Suicide attack

Suicide attack
Kamikaze attack on the USS Bunker Hill, May 1945

A suicide attack (which may include suicide bombings) is a type of attack in which the attacker expects or intends to die in the process.




In the late 17th century Qing official Yu Yonghe recorded that injured Dutch soldiers fighting against Koxinga's forces for control of Taiwan in 1661 would use gunpowder to blow up both themselves and their opponents rather than be taken prisoner.[1] However, the Chinese observer may have confused such suicidal tactics with the standard Dutch military practice of undermining and blowing up positions recently overrun by the enemy which almost cost Koxinga his life during the siege.[2]

During the Belgian Revolution, Dutch Lieutenant Jan van Speijk detonated his own ship in the harbour of Antwerp to prevent its capture by the Belgians.

Another example was the Prussian soldier Karl Klinke on 18 April 1864 at the Battle of Dybbøl, who died blowing a hole in a Danish fortification.

In the 18th century John Paul Jones wrote about Ottoman sailors setting their own ships on fire and ramming the ships of their enemies, although they knew this meant certain death for them.

Modern suicide bombing as a political tool can be traced back to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. Alexander fell victim to a Nihilist plot. While driving on one of the central streets of Saint Petersburg, near the Winter Palace, he was mortally wounded by the explosion of hand-made grenades and died a few hours afterwards. The Tsar was killed by a member of Narodnaya Volya, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, who died while intentionally exploding the bomb during the attack.

Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff intended to assassinate Adolf Hitler by suicide bomb in 1943, but was unable to complete the attack.[3]

During the Battle for Berlin the Luftwaffe flew Selbstopfereinsatz against Soviet bridges over the Oder river. These missions were flown by pilots of the Leonidas Squadron under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Heiner Lange. From 17 April until 20 April 1945, using any aircraft that were available, the Luftwaffe claimed that the squadron destroyed 17 bridges, however the military historian Antony Beevor when writing about the incident thinks that this was exaggerated and that only the railway bridge at Küstrin was definitely destroyed. He comments that "thirty-five pilots and aircraft was a high price to pay for such a limited and temporary success". The missions were called off when the Soviet ground forces reached the vicinity of the squadron's airbase at Jüterbog.[4]

Following World War II, Viet Minh "death volunteers" fought against the French Colonial Forces by using a long stick-like explosive to destroy French tanks.

An Arab Christian military officer from Syria, Jules Jammal, used a suicide bomb attack to bring down a French ship during the Suez Crisis in 1956.


The number of attacks using suicide tactics has grown from an average of fewer than five per year during the 1980s to 180 per year between 2000 and 2005,[5] and from 81 suicide attacks in 2001 to 460 in 2005.[6] These attacks have been aimed at diverse military and civilian targets, including in Sri Lanka, in Israel since July 6, 1989,[7] in Iraq since the US-led invasion of that country in 2003, in Pakistan since 2001 and in Afghanistan since 2005. In Somalia since 2006, hundreds of suicide attacks have been taking place; the first of which was in 2002 when a male suicide bomber disguised as a woman in a long black abaya, veil and shoes, blew himself up, killing three government ministers and 16 other people in a graduation ceremony for medical students.[8][9]

In the ten years after September 11, 2001, there were 336 sucide attacks in Afghanistan and 703 in Pakistan, while there were 1,003 documented suicide attacks in Iraq between March 20, 2003, and December 31, 2010. [10]

Between 1980 and 2000 the largest number of suicide attacks was carried out by separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of Sri Lanka. The number of attacks conducted by LTTE was almost double that of nine other major extremist organizations. [11]

In Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, suicide bombings are an anti-Israel strategy perpetrated generally by Islamist and occasionally by secular Palestinian groups including the PFLP.[12]

Between October 2000 and October 2006 there were 167 clearly identified suicide bomber attacks, with 51 other types of suicide attack.[13] It has been suggested that there were so many volunteers for the "Istishhadia" in the Second Intifada in Israel and the occupied territories, such was the tactics growing popular acceptance, that recruiters and dispatchers had a 'larger pool of candidates' than ever before, with one Fatah interviewee stating that they were' flooded' with applicants.[14]

Suicide attacks have also been common in Iraq and Afghanistan.[15][16][17]

Suicide bombings have become a tactic in Chechnya, first being used in the conflict in 2000 when a man and a woman drove a bomb-laden truck into a Russian army base in Alkhan Kala.[18] A number of suicide attacks have occurred in Russia as a result of the Chechen conflict, ranging from the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002 to the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004.[19] The 2010 Moscow Metro bombings are also believed to result from the Chechen conflict.

There have been suicide attacks in Western Europe and the United States. The September 11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks killed nearly 3000 people in New York, Washington D.C and Shanksville, Pennsylvania in 2001.[20] A further attack in London on 7 July 2005 killed 52 people.[21]

Japanese kamikaze

October 25, 1944: Kamikaze pilot in a Mitsubishi Zero's Model 52 crash dives on escort carrier USS White Plains (CVE-66). The aircraft missed the flight deck and impacted the water just off the port quarter of the ship a few seconds later.

The tactics of the Kamikaze, a ritual act of self-sacrifice by state military forces, occurred during combat in a large scale at the end of World War II. These suicide attacks, carried out by Japanese kamikaze bombers, were used as a military tactic aimed at causing material damage in the war. In the Pacific Allied ships were attacked by kamikaze pilots who caused significant damage by flying their explosive-laden aircraft into military targets.

In these attacks, airplanes were used as flying bombs. Later in the war, as Japan became more desperate, this act became formalized and ritualized, as planes were outfitted with explosives specific to the task of a suicide mission. Kamikaze strikes were a weapon of asymmetric war used by the Empire of Japan against United States Navy and Royal Navy aircraft carriers, although the armoured flight deck of the Royal Navy carriers diminished Kamikaze effectiveness.

The Japanese Navy also used both one and two man piloted torpedoes called kaiten on suicide missions. Although sometimes called midget submarines, these were modified versions of the unmanned torpedoes of the time and are distinct from the torpedo-firing midget submarines used earlier in the war, which were designed to infiltrate shore defenses and return to a mother ship after firing their torpedoes. Though extremely hazardous, these midget submarine attacks were not technically suicide missions, as the earlier kaitens had escape hatches. Later kaitens, by contrast, provided no means of escape.

After aiming a two-person kaiten at their target, the two crew members traditionally embraced and shot each other in the head. Social support for such choices was strong, due in part to Japanese cultural history, in which seppuku, honourable suicide, was part of samurai duty. It was also fostered and indoctrinated by the Imperial program to persuade the Japanese soldiers to commit these acts.


Suicide terrorism is a problematic term to define. There is an ongoing debate on definitions of terrorism itself. Kofi Annan, as Secretary General of the UN, defined terrorism in March 2005 in the General Assembly as any action "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants" for the purpose of intimidation.[22] This definition would distinguish suicide terrorism from suicide bombing in that suicide bombing does not necessarily target non-combatants, and is not widely accepted.

For example, Jason Burke, a journalist who has lived among Islamic militants himself, whilst preferring the term 'militancy' to 'terrorism', suggests that most define terrorism as 'the use or threat of serious violence' to advance some kind of 'cause', and stresses that terrorism is a tactic, and Burke leaves the target of such actions out of the definition, although he is also clear in calling suicide bombings 'abhorrent'.[23] F. Halliday meanwhile draws attention to the fact that assigning the descriptor of 'terrorist' or 'terrorism' to the actions of a group is a tactic used by states to deny 'legitimacy' and 'rights to protest and rebel', although similar to Burke does not define terrorism in terms of the militance of the victim as did Kofi Annan.[24] His preferred approach is to focus on the specific aspects within terrorism that we can study without using the concept itself, laden as it is with 'such distortion and myth'. This means focusing on the specific components of 'terror' and 'political violence' within terrorism.[25]

With awareness of that debate in mind, suicide terrorism itself has been defined by A. Pedahzur as "A diversity of violent actions perpetrated by people who are aware that the odds they will return alive are close to zero."[26] This captures suicide bombing, and the range of suicide tactics below.


Profile of attackers

Studies have shown conflicting results. Criminal Justice professor Adam Lankford recently identified more than 75 individual suicide terrorists, including 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, who exhibited classic suicidal traits, including depression, guilt, shame, hopelessness, and rage.[28] These findings have been further supported by psychologist Ariel Merari, whose interviews and assessments of suicide bombers, regular terrorists, and terrorist recruiters found that only members of the first group showed major risk factors for conventional suicide.[29]

Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, found the majority of suicide bombers came from the educated middle classes. A study of the remains of 110 suicide bombers for the first part of 2007 by Afghan pathologist Dr. Yusef Yadgari, found 80% were missing limbs before the blasts, other suffered from cancer, leprosy, or some other ailments. Also in contrast to earlier findings of suicide bombers, the Afghan bombers were "not celebrated like their counterparts in other Arab nations. Afghan bombers are not featured on posters or in videos as martyrs."[30]

Anthropologist Scott Atran's research has found an extremely sharp increase in suicide attacks. Atran says that the attacks are not organized from the top down, but occurs from the bottom up. That is, it is usually a matter of following one's friends, and ending up in environments that foster group think. Atran is also critical of the claim that terrorists simply crave destruction; they are often motivated by beliefs they hold sacred, as well as their own moral reasoning.[31]

A recently published paper by Harvard University Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie "cast[s] doubt on the widely held belief that terrorism stems from poverty, finding instead that terrorist violence is related to a nation's level of political freedom."[32] More specifically this is due to the transition of countries towards democratic freedoms. "Intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions, when governments are weak, political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism".[32][33]

Some suicide bombers are educated, with college or university experience, and come from middle class homes. They are also most often young adult men.[31] Leaders of the groups who perpetrate these attacks claim that they search for individuals who can be trusted to carry out the mission, and that those with mental illnesses are not considered ideal candidates.

Use of suicide terror against civilian targets has differing effects on the attackers' goals (see reaction below). Some economists suggest that this tactic goes beyond symbolism and is actually a response to commodified, controlled, or devalued lives, as the suicide attackers apparently consider family prestige and financial compensation from the community as compensation for their own lives.[citation needed] Whether such motivation is significant as compared to political or religious feeling remains unclear.


The doctrine of asymmetric warfare views suicide attacks as a result of an imbalance of power, in which groups with little significant power resort to suicide bombing as a convenient tactic (see advantages noted above) to demoralize the targeted civilians or government leadership of their enemies. Suicide bombing may also take place as a perceived response to actions or policies of a group with greater power.[citation needed] Groups which have significant power have no need to resort to suicide bombing to achieve their aims; consequently, suicide bombing is overwhelmingly used by guerrillas, and other irregular fighting forces. Among many such groups, there are religious overtones to martyrdom: attackers and their supporters may believe that their sacrifice will be rewarded in an afterlife. Suicide attackers often believe that their actions are in accordance with moral or social standards because they are aimed at fighting forces and conditions that they perceive as unjust.

According to Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, 95% of suicide attacks in recent times have the same specific strategic goal: to cause an occupying state to withdraw forces from a disputed territory.[34]

Robert Pape's studies have found that suicide attacks are most often provoked by political occupation. Pape found the targeted countries were ones where the government was democratic and public opinion played a role in determining policy. Other characteristics Pape found included a difference in religion between the attackers and occupiers,[34] and that there was grassroots support for the attacks.[35] Attackers were disproportionately from the educated middle classes.[36] Characteristics which Pape thought to be correlated to suicide bombing and bombers included: Islam, especially the influence of Salafi Islam;[37] brutality and cruelty of the occupiers;[38] competition among militant groups; and poverty, immaturity, poor education, past history of suicide attempts, or social maladjustment of the attackers.[39]

In targeting potential recruits for suicide terrorism, it must be understood that terrorist attacks will not be prevented by trying to profile terrorists. They are not sufficiently different from everyone else. Insights into homegrown jiahdi attacks will have to come from understanding group dynamics, not individual psychology. Small-group dynamics can trump individual personality to produce horrific behavior in otherwise ordinary people.

Other researchers have argued that Pape's analysis is fundamentally flawed, particularly his contention that democracies are the main targets of such attacks.[40] Scott Atran found that non-Islamic groups have carried out very few bombings since 2003, while bombing by Muslim or Islamist groups associated with a "global ideology" of "martyrdom" has skyrocketed. In one year, in one Muslim country alone – 2004 in Iraq – there were 400 suicide attacks and 2,000 casualties.[41] Still others argue that perceived religious rewards in the hereafter are instrumental in encouraging Muslims to commit suicide attacks.[42][43]

Suicide operatives are overwhelmingly male in most groups, but among the Chechen rebels and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) women form a majority of the attackers.[44]

In his book Dead for Good, Hugh Barlow describes recent suicide attack campaigns as a new development in the long history of martyrdom that he dubs predatory martyrdom. Some individuals who now act alone are inspired by emails, radical books, the internet, various new electronic media, and a general public tolerance of extreme teachers and leaders with terrorist agendas.[45]

Muslim religious motivation

Radical Muslims who advocate for violence against targets that include civilians believe they will enter Paradise as a reward for their actions, however, many mainstream Muslim theologians have vehemently opposed their interpretations, and decried attacks on civilians as unjustified violence and sins in Islam.[46][47] A Quranic verse that has often been quoted by radical Muslims in support of their actions is Surah 9 At-Tawba verse 111:[48]

Verily, Allah has purchased of the believers their lives and their wealth for the price of Paradise, to fight in the way of Allah, to kill and get killed. It is a promise binding on the truth in the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur'an.

Another Quranic verse that radical Muslims point to in justification of suicide attacks is Sura 3 Imran, verse 158:[49]

And if ye die, or are slain, Lo! it is unto Allah that ye are brought together.

According to a report compiled by the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, 224 of 300 suicide terror attacks from 1980 to 2003 involved Islamist groups or took place in Muslim-majority lands.[50] Another tabulation found a 4.5 fold increase in suicide bombings in the two years following Papes study and that the majority of these bombers were motivated by the ideology of Islamist martyrdom.[51] According to another estimate, as of early 2008, 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq.[52] Recent research on the rationale of suicide bombing has identified both religious and sociopolitical motivations.[53][54][55][56][57] Those who cite religious factors as an important influence note that religion provides the framework because the bombers believe they are acting in the name of Islam and will be rewarded as martyrs. Since martyrdom is seen as a step towards paradise, those who commit suicide while discarding their community from a common enemy believe that they will reach an ultimate salvation after they die.[58] Leor Halevi, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of "Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society", suggests that some suicide bombers are perhaps motivated by an escape from the potential punishment of the tomb that comes with martyrdom.[59] Some academics have also suggested that only if terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden become suicide bombers or are "martyred publically [sic] by the authorities" would martyrdom potentially effect change or influence opinions within the greater Muslim world as these individuals seek.[60] However, other researchers have identified sociopolitical factors as more central in the motivation of suicide attackers.[61][62]

Even though suicide is forbidden in Islam, some conservative, influential Muslim scholars including most notably Yusuf al-Qaradawi have justified suicide bombings when the perpetrators are occupied or acting in self-defense without other available means to defend themselves.[63] However, many scholars of Islam have pointed out that classically, Islam does not justify suicide bombings. For example, Bernard Lewis states, "The emergence of the now widespread terrorism practice of suicide bombing is a development of the 20th century. It has no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition."[47] Respected Muslim scholars have also made statements and fatwas condemning suicide bombings as terrorism that is prohibited in Islam with the perpetrators being destined to hell.[46] In condemning suicide attacks, Muslim scholar Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri directly targeted the rationale of Islamists by stating, "Violence is violence. It has no place in Islamic teaching, and no justification can be provided to it...good intention cannot justify a wrong and forbidden act".[46] In January 2006, one of Shia Islam's highest ranking Marja clerics, Ayatollah al-Udhma Yousof al-Sanei also decreed a fatwa against suicide bombing, declaring it as a "terrorist act".[64]

According to Charles Kimball, chair of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, "There is only one verse in the Qur'an that contains a phrase related to suicide", Surah 4 verse 29 of the Quran.[65] It reads:

O you who have believed, do not consume one another's wealth unjustly but only [in lawful] business by mutual consent. And do not kill yourselves. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful.

Some commentators believe that the phrase "do not kill yourselves" is better translated "do not kill each other", and some translations (e.g., by Shakir) reflect that view.[66] Mainstream Islamic groups such as the European Council for Fatwa and Research also cite the Quranic verse Al-Anam 6:151 as prohibiting suicide: "And take not life, which Allah has made sacred, except by way of justice and law".[67] In addition, the Hadith unambiguously forbid suicide including Bukhari 2:445, "The Prophet said, '...whoever commits suicide with a piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in the Hell Fire," and "A man was inflicted with wounds and he committed suicide, and so Allah said: My slave has caused death on himself hurriedly, so I forbid Paradise for him.".[68][69]


The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are considered to have mastered the use of suicide terrorism as "the contemporary terrorist groups engaged in suicide attacks, the LTTE has conducted the largest number of attacks." The LTTE also has a unit, The Black Tigers, which are "constituted exclusively of cadres who have volunteered to conduct suicide operations."[70][71]

Pape suggests that resentment of foreign occupation and nationalism is the principal motivation for suicide attacks:

Beneath the religious rhetoric with which [such terror] is perpetrated, it occurs largely in the service of secular aims. Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than a product of Islamic fundamentalism... Though it speaks of Americans as infidels, al-Qaida is less concerned with converting us to Islam than removing us from Arab and Muslim lands.[72]

Other views

According to anthropologist Scott Atran[73] and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman,[74] support for suicide actions is triggered by moral outrage at perceived attacks against Islam and sacred values, but this is converted to action as a result of small world factors. There are millions who express sympathy with global jihad (according to a 2006 Gallup study in involving more than 50,000 interviews in dozens of countries, 7 percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims - 90 million people - consider the 9/11 attacks "completely justified.") Nevertheless, only some thousands show willingness to commit violence (e.g., 60 arrested in the USA, 2400 in Western Europe, 3200 in Saudi Arabia). They tend to go to violence in small groups consisting mostly of friends, and some kin (although friends tend to become kin as they marry one another's sisters and cousins - there are dozens of such marriages among militant members of Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah). These groups arise within specific "scenes": neighborhoods, schools (classes, dorms), workplaces and common leisure activities (soccer, paintball, mosque discussion groups, barbershop, café, online chat-rooms).

Case studies

1. In Al Qaeda, about 70 percent join with friends, 20 percent with kin. Interviews with friends of the 9/11 suicide pilots reveal they weren't "recruited" into Qaeda. They were Middle Eastern Arabs isolated even among the Moroccan and Turkish Muslims who predominate in Germany. Seeking friendship, they began hanging out after services at the Masjad al-Quds and other nearby mosques in Hamburg, in local restaurants and in the dormitory of the Technical University in the suburb of Harburg. Three (Mohamed Atta, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Marwan al-Shehhi) wound up living together as they self-radicalized. They wanted to go to Chechnya, then Kosovo.

2. Five of the seven plotters in the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings who blew themselves up when cornered by police grew up in the tumble-down neighborhood of Jemaa Mezuak in Tetuan, Morocco: Jamal Ahmidan, brothers Mohammed and Rashid Oulad Akcha, Abdennabi Kounjaa, Asri Rifaat. In 2006, at least five more young Mezuaq men went to Iraq on "martyrdom missions": Abdelmonim Al-Amrani, Younes Achebak, Hamza Aklifa, and the brothers Bilal and Munsef Ben Aboud (DNA analysis has confirmed the suicide bombing death of Amrani in Baqubah, Iraq). All 5 attended a local elementary school (Abdelkrim Khattabi), the same one that Madrid’s Moroccan bombers attended. And 4 of the 5 were in the same high school class (Kadi Ayadi, just outside Mezuak). They played soccer as friends, went to the same mosque (Masjad al-Rohban of the Dawa Tabligh), mingled in the same restaurants, barbershops and cafes.

3. Hamas's most sustained suicide bombing campaign in 2003-4 involved several buddies from Hebron's Masjad (mosque) al-Jihad soccer team. Most lived in the Wad Abu Katila neighborhood and belonged to the al-Qawasmeh hamula (clan); several were classmates in the neighborhood's local branch of the Palestinian Polytechnic College. Their ages ranged from 18 to 22. At least eight team members were dispatched to suicide shooting and bombing operations by the Hamas military leader in Hebron, Abdullah al-Qawasmeh (killed by Israeli forces in June 2003 and succeeded by his relatives Basel al-Qawasmeh, killed in September 2003, and Imad al-Qawasmeh, captured on 13 October 2004). In retaliation for the assassinations of Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (22 March 2004) and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi (17 April 2004), Imad al-Qawasmeh dispatched Ahmed al-Qawasmeh and Nasim al-Ja'abri for a suicide attack on two buses in Beer Sheva (31 August 2004). In December 2004, Hamas declared a halt to suicide attacks.

On 15 January 2008, the son of Mahmoud al-Zahar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was killed (another son was killed in a 2003 assassination attempt on Zahar). Three days later, Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered Israel Defense Forces to seal all border crossings with Gaza, cutting off the flow of vital supplies to the besieged territory in an attempt to stop rocket barrages on Israeli border towns. Nevertheless, violence from both sides only increased. On 4 February 2008, two friends (Mohammed Herbawi, Shadi Zghayer), who were members of the Masjad al-Jihad soccer team, staged a suicide bombing at commercial center in Dimona, Israel. Herbawi had previously been arrested as a 17-year-old on 15 March 2003 shortly after a suicide bombing on Haifa bus (by Mamoud al-Qawasmeh on 5 March 2003) and coordinated suicide shooting attacks on Israeli settlements by others on the team (7 March 2003, Muhsein, Hazem al-Qawasmeh, Fadi Fahuri, Sufian Hariz) and before another set of suicide bombings by team members in Hebron and Jerusalem on May 17–18, 2003 (Fuad al-Qawasmeh, Basem Takruri, Mujahed al-Ja'abri). Although Hamas claimed responsibility for the Dimona attack, the politburo leadership in Damascus and Beirut was clearly initially unaware of who initiated and carried out the attack. It appears that Ahmad al-Ja'abri, military commander of Hamas's Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza (and who is also originally from a Hebron clan) requested the suicide attack through Ayoub Qawasmeh, Hamas's military liaison in Hebron, who knew where to look for eager young men who had self-radicalized together and had already mentally prepared themselves for martyrdom.[75]


The concept of self-sacrifice has long been a part of war. However, many instances of suicide bombing today has intended civilian targets, not military targets alone. "Suicide bombing as a tool of stateless terrorists was dreamed up a hundred years ago by the European anarchists immortalized in Joseph Conrad’s 'Secret Agent.'"[76]

A Japanese Mitsubishi Zero's suicide attack on the USS Missouri (BB-63), April 11, 1945

The ritual act of self-sacrifice during combat appeared in a large scale at the end of World War II with the Japanese kamikaze bombers. In these attacks, airplanes were used as flying bombs. Later in the war, as Japan became more desperate, this act became formalized and ritualized, as planes were outfitted with explosives specific to the task of a suicide mission. Kamikaze strikes were a weapon of asymmetric war used by the Empire of Japan against United States Navy and Royal Navy aircraft carriers, although the armoured flight deck of the Royal Navy carriers diminished Kamikaze effectiveness.

The Japanese Navy also used both one and two man piloted torpedoes called kaiten on suicide missions. Although sometimes called midget submarines, these were modified versions of the unmanned torpedoes of the time and are distinct from the torpedo-firing midget submarines used earlier in the war, which were designed to infiltrate shore defences and return to a mother ship after firing their torpedoes. Though extremely hazardous, these midget submarine attacks were not technically suicide missions, as the earlier kaitens had escape hatches. Later kaitens, by contrast, provided no means of escape.

After aiming a two-person kaiten at their target, the two crew members traditionally embraced and shot each other in the head. Social support for such choices was strong, due in part to Japanese cultural history, in which seppuku, honourable suicide, was part of samurai duty. It was also fostered and indoctrinated by the Imperial program to persuade the Japanese soldiers to commit these acts.

Suicide attacks were used as a military tactic aimed at causing material damage in war, during the Second World War in the Pacific as Allied ships were attacked by Japanese kamikaze pilots who caused maximum damage by flying their explosive-laden aircraft into military targets, not focused on civilian targets.

During the Battle for Berlin the Luftwaffe flew "Self-sacrifice missions" (Selbstopfereinsatz) against Soviet bridges over the River Oder. These 'total missions' were flown by pilots of the Leonidas Squadron under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Heiner Lange. From 17 April until 20 April 1945, using any aircraft that were available, the Luftwaffe claimed that the squadron destroyed 17 bridges, however the military historian Antony Beevor when writing about the incident thinks that this was exaggerated and that only the railway bridge at Küstrin was definitely destroyed. He comments that "thirty-five pilots and aircraft was a high price to pay for such a limited and temporary success". The missions were called off when the Soviet ground forces reached the vicinity of the squadron's airbase at Jüterbog.[77]

Following World War II, Viet Minh "death volunteers" fought against the French colonial army by using a long stick-like explosive to detonate French tanks, as part of their urban warfare tactics.

In 1972, in the hall of the Lod airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, three Japanese used grenades and automatic rifles to kill 26 people and wound many more.[78] The group belonged to the Japanese Red Army (JRA) a terrorist organization created in 1969 and allied to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Until then, no group involved in terrorism had conducted such a suicide operation in Israel. Members of the JRA became instructors in martial art and kamikaze operations at several training camps bringing the suicide techniques to the Middle East.[citation needed]

1980 to present

The first modern suicide bombing—involving explosives deliberately carried to the target either on the person or in a civilian vehicle and delivered by surprise—was in 1981; perfected by the factions of the Lebanese Civil War and especially by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) of Sri Lanka, the tactic had spread to dozens of countries by 2005. Those hardest-hit are Sri Lanka during its prolonged ethnic conflict, Lebanon during its civil war, Israel and the Palestinian Territories since 1994, and Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. Since 2006, al-Shabaab and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts, have carried out major suicide attacks in Somalia.[9][79]

Suicide attacks per organization, 1983 to 2000.[80]
Tamil Tigers 171
Al-Shabaab >30
Hezbollah and Amal 25
Other Lebanese groups 25
Hamas 22
PKK 21
Islamic Jihad 8
Chechen separatists 7
Dawa (Kuwait) 2
Egyptian Islamic Jihad 1
al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya 1
Armed Islamic Group of Algeria 1

The Islamic Dawa Party's car bombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December 1981 and Hezbollah's bombing of the U.S. embassy in April 1983 and attack on United States Marine and French barracks in October 1983 brought suicide bombings international attention. Other parties to the civil war were quick to adopt the tactic, and by 1999 factions such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Ba'ath Party, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party had carried out around 50 suicide bombings between them. (The latter of these groups sent the first recorded female suicide bomber in 1985. Female combatants have existed throughout human history and in many different societies, so it is possible that females who engage in suicidal attacks are not new.) Hezbollah was the only one to attack overseas, bombing the Israeli embassy (and possibly the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building) in Buenos Aires; as its military and political power have grown, it has since abandoned the tactic.

Lebanon saw the first bombing, but it was the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka who perfected the tactic and inspired its use elsewhere.[81] Their Black Tiger unit has committed between 76 and 168 (estimates vary) suicide bombings since 1987, the higher estimates putting them behind more than half of the world's suicide bombings between 1980 and 2000.[82] The list of victims include former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and the president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Sbarro pizza restaurant bombing in Jerusalem, in which 15 Israeli civilians were killed and 130 wounded by a Hamas suicide bomber.

Suicide bombing is a popular tactic among Palestinian terrorist organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Bombers affiliated with these groups often use so-called "suicide belts", explosive devices (often including shrapnel) designed to be strapped to the body under clothing. In order to maximize the loss of life, the bombers seek out cafés or city buses crowded with people at rush hour, or less commonly a military target (for example, soldiers waiting for transport at roadside). By seeking enclosed locations, a successful bomber usually kills a large number of people. In Israel, Palestinian suicide bombers have targeted civilian buses, restaurants, shopping malls, hotels and marketplaces.[83]

Palestinian television has aired a number of music videos and announcements that promote eternal reward for children who seek "shahada",[84] which Palestinian Media Watch has claimed is "Islamic motivation of suicide terrorists".[85] The Chicago Tribune has documented the concern of Palestinian parents that their children are encouraged to take part in suicide operations.[86] Israeli sources have also alleged that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah operate "Paradise Camps", training children as young as 11 to become suicide bombers.[87][88]

The Kurdistan Workers' Party has also employed suicide bombings in the scope of its guerrilla attacks on Turkish security forces since the beginning of their insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984. Although the majority of PKK activity is focused on village guards, gendarme, and military posts,[citation needed] they have employed suicide bombing tactics on tourist sites and commercial centers in Western Turkish cities, especially during the peak of tourism season.

The 11 September attacks involved the hijacking of large passenger jets which were deliberately flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, killing everyone aboard the planes and thousands more in and around the targeted buildings. The passenger jets selected were required to be fully fueled to fly cross-country, turning the planes themselves into the largest suicide bombs in history. The 'September 11' attacks also had a vast economic and political impact: for the cost of the lives of the 19 hijackers and financial expenditure of around US$100,000, al-Qaeda, the militant Islamist group responsible for the attacks, effected a trillion-dollar drop in global markets within one week, and triggered massive increases in military and security expenditure in response.

On 22 December 2001, Richard Reid attempted to destroy the American Airlines Flight 63 by the means of a bomb hidden in a shoe. He was arrested after his attempt was foiled when he was unable to light the bomb's fuse.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi and foreign insurgents carried out waves of suicide bombings. They attacked United States military targets, although many civilian targets (e.g. Shiite mosques, international offices of the UN and the Red Cross, Iraqi men waiting to apply for jobs with the new army and police force) were also attacked. In the lead up to the Iraqi parliamentary election[disambiguation needed ], on 30 January 2005, suicide attacks upon civilian and security personnel involved with the elections increased, and there were reports of the insurgents co-opting disabled people as involuntary suicide bombers.[89]

Afghanistan suicide bomb attacks, including non-detonated, 2002-2008

In the first eight months of 2008, Pakistan overtook Iraq and Afghanistan in suicide bombings, with 28 bombings killing 471 people.[90]

First the targets were American soldiers, then mostly Israelis, including women and children. From Lebanon and Israel, the technique of suicide bombing moved to Iraq, where the targets have included mosques and shrines, and the intended victims have mostly been Shiite Iraqis. The newest testing ground is Afghanistan, where both the perpetrators and the targets are orthodox Sunni Muslims. Not long ago, a bombing in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, killed Muslims, including women, who were applying to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Overall, the trend is definitively in the direction of Muslim-on-Muslim violence. By a conservative accounting, more than three times as many Iraqis have been killed by suicide bombings in the last 3 years as have Israelis in the last 10. Suicide bombing has become the archetype of Muslim violence — not just to Westerners but also to Muslims themselves.[76]

Public Surveys

The Pew Global Attitudes Project surveys Muslim publics to measure support for suicide bombing and other forms of violence that target civilians in order to defend Islam. In the annual poll, the highest support for such acts has been reported by Palestinians (at approximately 70 percent), except for years in which Palestinians were not surveyed. The lowest support has generally been observed in Turkey (between 3 and 17 percent, depending on the year). The 2009 report concluded that support for suicide bombing has declined in recent years, especially in Pakistan, where support dropped from 33 percent in 2002 (the first year of the survey) to 5 percent in 2009.[91]


World leaders, especially those of countries that experience suicide bombings, usually express resolve to continue on their previous course of affairs after such attacks. They denounce suicide bombings and sometimes vow not to let such bombings deter ordinary people from going about their everyday economic business.

Suicide bombings are sometimes followed by reprisals. As a successful suicide bomber cannot be targeted, the response is often a targeting of those believed to have sent the bomber. In targeting such organizations, Israel often uses military strikes against organizations, individuals, and possibly infrastructure. In the West Bank the IDF formerly demolished homes that belong to families whose children (or renters whose tenants) had volunteered for such missions (whether successfully or not),[92] though an internal review starting in October 2004 brought an end to the policy.[93] The effectiveness of suicide bombings—notably those of the Japanese kamikazes, the Palestinian bombers, and even the September 11, 2001 attacks—is debatable. Although kamikaze attacks could not stop the Allied advance in the Pacific, they inflicted more casualties and delayed the fall of Japan for longer than might have been the case using only the conventional methods available to the Japanese Empire. The attacks reinforced the resolution of the World War II Allies to destroy the Imperial force, and likely would have been considered in the decision to use atomic bombs against Japan.[citation needed]

In the case of the September 11 attacks, the long-term effects remain to be seen, but in the short term, the results were negative for Al-Qaeda, as well as the Taliban Movement. Since the September 11 attacks, Western nations have diverted massive resources towards stopping similar actions, as well as tightening up borders, and military actions against various countries believed to have been involved with terrorism. Critics of the War on Terrorism suggest the results were negative, as the proceeding actions of the United States and other countries has increased the number of recruits, and their willingness to carry out suicide bombings.

It is more difficult to determine whether Palestinian suicide bombings have proved to be a successful tactic. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the suicide bombers were repeatedly deployed since the Oslo Accords.[94] In 1996, the Israelis elected the conservative candidate Benjamin Netanyahu who promised to restore safety by conditioning every step in the peace process on Israel's assessment of the Palestinian Authority's fulfillment of its obligations in curbing violence as outlined in the Oslo agreements.

In the course of al-Aqsa Intifada which followed the collapse of the Camp David II summit between the PLO and Israel, the number of suicide attacks increased. In response, Israel mobilized its army in order to seal off the Gaza Strip and reinstate military control of the West Bank, patrolling the area with tanks. The Israelis also began a campaign of targeted killings to kill militant Palestinian leaders, using jets and helicopters to deploy high-precision bombs and missiles.

The suicide missions, having killed and injured many Israelis, are believed by some to have brought on a move to the political right, increasing public support for hard-line policies towards the Palestinians, and a government headed by the former general, prime minister Ariel Sharon. In response to the suicide bombings, Sharon's government has imposed restrictions on the Palestinian community, making many aspects of life difficult for them. The Separation barrier under construction seems to be part of the Israeli government's efforts to stop suicide bombers from entering Israel.

Social support by some for this activity remained, however, as of the calling of a truce at the end of June 2003. This may be due to the economic or social purpose of the suicide bombing and the bombers' refusal to accept external judgements on those who sanction them.

If the objective is to kill as many people as possible, suicide bombing by terrorists may thus "work" as a tactic in that it costs fewer lives than any conventional military tactic and targeting unarmed civilians is much easier than targeting soldiers. As an objective designed to achieve some form of favorable outcome, especially a political outcome, most believe it to be a failure. Terrorist campaigns involving the targeting of civilians have never won a war. Analysts believe that in order to win or succeed, any guerrilla or terrorist campaign must first transform into something more than a guerrilla or terrorist movement. Such analysts believe that a terrorist cause has little political attraction and success may be achieved only by renouncing terrorism and transforming the passions into politics.[citation needed]

Often extremists assert that, because they are outclassed militarily, suicide bombings are necessary. For example, the former leader of Hamas Sheikh Ahmad Yassin stated: "Once we have warplanes and missiles, then we can think of changing our means of legitimate self-defense. But right now, we can only tackle the fire with our bare hands and sacrifice ourselves."[95]

Such views are challenged both from the outside and from within Islam. According to Islamic jurist and scholar Khaled Abou Al-Fadl,

The classical jurists, nearly without exception, argued that those who attack by stealth, while targeting noncombatants in order to terrorize the resident and wayfarer, are corrupters of the earth. "Resident and wayfarer" was a legal expression that meant that whether the attackers terrorize people in their urban centers or terrorize travelers, the result was the same: all such attacks constitute a corruption of the earth. The legal term given to people who act this way was muharibun (those who wage war against society), and the crime is called the crime of hiraba (waging war against society). The crime of hiraba was so serious and repugnant that, according to Islamic law, those guilty of this crime were considered enemies of humankind and were not to be given quarter or sanctuary anywhere. ... Those who are familiar with the classical tradition will find the parallels between what were described as crimes of hiraba and what is often called terrorism today nothing short of remarkable. The classical jurists considered crimes such as assassinations, setting fires, or poisoning water wells – that could indiscriminately kill the innocent – as offenses of hiraba. Furthermore, hijacking methods of transportation or crucifying people in order to spread fear are also crimes of hiraba. Importantly, Islamic law strictly prohibited the taking of hostages, the mutilation of corpses, and torture.[96]

Usage of term

The usage of the term "suicide bombing" dates back to at least 1940. A 10 August 1940 New York Times article of mentions the term in relation to German tactics. A 4 March 1942 article refers to a Japanese attempt as a "suicide bombing" on an American carrier. The Times (London) of 15 April 1947, page 2, refers to a new pilotless, radio-controlled rocket missile thus: "Designed originally as a counter-measure to the Japanese 'suicide-bomber,' it is now a potent weapon for defence or offence". The quotes are in the original and suggest that the phrase was an existing one. An earlier article (21 Aug 1945, page 6) refers to a kamikaze plane as a "suicide-bomb". Even earlier, though not using the exact phrase, the magazine Modern Mechanix (February 1936) reports the Italians reacted to a possible oil embargo by stating that they would carry out attacks with "a squadron of aviators pledged to crash their death-laden planes in suicidal dives directly onto the decks of British ships".

The term with the meaning "an attacker blowing up himself or a vehicle to kill others" appeared in 1981, when it was used by Thomas Baldwin in an Associated Press article to describe the bombing of the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut.

In order to assign either a more positive or negative connotation to the act, suicide bombing is sometimes referred to by different terms. Islamists often call the act a isshtahad (meaning martyrdom operation), and the suicide bomber a shahid (pl. shuhada, literally 'witness' and usually translated as 'martyr'). The term denotes one who died in order to testify his faith in God, for example those who die while waging jihad bis saif; it is applied to suicide bombers, by the Palestinian Authority among others, in part to overcome Islamic strictures against suicide. This term has been embraced by Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Fatah and other Palestinian factions engaging in suicide bombings. (The title is by no means restricted to suicide bombers and can be used for a wide range of people, including innocent victims; Muhammad al-Durra, for example, is among the most famous shuhada of the Intifada, and even a few non-Palestinians such as Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie have been called shahid).

Homicide bombing

Some effort has been made to replace the term suicide bombing with the term homicide bombing by commentators and news outlets. The first such use was by White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer in April 2002.[97] However, it has failed to catch on; the only major media outlets to use it were Fox News Channel and the New York Post (both owned by News Corporation).[98][99]

Supporters of the term homicide bombing argue that since the primary purpose of such a bombing is to kill other people rather than merely to end one's own life, the term homicide is a more accurate description than suicide. However, any bombing intended to cause human deaths can be classified as a homicide bombing. Therefore, some have argued that homicide bombing is a less useful term, since it fails to capture the distinctive feature of suicide bombings: namely, the bombers' use of means which they are aware will inevitably bring about their own deaths.[100]

Another attempted replacement is genocide bombing. The term was coined in 2002 by a Jewish member of the Canadian parliament, Irwin Cotler, in an effort to replace the term homicide bomber as a substitute for "suicide bomber."[101] The intention was to focus attention on the alleged intention of genocide by militant Palestinians in their calls to "Wipe Israel off the map."[102]

See also


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Further reading

  • Barlow, Hugh (2007). Dead for Good. City: Paradigm Publishers. ISBN 1594513244. 
  • Bloom, Mia (2005). Dying to Kill. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231133200. 
  • Davis, Joyce M. (2004). Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance, and Despair in the Middle East. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1403966818. 
  • Falk, Ophir, Morgenstern, Henry (2009). Suicide Terror: Understanding and Confronting the Threat. Hoboken: Wiley. ISBN 9780470087299. 
  • Fall, Bernard (1985). Hell in a Very Small Place. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306802317. 
  • Gambetta, Diego (2005). Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199276994. 
  • Hafez, Mohammed (2007). Suicide Bombers in Iraq. Washington: U.S. Institute of Peace Press. ISBN 9781601270047. 
  • Hudson, Rex (2002). Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why. City: The Lyons Press. ISBN 1585747548. 
  • Jayawardena, Hemamal (2007). Forensic Medical Aspects of Terrorist Explosive Attacks. City: Zeilan Press. ISBN 9780979362422. 
  • Khosrokhavar, Farhad (2005). Suicide Bombers. Sydney: Pluto Press. ISBN 0745322832. 
  • Oliver, Anne Marie, Steinberg, Paul (2004). The Road to Martyrs' Square. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305593. 
  • Pape, Robert (2005). Dying to Win. New York: Random House. ISBN 1400063175. 
  • Pedahzur, Ami (2005). Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 9780745633831. 
  • Reuter, Christoph (2004). My Life Is a Weapon. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691126159. 
  • Scheit, Gerhard (2004) (in German). Suicide Attack. City: Ca Ira Verlag. ISBN 3924627878. 
  • Sheftall, Mordecai (2005). Blossoms in the Wind. New York: NAL Caliber. ISBN 9780451214874. 
  • Skaine, Rosemarie (2006). Female Suicide Bombers. Jefferson: McFarland. ISBN 0786426152. 
  • Swamy, M.R. (1994). Tigers of Lanka. City: Vijitha Yapa Publications, Sri Lanka. ISBN 9558095141. 
  • Matovic, Violeta (2007). Suicide Bombers Who's Next. Belgrade: The National Counter Terrorism Committee. ISBN 978-86-908309-2-3. 
  • Atran, Scott (2003). "Genesis of suicide terrorism". Science, 299, pp. 1534–1539.
  • Conesa, Pierre (2004). "Aux origines des attentats-suicides". Le Monde diplomatique, June, 2004.
  • Hoffman, Bruce (2003). "The logic of suicide terrorism". The Atlantic, June, 2003.
  • Kix, Paul (2010). "The truth about suicide bombers." Boston Globe.
  • Lankford, Adam. (2010). Do Suicide Terrorists Exhibit Clinically Suicidal Risk Factors? A Review of Initial Evidence and Call for Future Research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15, pp. 334–340.
  • Takeda, Arata (2010). "Suicide bombers in Western literature: demythologizing a mythic discourse". Contemporary Justice Review, Volume 13, Issue 4, pp. 455–475.

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