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Suicide attacks – a tactical weapon system

24 April 2002 by David Ucko, Research Assistant, Defence Analysis Department and Christopher Langton, Head, Defence Analysis Department, IISS Suicide bombers constitute an inexpensive, intelligent, flexible and mobile weapon capable of inflicting significant physical and psychological damage on chosen targets. Such practical and tactical considerations are often not fully appreciated in analyses of suicide attacks. Perhaps because the notion of self-sacrifice in the name of political ideals and objectives seems unnaturally self-destructive, speculation mostly focuses on the psychological make-up of the individual attacker. A pre-occupation with such issues has also tended to obscure the fact that a suicide bombing carried out by an individual is often the result of a collective strategic decision by an organisation, involving an extensive support structure dedicated to recruitment, authorisation and planning. Indeed, the argument has been made that the suicide bomber should be considered no more than a 'sentient missile' – a convenient delivery option for the 'real' terrorists who recruit for, plan and authorise the eventual attack.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has witnessed a marked surge in suicide attacks, with Palestinians targeting Israeli civilians and military forces to deadly effect. Yet, suicide terrorism has been increasingly adopted as a tactic by militant non-state armed groups in a host of other conflict areas, from Sri Lanka to Chechnya, and in Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt. In its attacks on New York and Washington DC last September, the al-Qaeda network demonstrated the destructive potential and international reach of suicide tactics. Al-Qaeda is not alone, however, in making the phenomenon truly global, as many groups have conducted extra-territorial attacks to gain an international profile or to sidestep high domestic levels of security: Hizbollah has carried out an attack in Argentina; Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have struck in India; Egyptian militants in Croatia; and Pakistani separatists have carried out attacks in Egypt.

Methods of attack

Methods of suicide attack tend to differ widely in accordance with the nature of the selected target, which can vary from hard-to-reach individual politicians to accessible public places. The most basic practice is to tie explosives around an attacker's waist or for them to carry explosives in a bag until the intended target is reached. This tactic is relatively limited in calibre, and has increasingly been combined with the use of vehicles to boost the range, destructive impact and accuracy of an attack. In particular, the use of buses, trucks, boats and – as seen in New York and Washington DC on 11 September – aircraft as delivery systems increases the number of casualties and ensures that attacks can be targeted relatively precisely.

Strategic rationale

While it is difficult to make generalisations about why and at what point certain non-state armed groups, but not others, decide to use suicide attacks, it is possible to dispel some misconceptions about such operations. For example, it is often claimed that suicide attacks are a product of strategic desperation, carried out only when all military and other means have been exhausted. While it is true that groups – notably Chechen fighters – have conducted suicide operations as a means of overcoming an entrenched military inferiority, it does not follow that suicide terror is always the strategic last resort.


Indeed, for a terrorist group, the practical attractions of suicide attacks are manifold. The 'weapon' is mobile and, given sufficient guidance, increases targeting possibilities beyond the normal range, as the proximity guaranteed by a suicide attacker greatly heightens the probability of success. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this advantage has proven useful against tight Israeli security checks. Similarly, the value of an accurate human guidance system has been evident in the assassination attacks of the LTTE or the September 2001 al-Qaeda killing of Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. When vehicles are used in terror attacks, the accurate targeting of a plane or a car is self-evidently only guaranteed if an attacker remains in control until the collision – though not terrorist in nature, this was the principle behind Japanese Kamikaze operations in the Second World War. Similarly, in Kashmir, the October 2001 attack on the legislature in Srinagar demonstrated the purely tactical use of a vehicle-borne suicide attack, as the suicide was used as one part of an otherwise conventional operation. The objective of the suicide bomber was to blow open the gates to the complex so that the follow-up force could enter. Another variation, witnessed in the battle for Kunduz, Afghanistan, saw the target approach the attacker, in this case a captured Chechen fighter, who had hidden explosives in his plaster casts and bandages.


Suicide operations are also attractive because of the low material and financial costs to the organiser. Weapon systems, in terms of suicide candidates, are generally available, particularly in contexts involving religious motivations where concepts of martyrdom and self-sacrifice gain force with each suicide attack. As well as carrying out genuine suicide attacks, Chechen fighters have coerced unwitting civilians into 'look-alike' suicide missions, in which the attacker is not told that he or she will not escape the attack. Militant Islamic groups such as Hamas, by contrast, can generally rely on volunteers who see suicide missions against the enemy as a path to martyrdom. A recent Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO) poll conducted in Beit Sahour showed a majority (64.3%) in favour of continuing the suicide terror campaign in Israel. Even in secular contexts, candidates for suicide operations can be found, something illustrated by the permanent, standing suicide squad of the LTTE. Second, a suicide attacker does not require personal remuneration or even extensive training. Thus, barring any compensation scheme made out to the attacker's relatives, the financial outlay by an organisation is limited to intelligence-gathering and the furnishing of ordnance.


A suicide attack also carries minimal security risks for the organisation sponsoring them, as the impossibility of interrogating the attacker leaves the terrorist infrastructure intact. Should the attacker be captured prior to detonation, it is quite common for him or her to detonate the explosives regardless, simply to destroy sensitive evidence. In Sri Lanka, the LTTE's 'Black Panthers' suicide squad are equipped with cyanide pills in the name of security. Similarly, Hamas suicide attackers often remove their fingerprints by burning or scraping away skin tissue, so as to prevent tracing and thus protect the attack's ultimate organisers. In most cases, however, the attacker is deliberately uninvolved in planning and has little information to give even if captured alive.


Meanwhile, in addition to the physical destruction caused, suicide attacks carry potent psychological ramifications for the target society. Suicide attacks suggest to the target society that their enemy is not a rational actor with a particular set of political ideals, but a compulsive and volatile force, ready to pay the ultimate price to achieve victory. In this manner, the apparent fanaticism of the attacker brings its own rewards to the terrorist group. Similarly and somewhat counter-intuitively, the apparent desperation of the attacker can raise the moral standing of the group, as the suicidal aspect connotes not the cowardice or cynicism of a 'conventional' terrorist attack, but rather points to the frustration of 'last resort'. These factors are 'force multipliers'.

A growing phenomenon

Despite the multitude of active terrorist organisations, suicide attacks remain comparatively rare globally. The spread of suicide terror is limited by some of its preconditions – primarily the imperative of an intense fanatical devotion to some religious, ideological or political cause among potential suicide attackers. Many groups, even where commitment is indisputable, would struggle to find candidates willing to participate in suicide missions. Nonetheless, it seems likely that suicide terror will spread internationally, not least because measures to counter this highly flexible tactic are few and unreliable and the effect is out of proportion to the effort and cost involved.


The Israeli Defence Forces have applied rigorous security checks, cultivated Arab collaborators and developed impressive intelligence resources to prevent and pre-empt certain suicide attacks. Yet the method has been of limited efficacy, as it is not only costly but controversially relies on assassinations of alleged suicide-bombers and terrorists. Despite tight security, suicide bombings killed 125 Israelis in March 2002. A more long-term strategy to counter the phenomenon might include 'de-indoctrination'; counter-propaganda targeting either the terrorist political agenda or the religious/ideological logic of martyrdom might undercut the recruitment capability of a terrorist group by removing the necessary ideological or religious fuse. None of these initiatives will produce results in the short term, and the possibility remains that there will always be groups willing to use a weapon that cannot be 'un-invented'. However, it is unlikely that suicide terror will cease until the socio-political circumstances that motivate such acts are qualified or removed. Alongside the difficulty in countering this form of terror is the lingering question of whether an individual who has been trained for suicide attack – or 'armed' – can be rehabilitated after the cessation of the conflict ?


Intended targets†
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades Gaza/West Bank Palestinian state I C/M
Al-Qaeda International Worldwide Muslim fundamentalism V(A,B) C/M/P
BKI India Sikh state in Punjab I C/P
Chechen rebels Russia Independent Muslim state I M
DHKP/C Turkey Marxist extremists I M
Egyptian Islamic Jihad Egypt
Islamic state in Egypt
GIA Algeria Islamic state in Algeria I C/M
HAMAS Gaza/West Bank Palestinian state I, V(C, T) C/M
Hizbollah Lebanon Islamic state in Lebanon V(A,C,T) M/P
Jaish-e-Mohammed Jammu & Kashmir Kashmir's integration into Pakistan I, V(C), M
Lashkar-e-Tayyaba Jammu & Kashmir Kashmir's integration into Pakistan I M
LTTE Sri Lanka Independent Tamil state I, V(B,C,T) C/M/P
PKK Turkey Kurdish state + cultural rights I C/M
Palestinian Islamic Jihad Gaza/West Bank Palestinian state I, V(C) C/M


* Individual (I), Vehicle (V), Boat (B), Truck (T),Car (C), Airborne (A)
† Military or Police (M), Civilian (C), Political (P)


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