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The Price of Suicide Bombers

By Taylor Marvin

Japanese suicide attacker, 1944.

Japanese suicide attacker, 1944.

Spencer Ackerman has a very interesting report up today on the fluctuating prices of various IEDs and delivery systems used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of Ackerman’s most interesting findings is that “the going rate on suicide bombers appears to have risen, from $5,966 in 2006 to nearly double that in 2009.”

Matt Yglesias expands this point, pointing out that the rise in the cost of Iraqi suicide bombing operations is roughly equivalent to Iraq’s robust GDP growth:

“Students of economics will note that this is a pretty typical Baumol’s Cost Disease scenario. Over time, a committed insurgency gets better at making bombs, either through improved skills or improved supply chains, leading to higher costs. But suicide bombing is an inherently labor-intensive enterprise with essentially zero range for productivity growth. Consequently in a country like Iraq that’s experiencing very rapid GDP growth, you see skyrocketing costs. And in the suicide bombing case, the problem is particularly severe since the marginal worker dies on the job, leaving the would-be mastermind of the plot always needing to move up the value chain.”

Of course, this isn’t a robust finding — there’s no information on what proportion of the cost of suicide bombing are personnel costs, and if these costs have been rising with improving Iraqi economic conditions. But this does make intuitive sense: insurgent organizations typically compensate the families of suicide bombers, and this compensations is likely a strong motivation for individuals deciding whether to take part in suicide operations. A motivated suicide bomber is much more effective than one who is being coerced, especially in organizations unable to enforce a high level of social discipline. The families of Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II were not compensated, because pilots in the Imperial Japanese military were placed in a position where they often couldn’t refuse suicide missions. Iraqi violent groups likely face more limitation in controlling and influencing their recruits. Accordingly, the value of compensation paid to an Iraqi bomber’s family should be expected to rise as the value the family would otherwise receive from the bomber increases with rising national GDP.

This highlights just how bad in the long-term Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza is. This blockade policy is arguable justified in the short term — Hamas is a real danger to Israeli security, and Israel has few means of effectively combating it. But the Israeli blockade has had a hugely negative effect on the Gaza economy. While unemployment in the West Bank is roughly 17%, it’s a staggering 40% in the Gaza. GDP per capita in the two areas is equally differentiated. This means that extremist groups in Gaza likely face much less financial constraints on mounting suicide attacks than those in the West Bank, and Israeli’s Gaza blockade policy — strategically rational in the short term — is creating an economically non-functional society that likely directly enables violent groups.

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