Hezbollah's Employment of Suicide Bombing
During the 1980s: The Theological, Political, and Operational Development
of a New Tactic
The post-9/11 Western world seems to regard
suicide bombing as a traditional Islamic phenomenon in which repressed,
underprivileged Muslims act out their frustrations by exploding
themselves in the midst of civilians. This is, however, a misperception.
The shahada are not merely frustrated human bombs embracing a time-honored
tradition. Use of the tactic by Hamas and other Palestinian groups,
by Jemmah Islamiyah in the Philippines, and most recently by members
of the Fedayeen Saddam, might seem to suggest that suicide bombing
is somehow embedded in Arab and Islamic culture, but it isn't. When
Hezbollah adopted the tactic in 1983, it was the uniqueness of the
method that in many ways directed the world's attention toward the
newly formed group.3
Hezbollah's initial suicide bombings had little
precedent in Arab, Islamic, and even world history. In 1983, an
attack in which the attacker killed himself while killing others
was simply extraordinary. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, "the
organization [Hezbollah] virtually invented the multipronged terror
attack when, early on the morning of 23 October 1983, it synchronized
the suicide bombing, in Beirut, of the United States Marine barracks
and an apartment building housing a contingent of French peacekeepers.
Those attacks occurred just 20 seconds apart."4
three hundred Multi-National Force (MNF) soldiers perished in the
twin attacks. This use of suicide bombing as a military, highly
organized, effective tactic set Hezbollah apart from other extremist
organizations, both Islamic and non-Islamic.
Had Hezbollah's bombing missions been simply
its signature method of attack (as other terrorist groups in the
1980s had signature attacks), the tactic would be worthy of historical
exploration only as an anomaly. Indeed, many authors do not view
Hezbollah's suicide attacks as noteworthy. Ann Mayer, for example,
claims that other Islamic organizations and terrorist groups throughout
the world used similar tactics to secure similar political goals.5
If the Western press gives Hezbollah any thought at all, it is only
to consider it a Shi'ite terrorist group with ties to Iran, and
part of a highly irrational and dangerous pan-Islamic threat. When
Hezbollah actually carried out its suicide attacks, Western reporters
saw little more than the "villainy" of the perpetrators.6
But other Islamic groups before Hezbollah did not use suicide bombing
in the 1980s, so the supposedly inherent villainy of the Islamic
threat does not sufficiently explain Hezbollah's move to suicide
Any theological dimension that might give suicide
bombing a veneer of legitimacy also tended to be discounted. Even
many Arab writers dismissed the Islamic rationale behind Muslim
extremism and labeled groups such as Hezbollah "misguided"
in their proclamations of jihad.7 the
Lebanese writer Saad-Ghorayeb is one of those skeptics. He believes
Hezbollah's claims to Islamic inspiration result from a complicated
moral utilitarianism in which all actions can be justified in an
Islamic framework.8 however, Muhammad
Hussein Fadlallah, Hezbollah's spiritual guide (and a supporter
of its suicide bombings), took a resolute stand against the organization's
use of kidnapping. This suggests that Hezbollah did not use Shi'a
Islam to justify just any action and that its theological justification
of suicide bombing was well thought-out and truly believed.9
None of these explanations suffice to explain
Hezbollah's employment of suicide bombing. The specific, rational
choice of suicide bombing as a militarily effective, theologically
justified means to achieve political ends distinguished Hezbollah
from any other group in the 1980s. For that reason, Hezbollah's
suicide bombing warrants systematic historical study.
Theological Underpinnings of Self-Destruction
As a result of the Iranian Revolution and subsequent
hostage crisis, the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks
in Lebanon, and Hezbollah's seizure and execution of Western hostages,
the Western world regards Islam as an extreme and irrational religion
and sees Shi'ite Islam as even more extreme than Sunni Islam. However,
for many centuries the Shi'ites concerned themselves mostly with
survival in a Sunni-dominated world: "For centuries it [Shi'ism]
cultivated the ideal of suffering and endurance. The Shi'ite prototype
was that of the quietly enduring martyr (shahid) and not the insurgent
revolutionary."10 the suicide
bomber, "chaperoned by a cleric and operationally supplied
and directed by a Hizbullah agent," was a far cry from the
passive sufferer that marked most of Shi'ite history.11
The most important religious event on the Shi'ite
calendar occurs during the first 10 days of the month of Muharram,
when Shi'ites celebrate the lives and mourn the deaths of their
greatest martyrs. On Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, Shi'ites
march through the streets of their cities, many flagellating themselves
and weeping to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, whom they regard
as the third legitimate successor to Muhammad. The crowds bemoan
Hussein's death and Shi'ite oppression.12
Shi'ites believe Hussein died a martyr to uphold "justice against
In the past, Shi'ites respected and mourned
Hussein, but did not feel compelled to emulate his martyrdom. Believing
that rightful rule vanished from earth with the "occultation"
(disappearance from view) of the hidden Imam in 874, they awaited
the day when the Imam would return to liberate them and establish
God's rule on earth. Until then, they employed taqiyya (dissimulation),
practicing as Sunnis in public and hiding their Shi'ite identity
so the hidden Imam would have a cadre of followers to help establish
God's rule on earth.
In a sense, taqiyya represented the imams'
desires to achieve an ideal Islamic polity, if not by launching
the revolution contingent upon the appearance of the hidden Imam
as the leader of the community, then at least by preparing the way
for such an insurrection in the future. In the meantime, Shi'ites
avoided enmity by not publicly expressing their opinions about the
shortcomings of Muslim governments.14
For Shi'ites, religion and politics remained
separate. True political power belonged only to God and the hidden
Imam; all temporal power was usurped and false. Shi'ite imams accommodated
political rulers out of necessity, but remained mostly outside of
politics. They and their followers mistrusted politics as a human
endeavor and rarely used war as a political tool. As author John
Kelsay explains, "the idea that wars should be fought for 'secular'
purposes-for example, the defense of a nation-state (as opposed
to a state defined in Islamic terms)-is viewed with some suspicion,
as opening the door to indiscriminate resort to and conduct of war."15
Any military activity to attain political goals, let alone suicide
bombing, was outside the canon of accepted Shi'ite thought.
Although their Sunni enemies persecuted them
after the occultation, the Shi'ites had a traditional abhorrence
of suicide. A Shi'ite story relates how one group of persecuted
Shi'ites discussed mass suicide as a way out of their predicament,
but rejected the idea. One of them was quoted as saying: "By
God, if I knew that my suicide would free me of my sin and reconcile
me with my Lord, then I would kill myself! But," he continued,
"what was permitted of the Israelites was-regrettably-denied
New Shi'ite thought that emerged from Iraq's
Najaf seminaries and from Iran in the 1960s challenged Shi'ite quietism
and political disengagement. Contemporary thinkers asserted that
remembering the sacrifices of martyrs was not enough; only by achieving
martyrdom oneself could one help bring about the coming of the hidden
Imam.17 this claim effectively politicized
Shi'ism, ending its quietism. Inspired by clerics such as Sayyed
Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini of Iran and Musa al Sadr of Lebanon, a
people that had thrived on their own afflictions now espoused a
revolutionary ideology of activism. Other leaders soon used Khomeini's
and Sadr's ideas to justify suicide bombing as well.
The ideology that led to the Iranian Revolution
de-emphasized taqiyya and politicized shahadat (martyrdom). According
to Khomeini, "stating the right is obligatory," even when
doing so put a believer in danger and was unlikely to effect change.18
In fact, the entire focus of Shi'ism changed with these revolutionary
thinkers. No longer was one to protect oneself through taqiyya;
now, one was obliged to die a martyr unless Islam would gain nothing
through one's death.
This was a paradigm shift. The new Shi'ite
doctrine said: "[D]issimulation is a personal affair, and [it]
pertains to individuals placed in a position of weakness in the
face of powerful enemies; they dissimulate insofar as they consider
that if dissimulation is not made, not only do they lose their lives,
but also no positive advantage is derived from their being killed
After the Iranian Revolution, the defense of
political Shi'ism became paramount. Shi'ites put protection of the
ideals of the Iranian Revolution ahead of self-protection. Khomeini
believed that protecting the ideals of the revolution would bring
about the hidden Imam's arrival.
Formerly, Shi'ites had looked upon the call
to jihad with skepticism. War for self-defense was always permitted,
but more traditional Shi'ite thinkers preferred to look at such
a war as defaa (defense), not jihad.20
only the hidden Imam could declare jihad when he came out from occultation.21
Khomeini agreed that defensive wars are defaa, not jihad; however,
he lowered the threshold for such military actions and said participation
in them was mandatory for true believers:
_ "If the enemy invades the cities of
Moslems and their borders, it is obligatory for all Moslems to defend
those by any means possible, forsaking life and belongings. And
in this case the permission of the religious ruler is not needed.
_ If the Moslems fear that the foreigners have
a plot to subjugate their cities, either directly or through their
agents, from outside or inside, it is obligatory that they defend
the Islamic countries by any means possible.
_ If, within the Islamic countries, plots have
been laid by foreigners, with the fear that they may dominate Islamic
countries, it is obligatory for Moslems to foil their plot by any
means possible and to obstruct the spread of their influence."22
The mere premonition that foreigners might
overly influence, let alone attack, an Islamic state justified using
"any means possible" to fight them. Shi'ism had once been
a religion of private belief, but in the hands of Khomeini, it became
a religion with political goals. According to Khomeini, clerics
should run all government functions and there should be no separation
of religion and politics.23
In Lebanon, Musa al Sadr also politicized Shi'ism
in an effort to mobilize Shi'ites to seek greater political power
and fairer treatment. Sadr's followers did not subscribe to the
radical ideas espoused by Khomeini; they "wanted improved material
conditions, government protection, equal opportunity, and a better
future for their children."24
However, by including political and religious goals in a single
sphere of action, Sadr, like Khomeini, declared that a theologically
legitimate defense by "any means possible" was a political
affair, and acceptable. Fighting for justice now instead of waiting
for justice later, when the hidden Imam reappeared, became a Shi'a
mantra in Lebanon.25 According to Gilles
Kepel, an expert on the modern Middle East, "[Sadr] turned
Hussein's martyrdom into the doctrinal template for a general mobilization
against social injustice, which for the first time raised the despised
Shi'ites of Lebanon to the level of a real political force by giving
them a sense of personal dignity."26
Sadr created a politicized Shi'ite movement in Lebanon before the
Iranian Revolution occurred. Then, in 1978, he disappeared.
Sadr's disappearance, like Hussein's martyrdom,
sowed the seeds of resistance against occupation and control of
Lebanon by foreign powers. The charged political atmosphere he had
created and the political vacuum left by his disappearance became
a fertile breeding ground for Khomeini's revolutionary ideas. A
new group of Shi'ite activists formed
Hezbollah, the "party of God." they
developed a doctrine in which self-martyrdom through suicide bombing
for the sake of political gain became the ultimate expression of
piety. Khomeini had politicized martyrdom, but the leap from political
martyrdom to self-martyrdom required considerable theological development
by Hezbollah's clerics.27 Hezbollah
developed a doctrine of suicide bombing and put it to great use
militarily and politically in defeating what it perceived to be
foreign invaders of Lebanon. But while the need that gave rise to
the tactic was clearly political, Hezbollah developed the doctrine
of self-martyrdom within the framework of the highly politicized
Shi'ite jurisprudence emanating from Iran. Hezbollah's connection
to the Iranian revolutionary clerics and in particular Khomeini
is evident in its open Letter of 1985: "We, the sons of Hizb
Allah's nation, whose vanguard God has given victory in Iran and
which has established the nucleus of the world's central Islamic
state, abide by the orders of a single wise and just command currently
embodied in the supreme Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini
. . . ."28
Even so, a doctrine of suicide bombing required
a significant leap from the Iranian culture of martyrdom. Ayatollah
Morteza Mutaharri, who helped inspire the Iranian Revolution, has
explained the difficulty in developing a theological rationale for
suicide bombing. In defining suicide and shahadat in an Islamic
treatise, Mutaharri illuminates the oxymoronic nature of suicide
bombing: "self murder: In this case, the death itself constitutes
a crime, and hence, it is the worst kind of death [italics added].
Suicidal deaths and the deaths of those who are killed in motor
accidents because of their own fault come under this category. The
same is the case of the death of those who are killed while committing
a crime. But shahadat is the death of a person who, in spite of
being fully conscious of the risks involved, willingly faces them
for the sake of a sacred cause, or, as the Qur'an says, fi sabil
Allah (in the way of God)."29
According to Mutaharri, suicide was the worst
kind of death and martyrdom the best. This assertion posed a quandary
for Hezbollah's theologians, so Fadlallah developed a theological
argument based on the politicization of martyrdom that overcame
Shi'ite prohibitions against suicide.
During the Lebanese Civil War, Fadlallah underwent
a profound religious transformation when the town in which he worked
was shelled for days by the Maronites. In his 1976 Al Islam wa Mantaq
al Quwa (Islam and the Logic of Force), Fadlallah argues for strength
and force to establish justice. He says that without power, Shi'ites
could neither spread the words of God nor uplift his people; therefore,
God loved all who used violence to fight for his sake. This use
of violence in the name of Islam did not, however, include suicide
bombing.30 Fadlallah's understanding
was more in line with that of Khomeini, Sadr, and the other revolutionary
clerics of the time. He would need other sources of inspiration
to develop a sound theological argument to permit suicide bombing.
Shi'ism recognizes reason as a source of Islamic
jurisprudence.31 this tradition paved
the way for Fadlallah's theological justification of suicide bombing.
As did Khomeini, Fadlallah subscribed to the notion that any means
was justified when fighting in defense. This was an extraordinary
notion, but one shared by many. According to Abdulaziz Abdul Hussein
sachedina, "When unbelief threatens the existence of faith
. . . even customary rules of warfare may be suspended."32
Fadlallah asserted that this belief was not so different than one
held by many in the West. According to Fadlallah, the bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with their vast tolls of human life, were
examples of the belief by many that desperation justifies the use
of weapons not customarily accepted as normal in warfare.33
Fadlallah proclaimed that Lebanon's occupation
by foreign powers, most importantly the MNF and the Israelis, and
the attempt by those foreigners to preserve a Christian-dominated
government in Lebanon, created a defensive situation in which all
means of warfare were legitimate. Hezbollah went even further than
Khomeini. In its open Letter it called the resistance a jihad instead
of just a defaa.34 As a result, it
was mandatory for believers to participate in the resistance, and
they were to use any means necessary. Martyrdom was the highest
form of death, and circumstances required believers to commit acts
of martyrdom and self-sacrifice.
Another argument held that because Imam Hussein
had known of his impending martyrdom at Karbala but still chose
to fight there, suicide bombing was acceptable.35
Just as Hussein had known of his impending martyrdom, so, too, would
the suicide bomber, and because his suicide was a means of jihad
against foreign dominance, it was theologically acceptable. It was
not really suicide but warfare in God's name: "suicide,"
Fadlallah said, "is not an absolute value. It is an option
left to a people who are without options, and so the act is no longer
considered suicide but martyrdom in the name of self-defense. This
is part of the logic of war."36
According to Fadlallah, it was the self-sacrifice,
not the suicide, that mattered. Fadlallah used Hussein's death at
Karbala, as well as Sadr's disappearance, to provide historical
models of emulation to justify the sacrifice of the young men who
would blow themselves up.37 As an added
incentive, martyrs who died in a legitimate act of jihad would go
to heaven without their other deeds on earth being scrutinized by
It was the Iranian clerics who finally cemented
a doctrine of self-sacrifice and martyrdom into Shi'ism. Ali Shariati,
whose ideas helped form the basis of the Iranian Revolution and
who was assassinated by the shah's secret police in 1977, wrote,
"Shahadat is an invitation to all generations, in all ages,
if you cannot kill your oppressor, then die."39
In 1983, Khomeini called for Shi'ites around the world to continue
to engage in acts of self-sacrifice to ensure the export of his
From all of this, Fadlallah assembled what
he thought was a rational argument for suicide bombing based on-
_ The belief that extraordinary challenges
to Islam authorized the use of extraordinary measures to combat
threats to the faith.
_ The belief that Imam Hussein had prior knowledge
of his martyrdom.
_ The politicization of martyrdom.
_ Khomeini's call for self-sacrifice in order
to export the Revolution.
Thus, the theological justification of suicide
bombing was based on rational thought within the scope of radical
Shi'ite jurisprudence. This justification was in place before Hezbollah
sent out its first suicide bombers. Even so, Fadlallah's justification
of suicide bombing was not reason enough to use this new method;
it simply made the weapon available. The decision to use suicide
bombing was a direct result of Hezbollah's understanding of the
weapon's military value and the belief that such bombings could
effect political change.
A Practical Tactic
In October 1983, when Islamic Jihad (one of
the pseudonyms used by the then-relatively unknown Hezbollah) used
suicide bombers to blow up the Marine barracks and the French peacekeepers'
compound in Beirut, most Westerners deplored the bombings as pointless
acts of violence carried out by Muslims intent on little more than
killing. This first impression was a long lasting one, and even
as Hezbollah turned the focus of its suicide bombings toward other
targets after the MNF left Lebanon, Westerners continued to view
such events as evidence of senseless Islamist fanaticism. However,
Hezbollah's decision to use suicide bombing was anything but irrational.
After justifying the practice theologically, the group carefully
weighed the military and political consequences of the tactic as
compared to other tactics they could employ. With a thoughtful understanding
of the capabilities of this weapon and the political goals it might
help attain, Hezbollah carefully timed suicide-bombing operations
to make their enemies pay significant military and political costs.
Hezbollah's leaders identified early on the
political goals they hoped to achieve in Lebanon. Abbas Mussawi,
the founder and leader of Hezbollah until the Israelis assassinated
him, emphasized these goals. Hezbollah, he said, aimed to "boot
colonialism out of Lebanon, repulse Israel (from southern Lebanon)
and set up an Islamic republic" through armed struggle and
Sayyed hassan Nasrallah, an early Hezbollah
leader who became the group's secretary general after Mussawi's
assassination, also identified the political goals of the movement.
In a 1984 sermon he announced: "We oppose the programs and
platform of the illegal and non-canonical government of Amin al-Jumayyil
[Lebanon's president from 1982 to 1988] or any other military individual
dependent on the superpowers. We shall continue our struggle until
the Al-Jumayyil government is toppled. America, France, and Israel
are enemies of Islam. We declare here that we follow the path of
the Islamic Revolution and do not accept any other government in
Clearly, the goals of removing the government
and kicking out foreign powers, though couched in the language of
Islam, were predominantly political. To achieve them, Hezbollah
decided to resort to arms. According to Fadlallah, the goal of armed
conflict was to lift the yoke of oppression from the Shi'ites of
Lebanon; it was a "revolt for their freedom."43
Fadlallah declared that armed conflict would continue "until
[Israel] leaves the last border strip."44
thus, Hezbollah's decision to use suicide bombing was a practical
one: the group believed the tactic would be useful in achieving
its political goals.
Hezbollah demonstrated military pragmatism
by using what worked and discarding what did not. Even though it
could not take on the Israelis in conventional fighting, the organization
determined to "face force with equal or superior force."45
This entailed the use of unconventional, asymmetric tactics-specifically,
the suicide bomber. When Israel used new tactics or weapons to counter
Hezbollah's tactics, Hezbollah developed new, sometimes more successful
tactics of its own.46 According to
a political spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon,
Hezbollah was the only one of the many militias in Lebanon that
reviewed its military actions to determine what it could do better
the next time around: "these guys learn from their mistakes."47
Hezbollah's constant review of the results of its military actions
underlines the practicality of their military decision making. In
short, they conducted operations for their military value. Their
decision to use suicide bombing was a practical one based on the
military capabilities of this form of attack.
Hezbollah was certainly able and willing to
carry out other forms of attack. In 3 hours in December 1983, in
locations from Tyre to Sidon in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah (this
time calling itself the Lebanese National Resistance) attacked the
Israelis with rockets, machine guns, grenades, and remotely controlled
roadside bombs.48 Clearly, suicide
bombing was not the only weapon or tactic Hezbollah had at its disposal;
rather, the group favored suicide bombing because it provided a
number of military advantages over more conventional tactics, such
as ambushes and grenade attacks. David Benjamin and Steven Simon
provide some key insights into these advantages: "[Using a
suicide truck bomb] meant that if the driver stayed with the truck
bomb, moving it as close to the target as possible, the attack would
maximize the number of casualties. The driver himself would not
be around afterward to name accomplices, minimizing the damage to
The determined suicide bomber could almost
always do some damage to the enemy in his attack. Dressed as a civilian,
not fearing death, and determined to take as many of the enemy with
him as possible, the suicide attacker was tremendously effective.
One Israeli general in southern Lebanon described it best when he
said simply that suicide bombing "is a phenomenon which is
hard to fight."50
Hezbollah was careful in how it employed suicide
bombing. Although the tactic meant that the attacker could not be
captured and give information to the enemy, the attack diminished
the combat power of the organization through the bomber's death.
Too many suicide attacks that did not cause significant enemy casualties
would erode Hezbollah's already small numbers while providing little
military advantage. Furthermore, the tactic was one of diminishing
returns. If Hezbollah used it too often, the Israelis would adapt
to it, and if the attacks stopped causing casualties and yielding
political benefits, it was less likely that there would be a corps
of suicide bombers willing to participate. Fadlallah understood
this: "We believe that suicide operations should only be carried
out if they can bring about a political or military change in proportion
to the passions that incite a person to make of his body an explosive
bomb. As such, the operations launched by Moslems against Israeli
intelligence centers in Tyre or Metulla were successful in that
they significantly harmed the Israelis. But the present circumstances
do not favor such operations anymore, and attacks that only inflict
limited casualties (on the enemy) and destroy the building should
not be encouraged, if the price is the death of the person who carries
Hezbollah used suicide bombings in a limited
set of circumstances where it could hope to make serious gains.
Often, Hezbollah's judicious use of the tactic clearly resulted
in the successful accomplishment of political-military goals. The
clarity with which one can infer the intended political-military
objectives from the timing and success of individual attacks testifies
to Hezbollah's understanding of the political situation, and its
knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the suicide attack.
By April 1983, the United States and Israel
had moved to establish Maronite dominance in Lebanon and to secure
a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty.52
The signing of such a treaty was antithetical to all that Hezbollah
stood for. It gave Israel permanent political influence in Lebanon,
allowed its forces to remain in south Lebanon, and gave the Maronites
international legitimacy as Lebanon's political rulers. Hezbollah
had to act.
The organization's first suicide attack came
during the afternoon of 18 April 1983, when a suicide bomber from
"Islamic Jihad" blew himself up in a car near the U.S.
embassy, killing and wounding a number of Lebanese Army soldiers
and Americans (including Robert Ames, the CIA station chief) and
collapsing a portion of the embassy compound.53
The bombing was a tactical success because it succeeded in killing
Americans and severely damaging the embassy. It also resulted in
some strategic benefits for Hezbollah: It so disrupted the peace
talks that both the Israelis and the Americans felt the need to
declare that the talks were still ongoing despite the bombing.54
According to an American source quoted by Beirut Voice of Lebanon
radio, the Americans quickly understood that the bombing had been
"specifically aimed at frustrating president Reagan's initiative
on Lebanon and the Middle East."55
Of course, the centerpiece of this initiative
was the Israeli-Lebanese peace treaty. Hezbollah achieved a moderate
success with this first attack. A treaty that many thought would
be signed quickly took another full month to negotiate, and it took
even longer to get the Lebanese parliament to approve it. This was
an omen of things to come.
On 23 October 1983, Hezbollah seized the world
stage with the Marine barracks and French compound bombings.56
It revealed the intended outcomes of this double suicide bombing
a month later, in a radio broadcast justifying the attacks and threatening
more to come: "It has become certain to us that our enemies
will not leave our country unless we fight them. . . . At-Tufayli
made an oath by God that death will reach them at the hands of the
believers [al-mu'minin] even if they are in lofty fortresses."57
By establishing a clear political objective, Hezbollah was letting
the allies know it sought specific goals through the use of this
weapon. The violence was not just random; Hezbollah wanted the members
of the MNF to know that. It gave the MNF a choice: Leave Lebanon,
Hezbollah continued to use threats to pressure
the MNF to leave. By March of the next year, Hezbollah was warning
Lebanese citizens to stay clear of French positions because the
positions would be targets until the French left Lebanon.58
The organization wanted the foreigners to know it had the means
and the will to kill soldiers, and nowhere would be safe. Such messages
were meant to undermine public support in the United States and
elsewhere by making the mission seem too risky. The tactic worked:
"Hezbollah calculated correctly that the United States could
be prompted to act in a certain way if the costs of its current
policy were too high."59 Hezbollah's
political message-with the exclamation point of the double suicide
bombings-was heard loud and clear. The MNF pulled out of Lebanon.
Within a few days of the October bombings,
on 4 November, Hezbollah used the suicide attack again. This time
the target was the Israeli security services (shin Bet) base in
Tyre. The bombing injured and killed a number of Israelis even though
the Israelis had been alerted to the threat by the barracks attacks.
Hezbollah's political goal quickly became clear. Once again identifying
itself as Islamic Jihad, the organization announced that its operation
had abrogated the Israeli-Lebanese peace treaty and that suicide
attacks would continue until the treaty was done away with.60
The Tyre attack also achieved military gains.
When Hezbollah succeeded in bombing a major Israeli target despite
the Israeli Defense Force's (IDF's) knowing that such attacks were
likely, it unsettled the Israelis, forcing them to question their
ability to protect themselves from an enemy who seemed to have an
unstoppable weapon. The bombing also forced the Israelis to move
out of population centers, with the result that Hezbollah could
move freely among the populace and limit collateral damage to civilian
bystanders when they carried out attacks against the Israelis.61
Hezbollah had learned from earlier Palestinian-Israeli battles that
collateral damage could turn a civilian populace against the cause
of liberation, as it seemed to have done not only for the Palestinians
but also for the Israelis. Therefore, driving the Israelis to outposts
where they could have little influence over the civilian populace,
and where Hezbollah could attack them without hurting civilians,
was a major military success.
Operations after 1983 demonstrated the sophistication
of Hezbollah's suicide attacks and their harmonization with political
and military goals. A suicide car-bomb attack against the British
embassy on 20 September 1984 almost succeeded in killing both the
American and British ambassadors to Lebanon.62
The attack demonstrated that not even the ambassadors of foreign
powers seeking to influence Lebanon could operate with impunity.
Hezbollah also showed it could develop and execute such attacks
quickly. On 8 March 1985, a bomb, likely planted by the CIA but
at the time believed to have been planted by the Israelis, blew
up outside Fadlallah's residence in Beirut, killing numerous people
but leaving Fadlallah unharmed. Just two days later, on 10 March,
Hezbollah responded with a suicide bomber who attacked an IDF convoy,
killing 10 soldiers.63 Hezbollah sought
to demonstrate that no military act against them would go unanswered,
and that its answer would always entail the deaths of its enemies.
By the end of 1985, Hezbollah had succeeded
in driving out the MNF and in forcing the IDF to withdraw from Beirut
and a large portion of southern Lebanon to a small sliver of land
in the south. Trying to hasten Israel's pull-back and eject it altogether
from Lebanese soil, Hezbollah staged at least 12 suicide bombings
from the middle of the year until November. Several of the attacks
were carried out by bombers on donkeys.64
These bombings were unambiguous political and military messages
that Israeli soldiers would continue to die until their withdrawal
from Lebanon was complete.
In 1986 and beyond, as suicide bombings began
to yield fewer enemy casualties, Hezbollah used them less frequently,
although they remained a potent threat. One suicide bomber blew
himself up in October 1988, killing eight IDF soldiers. Knowing
that this would provoke an Israeli counterattack, Hezbollah threatened
to execute two Israeli soldiers captured in February 1986 if the
Israelis mounted a ground attack against them.65
These asymmetric tactics-a suicide bombing followed by a threat
to execute prisoners-demonstrated Hezbollah's ability to adapt and
innovate in pursuit of its military and political objectives.
Legitimacy via Suicide Bombing
The political landscape during the Lebanese
Civil War (1975-1990) was utterly chaotic. Not only were warring
factions almost too numerous to count, but for almost 2 decades
Syria, Israel, the United States, France, Italy, Great Britain,
and a handful of Iranians took part in military action in Lebanon.
Israel and Syria sought to dominate the country (only Syria succeeded).
Within this landscape, people naturally became cynical, viewing
most militias as groups of thugs, one group not much different from
the other. In this environment, Hezbollah rose above the crowd as
a pious defender of a true ideal. On top of its religious and military
implications, Hezbollah's use of suicide bombing was the avenue
through which it pursued legitimacy both within the country and
abroad. Hezbollah claimed to be the protector of Lebanon, intent
on ending factionalism and driving out foreigners-at least non-Syrian
ones-who sought to dominate Lebanon. Suicide bombing would be their
According to Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon,
"Religious fundamentalism thrives on a sense of embattlement...."66
Hezbollah did not have to do anything to create that sense of embattlement
among disenfranchised Shi'ites in southern Lebanon and the slums
of Beirut. These Shi'ites lived in war zones where warring parties
wreaked havoc on their homes and places of work and where the government
sought to deprive them of the power that their majority status should
have yielded. A sense of embattlement had caused earlier generations
of Shi'ites to join the ranks of Musa al Sadr's Amal. After al Sadr
died, Amal lost much of its popular appeal and seemed to be little
different from the other groups vying for dominance. When Mussawi
sought to swing Amal to an Islamic path in line with the Iranian
Revolution, he was booted out of the organization. In response,
he created Islamic Amal in 1982, the precursor to Hezbollah.67
Islamic Amal sought legitimacy through resistance to the Israeli
occupation and through Islam.
But for an incident that took place in Nabatiya
on 16 October 1983, Mussawi's new group might have remained just
another face in the crowd of thugs that dominated the country. But
on that day, an Israeli convoy in Nabatiya drove into the middle
of a Shi'ite procession marking Ashura. The Shi'ites responded by
overturning several Israeli vehicles and throwing rocks at the soldiers,
who then fired into the crowd, killing and wounding several Shi'ites.
The Shi'ites saw this as a sacrilege, and the entire community turned
against Israel and the MNF, which it perceived to be Israel's lackey.68
Amal and other Shi'ite organizations responded mostly with words.
Shams al-Din, the head Shi'ite in Lebanon, responded to the incident
by calling for civil disobedience against the Israelis, forbidding
cooperation of any sort with Israeli troops, demanding an end to
factionalism, asking that the government pay attention to the plight
of the Shi'ites, and calling for the unity of Lebanon.69
While Amal and shams al-Din responded with
words, Hezbollah responded with action: the bombings of the Marine
and French quarters and the shin Bet building in Tyre. Shams al-Din
asked the population to employ civil disobedience and wait "years
before we achieve our final objective."70
Hezbollah sought to achieve that final objective as quickly as possible
through military action.
Suicide bombers represented altruistic resistance
to foreign occupation in the eyes of many Lebanese, not just Shi'ites.
In a country torn by corrupt, greedy factions, the selflessness
of the suicide bomber gave Hezbollah the moral high ground and,
thus, a measure of legitimacy. That legitimacy was increased by
bombings undertaken after Hezbollah's 1985 open Letter. The sincerity
of the letter, which espoused piety and dedication to the cause
of freeing Lebanon from foreign domination and factionalism, was
proven to the eyes of a once-skeptical public by the selfless actions
of Hezbollah's martyrs.71
Hezbollah's bid for legitimacy proved extremely
successful. Augustus Richard Norton writes that by 1985, "[Amal]
was profoundly challenged by the more radical Hizballah.... Hizballah
supplanted Amal in the environs of Beirut...."72
Hezbollah's success in legitimizing its cause through suicide bombing
was underlined by the rush of its competitors, especially the Syrians,
to use the tactic. In response to the growing popularity of Hezbollah,
other groups began to advertise the number of suicide attacks and
guerrilla operations in which they were involved, often inflating
the number to give themselves more credibility as resistance fighters.
Various groups called international and local news organizations
to claim as many suicide bombings as they could.73
Clearly, other groups thought that suicide bombing and claims of
attacking Israelis and other foreigners was an effective path to
Hezbollah's suicide bombers served as models,
inspiring others to join the fight. Martyrs had long been a source
of inspiration, if not emulation, for pious Shi'ites, and the suicide
bombers seemed to have lived and died deaths worthy of the 12 Imams
and the other great heroes of Shi'ism.74
Pious Shi'ites extolled the bombers' sacrifices and sought to inspire
other young men to emulate them. Indeed, young children "play[ed]
martyr" under the eyes of approving teachers.75
Throughout the south Lebanon countryside, signs commemorated the
heroism of the suicide bomber. One such sign read: "on October
19, 1988 at 1:25 p.m. a martyr car that was body-trapped with 500
kilogram of highly exploding materials transformed two Israeli troops
into masses of fire and limbs, in one of the severe kicks that the
Israeli army had received in Lebanon."76
Hezbollah turned suicide bombing into the paradigm
of resistance. Others, inspired by the group's dedication, sought
to resist on their own. Several women who were not Hezbollah members
conducted suicide bombings, as did a would-be suicide bomber from
Mali (who was foiled in his attempt).77
Accolades showered on Hezbollah's self martyrs caused others to
follow in their footsteps and inspired international recognition
of Hezbollah as the legitimate resistance in Lebanon. Writers as
far away as Tripoli extolled the virtues of Hezbollah and the suicide
attack.78 The attack developed into
an effective propaganda tool, became the symbol that defined a movement,
and to many who supported its goals, legitimized Hezbollah members
as the bearers of the resistance.
Although Westerners, at least initially, viewed
suicide bombing as pointless violence done in the name of Islam,
they were mistaken. Hezbollah thought deeply about the theological
implications of the weapon, its capabilities and limitations, the
political and military goals that it could help achieve, and its
propaganda value. Hezbollah's favored tactic was far from being
illogical; in fact, given the political situation and the culture,
it was quite rational and perhaps even moral.
Had suicide bombing been the work of an irrational,
irresponsible organization, the goals the organization sought to
achieve would not have been so clear, nor would the organization
have achieved as much militarily or politically as Hezbollah did
in the 1980s. Combining suicide bombing with other guerrilla tactics,
Hezbollah achieved the greatest possible military effect. The organization
also understood that suicide bombing could function domestically
as an effective propaganda tool, one that could legitimize Hezbollah
within the Lebanese political scene.
In a world that now abounds with human bombs,
from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to the war in Chechnya, to
Afghanistan and Iraq, understanding suicide bombing as a multifaceted
phenomenon is vital to developing counter-tactics. Although some
will not use suicide bombing as wisely or judiciously as Hezbollah,
suicide bombing has become an omnipresent threat on the modern battlefield
and a threat that, to be countered, must be understood for what
it really is: an effective, time-tested tactic that in competent
hands can be used to achieve political-military objectives. Further
study will determine whether the framework of analysis used here
to explain Hezbollah's use of suicide bombing in the 1980s applies
equally to other groups who employ the tactic. If this analysis
is applicable, then counterterrorist organizations must develop
tactics that seek to undermine the religious, military, and political
logic of the weapon.
1. Morteza Mutaharri, Jihad
and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam, ed. and trans. Mehdi
Abedi and Gary Legenhausen (Houston: institute for research and
Islamic Studies, 1986), 126.
2. Cited in Michael
Petit, Peacekeepers at War: A Marine's Account of the Beirut Catastrophe
(Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986), 3.
3. Heinz Halm, Shi'a
Islam: from Religion to Revolution, trans. from German by Allison
Brown (Princeton: Markus wiener Publishers, 1997), 62.
4. Jeffrey Goldberg,
"in the Party of God," New Yorker, 28 October 2002, 183.
5. Ann Elizabeth Mayer,
"war and Peace in the Islamic tradition and international law,"
Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War
and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions, eds. John Kelsay and
James Turner Johnson (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 218-219.
6. "The Man who
Holds the Hostages," Time, 20 March 1989, 42.
7. Muhammad Sa'id Ashmawi,
Against Islamic Extremism: the writings of Muhammad Sa'id al-'Asmawy,
ed. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (Gainesville, Fl: University Press of
Florida, 1998), 116.
8. Goldberg, 192.
9. "Fadlallah Urges
release of Kidnapped Foreigners" NC311253 Beirut Domestic Service,
in Arabic, 31 March 1985, Foreign Broadcast information Service
(FBIS), 1 April 1985, G-4.
10. Halm, 56.
11. Benny Morris,
Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 18812001
(New York: vintage, 2001), 554.
12. Halm, 62.
13. Abdulaziz Abdul
Hussein Sachedina, The Just Ruler (al-sultan al-'adil) in Shi'ite
Islamic: The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in Imamite Jurisprudence
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 91.
15. John Kelsay, Islam
and War: The Gulf War and Beyond, A Study in Comparative Ethics
(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 48.
16. Halm, 18.
17. ibid., 136.
18. Ayatollah Sayyed
Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, A Clarification of Questions: an Unabridged
Translation of Resaleh Towzih al-Masael, Trans. J. Borujerdi (Boulder:
Westview Press, 1984), 374.
19. Ayatollah Ja'far
Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi'i Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs
and Practices, trans. and ed. Reza Shah-Kazemi (New York: I. B.
Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2001), 153.
20. Sachedina, 111.
21. Kelsay, 38.
22. Said amir arjormand,
"Ideological Revolution in Shi'ism," Authority and Political
Culture in Shi'ism, ed. said Amir Arjormand (Albany: SUNY Press,
23. Khomeini, 379.
24. Majed Halawi,
A Lebanon Defied: Musa al-Sadr and the Shi'a Community (Boulder:
Westview Press, 1992), 205.
25. Shaukat Ali, Dimensions
and Dilemmas of Islamist Movements (Lahore, Pakistan: Sang-e-Meel
Publications, 1998), 129.
26. Gilles Kepel,
Jihad: the Trail of Political Islam, trans. Anthony Roberts (Cambridge,
Ma: Harvard University Press, 2002), 124-5.
27. Ali, 129.
28. "Open letter
by Hizb Allah," in Augustus Richard Norton, Amal and the Shi'a:
Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (Austin: University of Texas Press,
29. Mutaharri, 128.
30. Fouad Ajami, The
Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (Ithaca, Ny:
Cornell University Press, 1986), 215.
31. Mohammad Hashim
Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Cambridge: Islamic
texts Society, 1991), 388.
32. Sachedina, 109.
33. Judith Miller,
God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 278.
34. "Open Letter,"
35. Halm, 18.
36. Quoted in Goldberg,
37. Ajami, 203.
38. Peter Partner,
God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 51.
39. Shari'ati in Jihad
and Shahadat, 214.
40. Extreme Islam:
Anti-American Propaganda of Muslim Fundamentalism, ed. Adam Parfrey
(Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001), 201-202.
leader interviewed on ties to iran," NC101527, Agence France
Presse (AFP) (Paris), in English, 1514 GMT 10 July 85, FBIS, 11
July 85, G2-G3.
Shi'ites Urge Islamic revolution," lD131431, Tehran Domestic
Service, in Persian, 1030 GMT 13 February 84, FBIS, 14 February
leader on Hijacking, Other issues," PM051001, Al-Nahar Al-'Arabi
Wa Al-Duwali (Beirut), in Arabic, 1-7 July 1985, 18-23, FBIS, 5
July 1985, G7-G9.
44. "Husayn Fadlallah,"
Der Spiegel, 1 April 85,134-137, FBIS, 4 April 1985, G3-G5.
45. Ajami, 217.
46. Morris, 555.
47. Cited in Anthony
Shadid, Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats, and the New Politics
of Islam (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), 136.
48. "VOAL reports
Four 'Heroic Operations' in South," NC201240, (Clandestine)
Voice of Arab Lebanon, in Arabic, 1130 GMT 20 December 1983, FBIS,
21 December 1983, G2.
49. Daniel Benjamin
and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror (New York: Random House,
50. "Maj Gen
Or Comments on Suicide Car-Bomb attack," ta101134, Ma'Ariv
(Tel Aviv), in Hebrew, 10 April 1985, 1.11 [report by military correspondent
Yosef Walter], FBIS, 11 April 1985, i5-i6.
51. "Sayyid Muhammad
Husayn Fadlallah interviewed," NC230849, Beirut Monday Morning,
in English, 16-22 December 1985, 22-25, FBIS, 24 December 1985,
52. Clinton Bailey,
"Lebanon's Shi'is after the 1982 war," in Shi'ism, Resistance,
and Revolution, ed. Martin Kramer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press,
Car," NC181201, (Clandestine) Radio Free Lebanon, in Arabic,
1148 GMT 18 April 1983, FBIS, 18 April 1983, G1; see also Morris,
54. "Peace talks
to Continue Despite embassy Blast," ta190607, Jerusalem Domestic
Service, in Hebrew, 0600 GMT 19 April 1983, FBIS, 19 April 1983,
55. "U.S. Reportedly
Has information on embassy explosion," NC211830, Voice of Lebanon
(Beirut), in Arabic, 1715 GMT 21 April 1983, FBIS, 22 April 1983,
56. Morris, 551-2;
Official Warns Multinational Force," NC290654, (Clandestine)
Radio Free Lebanon, in Arabic, 0545 GMT 29 November 1983, FBIS,
29 November 1983, G3.
58. "aFP: French
expecting attacks by Islamic Jihad," NC061423, AFP, in English,
1413 GMT 6 March 1984, FBIS, 7 March 1984, G5.
59. Benjamin, 119.
al-Jihad Member Quoted on Tyre Blast," NC041426, (Clandestine)
Voice of Arab Lebanon, in Arabic, 1336 GMT 4 November 1983, FBIS,
7 November 1983, G6-G7.
of Tyre Commission Published," ta171534, Bahamane (Tel Aviv),
in Hebrew, 16 November 1983, 5, 8, FBIS, 18 November 1983, i4-i5.
62. Edgar O'Ballance,
Civil War in Lebanon, 1975-92 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998),
63. ibid., 155.
Car Bomb explodes west of Jazzin," NC261315, AFP (Paris), in
English, 1242 GMT 26 November 1985, FBIS, 26 November 1985, G4.
65. O'Ballance, 185.
66. Benjamin, 115.
67. O'Ballance, 133.
68. Thomas l. Friedman,
From Beirut to Jerusalem (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), 179-180.
leader Declares resistance to Israel," NC161034, Beirut Domestic
Service, in Arabic, 1000 GMT 16 October 1983, FBIS, 18 October 1983,
leader Views Situation; Raps U.S., Israel," PM221517, Al-Hawadith
(London), in Arabic, 23 December 1983, 20-22, FBIS, 23 December
71. Miller, 283.
72. Augustus Richard
Norton, "Hizballah: From Radicalism to Pragmatism?" Middle
East Policy Council (January 1988), <www.mepc.org/public_asp/journal_vol5/9801_norton.asp>.
Operation reported in South 4 Nov," NC040944, AFP (Paris),
in English, 0932 GMT 4 November 1985, FBIS, 4 November 1985, G3.
74. Stephan Rosiny,
"The Tragedy of Fatima al-Zahra," from "Debate of
two Shi'ite theologians in Lebanon," in The Twelve Shia in
Modern Times: Religious Culture and Political History, eds. Rainer
Brunner and Werner Ende (Boston: Brill 2001), 207-8.
75. Miller, 256.
76. Goldberg, 188.
77. "50 lahd
Men Killed," NC261920, Beirut Domestic Service, in Arabic,
1900 GMT 26 November 1985, FBIS, 27 November 1985, G1; "UNIFIL
Foils Suicide Car Bomb attempt," NC092105, AFP, in English,
2054 GMT 9 December 1985, FBIS, 10 December 1985, G1.
78. "JANA editor
lauds Martyrdom in Commando attacks," lD021558, JANA (Tripoli),
in English, 1452 GMT 2 August 1985, FBIS, 5 August 1985, Q2.
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