Countering suicide bombing - Part II

The recruitment of suicide bombers begins at an early age. Terrorist 'talent scouts' keep a watchful eye on the young men and women at places of worship and communal gatherings where they begin to investigate their background, rejecting those with a history of mental instability while trying to identify a predisposition to martyrdom. Contact is then made and the potential recruit is encouraged to attend indoctrination classes, during which time his character and personality is assessed more thoroughly.

Using children as suicide bombers

Potential suicide bombers are expected to be spiritually strong and must demonstrate a predisposition towards martyrdom. There are a number of other characteristics which terrorists aim to identify in potential candidates. These include: psychological and intellectual talent; determination; patience; cunning; trustworthiness; calmness under pressure; good health; physical fitness; intelligence; and insight.

In Sri Lanka, recruits for both the Black Tigers and the Birds of Freedom (the women's suicide wing) are often identified between the ages of 14 and 16, with a ratio of about three females for every two males. Contrary to Islamic terror groups, in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) women and young boys are often preferred to men, for the simple reason that they are not subject to the same kinds of movement restrictions and body searches. They are also chosen for strategic reasons, whereas adult male recruits are often preferred for enhancing the combat forces.

By comparison, although some Islamic terror groups have been known to train children between the ages of five and 15 in basic military skills, children of that age are not sent on suicide missions. They are not considered 'aware' at that age - Islamic terrorists believe that there has to be awareness to undertake a suicide mission. Thus they do not usually become suicide bombers until they are in their late teens or early twenties.

Most terrorists undergo approximately six months of arduous training at a terrorist camp where they receive intensive instruction in unarmed combat, range-work, terrorist tactics, counter-surveillance, technical training, explosives and demolition as well as extensive spiritual and religious instruction. At the end of their six months certain individuals are then selected to undergo continuation training for special operations such as hijackings and suicide bombings. In the LTTE, members usually swear an oath of personal loyalty to the leadership at the end of their training, and place a commemorative amulet containing a cyanide capsule around their necks.

Although less common, it has also been known for bombers to have operated alone and without the official training and support of an organised terrorist group, such as in the case of Richard Reid.1

Organisation of an attack

A suicide attack is a complex operation consisting of a number of detailed phases. Once a decision to launch an attack has been made, its implementation requires a number of separate operations, each require diligent planning and execution: target selection; intelligence gathering; recruitment; physical and spiritual training; preparing explosives; and transporting the suicide bombers to the target area.

Secrecy affords the terrorist the element of surprise and is paramount to the success of the operation, as is thorough reconnaissance and sound intelligence. Once a target has been acquired, a detailed reconnaissance takes place of the area in which the attack is due to occur. The terrorist group will assess any routines being followed by the target, weaknesses in security around the target and optimal routes to the target. Escape routes are not required as the perpetrator will die in the attack.

The attack is then planned in precise detail, often assisted by a model of the target along with any video footage, maps, photographs and so forth. Factors such as traffic flows, the presence of security forces and how many civilians are likely to be in the area at the time of the attack are taken into account in order to maximise its effect. An attacker will then be chosen to conduct the bombing dependent on the type of target being attacked2, the plan will be explained to him in detail and the equipment he requires will be issued.

Concurrently, resident agents continue to generate intelligence for the operation, including target reconnaissance and surveillance, and the cell members confirm that intelligence.

The final phase includes rehearsals and a final 'dummy run' being conducted to enable the bomber to make any minor adjustments and plan any final contingencies before the actual mission takes place. The entire operation is usually controlled using radios or cellphones.

Clearly such a mission involves dozens of terrorists and accomplices who have no intention of committing suicide, but without whom no suicide operation could take place. The bomber is usually supported by an operational cell responsible for providing accommodation, transport, food, clothing and security for him until he reaches the target. Each cell also includes a strategist who is linked to the higher tiers of leadership and who controls the finances3; an explosives engineer who makes the bomb; a procurer for the container or vest that will carry it; and a driver to transport it. The bomber is essentially the final means of delivery only.

Methods of attack

Terrorists employ numerous methods to attack a target dependent on a number of factors, including the terrain, levels of security, size of the target and the amount of explosive required to have a suitably catastrophic effect. Statistically, humans carrying devices on their person are the most common method of attack although they are only generally employed in public places against unprotected civilians. Human suicide bombers tend to carry their devices secreted under their clothing in suicide vests or belts or carry them by hand in the form of handbags, briefcases or other everyday items such as video cameras and musical instrument cases. The first suicide bomb belt was used by Palestinian terrorists in 1972 when they hijacked a Sabena Airlines aircraft.

Hang-gliders and light aircraft are also probable methods of delivering a suicide attack and suicide bombers have been trained in numerous Western countries to fly light and commercial aircraft. An Ultralight is an ideal aircraft, as it does not carry sufficient metal for radar detection and, when laden with explosives, could be used to attack vital economic, political and military targets. Hot air balloons, parachutes and paragliders are also very feasible methods of attack.

Commercial aircraft, such those flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, have also proved to be a highly successful method of attack. Although not a suicide bomb in the conventional sense the force of impact, combined with the resulting ignition of aviation fuel, causes a highly catastrophic explosive event.

Surprisingly, even animals have been used as suicide bombs, although it is an unlikely method of attack in a developed country. Seen in both the Middle East and Asia, a donkey or mule is an effective method of delivery because it is able to store large amounts of explosive in the side pouches of the saddle without arousing suspicion. The bomber can lead the animal to the intended target and detonate the device when in effective range of the target.

More conventional, means of transport have been used in numerous suicide attacks, such as motorbikes, bicycles, cars, trucks and buses. They are ideal because they can be easily leased, stolen or hijacked and they blend in to the environment very easily. In addition, boats have been used on numerous occasions - it is anticipated that a large maritime vessel laden with explosives could be a highly likely method of attack in the future.

Attack tactics

In addition to the attack planning and the method by which the bomber will deliver his device, there are also a number of key tactics employed by suicide bombers to optimise the effects of an attack.

The first and foremost attack tactic employed by suicide bombers is the 'individual' attack in which a single bomber attacks a single target. It is the least likely form of attack to be compromised and is often far easier to control in terms of secrecy and execution. Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated in this way by a male LTTE suicide bomber who had infiltrated his way into the President's inner circle.

Group attacks are also utilised, whereby members of the group create a diversion (either by using another suicide bomb or by a more conventional means) intended to distract and tie up security forces so that the main attack can take place uninhibited.

Simultaneous attacks are used as a terrorist show of strength to wreak havoc and destroy otherwise mutually supporting establishments. This tactic was used in Lebanon in October 1983 against the US Marines' headquarters and the French Multinational Force - synchronised suicide bombings were carried out using trucks laden with explosives.

Another attack tactic used by terror groups is the staggered attack which can be likened to a 'secondary' device in a conventional bombing incident. The staggered attack directs the initial attack towards the primary target followed by subsequent attacks against first responders or security forces on the cordon.

The final attack tactic is the 'group waved assault.' As its name suggests, it relies on multiple waves to breach physical barriers and fortifications, such as security posts and gates, in order to reach the intended target.

Chris Williams is an expert in explosive ordnance disposal


1. Richard Reid was detained and subsequently convicted for attempting to detonate a 'shoe bomb' on board a transatlantic flight.

2. Suicide bombers are individually selected for specific types of target. An example is the student bar attacked in Israel by a young suicide bomber posing as a music student, who concealed the device in a guitar case.

3. Having intercepted calls made by the terrorists during the siege, Russian security officials suspect that the Chechens who seized a Moscow theatre in October 2002 had wealthy Arab sponsors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. (Nick Paton Walsh, The Guardian).


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