The fact that bin Laden was killed by a team of highly trained soldiers - and not by a drone or bomb - spoiled the grand narrative of brave Muslim fighters vs. U.S. technology that bin Laden and al Qaeda had developed in their war against the United States.
“Bin Laden had built up this image of himself and al Qaeda as a morally superior David against the technological Goliath that is the United States,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a lecturer in the International Studies program at Ohio State University.
“But bin Laden was killed by people who risked their lives to get to him. The United States could have flattened the compound with a bomb, but we took a risk in order to apprehend or kill him. And we made sure that we got the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks, without a lot of other casualties. It sent a message to the Muslim world that we were after justice and not revenge,” Lewis stated.
Lewis is author of the new book The Business of Martyrdom: A History of Suicide Bombing (Naval Institute Press, 2012).
In the book, Lewis discusses how suicide bombers were essential to bin Laden’s narrative, because they were supposed to show how al Qaeda relied on people of faith over technology to gain victory over their enemies.
But bin Laden was wrong in his belief that al Qaeda didn’t rely on technology, according to Lewis. The key to understanding suicide bombing - and to preventing it - is to realize that suicide bombers are essentially a form of technology themselves.
In fact, Lewis came to the subject of suicide bombing through his background studying the history and philosophy of technology, particularly biotechnology.
Lewis said that any kind of technology could only be understood as part of a larger system that includes the users of the technology and the larger society in which they operate.
In this case, suicide bombers are the technology, and terrorist organizations like al Qaeda are the users.
Organizations that use suicide bombers have to convince people, usually young males, to become bombers, but also have to convince the wider society that their use of suicide bombers is legitimate.
The fact that suicide bombing relies on a web of relationships between users, society and the bombers themselves means that there are actually many ways to stop suicide attacks, Lewis said.
“For suicide bombing, like all forms of technology, there are more ways for it to fail than for it to succeed,” he said.
One way is to simply block use of the technology - the suicide bombers, in this case. Another way is to destroy the organizations that sponsor suicide bombing.
Finally, opponents can help defeat societal support for suicide bombing. “Suicide bombing organizations have to build a believable narrative to have success and the support of their society, and you can attack that narrative,” Lewis said.
Lewis said it is hard to predict what will happen to rates of suicide bombing in the world. The number of suicide attacks rose from 102 in 2004 up to a high of 520 in 2007. Globally, the number of suicide bombings declined for three straight years from 2008 through 2010 (to 262) before increasing slightly in 2011.
One reason that suicide bombing will continue is that terrorist leaders don’t often consider whether these attacks actually help them achieve their political goals, he said.