The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics

By Michael C. Horowitz | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
SUICIDE TERRORISM

IN THE MID-1990S, after the first World Trade Center attack, Osama Bin Laden apparently made an important decision with major repercussions for U.S. strategy. Up until then, the burgeoning terrorist group now known as Al Qaeda had played a major role in Salafi jihadi terrorist operations around the world, but its involvement was mostly behind the scenes. Al Qaeda provided financing for operations, trained fighters from affiliated groups, and smuggled weapons to sympathetic parties. Yet Bin Laden, Al Qaeda's leader, determined that it was time for Al Qaeda itself to engage in a major attack and step out of the shadows. When planning began for the operation that was to become the East African embassy bombings of 1998, Bin Laden sent some of Al Qaeda's top military commanders and operatives, including some in the Kenya cell, to Hezbollah to learn from one of the most successful terrorist groups of the last twenty years. Even though Bin Laden's Sunni Salafi beliefs led him to clear theological disagreements with the Shia-affiliated Hezbollah, and Hezbollah had not actually conducted a suicide attack in years, Bin Laden considered them the experts and sent his people to learn. Furthermore, Bin Laden purportedly told his operatives to specifically study the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks suicide bombing by Hezbollah. His operatives went, took careful notes, and returned with the operational concepts and knowledge necessary for the embassy bombings in 1998.1

Though focused on nonstate actors, the story illustrates three critical concepts of adoption-capacity theory. First, sometimes technical expertise is not enough to adopt an innovation. Even though Al Qaeda had money, committed members, and weapons, it needed to send its members to Hezbollah, a suicide terrorism innovator, to pick up the tacit knowledge necessary to conduct its own suicide operations. Second, organizational capital matters. Al Qaeda's lack of a prior operational history made it extremely flexible when it came to designing the embassy bombings. Without an operational past that caused Al Qaeda to privilege certain attack strategies, it was easier to branch into a new area of operations like suicide bombing. Third, it is impossible to tell the story of how a type of military power matters without understanding how it spreads.

1 Nearly all of the evidence from this story is taken from The 9/11 Commission Report. The sec-
tion from which this story is told cites multiple U.S. intelligence briefs and testimony by group
members in court cases (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States 2004,
67–68, 470–71).

-166-

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