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Tracking the world’s suicide bombers

Archived article from Nov 18, 2003


By Richard Gorman

Try to pick one of the world’s leading experts on suicide bombing out of a crowd and most people would hesitate before pointing to Mia Bloom. Petite and energetic, the Montreal native who has traveled the globe meeting with terrorist leaders just doesn’t look like Indiana Jones. And yet, maybe that hint of vulnerability actually plays in her favor.

“That might be how I am able to get to the terrorists,” Bloom said. “They underestimate me and then I’m able to use that to my advantage.”

The combination apparently worked very well last year when she was summoned to meet with the military command of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The terrorist separatist group has been waging a civil war against the Sri Lankan government for nearly 20 years. And so one morning, Bloom, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Security and Democracy on the New Brunswick campus, found herself in an SUV lurching down a dirt road bordered by minefields in rebel-controlled northern Sri Lanka.

The meeting with rebel leaders occurred midway through a three-month visit to the tiny Asian nation off the coast of India. She was there to probe the reactions of the Tamil populace to the use of suicide bombings as weapons of war. For two hours, Bloom and the rebel terrorists discussed Tamil history and politics. Then she left after taking tea with them. “Actually, they were very charming,” Bloom said.

The information she gathered, coupled with extensive research on suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, Europe and especially the Middle East, figures prominently in her forthcoming book, “Dying to Kill: The Global Phenomenon of Suicide Terror,” to be published next fall by Columbia University Press.

Her survey of the Tamil population revealed that up to 96 percent of those polled were “extremely antagonistic” toward the concept of civilian casualties but more inclined to accept the selection of military targets by suicide bombers.

“At the very base level, there was a real absence of hatred of ‘the other’ that you are unable to observe in a Palestinian-Israeli context,” said Bloom. “The Palestinians and Israelis don’t identify just the leadership as the enemy; everybody on the other side is the enemy. With universal Israeli conscription and enthusiastic support among Palestinian youth for the Al Aqsa Intifada, there is no sanctity of civilians because no one really is a civilian. The Tamils didn’t want to see the violence spill over and target children, women or the elderly, whereas the Palestinians and Israelis don’t always differentiate.”

Bloom’s interest in the causes of violence dates back to her graduate school days at Georgetown University. After earning a bachelor’s degree at McGill University, she enrolled at Georgetown, where she worked on her master’s in Arab studies and studied with Ehud Sprinzak, who, until his death last year, was one of the world’s premier terrorism specialists. She received her second master’s in political science and her doctorate, also in political science, at Columbia.

“My dissertation was on comparative genocide, so I’ve always been interested in the causes of violence and how violence is exacerbated,” she said. “I wanted to investigate not just how violence gets worse, but why violence is directed against civilians.”

Much of her work has an application in the real world. For example, Bloom’s research led her to develop more effective terrorist profiles based on behavior rather than race. She shares her theories with federal and state authorities here and abroad. One such theory involved a ruse by female suicide bombers pretending to be pregnant. Three weeks after she notified American authorities of her findings, a young Palestinian woman, Hanadi Jaradat – feigning pregnancy – walked into Maxim’s Café in Haifa and blew herself up. The blast killed 19 and wounded 60.

Having survived an anxious meeting with the Tamil Tigers and in dangerous Mideast locations, Bloom is off to South Africa next year on a scholarship to Rhodes University to talk to members of the African National Congress and former members of the Inkatha Freedom Party. She wants to find out why they targeted each other for violence rather than concentrating on the white South African regimes that supported apartheid.

“Living in South Africa will be very, very dangerous,” she admits. “In fact, probably more dangerous than any of the other locations I’ve been in. I try not to think of it that way. I think of the work that I’m doing and its potential to save lives.”

For questions or comments about this site, contact Greg Trevor
Last Updated: May 30, 2006

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