By Rohan Gunaratna, PhD, Senior Research Associate, Centre
for the Study of Terrorism and Prevention of Political Violence,
University of St. Andrews.
Suicide terrorism is the readiness to sacrifice one's life in
the process of destroying or attempting to destroy a target
to advance a political goal. The aim of the psychologically
and physically war-trained terrorist is to die while destroying
the enemy target.
In the 1980s suicide terrorism was witnessed in Lebanon, Kuwait
and Sri Lanka. In the 1990s it had spread to Israel, India,
Panama, Algeria, Pakistan, Argentina, Croatia, Turkey, Tanzania
and Kenya. With enhanced migration of terrorist groups from
conflict-ridden countries, the formation of extensive international
terrorist infrastructures and the increased reach of terrorist
groups in the post Cold War period, suicide terrorism is likely
to affect Western Europe and North America in the foreseeable
There are now 10 religious and secular terrorist groups that
are capable of using suicide terrorism as a tactic against their
governments and/or foreign governments. They are: the Islam
Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad
of the Israeli occupied territories; Hezbollah of Lebanon; the
Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Gamaya Islamiya (Islamic Group
- IG) of Egypt; the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria; Barbar
Khalsa International (BKI) of India; the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka; the Kurdistan Worker's Party
(PKK) of Turkey; and the Osama bin Laden network (Al Qaeda)
There were also four pro-Syrian, Lebanese and Syrian political
parties engaged in suicide terrorism in the 1980s, but they
are currently inactive in the terrorist front. These groups
staged around 25 suicide attacks in Lebanon. As more than one
group claimed some of the attacks, perhaps to diffuse the threat
to the group, it is difficult to identify the group responsible.
The groups engaged in suicide operations in Lebanon alongside
Hezbollah were the Natzersit Socialist Party of Syria; the Syrian
Nationalist Party; the Lebanese Communist Party; and the Baath
Party of Lebanon.
There are two types of suicide operations: battlefield and off
the battlefield. In battlefield operations, suicide bombers
are integrated into the attacking groups. Most off-the-battlefield
operations have involved single suicide bombers. In the case
of the LTTE and Hamas, there have been multiple suicide bombers.
The targets have been static and mobile, against infrastructure
and humans. Suicide bombers have destroyed military, political,
economic and cultural infrastructure. They have committed terrorist
attacks by killing civilians in buses, crowded places and in
buildings. Suicide bombers have also assassinated political
and military VIPs.
Examination of suicide terrorism across a range of groups has
revealed that terrorist groups use suicide bombers when they
are both strong and weak. In terms of military and economic
power, Hezbollah and the LTTE lead the list of suicide operations.
In terms of numbers, the LTTE has conducted the largest volume
of suicide operations, followed by Hezbollah, Hamas and the
PKK. In terms of range, only some of the groups have operated
beyond their territories.
As well as abortive attempts to conduct suicide operations in
Israel, Hezbollah has successfully conducted suicide operations
in Argentina. The LTTE has conducted one suicide operation in
India. It is the only group to have killed two world leaders
- the former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, and the
president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa - using male and
female suicide bombers.
The Egyptian groups have conducted suicide operations in Croatia
against a police station and in Pakistan against the Egyptian
embassy. Al Qaeda used at least one Egyptian suicide bomber
in the 1998 East African embassy bombings. All the other active
groups have conducted suicide operations within their own territory.
The PKK has threatened to conduct suicide operations in Germany
where there is a large Kurdish diaspora.
All the suicide terrorist groups have support infrastructures
in Europe and in North America. Leaders and members of these
groups are known to travel to the West, and key activists live
either in Europe or in North America distributing propaganda,
raising funds, and in some instances procuring weapons and shipping
them to the various theatres of conflict.
Suicide-capable groups differ in form, size, orientation, goal
and support. A review of the key characteristics of the 10 suicide-capable
groups reveals that any group can acquire suicide bomb technology
and engage in suicide terrorism:
Qaeda is a mix of several associate groups that are internationally
dispersed. From Afghanistan, Bin Laden provides the overall
direction to the organization. Al Qaeda efforts are primarily
directed against the U.S.A. ('Great Satan') and Israel ('Little
Satan'), and their allies. More recently, Al Qaeda has directed
its efforts against India on the issue of Kashmir, a territory
disputed between India and Pakistan. The U.S.A. has directed
its resources to disrupting Al Qaeda support operations in
the U.S.A., especially after the 1998 embassy bombings in
Kenya and Tanzania.
Indian counter insurgency specialist, K P S Gill, broke the
backbone of the Sikh insurgents in Punjab, northern India.
BKI is fighting for an independent 'Khalistan' in the predominantly
Sikh state of Punjab. It has a small presence in the target
country - India - but enjoys a significant presence in the
diaspora U.K. and Canada. In January 2000, when BKI was
planning to conduct its second suicide operation, the Indian
security forces apprehended the bomber.
GIA has staged only one suicide operation as part of its fight
to establish an Islamic state in Algeria.
responsible for suicide bombing the U.S. Marine Corps barracks
and the headquarters of the French paratroopers in Lebanon
in 1983, is fighting to oust the Israelis from southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah is supported by Iran, a steadfast state sponsor.
Today, Hezbollah is also a political party.
Hamas and PIJ, operating in Gaza and West Bank, have vowed
to destroy the 'Zionist state of Israel'. Currently, Hamas
and PIJ are controlled by the Palestinian Authority under
its President, Yasser Arafat. Shin Bet (the Israeli security
agency) and the Mossad (the Israeli external intelligence
agency) have regulated the efficacy of these two groups by
removing their key operatives and military leaders.
In a deep-penetration operation, Shin Bet agents placed a
micro explosive device in the mobile phone of the Hamas suicide
bomb maker, Yahiya Aiyyash, killing him. Due to the efficiency
of the countermeasures adopted by Israeli police, military,
intelligence and security organizations, the number of fatalities
and casualties caused by Hamas, the PIJ and Hezbollah bombing
has steadfastly declined. Towards the last few bombings, the
explosions only killed the bomber. Although Hamas is likely
to retain a military capability, the group will probably join
the political mainstream in the foreseeable future. The PIJ
became weak after the Mossad assassinated Shikaki, its military
and political commander in Malta.
two Egyptian groups - IG and EIJ - are fighting to establish
an Islamic state in Egypt. The leader of the EIJ, Dr Ayman
Al-Thawaheri, lives in Afghanistan and works closely with
the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK fought
for an independent Kurdistan in southeastern Turkey. Today,
the PKK is demanding autonomy and equal cultural rights.
LTTE is fighting for an independent Tamil state in northeastern
Sri Lanka. As the quality of targets chosen by the LTTE is
high, it has a sophisticated training program that lasts for
about a year. As well as training the bomber, the LTTE research
unit tests the effects of explosives on dogs and goats to
ensure that the attack is successful. The list of Sri Lankan
VIPs killed in suicide attacks includes one president, one
presidential candidate, the State Minister of Defense, the
Navy Chief and various area commanders. No country has lost
so many leaders in such a short period of time as Sri Lanka
has to the LTTE suicide bombers.
Some of suicide groups are motivated by religion, religious/ethnic
nationalism, or ethnic nationalism. Al Qaeda's religious philosophy
transcends territorial borders. Hamas, the PIJ and Hezbollah
are primarily religious groups, but they are also driven by
ethno-nationalism. BKI is the only non-Islamic religious group.
While the LTTE and the PKK are driven by ethno-nationalism,
the PKK is also infused with Marxist-Leninist ideology. As such,
the motivation of Hamas, the PIJ and Hezbollah suicide bombers
is primarily Islam. The motivation of the LTTE and the PKK suicide
bombers is mainly Tamil and Kurdish nationalism respectively.
Dependent on the political environment and potential and actual
donors, a new ideological orientation can be built into a group.
With the end of the Cold War, most groups are abandoning Marxist,
Leninist and Maoist ideologies and embracing ethno-nationalist
and/or religious ideologies.
There are some constraints that affect the deployment of female
suicide bombers. An examination of the groups driven by religious
ideology reveals that Islam has constrained the use of women
suicide bombers. Nevertheless, about five of the suicide operations
in Lebanon were women. Although the PIJ once planned to use
a woman to suicide bomb the Israeli prime minister's residence
in Jerusalem, the operation was thwarted. About 30 percent of
the suicide operations in Sri Lanka have been conducted by women.
A higher percentage of women have featured in off-the-battlefield
suicide operations, which requires infiltration, invisibility
and deception. A woman staged the suicide operation that killed
Rajiv Gandhi in India. Most suicide operations in Turkey are
by women. For many reasons, women are the preferred choice of
secular groups when it comes to infiltration and strike missions.
First, women are less suspicious. Second, in the conservative
societies of the Middle East and South Asia, there is a hesitation
to body search a woman. Third, women can wear a suicide device
beneath her clothes and appear pregnant.
The organization of suicide operations is extremely secretive.
The success of the mission depends on a number of elements:
level of secrecy; thorough reconnaissance; and thorough rehearsals.
Secrecy enables the preservation of the element of surprise,
critical for the success of most operations.
Thorough reconnaissance enables the group to plan, often by
building a scale model of the target. Thorough rehearsals allow
the bomber to gain stealth and speed. There are other elements,
such as getting the bomber to the target zone and then to the
target itself. The bomber is usually supported by an operational
cell, responsible for providing accommodation, transport food,
clothing and security to the bomber until he/she reaches the
target. Resident agents help generate intelligence for the operation,
from target reconnaissance to surveillance. The cell members
confirm the intelligence. Often, immediately before the attack,
the bomber conducts the final reconnaissance.
As a comprehensive knowledge of the target is essential for
the success of a suicide operation, terrorist groups depend
on building solid agent-handling networks. Some security and
intelligence agencies have succeeded in penetrating the agent-handling
network of various terrorist groups. In some cases, the only
form of defense is to penetrate the terrorist group itself.
This is because bombers penetrate governments or societies as
sleepers and gradually gain acceptance as a trusted member.
Thus the bomber can reach and destroy a valuable target - human
In such cases, even the presence of a few hundred bodyguards
or guards assigned to protect sensitive installations cannot
serve as a counter measure. As such, penetration of the terrorist
group is the first line of defense. The last line of defense
is hardening the vulnerable and likely targets.
There are six types of suicide improvised explosive devices
(IEDs). These are: the human-borne suicide IED, also known as
the suicide bodysuit; the vehicle-borne suicide IED; the motorcycle-borne
suicide IED; naval craft-borne suicide IED; scuba diver-borne
suicide IED; and aerial- (microlight, glider, mini-helicopter)
borne suicide IED. All these categories have been used in South
Asia and the Middle East.
The largest number of suicide IEDs used has been the suicide
bodysuit. As terrorists are cost conscious, there have been
only a few cases of bombers using aerial-borne suicide IEDs.
Yet these are the most difficult to thwart. Their small size
makes them hard to detect on radar, but the range of a light
aircraft is limited, weather sensitive and lacks accuracy.
The traditional concept of security is based on deterrence,
where the terrorist is either killed or captured. The success
of a suicide terrorist operation is dependent on the death of
the terrorist. The suicide terrorist is not worried about capture,
interrogation (including torture), trial, imprisonment and the
Furthermore, in suicide attacks, there is no need to provide
an escape route, or for the extraction of the attacker/attacking
force. The group does not have to concern itself with developing
an escape plan, often the most difficult phase of an operation.
Therefore, a suicide terrorist could enter a high security zone
and accomplish his/her mission without worrying about escape
or evasion. The certain death of the attacker enables the group
to undertake high quality operations while protecting the organization
and its cadres. As every prisoner has a point of breaking under
psychological or physical pressure, the certain death of the
attacker or attackers prevent the captor extracting information.
The development of counter measures has led to a decline in
the number of suicide attacks. In Israel, several rings of security
prevent the suicide bomber from reaching the intended target.
In response, groups try out novel methods of infiltration. In
this game of 'cat and mouse', one side can learn from the other
in an attempt to 'checkmate' the opponent. While most groups
can improvise, only a few are innovative.
To detect persons carrying explosives, security authorities
have used sniffer dogs, with a maximum attention span of 30
minutes. One terrorist group has hired the services of a dog
handler from France to monitor the ability of sniffer dogs.
It is likely that this group will develop a suicide body suit
with a repellent to evade the attention of sniffer dogs. With
these developments, it is likely that the role of the sniffer
dog will diminish with time and more innovative mechanisms will
be necessary to detect the bomber.
The suicide body suit has evolved to improve concealment and
is becoming increasingly small. Initially, the device was a
square block of explosives worn in the chest and the belly area.
Gradually, the device evolved into a heart shaped block of explosives
placed just above the navel. As body searchers for suicide devices
are usually conducted around the abdomen, a group is also developing
Most suicide body suits have no/little electronics, making it
difficult for security agencies to develop counter-technologies
to detect these devices. A suicide body suit can be made from
commercial items. With the exception of the malleable plastic
explosives and detonator, all the other components can be purchased
from a tailor shop (stretch denim) and an auto shop (steel ball
bearings, wires, batteries and switches). Furthermore, when
a device is sophisticated it becomes difficult to operate, as
well as fixing it when it fails to function. Suicide devices
will thus remain simple.
However, there are likely to be variations of suicide devices.
Terrorists tend to select from a repertoire of tactics. This
is to retain an element of surprise and to evade the attention
of security authorities directed at countering a standard set
Terrorist groups learn from one another. Unlike in the 1970s
and the 1980s, post-Cold War groups share resources intelligence,
technology, expertise and personnel.
However, due to the need to preserve counter-technologies or
political rivalry, there is either a lack of co-operation or
no co-operation at all between affected countries. For instance,
the British do not share counter remote-control bomb technologies
against the Provisional IRA (PIRA) with their US counterparts.
This is, primarily due to suspicion of access or infiltration
of the US military and security industries by PIRA activists
and supporters. Similarly, there is no co-operation between
Israel and Sri Lanka, the most affected countries. During the
Cold War, Indian pressure, and subsequently, the Sri Lankan
Muslim lobby led to a rupture of Israeli-Sri Lankan ties that
included Israeli technical co-operation in training Sri Lankan
An example of how a lack of co-operation between the VIP security
divisions of India and Sri Lanka affected security was the failure
of the Sri Lankan Presidential Security Division to estimate
the kill radius of the suicide device. In India, over 18 meters
is maintained between the political VIP and the public. The
distance between the LTTE female suicide bomber and President
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who was partially blinded
by an explosion in December 1999, was less than 12 meters.
Other than co-operation at strategic and tactical levels between
VIP security divisions, the lack of research into the technical
capability of terrorist groups has gravely weakened the ability
of security divisions to protect their VIPs.
Strategic and tactical countermeasures can be used against suicide
operations. They could be preventive and reactive. Preventive
measures range from propaganda directed against potential suicide
bombers, to infiltrating the suicide organizations of terrorist
groups. Reactive measures range from the hardening of targets,
to using dummy cars to protect VIPs. Yet security agencies agree
that suicide terrorism is hard to fight. The U.S. secret service
argues that if an assassin is willing to die, it is impossible
to protect the president. Nonetheless, affected governments
have tried to protect their VIPs and critical infrastructure.
The threat of suicide terrorism is likely to spread with time.
As many second-generation operations have been conducted away
from the theatre of war, it is likely that suicide terrorism
will affect Western Europe and North America in the future.
Terrorist groups are increasingly providing intensive training
to their bombers, with the intention of increasing their endurance.
For instance, the suicide bomber who destroyed the U.S. embassy
in Nairobi in 1998 had been resident in Kenya for four years.
He had married in Kenya and lived in the capital before carrying
out the suicide operation. Similarly, the suicide bomber who
assassinated President Premadasa of Sri Lanka had lived in the
capital, Colombo, for three years before carrying out the attack.
Terrorist groups are setting a dangerous trend of using suicide
bombers to destroy targets far away from their theatres of war.
Many groups are likely to use suicide bombers to infiltrate
target countries and conduct suicide attacks against Western
VIPs and critical infrastructure in the foreseeable future.
Gunaratna is a specialist on terrorist organizations in Asia.
He has authored six books, including a forthcoming book entitled,
Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.
Terrorism: A Global Threat," reprinted courtesy of Rohan Gunaratna,