Suicide Bombing And Political Competition

In the latest issue of West Point’s CTC Sentinel, scholar Babak Rahimi looks at the question of why we didn’t see Iraqi Shia militias employ the tactic of suicide bombing. One of Rahimi’s key conclusions is that “local politics and shifting alliances in the context of a competitive political landscape play an important role in the emergence and thus also the absence of suicide attacks.”

Contrary to the Hizb Allah-Amal conflict in Lebanon during the 1980s, when suicide attacks were used as a way for the factions to outbid each other to gain more popularity and legitimacy within the Shia community, the Iraqi case of Sadr-ISCI rivalry has hardly given way to the emergence of suicide military campaigns. This is primarily because the nature of Sadr-ISCI competition within local Iraqi politics differs greatly from that of their Lebanese counterpart: while Iraqi militias already held relative political power within the Iraqi state in the post-war period, the two Lebanese groups lacked political authority due to a weak state and the highly marginalized and then-minority status of the Shia community within Lebanese society.

Unlike Hezbollah and Amal in Lebanon in the 1980s, who were competing for the allegiance of the Shia community amid a significant lack of political power within the Lebanese system, the Sadr-ISCI competition was between two groups with firmly established stakes in the Iraqi political order. ISCI and the Sadrists had more to lose by alienating their constituencies, which partly explains Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to order his militia to stand down after ISCI-Sadrist fighting in Karbala in August 2007 resulted in significant collateral damage.

I think we can see a similar dynamic at work in Hamas’ use of suicide bombing in the 1990s and early 00s as a way of establishing greater “resistance” bona fides vis a vis its rival Fatah, followed by Hamas’ public abandonment of the tactic shortly after its January 2006 electoral victory. Having successfully competed against Fatah and established themselves firmly within the Palestinian political system, Hamas’ leaders came to see suicide operations as unacceptably harmful to their image and counterproductive to their political goals.


This isn’t to suggest that Hamas hasn’t been engaged in objectionable behavior since 2006, but, as Michael Bröning notes in this article in Foreign Affairs, its turn from radical violence toward the more prosaic concerns of state-building has been little appreciated in the United States.