The Calculus of Terror

Bruce Hoffman, a world-renowned expert on terrorism, talks about the strategy behind the suicide bombings in Israel—and what we must learn from Israel's response

Near the end of the twentieth century, Israel, a country whose short history has been punctuated by wars, terrorism, and other forms of attack on its existence, finally seemed close to achieving a state of normalcy. Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would travel back and forth across the border to work in Israel; terrorist attacks happened, but they were relatively rare; and Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat, after years of negotiations overseen by President Clinton, seemed to be inching toward an agreement that was palatable to both sides. But then came the failure of the Camp David talks, Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount, and, in September 2000, the start of the second intifada. Since then the number of suicide-bombing attacks in Israel has skyrocketed, shaping almost every aspect of daily life.

Bruce Hoffman, an expert on the subject of international terrorism who has spent extended periods of time in Israel over the past few decades, returned there in December on assignment for The Atlantic. Hoffman had not been to Israel since 1999, and he found the changes there to be stark. Public spaces that used to be full of life were empty. Restaurants were protected by armed security guards who would frisk potential customers before allowing them to enter. People refused to ride the bus, go to the hairdresser, or get a cup of coffee—those little everyday things that could unwittingly place them in harm's way. In "The Logic of Suicide Terrorism," the article that resulted from his trip, Hoffman argues that this narrowing of daily life, this instilling of the idea that nowhere is safe and that the government is unable to protect its citizens, is exactly the strategy behind suicide terrorism. While such terrorism may seem like an irrational act that is perpetrated by a disturbed individual, most bombings are actually coldly calculated events, and many people are involved in the planning. The bombs are inexpensive to produce, and the materials—nuts, bolts, screws, ball bearings, metal shards, bits of machinery—are easily attainable. Perhaps even more frightening is the fact that whereas in the past the Palestinians needed to actively recruit suicide bombers, these days, according to Hoffman, people are volunteering in droves to commit the attacks.

Still, in recent months the number of suicide bombings has dwindled, mainly due to the full-scale deployment of the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which has enabled Israeli authorities to collect information on potential terrorists and keep a watchful eye on their activities. Hoffman argues that the U.S. must pay close attention to the methods that Israel has used, both to track down terrorists and to prevent or limit the severity of their attacks, since it is likely that this extremely lethal and disruptive form of terrorism could someday become a fact of life in America, too.

For democracies like Israel and the United States, Hoffman believes, terrorism can present an especially thorny problem—often the terrorists' goal is to provoke countries into responding in ways that aren't consonant with the values of a pluralistic democracy, thereby chipping away at the government's moral authority. In his work for the RAND corporation, a think tank that advises the military and other parts of the government on a wide range of issues; in his articles for The Atlantic; and in his book Inside Terrorism (1998), Hoffman has written that the U.S. must think creatively about how to combat terrorism. At the same time, he has argued that we must consider the lengths to which it is necessary to go, and to which we are willing to go—two very different considerations.

We spoke by telephone on May 1.

—Katie Bacon

In "Zion's Vital Signs" (November 2001 Atlantic), P. J. O'Rourke described his visit to Israel over Passover in 2000, and argued that contrary to what the outside world might think, terrorism had actually had little effect on daily life in Israel, at least in Tel Aviv—cafes were full, the police presence didn't seem especially high, and there weren't any outward signs of a place in crisis. How different is the Israel you experienced in December from the one O'Rourke described?

Well, I was in Israel in March 1999, at the height of the Oslo accords, and a year or so before P. J. was. And his description is absolutely accurate. I think that's why the collapse of the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000 was such a crushing blow to the Israelis. During the past decade or so Israel had really become what many Israelis felt was a normal country. There were suicide terrorist bombings, but there were only an average of three a year. Such attacks weren't completely outside one's imagination, but they were by no means a regular occurrence. When I went back in December 2002 I was surprised both by the changes in society and by how normal it still was. Daily life—going to restaurants, to clubs, to bus stops, to the hairdresser, has totally changed. But what's so interesting about the Israelis is that they're constantly redefining what normality is, and they're constantly adjusting and finding a new level of that balance of security and fear. Many other societies would be paralyzed with fear and almost driven into inaction. But at the same time it's indisputable that the wave of suicide bombings over the past few years has changed Israel. I think it's like stripping the enamel from a tooth and exposing a raw nerve. Suicide attacks, on average, tend to kill more people than other types of terrorism. They have a very profound psychological effect.

You make the point in your article that one of the purposes of the suicide bomber is to make people feel as if they're not safe anywhere.

Right. What suicide bombers try to do, in essence, is to shrink the space around people and especially the space around pluralistic multicultural democracies. In other words, they want to make people afraid to venture from their locked apartments to socialize and do the normal things that you do, and then from that paranoia to instill a sense of xenophobia, to make people not just suspicious and fearful of anyone who is different, but even hateful of them. The point was driven home to me last February, when a friend of mine was visiting from Israel and told me the story of his teenage son who was late coming home one night. The father started to get worried and when he asked his son what took him so long, the son told him, "I kept on having to get off the buses, because people that looked like Arabs or Palestinians were getting on and I was afraid they were suicide bombers." Clearly, the one requirement that citizens everywhere have, no matter what kind of government they live under, is that they'll feel safe, that they can walk the streets and not feel in danger, that they can go to a restaurant, they can go to the local supermarket around the corner and not be harmed. That's exactly what the suicide terrorists have been trying to do: to make Israelis paranoid and xenophobic, to make them feel that their government can't protect them. To deprive Israelis, and even to an extent Americans, with the September 11 attacks, of that space, of that freedom of movement, of that sense of well-being. In essence, to create an environment that's amenable to terrorist exploitation.

Do you think that the Palestinians or the suicide bombers will ever totally achieve their goal in Israel?

No. That goes back to P. J. O'Rourke's point, which I think is correct. Israelis have an enormous resiliency. They've been fighting terrorism in one form or another since the state of Israel was created more than half a century ago. But the terrorists look at the incremental changes in Israeli society and public attitudes in response to the attacks, and they smell the scent of blood. They believe that they've found a way to harm the Israelis and that through mercilessly exploiting it they're going to win. But I think that in many cases such terrorism has the opposite effect. We see it's had the opposite effect in the overwhelming victory of Ariel Sharon in the last election. Israelis are continually voting for people who will guarantee security and advocate a tougher line.

It does seem that the Israeli army's attacks on the Palestinians have been successful to some extent, because there have been fewer suicide bombing attacks in recent months. Unless that's part of the suicide bomber's strategy, too—to spur a crackdown by the Israeli Defense Forces.

You've hit the nail on the head. Part of the suicide bombers' strategy anywhere is to provoke the government into undertaking actions that the terrorists feel they can manipulate for propaganda purposes, which will also portray them as the victims rather than as the perpetrators. I think that's where the Palestinian terrorist groups have been remarkably successful—not necessarily so much with public opinion in the United States, but certainly in Europe. Almost for the first time in the history of terrorism, terrorists have gotten people to sympathize much more with the perpetrators of the violence than with the victims. The IDF's activities in the West Bank over the past year have turned large swatches of foreign public opinion against Israel in a way that nothing else has in the very long and tortured dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In fact, when I was in Israel, I talked with some members of the Knesset who had gone to Europe as part of focus groups to hear what the attitude was toward Israel these days. No matter what demographic profile they focused on—rich or poor, teenagers or the elderly, blue-collar or white-collar workers—everybody across the board said that although they wouldn't condone the Palestinian use of suicide terrorism, they understood and they sympathized with it and that in turn they felt Israel had to make concessions or fundamentally change its policy.

What is key to understanding suicide terrorism is that for some terrorist groups this has become an organizational imperative, or an instrument of warfare embraced by the terrorist organizations. This is not to suggest that genuine desperation, humiliation, and frustration do not exist among the Palestinians. When, during this research trip, I visited the West Bank and especially Hebron, the desperation, humiliation, and frustration felt by the Palestinians was plain and troubling to see. My point is that these deep-felt sentiments are being deliberately and consciously manipulated and exploited by the terrorists. Unfortunately there are desperate, frustrated, and humiliated people throughout the world. But they're not resorting to suicide terrorism.

And so far the tactic seems to have been very successful.

Yes, according to the RAND database, the average number of injuries over the past thirty years in a terrorist act in Israel has been 3.3. For suicide bombings, it's 28.5. One effect of this is that hospitals are literally overwhelmed when a suicide bombing occurs. Whether in terms of emergency response, the emergency and trauma centers at hospitals, the intensive care units, or recovery wards, suicide attacks place a very heavy burden on hospitals to an extent far greater than other forms of terrorist attack.

And I would think a lot of the patients would be in critical condition

Certainly the people who are victims of suicide terrorism have more severe trauma than other people afflicted by violence. It affects different parts of the body, and there are multiple penetrations from ball bearings or nuts and bolts and nails or bits of machinery. They spend a much longer time in intensive care than other accident victims or victims of violence or terrorism. They require longer periods of post-operative treatment, have longer periods of adjustment. Obviously the costs to society are enormous, even the emotional wear and tear of doctors and nurses. In a small place like Jerusalem, it's not at all unusual for the person on the operating table to be a relative or a friend of someone working at the hospital, or even a colleague. Even for a country whose doctors have had to deal with terrorism for more than half a century, this is something of a different magnitude.

In a January 2002 article for The Atlantic, David Carr argued that "America is riddled with holes and targets," and that "righting various asymmetries merely designs—as opposed to prevents—the next attack. When one target is shored up, nimble transnational cells that can turn on a dime simply find new bull's-eyes." It seems to me that according to his argument, it could be essentially impossible to protect ourselves from Palestinian-style suicide attacks. What's your view?

He's not wrong, but that's the problem that any country faces—it's impossible to hermetically seal off any society, even a totalitarian one, from terrorism. But I don't think we're powerless or helpless, though that's exactly what the terrorists want us to think. Suicide terrorism is attractive, because it fosters this sense of powerlessness within the targeted society. As part of their propaganda, suicide terrorists are trying to portray themselves as fanatical, irrational adversaries, because they want their potential victims to believe that there is nothing they can do against such an adversary. But there are things we can do. I think the mere act of taking these threats seriously, of preparing for them and discussing them, has a perhaps unquantifiable but incalculable deterrent value, because it's demonstrating to terrorists that we're not doing business as usual, that we're not supinely laying down and letting them walk all over us, but rather that we're mobilizing our defenses in whatever way we can to combat this threat.

I think the important thing, though, is to have realistic expectations. The Israelis know that they're not going to stop every attack, but that doesn't mean that they don't do something about it. And that doesn't mean that what they're doing is not effective. It certainly is effective. No matter who I spoke with in Israel—the military, intelligence, academics, politicians, human-rights activists, journalists, police, police, and ordinary people—they told me that the same number of suicide attacks and attempts are being made on a daily basis. The difference is that with the IDF deployed in the West Bank they're stopping 80 percent of them. Now, it's a completely different dynamic in the United States. We don't have a hostile population right across the border that provides a pool of recruits for suicide bombing. So if suicide terrorism were to commence in the United States, it would be different in many ways from what we see in Israel. And also our defenses, by the same token, would have to be different. We're a different country.

How would you judge our responses to recent terrorist attacks? What should we learn for next time?

I think, firstly, that the most important metric is the prevention of another 9/11-type attack, not only in the United States, but anywhere. Obviously we've been doing well in that sense, because there hasn't been one, and that's a towering achievement. I think, though, that the sniper case in Washington was a very important warning bell, because of the way that society was so easily unsettled.

You once taught a course on the difficulties that democracies face in countering terrorism. How would you apply this idea to America's response to September 11? How do we find the right balance between protecting ourselves and our democratic values?

First, finding a balance is a dynamic process, not a static one, as many people assume. The balance itself is constantly changing, given that the threat and the level of threat is constantly changing as well. This is a never-ending process of striking a balance and forging a new dynamic in response to changed situations. One of the strengths, for example, of the Northern Ireland emergency provisions that the United Kingdom imposed in the 1970s to prevent terrorist attacks was that they weren't adopted, locked in, and never looked at again. They had to be annually renewed and debated and discussed. That is the most important requirement for a democracy: to constantly strive to strike this balance through open debate and discussion and deliberate and detailed consideration of the situation, the circumstances, and the most appropriate response. The second one, I think, is effective communications with the public. This is something that is important to grasp, and that is behind the creation of the Homeland Security Department. In essence, the whole notion of homeland security is a new concept for us. We have a lot to learn from democracies like the United Kingdom, Israel, and Sri Lanka, that have faced these threats but haven't been defeated by them.

In order to effectively fight terrorism, is it necessary to use means that are incompatible with the values of a liberal democratic state?

No. This is what I was trying to get at in that piece I did for The Atlantic last year on torture, in which I wanted to raise this same issue. And I discovered that you don't get letters to the editor from people who agree with you, but rather from people who disagree with you. For many of them, the use of torture wasn't a subject that could be discussed or debated. But I think that's exactly the point. I think it's much better to openly discuss and debate these things and then come to closure on them. I wasn't advocating that governments should depart from their core values. At the same time, though, especially in instances of national emergencies, especially at times when we face a dramatic and profoundly different threat, it's certainly appropriate to discuss the various ways of dealing with terrorism. That's part of the strength of democracy.

Each day I was reading the "portraits of grief" in The New York Times. Given this daily menu of horrible carnage, lost lives, and broken families, I was thinking, What's going to happen when we start to apprehend these guys? What are we going to do? That was the time to start thinking about this issue. Once we started apprehending people it was too late to start those discussions. We have to know our moral compass and identify our boundaries much sooner.

You have been studying strategies of terrorism for more than twenty-five years. What are some of the major changes you've seen during that time—in terms of the types of attacks perpetrated and the reasons behind those attacks? How has your own understanding of terrorism and terrorists changed and deepened?

The biggest changes have been the emergence and then exponential growth in terrorism motivated by a religion and, in turn, the accompanying rise in terrorist lethality over the past decade. In the past, it seemed that terrorists were more interested in publicity than in killing and therefore kept the violence they inflicted within self-imposed bounds. With the September 11 attacks, however, the conventional wisdom about terrorism—which largely followed that line of argument—was shattered. In essence, bin Laden wiped the slate clean, demonstrating clearly that a new era of conflict had begun in which terrorism was now not a second tier threat, but an absolutely primary threat given the obvious intention of at least the more formidable terrorist movements to inflict wanton carnage and destruction. This was a clear demonstration of the fact that terrorism itself is not a static phenomenon, but a highly dynamic one. For that reason, if we are to defeat our adversaries, our approaches to countering terrorism and thinking about it have to be even more dynamic and more innovative than theirs.