Suicide Attacks and the Network of Militant Organizations

Since 1980, over 100 militant organizations have carried out more than 4,000 suicide attacks, killing upwards of 35,000 people. Suicide attacks continue to plague conflict zones, and 2012 alone saw militant organizations increasingly use the tactic in Syria, Nigeria, Yemen and elsewhere. Due to the tactic’s steady proliferation, researchers have attempted to explain the phenomenon’s “root causes.” Early studies argued that foreign military intervention and competition among rival militant organizations triggered the use of suicide attacks. However, the collection and analysis of newer data illustrate that the phenomenon remains far more complex than previously thought.

Our research on suicide attacks garnered a number of novel findings, most notably that the suicide-attack phenomenon has diffused across regions via a network of militant organizations that maintain ties. Our findings align with social theorist Georg Simmel’s 1904 assertion that “any given form of [conduct]…may become fashionable.” Like a trendy fashion, the use of suicide attacks transmits from one militant organization to another. New organizations adopt the tactic to “fit in” and gain allies, and along the way they adapt the modus operandi for their own contextualized purposes.The alliances that militant organizations establish and maintain directly affect their level of participation in the suicide-attack phenomenon. For example, the Nigerian Islamist organization Boko Haram emerged in 2002 but only began using suicide attacks in 2011,as it established links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Somali al-Shabaab—two organizations known for their use of “martyrdom operations.” Moreover, the more ties between the militant organizations that use suicide attacks in a given year, the higher the overall output of suicide attacks.

These findings have major implications for counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency policy. Rather than focus limited resources on targeting figureheads of militant organizations, counter-terrorism strategy should allocate more resources to tracking and targeting the militant operatives—usually mid-level members—that link different organizations together. The elimination of such conduits can diminish the influence that one militant organization has on another, and decrease the ability of separate organizations to pool their resources. In turn, the isolation of organizations that promote “martyrdom operations” reduces the overall output of suicide attacks.

As sociologist Robert Michels first recognized in 1911, political organizations form leadership hierarchies. Accordingly, eliminating a militant figurehead simply brings a replacement figurehead to fill the void. By contrast, disrupting the personalized connections between organizations can prove far more damaging to connected militant organizations, as well as the larger network of organizations. The trust, reliance, and special relationships of conduits can take months or even years to rebuild between new individual representatives of militant organizations. Within dark networks, trust represents a scarce commodity from which organizations base cooperation, and expunging the chief conduits of cooperation marks the optimal way to markedly decrease the occurrence of suicide attacks.

Some recent academic studies have argued in favor of targeting militant “leaders,” regularly understood as organizational figureheads. Certainly, in some cases, militant leaders are also conduits. Prior to his demise, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, spread the suicide-attack tactic to a variety of terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. Yet, more often than not, tactics like suicide attacks have diffused across organizations at the instruction of operatives like Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah operative who was never the figurehead of his organization. Accordingly, counter-terrorism policy should place an emphasis on conduits rather than figureheads, despite whether such conduits are also “leaders.” While the killing of Usama bin Laden arrived long overdue, his elimination will do little in the long-run to weaken al-Qaeda’s influence over other organizations. Only targeting al-Qaeda’s mid-level operatives who work as conduits can lessen al-Qaeda’s centrality in the global “social network” of militant organizations, and hence reduce its capability to spread the use of “martyrdom operations.”

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