surrounding suicide terrorism, I offer these comments in the spirit of helping build our knowledge in that area.
First, she states that “we are told” female suicide bombers are driven by “despair, mental illness, religiously mandated subordination to men, frustration with sexual inequality and a host of other factors related specifically to their gender.” At least in the literature on suicide terrorism, this does not seem to be the case. Robert Pape‘s work on suicide terrorism, which she approvingly cites, does not come from this perspective. Neither does work by Mia Bloom, Bruce Hoffman, Assaf Moghadam, Ami Pedahzur, Marc Sageman, and others. So, while I agree with her argument that “feminine” motivations do not seem to be driving female suicide bombers and female suicide bombers have similar motivations to men, most other scholars of suicide terrorism agree as well.
Second, it is unclear whether her goal is to de-emphasize the “female” element of female suicide bombers or to argue they do deserve independent consideration. As many argue, she states that “there is simply no one demographic profile for female attackers,” something true for male attackers as well. If there is no demographic profile and the motivations of female suicide bombers are similar to male suicide bombers, why do they deserve study as a separate category? Her answer is that female suicide bombers are used more frequently for a specific type of missions—assassinations—because they have an easier time getting close to hard targets due to cultural and societal norms about treating and handling women. This is a very interesting and an important finding, if true, for it points out a shortcoming in security screening procedures around the globe. However, that means we should not necessarily study female suicide bombers as an independent category, but as part of the larger category of suicide bombings designed to assassinate leaders.
Third, her focus on occupation as the cause of suicide terrorism is misplaced. Whether the feeling of occupation is accurate or not in the eyes of the West, perceptions of occupation likely play a powerful role in influencing the propensity for groups to engage in violent resistance. However, occupation is less likely to impact the choice of a particular tactic within the decision to engage in violent resistance. While Pape has shown that many of the groups that adopt suicide terrorism perceive themselves as occupied, many other groups that perceive themselves as occupied have not chosen to adopt suicide terrorism.
In fact, it makes more sense to think about suicide terrorism as a special case of a military innovation, one strongly influenced by diffusion dynamics. The extensive direct and indirect linkages between groups that have adopted suicide terrorism suggest that the probability of suicide terrorism is not an entirely independent choice, but one influenced by the knowledge and skills that groups gain from direct and vicarious learning. Moreover, we have to study both those groups and people that adopt suicide tactics and those that do not in order to gain the full picture. As Scott Ashworth et al. recently pointed out in the American Political Science Review, studying just the universe of suicide terror groups or female suicide attackers selects on the dependent variable, making it hard to draw causal inferences from whatever correlations might exist. Things that are similar within the universe of suicide terror groups or the universe of female attackers might also be true of non-adopters as well, meaning those similarities do not actually predict behavior.
A more fruitful way to study the issue is to compare the groups that have adopted suicide terrorism and group members that have become suicide bombers with those that have not. Comparing adopters like Hamas, Al Qaeda, and the Tamil Tigers with non-adopters like the Provisional IRA and ETA, the Basque terrorist group, reveals the critical importance of organizational dynamics in driving adoption or non-adoption. Since, as O’Rourke points out, demographic profiling of potential suicide attackers does not seem promising, it makes more sense to evaluate group characteristics and focus on what makes adoption more or less likely.
Regardless of potential issues with her academic analysis, however, her policy prescription to improve screening of women at “key security checkpoints” is sensible. While I disagree that “occupation” is a primary cause of suicide attacks—as described above, it influences the probability that a group will adopt terrorism, not the choice of suicide tactics—hopefully ideas like the “Daughters of Iraq” can be more than a stopgap in the effort to decrease the number of suicide attacks against American and Iraqi forces, as well as ordinary Iraqis. I applaud O’Rourke’s attention to this important topic, and hope to see more analysis of this kind in the future.
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