Academic journal article Military Review

Hezbollah's Employment Suicide Bombing during the 1980s: The Theological, Political, and Operational Development of a New Tactic

Academic journal article Military Review

Hezbollah's Employment Suicide Bombing during the 1980s: The Theological, Political, and Operational Development of a New Tactic

Article excerpt

The shahid (martyr) can be compared to a candle whose job it is to burn out and get extinguished in order to shed light for the benefit of others. The shahada (martyrs) are the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society. If they do not shed their light, no organization can shine.

--Iranian Ayatollah Morteza Mutaharri (1)

Civilization does not mean that you face a rocket with a stick or a jet-fighter with a kite, or a warship with a sailboat ...

One must face force with equal or superior force. If it is legitimate to defend self and land and destiny, then all means of self-defense are legitimate.

--Lebanese Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah (2)

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 Hezboilah 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 bombing.

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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.