Robots vs. Suicide Terrorists

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>In February 2008, a pair of suicide bombers struck the Israeli town of Dimona. One of the attackers detonated his explosive vest, killing an Israeli, and injuring nine others. The accomplice was shot before he could trigger his device. A bomb disposal robot then defused the bomb, and ran over the terrorist's body to make sure he wasn't carrying any more explosives.


The encounter symbolized the emergence of two opponents: robots and suicide terrorists. States and non-state actors have moved in opposite directions in the delivery of firepower. Advanced countries like the United States and Israel have developed unmanned weapons. By contrast, terrorist adversaries have adopted the ultimate manned weapon. On one side, you have a robot operated by a technician thousands of miles away. On the other side, you have an individual who is physically present when the weapon explodes. War is a contest between the impersonal and the personal.

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Photo: Haim Horenstein/Getty

In the opening act of the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. pilots flew F-117A Nighthawks into Baghdad, hitting targets with laser-guided bombs. Today, two decades later, unmanned drone aircraft lead the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Directed by joystick-wielding pilots sitting in trailers in the United States, the Predator and the Reaper drone are able to stay in the air for at least 14 hours, watching and killing. The supposedly dovish President Obama has massively stepped up the drone war in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As Peter Singer wrote in his fascinating book Wired for War we are in the midst of a new chapter in warfare, with robots moving to center stage. The Predator and Reaper now have a brother on the ground. The SWORDS, or Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, is a robot chassis that can mount an M-16 rifle or a grenade launcher.

But just when national militaries have evolved from manned to unmanned operations, non-state adversaries have gone the opposite route, with humans delivering the payload. In 1993, Ramzi Yousef followed the traditional terrorist playbook: planting a bomb inside the World Trade Center in New York City, and then fleeing as quickly as possible. Eight years later, Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, masterminded a different strategy, with terrorists personally guiding aircraft into the Twin Towers.

To be sure, suicide bombings are only a small fraction of overall terrorist attacks. But they are on the rise. The current era of suicide terrorism began in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and quickly spread to civil wars in Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Chechnya. After 9/11, there was a dramatic uptick in suicide bombings in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Britain, and especially Iraq--where there were at least 783 attacks from May 2003 to July 2010. In the early years of the Afghan War, there were only a handful of suicide bombings, but in 2009 there were over 180 incidents.

The United States hopes to thrive in this brave new world of robots and suicide terrorists. Americans have long used machines to save soldiers' lives. And robots relish jobs that are dull or dangerous. Drones can patrol the battlefield around the clock. The SWORDS robot can hit its target with incredible accuracy. One day, a swarm of miniature insect robots armed with cameras may buzz around cityscapes, removing the fog of war from urban fighting.

But robots can lack a human's capacity to adapt to sudden changes on the battlefield. This, of course, is the suicide terrorist's ace card. He can switch target at the last second to maximize destruction, or fine-tune the kill. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka used suicide bombers to get close to, and assassinate, political officials, including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

For optimists, the era of robots and suicide terrorists could allow the United States to land a one-two psychological punch. American automata send a powerful message: step on me and face a relentless wave of robot warriors. Shocked and awestruck, enemies will be left feeling helpless. Meanwhile, the brutality of suicide bombings marginalizes Al Qaeda's cause and helps us win the battle for hearts and minds. Our iron fist combined with the enemy's fanaticism leave only one winner.

Pessimists worry, however, about how the optics will look. The reliance on robots can make the United States appear both overbearing and vulnerable--just the combination to inspire resistance. Goliath bullies David with advanced technology. But Goliath's strength belies a fatal weakness--his craven fear of death.

Rami Khouri, a scholar and editor based in Beirut, described how the Lebanese viewed the Israeli drones in the 2006 war in Lebanon: "the enemy is using machines to fight from afar. Your defiance in the face of it shows your heroism, your humanity...The average person sees it as just another sign of coldhearted, cruel Israelis and Americans, who are also cowards because they send out machines to fight us." America's population is as frightened as the lion from the Wizard of Oz. And its robots are as heartless as the tin man. Americans will not face death, whereas its enemies embrace it. In anti-American circles, the suicide terrorist may look like a brave rebel resisting the evil Galactic Empire.

The rise of robots and suicide terrorists could also make wars more likely. Suicide attacks such as 9/11 are so horrific they provide a powerful casus belli, rallying Americans to fight. And if presidents can respond by unleashing robots rather than citizens, with less fear of flag-laden coffins coming back, they may be even more tempted to grasp the SWORDS.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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