Suicide Bombers:Tactics and Mindsets


In July last year, the Tamil Tigers fighters (or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE) celebrated the anniversary of Sri Lanka's civil war by bombing the country's only international airport at Kataunayaka. In September that year, Al Qa'ida operatives brought Jihad to American shores. Continents apart, these two events shared a deadly commonality; both were carried out by suicide attackers using the simplest of weapons. The sophisticated organization of the attacks blurred the fact that neither the weapons nor the skills required were highly advanced. And, in the process, the image of the suicidal bomber as a lone fanatic was shattered.

The global focus on Al Qa'ida since 11 September may give the impression that suicide attacks are a new form of terrorism. And events in the West Bank and Israel may contribute to the belief that suicide bombers are endemic to Islam. Both of these impressions are inaccurate. Suicide terrorism has a long and gruesome history that spans the globe and its various faiths. From 11th century Persia to 21st century Chechnya, suicide bombers have played a role in the perpetuation of terrorism. There are three dimensions to the use of suicide bombings - tactics, mindsets and frameworks.


As a tactic of terrorism, the suicide bomb or human bomb is a complex but innovative weapon. The elements that shape how it is used include psychological expertise, tactical and operational planning, and an understanding of the political and emotional nuances of terrorism. Tactically, suicide bombings have several obvious advantages. They are effective, cost-efficient and lethal. The suicide bomber usually cannot be captured and interrogated; hence the possibilities for betrayal are almost non-existent. A successful attack has a mobilizing impact on a wider audience, and many current suicide bombers are revered as martyrs in the Middle East. At the same time, suicide bombing causes confusion, horror and a feeling of hopelessness for those who are on the receiving end.

Suicide bombers can be subdivided into three groups. The first comprises individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves. These may plan their attacks in isolation but much more commonly they are identified and nurtured by others. The second category is composed of people who use suicide bombing as a temporary strategy targeted at achieving specific goals. This classification includes Hamas, whose policies of suicide bus bombings followed the 1994 Hebron massacre and the 1996 assassination of Hamas mastermind Yehiya Ayash; Hezbollah in Lebanon between 1983 and 1985; and the Chechen rebels who utilized suicide bombers between 1994 and 1996 after months of unsuccessful encounters with Russian troops. All of these groups use suicide bombings on an ad-hoc basis, and will abandon the practice if it is no longer effective. Groups who decide to use this tactic for limited periods are usually motivated by an acute sense of crisis tempered by a pragmatic awareness of the changeable nature of political conditions and are usually supported by their communities and religious or ideological authorities.

A third and rare group uses suicide bombings as part of long-term planning and has dedicated suicide units. The Tamil Tigers are the best-known example, although they are not the only ones. The Black Tigers, as the dedicated units are known, are the elite fighters of the movement. They live and train separately from other activists. Since the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers have carried cyanide capsules and are under orders to commit suicide if capture is imminent. The Black Tigers, including the Black Sea

Tigers, have refined this quality under the leadership of Velupillai Prabbakaran, whose charismatic personality and single-minded opposition to the Sinhalese government have inspired fanatical devotion. The Black Tigers have also contributed to the technology of suicide bombings. They pioneered the use of suicide suits, deadly combinations of explosives strapped tightly to the body and detonated with a single pull on the cord. These crush the torso while leaving the head, arms and legs relatively intact to be identified by police or security services. The Black Tigers are also responsible for two other elements. The first is the growing use of female suicide bombers, the Black Tigresses, although this has now been adopted in other places. A woman carried out the Tamil Tigers first suicide attack in 1987. Almost 30 per cent of the Black Tigers are women, whose ability to carry out attacks is enhanced by cultural and social practices that prohibit body searches or security checks by male personnel. The second contribution is a technical one. The 'bikini bomb' is a tiny container of dynamite that is carried by women close to the pelvic cavity and can be hidden from cursory searches.

There have been notable successes in the use of suicide bombings. In 1983, suicide bombers forced US troops to withdraw from Lebanon and they have influenced American policy in that region ever since. Hezbollah's campaign against the Israelis in Lebanon also included spectacular suicide bombings. The PKK Kurdish terrorist organization has utilized this tactic in Turkey, especially since the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, its leader and mentor. The LTTE have assassinated two heads of state, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India in 1991, and President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka in 1993, as well as hundreds of soldiers, officials and civilians. Hamas effectively derailed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process throughout the 1990s.

Collectively, these examples reveal a sophisticated organizational use of suicide bombings. Every attack requires a series of operations, from intelligence gathering to transport of the bomber and his equipment. Dozens of operatives who would never consider committing suicide themselves are crucial to the success of the attack and form a supportive infrastructure around the terrorist as he prepares for the mission. As the 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy attacks reveal, the level of organization is highly professional and the context remains adaptive.


Suicide bombers are a complex amalgam of individual motivations, strategic planning, historical precedent and a sophisticated understanding of terrorism's 'spectacular' effects. There have been studies since the 1970s that focus on the psychology of individual terrorists. Arial Merari and Jerrold Post have disputed the view that there are specific personality profiles for suicide bombers. Certain conditions may make individual acts of suicide terrorism more likely. These include intense feelings of frustration or grievance, revenge for the death of family or comrades, a desire to emulate heroic examples, or simply an unexpected opportunity to inflict catastrophic damage on the enemy. Merari's study underlines the fact that groups do not engender suicide bombers but identify and nurture those individuals who already have that disposition. Hamas has previously confirmed that it targets people who show a keen interest in Islam and have no criminal record that would attract the attention of police or intelligence services. The recruitment of 'lily whites', as unknown operatives are termed by the IRA, is a well-known tactic and almost impossible to counter.

There are rituals that surround suicide bombers in the Middle East. The bomber may know nothing of his mission until days or hours before it occurs. When the decision is made, the bomber is taken to a graveyard and made to lie between the gravestones for several hours. He may be draped in burial shrouds. Later he is taken to a safe house where he records his last messages, to family or friends, and his picture is taken for post-attack use as an icon. The blessings by clerics endow his mission with special purpose and ensure his passage to heaven. From this moment on, the suicide bomber is already considered to be dead by everyone, including himself. His physical presence is merely a transitory vessel soon to be discarded. The notion of Shadeed or Living Martyrs is contested amongst Islamic scholars, but in the community of the suicide bomber there is no doubt that he is holy and separate from others. The calmness and intent that witnesses have observed in suicide bombers arise from these rituals of passage. In many instances, as a secondary measure, operatives will accompany the suicide bomber on his last ride to the target. There have been reports of car door handles rigged with explosives to trap the bomber inside but these are not usually necessary.


The meaning of Jihad is bitterly contested by sectors of the Islamic community. In many interpretations, 'Jihad' prohibits violence and in others, violence is inextricably intertwined with the precepts of Holy War. Militant interpretations of Islam and Jihad or Holy War occur when religion becomes fused with political, ideological and strategic circumstances.

In the last decade there has been an increased incidence in ethno-religious and nationalist-separatist terrorism that has an aura of militant Islamic fundamentalism behind it. Three discernible trends are visible in this increase. These are the influence of Iranian and Sudanese policies of jihad, the legacy of the Afghan war, and finally the fallout from the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sudan and Iran have both adopted a militant and millenarian vision that sees violence as a legitimate tool of policy. The end of Afghanistan's war with the former Soviet Union has released hundreds, if not thousands, of devoted Islamic warriors whose transition back to civilian life has been difficult. The proliferation of these, as well as the legends that surround their willingness to die, has made them heroes to an entire generation of young people across the Islamic world. The continued brutality of the Israeli Palestinian conflict has increased the desperation and anger of thousands of young Palestinians living under Israeli rule. Bin Laden declared war on the West almost a decade ago. There has been no shortage of willing volunteers who have travelled to Al Qa'ida training camps. The power of belief to mobilize people is something that has been lost to the secularism and consumerism of the West, but it remains resonant in other parts of the world.

When the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts like terrorism appear as aberrations. If the world is seen to be at war, a place of injustice and domination, violence is regarded as legitimate, even honourable. Terrorist attacks become defensive or pre-emptive tactics, symbolic manoeuvres in an ongoing battle. The language around a suicide bombing has sacred and martial connotations and it is often referred to as a mission. Concepts like self-sacrifice, martyrdom and salvation enter the lexicon. Those who choose to utilize the human bomb do so for many reasons - religion, nationalism or revenge. Those who take on the role are motivated by as many reasons, but they share a willingness to sacrifice their lives for something as intangible as hope for a future they will never see.

Mariyam Hasham is a RUSI Research Associate

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