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July 1st, 2004
Suicide Bombers
Essay: Suicide Terrorism

Historical Background and Risks for the Future
By Yoram Schweitzer
June 18, 2004

Majdi Amer, a Hamas bomb builder, is led by Israeli prison officals. Photo: Courtesy of Channel 4 (U.K.)


Suicide terrorism is not a new phenomenon. From the 11th-century Assassins — whose brazen and usually public murders of their rivals invited immediate death to the perpetrators — to Vietcong sympathizers who blew up themselves and U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, many people have proven their willingness to perish while carrying out attacks in pursuit of their political goals. Yet, the “modern” expressions of the suicide terror phenomenon surfaced with the appearance of the first suicide terrorists in Lebanon, more than 20 years ago.

Suicide attacks began in Lebanon in 1983 (some say 1981, when a sole suicide attack hit the Iraqi embassy in Beirut), at the instigation of Hizbollah, a Lebanese Shiite terror organization. Six months after an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, simultaneous truck bombings killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French paratroopers; just four months later, U.S. troops left Lebanon. Five other organizations (most of them not religious) in Lebanon carried out about 50 suicide attacks before this modus operandi was exported to other areas of the world. The use of suicide attacks garnered considerable prestige for the perpetrators and their organizations — particularly in light of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, which many attributed to the bombings — and turned the act into a symbol of martyrdom and a source of inspiration for other terror organizations worldwide.

What made these actions unprecedented was their scale: driving cars or trucks filled with explosives, an individual (or individuals) could kill scores, if not hundreds, of people. After 1983, many terror groups adapted the concept, giving bombers explosives to carry on their bodies. The resulting bombings were smaller, though more precise, allowing the bomber to be a “guided human missile.” Therefore, modern suicide terror attacks can be defined as violent, politically motivated actions executed knowingly, actively, and with prior intent by individuals who kill themselves while destroying their chosen civilian or military targets. Terrorist groups often choose this tactic because it is available and inexpensive, and the damage caused to the morale of the rival population is grave. A suicide attack, like all other terror attacks in the modern era, is meant to magnify the “power image” of the perpetrating organization.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka; the Palestinian fundamentalist organizations of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) — and later other non-religious groups such as Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey have adopted and refined suicide attacks as their “strategic weapons” against their adversaries.

Under Osama bin Laden’s leadership, al Qaeda and its affiliated groups and networks have given a global dimension to what usually appeared to be national, religious, or local conflicts. Bin Laden’s fundamentalist Islamic ideology and his grand strategy have spread the suicide terror phenomenon throughout the world. For bin Laden and his like-minded disciples, suicide terrorism has served as a weapon of defiance and as a symbolic tool to prove the supremacy of the purity of Muslims over the decadence of their rivals. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, where for the first time an unprecedented number of suicide bombers were used in four simultaneous suicide missions, al Qaeda and others have been leading a global suicide campaign. Through May 2004, al Qaeda and its affiliates had carried out about 80 suicide attacks by about 150 perpetrators. These numbers do not include almost 70 suicide bombers that have operated in Iraq since March 2003 (at least some, if not most, of them belong to the “Global Jihad” movement) and almost the same number of Chechen separatist suicide bombers, who started to operate in 2000.

About 15 percent of suicide bombers have been women. Most of them belonged to the Tamil LTTE or the Turkish PKK; almost two thirds of the PKK’s suicide bombers were female. In both of these groups, their charismatic leaders assured the female volunteers that by participating in the suicide campaign, they would support the group cause while proving that they were as brave as their male peers. Until recently, female suicide bombers were unique to the LTTE, PKK, and other non-religious terror organizations, but this trend has changed recently; some religious leaders have sanctified women’s participation in such acts under their “loose” interpretation of Islamic tradition. (Ironically, the same men claim “strict” readings of the Koran to justify terrorism.) Thus, the Palestinian Hamas and PIJ as well as Chechen separatists have started utilizing female bombers. Importantly, those organizations have been operating in very conservative and traditional societies where women have not enjoyed equal rights with men.

Terrorist organizations call upon their members to take part in suicide attacks under different banners and slogans. Sometimes it is done on behalf of God and religion, sometimes on behalf of the “nation,” and many times as an act of revenge or deterrence against a more powerful adversary. Islamic fundamentalist organizations such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda, and Hizbollah invoke God and interpret the Koran in a way that fits their political and operational needs. By doing so they justify such a battle against the “infidels” in defense of Islam. Most of these groups also use nationalism in their jargon, usually invoking the redemption of a holy land belonging to the larger Muslim nation from the hands of aggressors.

As all major religions forbid suicide, religiously motivated groups always express the motives of suicide bombers in “altruistic” terms; also, all terror groups, religious or not, wish to project strength. Thus, the personal motives of suicide bombers are often concealed. Research conducted with “failed” suicide bombers throughout the world has shown that such motivations do exist, including personal psychological hardships; despair and uncontrollable eagerness for revenge; and specific goals of personal glory, such as familial honor or even money for the bombers’ families. (Editor’s note: The author will publish the results of this study in a forthcoming book.) In one notable example, widely reported in the Israeli press, the first female Hamas suicide bomber — a young mother of two — was allegedly having an extramarital affair; killing herself and several Israelis was said to be the only way she could redeem her name.

Many of those who were tempted to take part in these kinds of activities were mobilized — or, perhaps, seduced — by experienced recruiters specializing in this craft. Recruitment has almost exclusively involved encouraging an individual to sacrifice for the alleged well-being of the community, and the use of persuasion and manipulation techniques — but not physical coercion. The Kurdish PKK is the only organization reported to have executed a member who refused to carry out a suicide.

Another alarming aspect of the suicide phenomenon is the utilization of young children as suicide bombers. The participation of boys as young as 10 to 14 in recent suicide campaigns has been mainly overseen by Palestinian terror organizations that wish to take advantage of the boys’ unthreatening appearance. This has generated outcry among the children’s families and many others.

The victorious reputation of suicide terrorism as the ultimate strategic weapon of the poor and the deprived may contribute to its further dispersal around the world in coming years, and more groups and networks may adopt it into their own arsenal. The main threat emanating from this unique modus operandi is a possible combination of lethal tactics such as a mixture of suicide bombing and non-conventional materials. Much like the unprecedented September 11 attacks, an event of this kind could have global implications.

Yoram Schweitzer is the co-author (with Shaul Shay) of THE GLOBALIZATION OF TERROR: THE AL QAEDA CHALLENGE AND THE RESPONSE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY (Transaction, July 2003).

Fast Facts:

1967 In a six-day war with its Arab neighbors, Israel captures the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan.
1979 Egypt becomes the first Arab state to recognize Israel, which returns the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace.
1993 The Oslo accord is signed. Palestinians recognize Israeli statehood and Israel cedes Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
1995 A right-wing Israeli extremist assassinates Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.
2000 U.S.-backed talks between Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak are inconclusive. The second intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa intifada, begins.
2001 Shortly after the start of the second intifada, Ariel Sharon is elected Israeli prime minister.
2004 Within a one-month period, the Israeli military kills the Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

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