Postscript to Suicide Bombing

I seem to be blaming religion, and in particular the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for the particularly modern epidemic and scourge that is suicide bombing. Could the fact of blowing oneself up in order to destroy one’s enemies come from any source other than religion, other than from believing that by doing so you will go on to another and better life after death? If we all believed that why then we might all be blowing ourselves up.

But there is one other principal source of suicide bombers and that has to be the comparable belief that by your sacrifice you will be making things, while much worse for your enemies, much better for your friends. Being a martyr, sacrificing yourself, something we’re all familiar with. In other words, ideologies, political beliefs, nationalisms of all sorts will also give us large numbers of suicide bombers, such as Ignaty Grinevitsky pictured below.

What gives me hope, what gives me hope for my children and grandchildren, is that our world is less and less under the influence of religion, and more and more under the influence of science, which as far as I know, while putting us at great risk in respect to the destructive powers it has made available to even the least of us, more than those available to the greatest of us, the Kings and Popes of the past, has not yet given us a suicide bomber. The sources of that craziness are still religion and politics, the two subjects that we know we ought to avoid even talking about if we would be at peace with our friends and family members, this Fourth of July, 2016 weekend, for example.

Murder of Tsar Alexander II

On 13 March 1881, Ignaty Grinevitsky watched as his accomplice threw a small bomb at the convoy of Tsar Alexander II outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Safely enclosed in a carriage made from bullet-proof material as a gift from Napoleon III, the Tsar stepped out, dazed but unhurt.

Grinevitsky saw his chance.  The young man, a member of The People’s Will left-wing terrorist group, rushed towards his target, dropping a bomb at the Tsar’s feet killing both himself and his 62 year-old Emperor. Alexander’s legs were blown off, his stomach ripped open and his face mutilated. He died a few hours later.

The night before the attack Grinevitsky wrote:

‘It is my lot to die young, I shall not see our victory, I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumphs, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do, and no one in the world can demand more of me.’

I’ve “lifted” the above, and the article below, A Short History of Suicide Bombing, from AOAV, or Action on Armed Violence, written by Henry Dodd, 23 August 2013. AOAV’s central mission is to carry out research and advocacy in order to reduce the incidence and impact of global armed violence, armed violence being “the intentional use of force – actual or threatened – with weapons, to cause injury, death, or psychological harm.”

“Grinevitsky went down in history as the first man to become truly infamous as a suicide bomber.

Fast forward 130 years and suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq are an almost daily occurrence. In total they have been used in 36 different countries and territories over the last 30 years, killing at least thirty thousand people, according to research by the University of Chicago.

They are the weapon of choice for some of the most feared terrorist organizations. But how did they come to be so prevalent and why have they emerged as the weapon of choice in some contexts but not in others?”


A short history of suicide bombing

by Henry Dodd, 23 August 2013.

What do we mean by ‘suicide attacks’?

First of all let’s be clear what kind of attacks we are talking about.

Suicide bombings are those that involve the deliberate death of the perpetrator. We’re not just talking about a reckless charge in battle. The focus is on those attacks where the perpetrator functions as a sophisticated guidance system for the weapon. They function as part human and part weapon. In this way they are suicide attacks rather than suicidal attacks.

Not included in this definition are the so-called proxy bombings carried out by the IRA where men they deemed to be collaborators were strapped into vehicles and forced to drive to British military targets.

Whether wearing an explosive vest or driving a car filled with ammonium nitrate they work like a sophisticated smart bomb, capable of approaching a target and detonating at the most devastating moment. Often these attacks happen far away from a traditional battlefield and strike at the heart of civilian life.

We should be careful when we use the word ‘suicide’. For one thing it can imply a degree of choice which may not always exist. There are frequently reports of vulnerable people like children or the mentally ill, being coerced or manipulated into carrying out attacks. In Afghanistan, child suicide bombers are sometimes given an amulet containing Koranic verses and told that it will protect them from the blast. Similarly, there area accounts of individuals having their entire family threatened by extremists who then force them into suicide attacks.

‘The Saudi insurgent threatened to rape our mothers and sisters, destroy our houses and kill our fathers if we did not cooperate with him,’

For ease of reference we term these attacks as ‘suicide’ but to do so is not with the intention of overstating the responsibility of all suicide bombers.  We are aware that in some cases the perpetrator is a victim as well.

Japanese Kamikaze pilots

Despite what we may assume from the current, highly reported tactics and rationale of suicide bombers, they were not always exclusively the preserve of terrorist organisations engaged in guerrilla warfare.

The first suicide bombings of the twentieth century involved the Japanese military fighting in the Second World War. Faced with the overwhelming naval aerial superiority of the Allied forces in the Pacific, they increasingly resorted to acts of desperation to defend their homeland and to project their message of defiance.

The Tokkotai, meaning ‘special attack unit’, and popularly referred to as Kamikaze, consisted of planes and boats loaded with bombs and instructed to crash into naval targets.

The pilots who flew these planes were volunteers.  They were not drawn from the regulars – trained fighters who were deemed too valuable to be lost in a single mission. Instead they were recruited from university students or young men who were newly conscripted.

The militaristic Japanese culture at the time forbade any form of surrender. Irokawa Daikicih, drafted from the University of Tokyo, claims that the first thing he was taught in training was how to use his own rifle to kill himself rather than be captured alive.

The leap from this sense of death with honour to volunteering as a human bomb was not such a large one.

The Tokkotai were first deployed at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. There one plane struck the St Lo aircraft carrier and triggered a fire which eventually sunk the ship. Such was their success – both in terms of real and psychological impact – that they grew in popularity. Their use peaked at the Battle of Okinawa where 30 Allied ships were sunk or put out of action.

In total around 3,000 suicide attacks were carried out by the Japanese before the end of the war.

Their impact in addressing the balance of naval power in the Pacific, however, should not be over-estimated. It was too small a force to have a meaningful impact and in total only around 50 shipswere sunk by Tokkotai. Sacrificing planes and trained pilots in this way was expensive and in many cases the planes lacked the penetrative force to sink a ship.

But the attacks did have a real and lasting psychological impact on the Allied sailors. Commanders stopped warning the men that attacks were imminent and Admiral Halsey, commander of the US Third Fleet declared that it was ‘the only weapon I feared in war’. The attacks also sent a message of fanaticism and intimidation to Japan’s enemies.

Unlike modern suicide bombings, the Tokkotai attacks were directed exclusively at military targets. That said, the themes in the Japanese tactics of a military imbalance, indoctrination, and psychological intimidation can be seen years later in suicide bombings by non-state groups.

It is hard not see foreshadows of the attacks on September 11th 2001 in the tactics of the Tokkotai.

Lack of suicide bombings during the Cold War

Despite the simmering violence during the Cold War there were no reported incidents of suicide bombings after the Second World War until the 1980s.

Even in conflicts between insurgent groups facing a larger and better armed opponent (Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola, Northern Ireland, and Nicaragua) militant groups did not resort to this tactic.

Partly this may have been due to the relatively easy access to conventional weapons as the two super powers were happy to supply resources to those fighting in their proxy wars. It may also be due to the lack of a successful precedent to inspire copycat attacks.

During this period though there were developments which would play important roles in the emergence of suicide terror at the end of the 20th century.

After the Second World War the US and UK encouraged and strengthened radical Islamic movements in the Middle East to in order to contain the spread of the Soviet Union and prevent the rise of nationalist movements hostile to the West.

It was also during the 1970s that the Saudi Arabian government began to spend billions of dollars to promote Wahhabism, an ultra conservative reading of Islam, around the world.

With a few exceptions, conflicts between these groups and the secular state have provided the main context for suicide bombings.

Of the 36 countries where suicide bombings have been recorded by the University of Chicago, only four (Finland, China, Bolivia, and Sri Lanka) have not involved groups with links to radical Islam.


The first large suicide bombing campaign after the Second World War occurred in the 1980s during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

The largest bombings occurred on 23 October 1983, a truck was driven into a US Marine base in Lebanon. The driver detonated 2,000 pounds of explosives he had packed inside the truck and in so doing killed himself along with 241 military personnel. Seconds later, another bomber struck the operations building of French paratroopers and killed 58 people.

The bombings were blamed on Shiite militant groups supported by Iran. They eventually became the militant group Hezbollah. They would go on to be responsible for a series of around twenty suicide attacks directed at the Israeli and Lebanese armies in the 1980s.

Car bombs in Lebanon had already become a regular occurrence with abandoned vehicles near targets like embassies and military bases treated with extreme suspicion. Suicide attacks added a new dimension to the threat. They required a broad range of security measures and their novelty captured widespread media attention.

Muhammad Hussein Fadalallah, a spiritual guide of Hezbollah, described under what circumstances suicide bombers were deployed:

‘We believe that suicide operations should only be carried out if they can bring about a political change in proportion to the passions that incite a person to make his body an explosive bomb.’

These attacks were not pointless acts of brutality but were carefully considered to have a real political impact.

The bombing of the military bases successfully undermined US public support for continued involvement in the Lebanese war. The Multinational Force withdrew from Lebanon shortly afterwards as the cost of pursuing the current policy became too high.

Similar suicide attacks on Israeli military bases, including one in Tyre in April 1982 which killed seventy six security personnel, persuaded the Israelis to move out of population centres, ceding areas to Hezbollah influence. For the most part bombings were directed at military targets, though civilians were sometimes part of the collateral damage.

The highly organised and co-ordinated suicide bombing campaign in Lebanon was a breakthrough moment in the history of suicide bombings. Although subsequent attacks in Lebanon would not cause the same number of casualties, the strategic successes of the bombings helped to popularise the tactic and to raise the profile of Hezbollah. Their members even carried out suicide bombings in other parts of the world including in Argentina in 1994.

They were the first Islamic group to carry out suicide attacks and would go on to play an important role in exporting their knowledge to Palestinian militant groups. The explosion in suicide attacks has its origins in the Lebanese civil war.

suicide attacks graph

(Data from the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism)

The Palestinian territories

In 1993, around 10 years after suicide attacks began in Lebanon, Palestinian groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad began using suicide bombers against Israeli targets in an attempt to disrupt talks for a potential peace process. Many of these attacks were deliberately targeted at civilians. At least742 civilians were killed and 4,899 were wounded by suicide bombings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories according to data from the University of Chicago. During the fighting in Lebanon only 88 civilians were killed by suicide bombings and 160 were wounded.

The first attacks occurred in April 1994 when eight people were killed in a car bomb attack on a bus in Afula in Israel. The group Hamas claimed responsibility. Bombings continued sporadically in the 1990s with seven in 1995, three in 1996, five in 1997, two in 1998 and two in 2000.

There then followed an upsurge in Palestinian suicide bombings in the next decade with 103 bombings in the next three years. The increase corresponds with the second intifada following the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations. As violence intensified, the military wing of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, also began to deploy suicide bombers.

Many of these attacks were deliberately aimed at civilians. In part this reflects a broader decline of the taboo on targeting and killing civilians over the last century. But it is also a specific feature of the campaigns of the Islamic militant groups involved. Bombers hope to become shuhuada (martyrs) by giving their lives as an ultimate act of devotion in a defensive holy war.

Attacks against Israeli civilians were justified by claiming that

1)      They are non-believers who are an extension of the Israeli occupation and therefore legitimate targets who do not qualify as civilians.

2)      Israel had killed many innocent Palestinian civilians and this was therefore a justified act of revenge.

Mahmoud Ahmed Marmash, a twenty-one-year old suicide bomber who blew himself up near Tel Aviv in May 2001 justified his decision on a video before his mission.

‘I want to avenge the blood of the Palestinians, especially the blood of the women, of the elderly, and of the children, and in particular the blood of the baby girl Iman Heijo, whose death shook me to the core…. I devote my humble deed to the Islamic believers who admire the martyrs and who work for them.’

His argument captures the mixture of religious and personal motivations which fuel suicide bombings. On the one hand his death was part of a wider religious Jihad, on the other it is motivated by a very personal desire for revenge.

For the first time suicide bombings began to be used as a means of transmitting fear throughout a whole population. These attacks were no longer unorthodox tactics in a guerrilla war against a state military, but a horribly effective means of  terrorising  civilians.

Popular support for suicide bombings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains high. A recentPew survey of global attitudes found that 40% of those questioned in the Palestinian Territories believed that suicide bombing in defence of Islam is justified. In Pakistan that figure is only 13%. This is important- groups carrying out suicide bombings are hoping to win public support, if the bombings do not resonate in a positive way then their cause will fail. So long as support for bombings remains there may well be a resurgence of the tactic among Palestinian militant groups in the future.

Sri Lanka

Not all groups deploying suicide bombing have a national-religious ideology. In Sri Lanka the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began using suicide bombings in the late 1980s.

Unlike Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups, the LTTE were a secular guerrilla movement. Their objective was the creation of a separate state for Tamil people in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.

The group was led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. A charismatic leader, he developed a cult of personality around himself and played a pivotal role in the recruitment of suicide bombers known as the Black Tigers. To join the Black Tigers, LTTE members had to write application letters to Prabhakaran who would decide whether they were worthy. There were so many applications that alottery for martyrs was created.

Several LTTE members were training at Hezbollah terrorist camps at the time of the Beirut bombings in 1983. The impact of these bombings convinced Prabhakran to attempt similar attacks.

The first suicide bombing in Sri Lanka had strong similarities with the Beirut bombings four years previously. On 5 July 1987 an explosives-laden truck was driven into a Sri Lankan Army Barracks, killing 55 soldiers.

The perpetrator of the attack, going by the name of Captain Miller, was commemorated with a statue in the Tamil occupied town of Jaffna. Even in this secular campaign there existed a kind of martyrdom for those who were prepared to give their lives in these bombings.

captain miller

And their impact was profound. The Black Tigers were the world leaders in suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003. Not for nothing did Time Magazine describe the LTTE as ‘the most successful terrorist organization in the world.’

There were at least 137 suicide bombings carried out by the LTTE, amongst them were two high profile assassinations of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Five further Sri Lankan cabinet members were assassinated by suicide bombings blamed on the LTTE.

The Black Tigers also carried out sophisticated attacks from the air and at sea. In May 2006 a squadron of speedboat suicide bombers rammed into a Sri Lankan navy transport convoy and killed 17 sailors. As recently as 2009, a suicide air raid on Colombo was thwarted when aeroplanes packed with explosives were shot down before they reached their target.  The Black Tigers also invented the suicide belt which would go on to used regularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Black Widows

Although most attacks discussed so far were carried out by young males, female suicide bombers have been used in a wide range of conflicts. The University of Chicago has recorded 125 attacks involving female suicide bombers between 1981 and 2010- just over 5% of those recorded.

The first attack occurred 1985 when a Lebanese woman blew herself up near an Israeli convoy. Since then attacks have taken place in countries including Sri Lanka, Russia, Turkey, India, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Among the most famous group of female suicide bombers are those referred to as the ‘Black Widows’ by the Russian media. Fighting for independence in Chechnya, they are often women who have lost husbands and brothers to the conflict.

In August 2004 two airliners were brought down by women with explosives, one of whom had a brother who disappeared a few years previously, killing 90 people. In total they have been involved in around 20 attacks carried out by the Chechen insurgency.

Attacks carried out by women have a range of tactical advantages for militant groups. Firstly, they attract significant media interest, sending a message that the cause has spread beyond a radical male youth. Secondly, the bombers attract less suspicion than their male counterparts and are able to access areas which men cannot. For instance, the assassination of the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi was carried out by a member of the Sri Lankan Black Tigress group who place a garland over the targets head before detonating her bomb.

Al Qaeda and suicide terror

In recent years, suicide bombings have moved from being mainly used as a way of resisting occupation in Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Chechnya and Palestine to becoming the most high profile weapon of a global jihad.

Al Qaeda was formed in Pakistan in 1988 with the stated mission of implementing Sharia law and ridding the world of non-Muslim influences. They carried out their first suicide bombing in 1995 at a US military base in Saudi Arabia killing 5 people. In 1998 the Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden issued a fatwa which declared all American citizens legitimate targets. On 7 August in that same year they launched twin suicide attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killing 223 people.

Then came 9-11.  Al Qaeda’s battle for global jihad became infamous around the world after hijacked airliners were used in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 2001. Nearly three thousand people were killed in the most deadly suicide bombings ever carried out.


The attacks lead to complete overhauls in US domestic security and foreign policy. The responses to these attacks severely damaged their standing in the Muslim world. Current bombing campaigns against the US and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have some of their roots in the rubble of the twin towers.

Over the following years attacks by Al Qaeda and their offshoots have spread throughout the world including bombings in London in 2005 which killed 52 people and in Bali in 2002 where 202 people were killed.

Al Qaeda has a reputation for organising sophisticated co-ordinated attacks designed to inflict the largest number of civilian casualties and are responsible for three of the five most deadly suicide bombings ever carried out.

Most deadly suicide attacks since 1981

Incident Date Number of people killed
1 Al-Qaeda attack on World Trade Centre and Pentagon 11/9/2001 2,955
2 Hezbollah bombing of US and French military bases in Lebanon 23/10/1983 320
3 Co-ordinated bombings of the Yazidi communities in Northern Iraq, masterminded by Al Qaeda 14/08/2007 250 (later revised to an estimated 500)
4 Al Qaeda attacks on Tanzanian and Kenyan embassies 07/08/1998 224
5 Bombings outside nightclubs in Bali carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah 12/10/2002 202

(Source:  University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism)

The attacks lead to complete overhauls in US domestic security and foreign policy. The responses to these attacks severely damaged their standing in the Muslim world. Current bombing campaigns against the US and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have some of their roots in the rubble of the twin towers.

Over the following years attacks by Al Qaeda and their offshoots have spread throughout the world including bombings in London in 2005 which killed 52 people and in Bali in 2002 where 202 people were killed.

Al Qaeda has a reputation for organising sophisticated co-ordinated attacks designed to inflict the largest number of civilian casualties and are responsible for three of the five most deadly suicide bombings ever carried out.


The most deadly country for suicide bombings over the last decade is Iraq by some distance. A Lancet study found that at least 1,003 suicide bombings caused civilian casualties in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. Around 12,000 civilians were killed in this time period.

There were around 60 times more civilians killed than soldiers. This clearly indicates that civilians are not merely ‘collateral damage’ but are being deliberately targeted.

Many of the attacks were part of sectarian violence. In particular Shiite Muslims have been targeted by Sunni insurgents dissatisfied at the political regime following the Anglo-American occupation.

Suicide attacks began in 2004, following a dispute over the number of Sunni Arabs appointed to the Iraqi Governing Council. The targets included a Shiite mosque, the UN headquarters, and the Red Cross headquarters. Among those killed was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations Special Representative in Iraq.

Upsurges in the violence have occurred following events like the assassination of Abu Masab Al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the ‘surge’ in US troops.

Many of those carrying out the bombings were from outside of Iraq, with Saudi Arabia contributing the highest number of fighters followed by Libya, Syria, Algeria and Yemen.

Attacks have continued despite the withdrawal of US troops and attempts to make civilians more secure seem to be failing. Recent efforts by the government include officials introducing a ban in Baghdad on certain types of vehicles likely to be used in bombings and the establishment of hundreds of checkpoints. So far these efforts appear to be failing. Peace still seems a distant prospect and there is now considerable concern that violence in Syria will spill over into neighbouring Iraq. There are already reports of leaders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq finding sanctuary across the Syrian border.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

There are two forms of violence which dominate the Taliban insurgency against the NATO presence in Afghanistan. One is the use of victim activated IEDs to target patrols of troops and the other is the use of suicide bombings in densely populated urban areas to continually undermine any sense of security. In the first six months of this year 52% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan were caused by suicide bombs, according to UN data.

Interestingly, suicide bombing played no part in the struggle against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It only began to be used as a tactic in 2004, perhaps inspired by the success which such bombings were having in Iraq.

Many of the attacks in Afghanistan are carried out by children. Some as young as nine have been intercepted on suicide bomb missions. Often trained at Pakistani madrassas, they are particularly vulnerable to indoctrination. ‘These kids might disappear at 12 and come back at 15 fully militarised and conscious of their own bodies as weapons.’

child suicide bombings 2

A recent UN report has claimed that in 2012, at least 10 children were recruited and used by armed groups to conduct suicide attacks.

The violence in Afghanistan frequently spills over to the nebulous border with Pakistan where government forces and minority groups are the targets of bombings. Shia communities in particular are targeted and Human Rights Watch have criticised the Pakistani government’s failure to protect them.

As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down one relic of the conflict may be the continuation of suicide bombings along sectarian lines in a pattern similar to that seen in Iraq.

What next?

The next hotspots to emerge as centres for suicide violence may be Nigeria and Syria as the allure of suicide bombings appears to spread.

The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram launched its first suicide bombing on 16 June 2011 when it attacked the police headquarters in Abuja. A few months later a bomber rammed his car into the UN building killing 23 people. Since then there have been at least 29 suicide attacks in northern Nigeria.The heavy handed military responses to the problem may only lead to an escalation in the fighting.

Among the horrendous acts of violence committed in Syria over the last two years has been a series of suicide bombings in urban areas. On the 10th May, two car bombs carrying a combined 1000kg of explosives detonated in Damascus killing 55 people. As was the case with several similar blasts, responsibility for these attacks was disputed with claims that it may have been carried out by the Syrian government and blamed on the opposition.

Stability looks a long way off in Syria. Even when it does finally return, the lesson from Iraq is that such bombings can become established tactics for sectarian violence and their use becomes a habit which is difficult to quit.

The use of suicide bombers and IEDs to inflict mass casualties on civilians is growing phenomenon and not enough is being done to address it. Over the following months, alongside our work on manufactured explosive weapons, AOAV will be exploring how we can start to prevent the continued spread of this horrifying tactic.

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