Counter-terrorist agencies find suicide attacks hard to tackle

Suicide as a form of terrorism, in which the method of death often involves detonating a bomb, is hard to prevent and extremely effective. On average, suicide attacks inflict four times more fatalities and 26 times more casualties than other forms of terrorist attacks using conventional methods.1

Although constituting only three per cent of terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2001, suicide attacks account for half the deaths - even more if the 11 September 2001 assaults on the US are included.2

Suicide assaults, or 'martyrdom operations', are also low-cost attacks that academics, such as Philippe Fargues and Debra Zedalis, say inflicts profound fear and anxiety on an entire population.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, such attacks have increased in frequency over the past two decades and particularly since 11 September. The Israel-based International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) said in a January research paper on suicide attacks that there were 952 fatalities and 3,027 injured persons in 45 attacks in 2004.3 This compares to 20 or fewer attacks on average each year before 2001 that typically killed or injured totals of tens or hundreds of people.

The Israeli experience serves as a stark example: since 1994 there have been 120 suicide attacks inside Israel. This compares with 39 in Iraq over the same period; the ICT says that these attacks mostly occurred after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.

However, this data, which the ICT admits could be partial and contain omissions, might also underestimate the problem. UK journalist Robert Fisk calculates that there were 190 suicide bombings in Iraq in 2004 - sometimes at a rate of two per day - compared to one a month during the civil war in Lebanon (1975-90).4

Although suicide attacks have been used throughout history - from the biblical account of Samson destroying the Philistine temple through to Muslim hashashin in the Middle Ages and kamikaze attacks by Japanese pilots in the Second World War - the first high-profile contemporary suicide bombing took place in 1983 in Beirut. Hizbullah's attacks on the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983, which were followed by simultaneous attacks on the US Marines' headquarters and the French Multinational Force in October that year, were instrumental in driving UN peacekeeping forces from Lebanon.

One analyst estimates that suicide bombing is a tactic used by 17 terror organisations in 14 countries.5 The recruiting ground is much wider, however. Professor Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the advisory board of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland, says that UK intelligence agencies recognise 60 countries as breeding future suicide bombers, while their US counterparts assert that the number is as high as 90.6

Wilkinson, who recently released a review on UK preparedness for terrorist attacks, notes that rather than being spontaneous, suicide attacks are often carefully planned as part of larger organisations. Foiled plots after 11 September in Singapore to attack a bus for US military personnel, bomb foreign consulates and crash a commercial airliner into Changi airport revealed months of detailed surveillance and preparation by members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which has strong links to Al-Qaeda.

For the security services, however, profiling of suspected suicide bombers is notoriously difficult. US intelligence agencies consider bombers not as relatively aberrant people but rather as enemy combatants who put themselves in positions of great risk.

Motivations for suicide terrorists

Suicide terrorists vary in age, economic status, gender, religion and motivation, although certain trends do appear. For instance, positive attitudes to political violence come mainly from the young. Zedalis highlights research showing that 14.5 per cent of Egyptians under the age of 17 support political violence; the figure increases marginally up to 24-year-olds before dropping off among older Egyptians.

According to the research, there was also increased support for political violence from university-educated people relative to those who had merely attended elementary school (12.8 per cent versus 8.3 per cent). This may run contrary to conventional thinking that improved education would deter support for and participation in suicide terrorism.

Also contrary to assumptions, there is little direct connection between poverty and suicide bombings, and no 'gender gap' in terms of recruitment for suicide operations. "Motivations are the same: they do believe, they are committed, they are patriotic and this is combined with religious duty," Zedalis notes.

Religion has been a key factor in the post-1983 wave of suicide terrorism. This has not been helped by the ambiguous messages that high-profile Muslim religious scholars have issued about suicide bombings. Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdullah al-Gaith, the head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia, said in February that suicide terror attacks carried out by militants were "unacceptable by religion, reason and tradition".7 He quoted the Koran: "Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves, for verily God hath been to you most merciful."

On the other hand, the sheikh did not address suicide terrorist attacks in Israel or Iraq that many scholars have interpreted as legitimate resistance against occupiers. For instance, the widely respected Islamic jurist Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi has praised suicide attacks as "among the greatest forms of holy struggle against oppression". Also, the Higher Council of Ulama (High Islamic Council) in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa in August 2001 encouraging Palestinian women to become suicide bombers.

Further muddying the waters, in February the Saudi Minister of Islamic Guidance, Salih bin Abd al-Aziz al-Sheikh, told reporters during an international counter-terrorism conference in Riyadh that his ministry had issued an edict condemning suicide bombings as an act of terror, before adding that those fighting occupation were not terrorists.8

Such justifications date from as far back as the 11th century, when the hashashin perceived their suicide attacks as acts of martyrdom for the glory of Allah and to help spread a 'pure' version of Islam by the sacrificial offering of their own life. Devout Muslims believe that in death every martyr has their sins wiped away by 72 apparitions of unnatural beauty who then open to them the gates of heaven.

Suicide attacks have increased in frequency in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003; this is partly attributed to a primarily Muslim backlash against what was perceived as US Christian imperialism ("Crusader" in the language of Osama bin Laden).

Interrogating suspects

Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's leading anti-terrorist investigating magistrate and one of the world's foremost legal experts on Islamic terrorism, has noted a change since 2003 in the way that suspects talk. In an interview with the Financial Times, he says: "They now say, 'I'm not of this earth' and speak of suicide as liberation. It is impossible to find any way of connecting with them. I've never heard this kind of speech before."9

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation joined academics and other specialists in a 2002 conference on 'Countering Terrorism: Integration of Practice and Theory', which discussed a number of hypothetical terrorist situations. Within these specific scenarios, a number of points emerged for effective interview strategies towards suspects caught trespassing and observing a nuclear power plant or people close to suicide bombers. The most effective practices are to check up on the available facts and background and ask why the suspects were there.

Interviewers could then watch for inconsistencies, non-verbal clues of deceit, excessively chronological accounts and a lack of detail. Personality is important in interrogation; the conference concluded that US interrogators could suffer from being unable to "develop sufficient rapport with a foreign visitor".

For family, friends and acquaintances of suicide attackers, which are often outside of the US, the conference raised other complicating factors. The checklist for an interview included:

- using a neutral location (for suspects this should be "uncomfortable", the conference noted);

- avoid going to a workplace and calling before going to someone's home, which should be visited in daylight;

- be plainclothed but with a clearly identifiable badge;

- be aware of cultural rules and nuances, especially regarding differences based on gender, non-verbal requirements of space, and so on;

- understand community attitudes towards suicide and what the interviewee thinks;

- avoid expressing bias and recognise that the greater the grief for the person's suicide, the greater the need for pride in their actions;

- start with a large group before identifying those prepared to talk individually;

- recognise that most people want to help;

- regard them as friendly sources, not as a screening exercise;

- try and elicit how much contact the person had and whether they felt stuck in that pursuit; and

- consider offering the possibility that the person had been manipulated.

However, the conference rejected mass screening or detention as counter-productive and said that the best long-term tactic was to rely on accidental discovery through intelligence operations. Yet this is easier said than done. "It is very difficult to counter suicide bombers in an open society," Wilkinson says. "Developing and co-ordinating intelligence services so well as to provide advanced warning of conspiracy is the best protection. The coalition [of anti-terrorist agencies] is getting better at entrenching people in the terrorist organisations but it started with a huge deficit, as revealed by 11 September. Governments are also getting better at gaining the trust and confidence of Muslim community leaders to identify potential recruits."

Wilkinson rejects the use of torture and the targeted killing of suspected leaders and trainers of suicide bombers, such as the assassination by Israel of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004, as counterproductive. "Torture is morally unacceptable and there is no evidence it provides reliable or accurate information," he says. "A great deal of terrorist violence is triggered by gross injustice by the other side, which was confident in its technology and information but made mistakes." For example, half of those suicide terrorists who had attacked Israeli targets had spent time in prison and had expressed a desire for revenge for the death or injury of a relative or close friend as a primary factor.

Many experts do not view suicide bombing in isolation but regard it as part of a global insurgency by militant Islamists. Some, such as US Air Force Major Michael Kometer, have called for a broader understanding of the need to:

- discredit this militant ideology as practised in the areas where it has taken hold;

- isolate and destroy terrorist groups while recognising the legitimacy of the cause of the majority of, for example, Palestinians; and

- co-ordinate governments and agencies as a coalition against the insurgents, who could claim a victory of sorts simply by surviving.10

In this insurgency, according to one trainer of suicide bombers quoted by Zedalis, "the body has become our most potent weapon". From the point of view of the target - often a Western-style open society - this means that terrorist suicide attackers will be sporadically successful, regardless of the precautions taken against their activities.

James Mawson previously served as an International Editor at the Financial Times, and continues to write for the Independent on Sunday business section and the Financial Times


1 International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) paper 'The Suicide Attack Phenomenon', published 10 January 2005.

2 Debra Zedalis' paper for the US Strategic Studies Institute on 'Female Suicide Bombers', June 2004.

3 ICT, op. cit.

4 Robert Fisk writing in The Independent, 27 December 2004.

5 Zedalis, op. cit.

6 Interview with the author, 22 February 2005.

7 BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 10 February 2005.

8 ibid.

9 Financial Times, 8 January 2005.

10 Major Michael Kometer, The New Terrorism: The Nature of the War on Terrorism, US School of Advanced Airpower Studies (2002).

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