Suicide Bombers, ‘Love IEDs’ and the Privatisation of Civil War Violence
I heard something striking on BBC Radio 4 recently in a report on the violence in Pakistan: a group in the Pakistani Taliban that held a cadre of young, carefully prepared, would-be suicide bombers, accepted payment from a family to send one of these suicide bombers against an individual with whom the family was involved in a private dispute. The suicide bomber himself, it was assumed by the report, would have thought that he was being sent on a holy mission that was part of the wider struggle. But he wasn’t – he was effectively the bullet in a contract killing. It was suggested that this was not the only time particular Pakistani Taliban had used suicide bombers in this way.
While this story seems extraordinary, it is actually very common for actors involved in private, local level disputes to exploit the opportunities and means of violence that civil wars provide. Stathis Kalyvas, in his monumental The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars explains at length the recurrence of this phenomenon in civil wars the world over. There are countless reports of long existing village rivalries and disputes forming the basis for extensive ‘malicious denunciations’ (as Kalyvas calls them), with neighbours being falsely identified as spies or collaborators with the enemy of the local force or incumbent authority. Rather than individuals being necessarily politicised by the civil war’s political cleavage, as is often the perception of civil war violence, Kalyvas argues that violence in civil wars is instead often produced through the civil war’s macro politics being privatised and harnessed for individual interests. These interests are often themselves little or nothing to do with the civil war, with the violence being the extension of everyday neighbourly disputes but in a transformed opportunity structure, where the means of violence can be easily accessed.
While not a case of contract killing or malicious denunciation, a similar example of the violent opportunity structure of civil wars being seized upon for otherwise traditionally non-violent personal disputes has emerged from Iraq: the ‘Love IED’. There have been several cases reported of young, ex-insurgent Iraqi men being jilted by their lover or refused marriage by their lover’s father. Rather than writing forlorn poetry or running to Gretna Green, the response of some has been to plant an IED (which they are either skilled at making or have ready access to) to take out the offending party in revenge for the humiliation of being jilted (though, presumably, the IEDs haven’t been accompanied by love notes like the one here). Shocking, but read a few chapters in Kalyvas and you’ll find this kind of thing just isn’t at all unusual.
It is not just because such acts could clearly be labelled ‘criminal’ that I’ve posted this here. The supposed dichotomy between crime and conflict is in some ways one between the private and the political. Crime is for private financial gain, political conflict is for macro, political and so ideological goals – so the thinking can often go. But the suggestion in the above is that the private and the political interact to produce even some of the most serious incidents of violence. Indeed, in a war, for anything to occur that is organised (a requisite for the existence of war in almost all its definitions) there must be this interaction. And this isn’t just one for academic discussion – it’s a field issue that practitioners no doubt have to pin down as well.