A suicide bomber (or suicide attacker) is a person who participates in a suicide attack. Boaz Ganor, the cofounder of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, has defined a suicide attack as one whose success depends on the death of the person or persons who carry it out. Suicide attacks are one of the tactics employed by terrorists, and since the early 1980s such attacks have become familiar worldwide, having been adopted by some thirty-two terrorist organizations and groups in twenty-eight countries.
The increasing use of suicide attacks by terrorist organizations is explained by the strategic and tactical advantages of such attacks:
- The bombers themselves plan and carry out the attacks according to circumstances, and, because they operate as “smart bombs,” they can delay or cancel an operation if necessary.
- The attack plan is relatively simple, since there is no need for an escape route.
- The suicide bomber is a threat to morale and has a significant psychological effect on the target population.
- The victimized population feels it is facing an enemy who does not budge from death, which in turn leads this population to pressure its government into negotiating with the terrorist organizations.
- Attacks are also used to make the communities that support the terror organizations appear stronger and more powerful. This implants the idea that such attacks are the best way to fight a more powerful enemy.
- Suicide attacks cause more casualties than any other types of terror attacks. For example, between 1982 and 2005, the average number of fatalities in shooting attacks worldwide was 3.2, bombing attacks killed an average of 6.92 persons, and suicide attacks killed an average of 81.48.
Historically, suicide attacks predate the modern period. The Moslem Hashashin of the late Middle Ages used this tactic, as did the Sulu who attacked the Spanish colonialists in the Philippines in the eighteenth century. In modern times, the Japanese kamikaze pilots used suicide attacks against the Allied fleet during World War II. From the first attack on October 25, 1944, until the last one on August 15, 1945, kamikaze pilots carried out more than 2,500 suicide attacks.
The first modern terrorist organization to employ suicide bombers was Hezbollah, an Islamic Shiite group based in Lebanon, which attacked the American Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983. On October 23, 1983, they attacked again, this time targeting the barracks of American and French soldiers. These attacks caught the attention of the entire world, not only due to the high number of victims (300 killed and 96 wounded), but also because of the consequent withdrawal of the multinational peacekeeping force from Lebanon. According to Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who has made an extensive study of suicide terrorism, this encouraged other organizations to adopt the use of suicide bombers, and throughout the 1980s other guerrilla groups used them against Israeli forces and their allies in Lebanon (2003, 2005).
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka have used suicide bombers more often than any other group. Between 1987 until 2006, they perpetrated over 200 suicide attacks. The frequent use of suicide bombers forced LTTE to adapt and develop the tactics of its attacks, which have ranged from simple attacks on military and civilian targets to more sophisticated attacks on the Sri Lankan Navy and Air Force.
In the late 1990s, and even more so in the early 2000s, other terrorist groups started to employ suicide bombers. During this period, most of these terrorist groups were concentrated in the Middle East region. Groups such as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) in Algeria, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad used suicide bombers briefly during their struggle against state governments. The Palestinian organizations, however, are the only ones in the region to use this tactic for a long period of time. The first suicide attack in Israel was carried out by Hamas in April 1993, and over the years other Palestinian factions, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), have perpetrated many more attacks, with the peak coming in 2002. During al-Aqsa Intifada (2000–2005) the Palestinian factions carried out 145 suicide bombings. Following the beginning of the second Russia-Chechnya war, Chechen terrorist groups also began to use suicide bombers against the Russian Army, both in Chechnya and in Russia itself.
The group most closely identified with suicide bombings involving a large number of victims, however, is al-Qaeda, whose attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, killed nearly three thousand people. This attack is considered the most deadly suicide attack to date. Moreover, since the American-led coalition troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, al-Qaeda suicide bombers have attacked them repeatedly.
One of the most interesting features of suicide attack in modern times is the large percentage of women used as suicide bombers. Groups such as PKK, and various Chechen factions, have used mostly women for suicide missions, whereas LTTE and Palestinian organizations have used both men and women. The use of women in such missions stems from the operational advantage of using women, who are considered less likely to be terrorists. In addition, in traditional cultures, women are not obliged to undergo security inspections, so they can often get closer to the target of attack more easily. The use of women in these missions has been justified by various claims, raging from sex liberation and equal rights in nationalistic groups to religious justifications in the case of religious terrorist groups. However, many believe that these women have been forced to participate in suicide bombing against their will.
Car, truck, motorcycle, and boat bombs are all operational variations of the suicide attack. In each case, a vehicle filled with explosives and detonators is driven up to or rammed into the target. The “bag bomb” is carried to the scene of an attack, as is the more frequently used explosive belt. Packed with explosives and scrap metal to increase the damage when the wearer detonates it, an explosive belt has been used in 46.2 percent of terror attacks, while car and truck bombs have been used in 37.7 percent (Database on Suicide Terrorism 1982–2003). The choice of tactics depends on the surroundings, so that Hezbollah has generally used car and truck bombs to attack Israeli army convoys and installations, while LTTE has crashed boat bombs into Sri Lankan military vessels.
Suicide attacks have led to interdisciplinary studies investigating the motives behind them. The first attempts by researchers to explain the suicide bomber phenomenon, in the early 1990s, concentrated on the personal and socio-environmental motives of the individuals involved. More recently, however, the focus has shifted to the motives of the organizations. The increase in terrorist attacks carried out by organizations with a network structure, like al-Qaeda, has led researchers to focus on the immediate environment of the suicide bomber and the social network in which he operates. As a result, the spotlight is now on the dynamics within the social network, and on the effect of this network on the bomber’s decision to carry out an attack.
In addition to scientific research, which concentrates on analyzing the phenomenon of suicide attacks, there are a growing number of attempts to analyze the cultural motives behind the bombers themselves. The most widely known such attempt is the movie Paradise Now (2005), directed by Hany Abu-Assad, in which two brothers decide to sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers but are unable to follow through with their plan. These attempts have therefore been criticized as glorifying suicide bombers and not giving adequate attention to the perspective of the victims of suicide attacks.
SEE ALSO Fundamentalism, Islamic; Terrorism; Terrorists; War; World War II
Bloom, Mia M. 2005. Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. New York: Columbia University Press.
Database on Suicide Terrorism. 1982–2003. National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa.
Gambetta, Diego, ed. 2005. Making Sense of Suicide Missions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pape, Robert. 2003. The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. American Political Science Review 97 (3): 343–361.
Pape, Robert. 2005. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House.
Pedahzur, Ami. 2005. Suicide Terrorism. London: Polity Press.