The title alone, “Martyrs as Weapons,” gives an early
indication of Croitoru’s purpose with his new book, which is to show two
different sides of the people who commit suicide as an act of assassination—as
perpetrators and as victims, a kind of weapon in the hands of others. Croitoru
describes a wide arc, stretching from the Japanese Samurai tradition, through
North Korea’s propaganda of “a thousand living bombs,” to suicide bombing
in Lebanon and Israel, and finally gives us an analysis of al Qaeda’s global
terrorist network as the latest chapter in this story. He employs fine
linguistic means to distinguish between suicide attacks in a military context
and suicide bombing, distinctions that are perhaps too fine for a quick
read. By taking into account the perspective of the perpetrators, he also
explores that element of “free choice” propounded by those responsible in both
cases to show that the actors themselves often see no alternative to their
Right from the introduction, the author emphasizes that certain preconditions
must be met before suicide attacks and suicide bombing will find social acceptance and ready
actors in a given society. These include most especially a deeply rooted belief
in a hereafter where the martyr will be rewarded, a patriarchal society that has
retained a pre-modern warrior ethos and an honor code that includes blood
revenge, and continuing national oppression in which deprivation of rights and
degradation by a militarily superior opponent have long since become routine.
These opening comments make clear that Croitoru’s purpose is not to place blame
but rather to understand a phenomenon that is so difficult to comprehend,
especially for Western observers.
To sacrifice one’s life for an ideal, a nation or an emperor is a rather
foreign concept for the Western world. In Eastern cultures, on the other hand,
it has a long tradition, as Croitoru illustrates in detail on the basis of the
ethics of the Japanese Samurai and its exploitation by the Japanese military.
This development found its most extreme expression in the massive use of
Kamikaze fighters in the Pacific at the end of World War II.
The author explains the fact that this form of attack found its way around
the world through the survival of the concept of the “living bomb,” which is
still promoted today in communist North Korea. Croitoru argues that in the early
1970s, as left extremist groups in many parts of the world took up the cause
world revolution, contacts were forged in North Korea between such revolutionary
organizations from Japan and the Near East. One outgrowth was the first suicide
attack in the Middle East, which was carried out by the Japanese Red Army
Fraction in May 1972 at the Tel Aviv airport.
This attack by three Japanese men exerted enormous pressure on Palestinian
groups to make a name for themselves with ever-increasing violence, resulting in
a wave of terrorist suicide attacks aimed primarily at civilian targets that shook
Israel during the 1970s. The instigators of these attacks were various
Palestinian organizations competing with each other for the title of leader who
politically justified their actions as serving the national liberation of
Palestine from “Zionist-imperialist” oppression. At that time, religious
motivations played little if any role at all.
Even then, however, the media marketing of the martyrs was critical and
acquired a format that remains typical today: the public claim of responsibility
by an organization and a press conference are followed by the release of the
martyr’s last will and testament, either in the form of a recording or a
videotape. This cultivation of the martyr’s image, even among non-religious
Palestinians, together with “Palestinian training” in the UN Relief and Works
Agency schools and paramilitary youth camps, result in a high level of
willingness among young Palestinians to volunteer for suicide commandos.
Croitoru explains that this ideological about-face from political to Islamic
forms of justification grew out of trends involved in the struggle in Lebanon,
where Iranian fundamentalist leaders and Syrian overlords competed for spheres
of influence. Their main tool was financial and logistical support for “their”
combat groups. Constant human rights violations by Israeli occupation soldiers
provided another reason for the rapid growth of groups such as Hezbollah (“Party
of God”), the Shiite Lebanese AMAL, and the Lebanese Syrian Social National Party.
The outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987 shifted the attention of world
public opinion back to Israel and Palestine. A Muslim brotherhood, which had
been founded in Gaza in 1978 and initially focused on the social concerns of the
population, grew to become Hamas, an Islamic resistance movement whose long-term
goal is the destruction of Israel and the re-Islamization of “all of Palestine.”
Islamic Jihad, a radical split-off group, and Fatah, the military arm of the
PLO, have also laid claim to leadership of the Intifada. The PLO’s negotiations
with Israel that led to the Oslo Accords and events within Israel gave rise to
another wave of terrorist activities that eventually came to a head in the
so-called al Aqsa Intifada.
The fact that suicide bombing has become international in its
application can be illustrated in locales as varied as Sri Lanka, Kashmir,
Chechnya or Kurdistan. Osama bin Laden himself benefited from this global
networking and acquire international experience as he built up al Qaeda and
prepared the attacks of 11 September 2001. The crucial difference in relation to
previous Islamic terrorist organizations, however, is the fact that al Qaeda
does not draw its motivation from a struggle for national or regional interests
but rather from a vision of Islamic world domination.
With this detailed account, Joseph Croitoru, an authority on the Middle East,
provides insights into a critical chapter of current history. His exacting
research and balanced judgment help make a mass phenomenon intelligible that
otherwise remains almost incomprehensible.
[Translated by Janice Becker]