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Vol 38  No 4
October 13, 2005



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Suicide bombing

Visiting lecturer takes a closer look

By Tracey Mills

Two members of Islamic Jihad marching in Gaza with explosive charges tied around their waists.
(Photo by Anders Deros)

What motivates a suicide bomber? Why has the number of incidents of suicide bombings increased since the early 1980s? These are questions that Dr. Robert Brym, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, will answer when he comes to Memorial to lecture on Suicide Bombing as Strategy and Interaction on Oct. 19.

Dr. Robert Brym has been interested in suicide bombers since the early seventies when he completed his BA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was at that time that the first suicide attack in modern Middle Eastern history occurred when Japanese bombers attacked Puerto Rican Catholics on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The event raised a series of questions about the motivations of suicide bombers, the strategies of the organizations that sponsored them and the rationality, or lack of rationality, of their actions from a strategic viewpoint. But it wasn’t until 2000, when a wave of 138 suicide bombings began in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, that he became more systematically involved.

Funding for his current research project began in April 2005. With the support of two graduate students from the University of Toronto, one a Palestinian man and the other an Israeli woman, extensive fieldwork has been ongoing in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and will continue until September 2006. They have been busy interviewing suicide bombers’ family members, leaders of insurgent organizations and Israeli security-policy analysts.

“On a personal level, I have focused on this area because I am emotionally and biographically tied to this region,” he added. “On political and intellectual levels, I am studying the region partly because it is the scene of one of the longest, most protracted and bloodiest suicide campaigns ever and one of the key political conflicts in modern world history.

“It is also a case that differs from suicide campaigns in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere insofar as the strategic value of suicide bombing is less clear in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.”

As for what motivates a suicide bomber, Dr. Brym said they vary from one person to the next and from one political context to the next.

“For example, suicide bombers often seek revenge or retaliation against their enemies for killings, humiliations and the occupation of territory that they regard as their homeland.”

Dr. Brym’s lecture will examine a new approach for studying suicide bombing today. His preliminary findings suggest that the strategic gains from suicide bombing in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are typically nil to negative and that revenge and retaliation play an unusually big role in motivating suicide bombers and precipitating suicide attacks.

“This finding suggests the importance of focusing on how the actions of one side in the conflict affect reactions on the other side,” he added. “In this region suicide bombing seems to me to be less of a rational strategy to achieve territorial goals than a reaction to specific violent acts on the part of one’s enemy.”

By discovering the forces that perpetuate the vicious cycle of violence, Dr. Brym hopes to identify ways to break the cycle.

Dr. Brym’s lecture, Suicide Bombing as Strategy and Interaction: The Case of the Second Intifada will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 19 from 1-2 p.m. in the Arts and Administration Building, room AA-1043.


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