Why Insurgents Seek Victory by Suicide Bomb

Why would the insurgents in Iraq hold out any hope that war by suicide bomb can win them anything?

Because it has worked before.

The history of suicide bombing is filled with success stories, according to Robert Pape, author of a forthcoming book on suicide bombers, "Dying to Win."

"Over the past 20 years, there have been 13 suicide terrorist campaigns that have started and finished," Pape said. "Surprisingly, seven of those 13 campaigns have produced concessions for the terrorist's political cause -- more than many people realize."

In one of those campaigns in 1983, the United States had forces in Lebanon as peacekeepers. And then, on a single day, 241 Marines were killed by a suicide bomber driving a truck. Those who sent him got exactly what they wanted.

"Ronald Reagan, no pacifist … withdrew all our military forces from Lebanon and virtually abandoned the country," Pape said. "Doing that sent a clear message to terrorists, suicide terrorism pays."

It's not just the United States' actions in Lebanon. Israel also made concessions at various times under pressure of suicide attacks by Lebanese and Palestinians.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, a non-Muslim nationalist group that has used suicide tactics regularly since the 1980s, has brought its opponents to the negotiating table, although those talks later broke down.

Success only half the time may not sound like much, but the fact that groups so weak in a conventional military sense have any success at all may attest to the strange potency of a weapon that is comprised mostly of a person willing to kill himself for a cause.

"It makes us feel that our enemies are so committed to their cause that they're willing to do this seemingly irrational thing," said Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Terror in the Name of God."

"They are willing to lose their lives because they feel so strongly that they are right and we are wrong."

Iraq Bombers

There is a formula the suicide bomber counts on: The right explosives are powerful, portable and concealable in a car or on a bomber's body. The right targets are civilians — the more, the better and preferably unsuspecting until the bomb goes off. Finally, the right reaction is shock, horror and terror. That's what the killer wants to plant in the hearts of his enemies so he can break that enemy's will.

So, there is a method to what looks like the madness in Iraq.

"They would like to force out the occupiers," Stern said. "Their goal is to impose such heavy costs on the United States that we just can't stand it anymore."

Suicide bombers were a rare thing in Iraq until U.S. forces came.

"In stationing large numbers of troops in the country for what appears to be years to come," Pape said, "what we've done is we've given suicide terrorism a new lease on life."

Terror Formula Can Succeed or Backfire

The American people, 6,000 miles from where most of this violence is taking place, are meant to be the psychological targets of the terrorism taking place in Iraq. The public is meant to grow weary, to put political pressure on the government, and ultimately to demand that the United States leave Iraq.

But the strategy can backfire. The Japanese crossed a line by sending suicide pilots, the kamikazes, crashing into U.S. ships toward the end of World War II. But their self-sacrifice only stiffened the U.S. resolve for all-out victory.

Success may seem far off for the insurgents in Iraq, as well. It's been only six months since the re-election of the president who put the United States in Iraq despite disapproval, then and now, by more than half the country in how he's handling that war.

The suicide bombers in Iraq also may miscalculate locally. Most of their victims, especially recently, have been Iraqi citizens, not U.S. troops. And those citizens went to vote enthusiastically in their first free election this winter despite threats of violence against them.

Patterns In Iraq

In addition, the insurgent movement in Iraq may not be exactly like all past, successful insurgencies.

In the occupied West Bank and Gaza, individual bombers are revered. Their faces emblazoned on posters and keychains.

In Iraq, the cause trumps the individual. In DVDs and videotapes circulated and sold throughout the country, insurgent groups show off their ability to strike at the very center of government authority.

"Because the majority of suicide terrorists in Iraq are foreign, are not from that country," said Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corporation, a policy think tank, "there's less a celebration of the individual or the cult of the martyr and more, I think, the organizations or the insurgent groups behind the suicide terrorism, to demonstrate their power."

That power is irresistible to religious and secular insurgent groups alike. U.S. authorities say most of the bombers are deployed by Islamic extremist groups, including those led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"One of our great problems is that we have demonized bin Laden and Zarqawi," said Tony Cordesman, an ABC News military analyst, "so a lot of reporting gives credit to outsiders when the movements may well have ties to Iraqi groups."

Replaceable Insurgents

U.S. commanders say they have captured or killed more than 20 aides of Zarqawi in recent months and hundreds of lower-ranking fighters. But they concede that new recruits quickly take their places.

And their route into Iraq is surprisingly easy. Iraq's borders, particularly with Syria and Saudi Arabia, are long and porous. Iraqi border posts are grossly understaffed, and the U.S. military is too stretched to fill the holes. Fighting the suicide bombers begins, say military analysts, with strong, well-trained Iraqi security forces.

"You can win it over time," Cordesman said. "But you can only win it if you get really large numbers of Iraqi police, security forces, and military who are actively in the field, actively performing their mission, to supplement what the United States can do."

Still, it's a well-known rule of thumb in the security community that once a suicide bomber is deployed, it's often too late. The real key to winning is good intelligence.

"The Israelis, for example, claim that they've been able, in the past few years, to reduce the number of suicide attacks in Israel by 85 [percent] to 90 percent," said Hoffman of the Rand Corporation. "This is largely because they've developed a very sophisticated intelligence net that enables them to detect a bombing from the moment it's launched and, in some instances, to take pre-emptive action. Unfortunately, that's just not a capability that we yet have in Iraq."

ABC News' John Donvan and Jim Sciutto originally reported this story May 10, 2005, for "Nightline."