It says something about the sensitivity of Iain Overton’s latest book — he was questioned on the London underground while writing it. A fellow commuter read what he was writing on his laptop and alerted the police. Overton had to explain to the policeman that he was working on a book about suicide bombers.
“Most suicide bombers don’t write a book before they go and commit the act,” he tells Weekend Review. “To me that is exactly the point: the suicide bomber has had a profound impact on the way we live our lives.”
Despite the paranoia around reading this kind of material in public spaces, Overton’s new book has been attracting a lot of interest in the media. The Price of Paradise: How The Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age was recently featured as the book of the week by London’s Evening Standard. Overton has also been interviewed by the BBC and Sky News.
Suicide bombing is a topic that is frequently reported in the media post 9/11 but often such coverage lacks a wider context or historical analysis. According to Overton, the general point of his book is to disavow the notion that it is just Muslims who blow themselves up. Suicide bombers are not unique to Islam by any means.
Suicide bombing is not a recent development. It goes back all the way to 1881 when the first suicide bomber killed the Tsar of Russia. Overton’s book includes a detailed history of modern suicide bombing — from Russians radicals who blew themselves up in the 19th century to the Japanese use of kamikaze planes against the Americans in the Second World War, and relatively more recently, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
Overton argues that the suicide bomber has been present in some of the most seismic changes in modern history. He mentions the Russian communist leader Lenon who became radicalised after his older brother was executed by the Tsar in 1887. The 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was sold to the American public as a necessary weapon to defeat the form of terror that embodied in the kamakaze attacks. Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq was a direct consequence of 9/11, says Overton.
“Some of the things that have led ISIS [Daesh] to use suicide attacks en mass are very much present in the ideologies and strategies of previous groups that have used suicide bombing,” says Overton.
While researching the book, little things leapt out at Overton. The world’s first inventor of the suicide bomb also invented a solid fuel rocket that enabled the Russian aeronauts and astronauts to build the first manned flight to space. A crater on the moon is named after this controversial figure. In 2017, almost twice the number of people were killed or injured by suicide bombers, than were harmed by the kamikaze in the Second World War.
“I didn’t know that Yitzak Rabin exiled over 400 Hamas fighters to Lebanon in 1992 and there Hamas met Hezbollah,” he says. “And Hezbollah, the Shiite group, informed Sunni Hamas how to use suicide bombings. This to me was intriguing. In a curious way, Shiite armed actors informed Sunni armed actors how to use terror and suicide bombings, and what we see today is Sunni armed actors targeting Shiites with the same weapons of destruction.”
Overton, who previously wrote a book on the global gun culture, runs a charity called Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). The organisation monitors the data on explosive violence globally. Overton’s approach is driven by the data. He then follows up by finding individual voices to corroborate the data. Forty per cent of people killed by suicide bombers since they were first used in 1881 were in the last five years. “I think I was driven by the fact that there have been so many people killed in recent years, and I wanted to understand why this was the case,” he says.
To carry out his investigation, Overton had to take some risks. He recalls being detained by Hezbollah. He had to go through a lot of Israeli checkpoints to interview Palestinians.
The research for the book involved travelling to Russia, Japan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq, the United States and Europe. Some of these places, Overton visited specifically for the book, while others were part of his work for AOAV.
He sees the places he visited as a historical journey. “I wasn’t trying to put myself on the frontline of ISIS fighters, primarily because I didn’t see a utility in that,” he says. “I could have gone to the frontline of Syrian forces fighting ISIS, but I would not have got a nuanced sit-down discussion about the ideology of ISIS there. I would have just been shot at by ISIS. So it didn’t seem worth the journalistic merit doing that. Was it a dangerous book to write? Some people would say yes. But there are war correspondents who risk a lot more to write these books.”
It is not an easy topic to explore. “One of the challenges is that the suicide bomber can’t give you an interview because they are dead, so it is very difficult to find out people who would be a suicide bomber,” he says. “But I interviewed people who had decided not to become suicide bombers, I interviewed people who had tried to be a suicide bomber but their mission had failed and they were arrested. And I interviewed people who had dedicated their position to be a suicide bomber but they were never asked to carry out the attack,” says Overton
Recently, there has been a downward trend in casualties from suicide attacks. In 2018, close to 7,000 people were killed or injured globally by suicide bombers, in 2017 the figure was around 11,000. Overton doesn’t foresee suicide bombings happening on the same scale as two years ago, although he warns that the notion of this form of terrorism has now become globalised. One of the challenges of these figures, he notes, is that there could have been potentially lots of deaths in Syria that were never reported because there were no journalists on the ground.
“It is a global weapon,” he says. “I would argue that now so many countries have witnessed its terror, it makes it easier for those countries to witness its terror again.”
Overton critiques the excessive response to suicidal terror in the form of the War on Terror which has resulted in extraordinary rendition, torture, the bombing of civilians and a rise in Islamophobia. “Even things like Brexit have been framed to a degree around anti-Muslim and anti-foreign sentiment,” he says.
Critics may argue that each region and culture has its own unique circumstances. Trying to lump all of them together maybe a bit simplistic. “There maybe profound differences among cultures but actually as [humans] we do respond to things in rather predictable ways,” says Overton. “What I hope to show in the book is that where suicidal terrorism has emerged, you can see traces of ideological framing that have underpinned each attack.”
He says most suicide bombings are framed with the notion of utopia being the end game. A lot of such attacks also have a military strategy and a charismatic leader behind them and martyrdom is sold as a virtue. “Ultimately many suicidal terror campaigns have these themes central to their positioning,” he says.
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.