Countering suicide bombing - Part I

When studying the success of suicide terror as a strategic weapon, a pattern appears to have emerged. First, the attacks carried out against targets from developed countries have been far more destructive in terms of their magnitude than those carried out against targets from developing countries. Second, and perhaps because of the destructive nature of those attacks, they seem to have had a far greater strategic effect on developed countries than developing countries. Thus one could argue that the developed West should expect to be targeted more frequently - and by weapons of even greater destructive effect - than in previous years.

Suicide bombers generally target public places where large numbers of people are gathered, with the aim of killing as many as possible and spreading fear and terror rapidly among the population. The relatively high number of casualties guaranteed in suicide attacks, coupled with the enormous psychological effect it has on the population, ensures widespread media coverage. In turn, the terrorist knows only too well that the media can influence leaders and lobby the public, and thus it can be a used as an effective instrument to aide the terrorist in his or her strategic goals.

There is certainly sufficient evidence to support the claim that suicide bombing is an effective strategic weapon. Hizbullah's suicide attacks on the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983, followed by simultaneous attacks on the US Marines' headquarters and the French Multinational Force in October that year, were instrumental in driving foreign UN peacekeeping forces from Lebanon. Further attacks also caused the Israeli army to withdraw from the heartland of central Lebanon to a narrow strip in the south.

The suicide attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda, especially the larger, more spectacular attacks against the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, have had an unprecedented strategic effect. Moreover, suicide attacks have arguably been the catalysts to a number of current political, religious and economic instabilities throughout the world. Indeed, the global strategic effects of those attacks are still evolving.

Motivation of the suicide bomber

There are many motives for would-be suicide bombers. Financial incentives are by no means the primary motive but should nevertheless be considered: the family of each dead Palestinian bomber allegedly receives £17,000 (US$25,000) from a Palestinian group funded until recently (and perhaps still) by Saddam Hussein. Religion clearly also plays a significant part and, among Muslim suicide terrorists in particular, there is a widely held belief that they will go straight to Paradise, where places of honour next to God will be afforded to them. Vanity and a desire for posthumous glory also play their parts: a Palestinian suicide bomber, for example, can expect to be glorified long past his death, with his picture being proudly displayed across towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In comparison, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide squads are predominantly motivated by a combination of nationalism and charismatic leadership, as were the PKK suicide bombers, who regularly displayed their supreme willingness to sacrifice their lives for Kurdish national goals. In addition, many of the PKK attacks were for retaliatory purposes.

The key motive shared by all suicide bombers is a sense of being at war with a vastly superior force coupled with a deep sense of victimisation and humiliation resulting from occupation. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, dignity plays a pivotal role in suicide terror. Time magazine recently published an article1 by a Palestinian psychiatrist who said: "Shame is the most painful emotion in the Arab culture, producing the feeling that one is unworthy to live. The honourable Arab is the one who refuses to suffer shame and dies in dignity."

When an entire nation becomes consumed with rage and desperation, it becomes a dangerous enemy, because the rage does not obey conventional protocol. Ehud Sprinzak2 best summed up the sentiment of those who turn to suicide when he said: "Within Palestinian society...there's enormous despair. There's no meaning to life."

Profile and appearance of the suicide bomber

Although suicide attackers have struck in different guises, a number of common factors have enabled counter-terrorist planners to perform limited profiling of suicide bombers. Traditionally, suicide bombers often came from poorer families - although this trend is changing - and many still come from societies where there is little hope for social reform. They are either unemployed, impoverished or have lost relatives or close friends during conflict. For most, political motivation is primary.

The majority of young people who decide to become suicide bombers are devoutly religious.3 They can be of either sex and primarily have been Islamic fundamentalists or members of the LTTE (also known as the Tamil Tigers). In the Middle East, most suicide bombers are men and 83% are single; 64% are between the ages of 18 and 23 and almost all are under 30. Contrary to suggestions that all suicide bombers come from the bottom of society, 47% have a university education and an additional 29% have at least a high school education.

There have been numerous rumours (though as yet no substantial evidence) that those with terminal transmissible diseases such as HIV and hepatitis are now being employed as suicide bombers. It is one thing to survive a suicide bomb blast, but when a victim of HIV explodes, covering a street with blood and infecting numerous casualties, he or she becomes to all intents and purposes a biological weapon. If the rumours are to be believed, such a phenomenon could massively enhance the already damaging psychological effects of suicide terror.

As well as the profiling of suicide bombers, a number of characteristics have assisted security forces in identifying potential suicide bombers before they have struck. Most have a nervous or extremely concentrated appearance, and Muslims in particular have often sported shaven beards or heads (as well as bodies) which have left light patches on their otherwise tanned skin. This shaving takes place in order to prepare the bomber for paradise.

Baggy or excessive clothing is often worn by bombers; in hot countries this can often look out of place. Coupled with the effects of extreme nervousness, this often results in undue sweating. Similarly, disguises have been worn to make individuals look like obese men or pregnant women, but again this often results in sweating. As well as suicide vests and belts which are hidden under layers of clothing, devices can also be carried in bags and, more recently, devices have been contained in backpacks, usually with a wire and firing switch protruding from them.

One identifying factor unique to the LTTE is the fact that every group member carries a cyanide capsule around his or her neck, which he or she would consume upon capture in order not to disclose the group's secrets.

The role of women in suicide terrorism

Women have played an important role in suicide terrorism, though their participation generally leans towards those organisations with a nationalist orientation. Fundamentalist Islamic terror groups have traditionally been more reluctant to allow women to take part in their terrorist activities, but this trend is now changing.

The leaders of terror groups often exploit the female member's profound desire for equality with their male peers and encourage or manipulate them to 'volunteer' for suicide missions. One of the most notorious assassinations was carried out by a female LTTE suicide bomber who succeeded in killing Rajiv Ghandi, then Indian Prime Minister, during an election campaign. In the LTTE women participated in almost 40% of the group's overall suicide activities; in the PKK, women carried out 73% of attacks. In the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), women took part in 42% of the group's suicide activities.

The reasons for using women are numerous and vary from group to group. However, they have all employed the deceptive tactic of using an apparently pregnant woman to bypass the heavy security arrangements while approaching their targets. All groups exploit women's desires to prove their abilities and devotion to the organisations and to their leaders. In several cases, especially in the SSNP, romantic attachments have also been a factor.

Like their male counterparts, female suicide bombers commit these atrocities for a variety of personal as well as ideological reasons. One such example was Wafa Idrees, the first female Palestinian suicide bomber. She trained as a medic before becoming a suicide bomber - after she detonated her device, relatives claimed she'd wanted to avenge Israel's killing of Palestinians. In fact Idrees's husband had divorced her for not being able to have children - this was the real catalyst for her action.

Unusually, Thauriya Hamamreh, a devout Muslim, changed her mind about carrying out a suicide bombing after orders to disguise herself in provocative clothes for the attack in Jerusalem made her question her motivation. She later said: "They wanted me to have my hair loose, wear sunglasses and make-up and tight clothes (like a Jewish businesswoman). I said no because it's against my religion".4

A day before the planned attack, Ms Hamamreh said she began pondering the "righteousness" of the task, and whether she would be accepted as a martyr in Paradise, because she had volunteered mostly for personal reasons, including feelings of social isolation after being rejected by a man she had hoped to marry.

In both the examples above, these childless and partnerless women longed to prove themselves and displayed a deep-rooted desire for social acceptance. It was these motives, coupled with their strong faith, that motivated them to become suicide bombers.

Chris Williams is an expert in explosive ordnance disposal


1 The article on suicide terror was published on Time Magazine's website

2 Ehud Sprinzak is a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel

3 Muslims in particular believe they will achieve martyrdom;and everlasting life in heaven

4 Quoted by Thauriya Hamamreh to a reporter from the Ma'ariv newspaper, Israel

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