12 August 2023
Introduction & Details
Suicide bombing has emerged as a distinct phenomenon in contemporary insurgencies. The act of suicide bombing involves an individual who willingly sacrifices their own life while simultaneously causing widespread destruction and loss of life. It represents both a strategy and a tactic employed by certain groups and individuals to achieve specific political, religious, or ideological objectives.
Understanding the multifaceted nature of suicide bombing requires a comprehensive examination of various factors that contribute to its occurrence, such as political grievances, social alienation, extreme repression, personal motivations, and community structures of symbolic immortalisation. Successful suicide bombing campaigns require a multifaceted interplay involving a triadic relationship among the insurgent organisation, the perpetrating individual, and the supporting community.
Past Uses & Renowned Cases
Suicide attacks possess a deep genealogy across human civilisation. The emergence of suicide bombing is linked to the advent of dynamite and the subsequent advancements in explosives technology. The origins of suicide bombing can be traced back to 1881, when Russian revolutionary Iganty Grinevitsky utilised a bomb to assassinate Tsar Alexander II at close range (1). However, the Lebanese insurgent group Hezbollah revolutionised the use of suicide bombing in modern combat. In 1983, the group executed coordinated vehicle-borne suicide attacks on U.S. and French military barracks, claiming the lives of 307 people: 241 American and 58 French soldiers, alongside six civilians (2). These attacks ultimately achieved their aim as the Multi-National Force in Lebanon (MNF) subsequently evacuated the territory, bestowing the strategy with a newfound effectiveness.
The September 11th attacks, carried out by Al-Qaeda, remain the most notorious and deadly vehicle-borne suicide attacks to date. The attacks claimed the lives of 2,996 individuals and left countless others injured. Suicide bombing campaigns have been prolific in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. Iraq accounted for 58.7% of global suicide bombings between 1981 and 2006 due to its use by the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. and coalition forces following the invasion, and within the Iraqi Civil War (3). The development of strategic suicide bombings during the First and Second Intifadas in Israel and Palestine has garnered significant media attention. Despite accounting for less than 1% of attacks, this strategy has resulted in 50% of the total fatalities across the two conflicts (4). The ethno-nationalist conflict is cited as the substantive case for analysing successful suicide campaigns and countermeasures (5). While suicide bombing has become associated with Islamic insurgency movements, alternative ideologically driven movements such as the Tamil Tigers and the PKK have successfully adopted the strategy.
Purpose of Use & Details
The strategic goals of suicide bombing campaigns primarily centre on expelling foreign occupiers, national liberation, and the destabilisation of a political regime. Suicide bombing is the most lethal strategy used by insurgency movements as it causes high levels of human casualties and material damage with little organisational difficulties or material investment. Since 1968, suicide bombings have accounted for almost half of all recorded victims, despite representing a minority of terror incidents (6). This lethality is aided in part by the fact that it is a human guided technological device, allowing for precision and adaptability in its use. However, when taken into context, its strategic rationale varies between a retaliatory and an organisational impetus. Organisationally, the strategy is attractive as a weapon of last resort that revolutionises a conflict by overcoming an insurgency’s military inferiority. A resilient collective campaign of self-sacrifice imparts a message of determination and defiance. The community's moral fortitude is bolstered by their repeated rejection of the normative value of life, as they demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice themselves in a manner that their adversary does not (7). Hence, the strategy succeeds in shifting the emphasis of the conflict from the group's military inferiority to its newly obtained psychological superiority. This psychological superiority is in part gained from the deleterious mental effects on the target society and governmental structures of the constant looming threat of choatic violence.
Additionally, it can be a retaliatory strategy, as a major factor driving groups' decisions to conduct suicide bombing campaigns is harsh state repression. The use of excessive force, frequent brutality, and instances of mass killings by occupying military forces indicate an insurgency's military inferiority and contribute to the radicalisation necessary for individuals to accept and carry out suicide bombings (8). Interviews with leaders of insurgency groups such as Hamas and PIJ confirm that suicide bombing is enacted in response to harsh repression (9). Importantly, as suicide bombing injects fear into society and derides the state’s monopoly on the use of violence, the state often asserts its control over social order through more extreme tactics. A self-fulfilling spiral of greater repression and increased suicide attacks can emerge within this matrix. Studies have highlighted that 71 percent of the time the strategy is utilised for revenge and retaliation (10).
Effective suicide bombing requires three core components: organisation, recruitment, and community support. The first shift towards an insurgency adopting a campaign of suicide bombing involves collective deliberation and rational calculation within the group. Obtaining community support is a more abstract process. This requires altering perspectives on the act. Insurgent groups typically act upon the grievances entrenched as a result of bloody conflict, suffering, and repression in order to direct polarised attitudes in an amenable direction. Broad trends of altruism, self-sacrifice, and heroism are co-opted and reshaped to excuse and celebrate the act of suicide violence (11). This subculture of martyrdom can be more easily inculcated within societies that have pre-existing political or religious structures adaptable to suicide violence, an explanation for its predominant success within Islamic societies (12). This radicalisation process, which bestows participants with reverence, is essential to encouraging recruitment. Recruits can be encouraged by symbolic idolisation such as funeral rituals and commemoration (13). Experts in psychology suggest that individuals may engage in suicide bombing to safeguard the reputation of their family or to invest in the future of their community and interpersonal relationships (14). Additionally, religious doctrine offers the promise of symbolic materialisation as an incentive for believers to justify and rationalise their actions (15).
The organisational structure of the insurgenct group typically has a cohesive, standardised practice for the implementation of the attack. Crucial components of a successful attack involve maintaining a strict level of confidentiality, procuring explosive materials, carefully selecting a suitable target, and gathering pertinent information leading up to the event (16). These preparations ensure that a successful attack is carried out with maximum lethality, accuracy, and surprise. Analysis of Palestinian insurgencies indicates that prior to the attack, a local leader will supervise the mission by establishing a cell and selecting a trustworthy and resilient volunteer (17). Preparation time is short, as 33% of attacks occur within 10 days of recruitment (18). During this period, operational training takes place, and various measures are put in place to ensure that volunteers remain committed to their mission. Measures to exert pressure on the volunteers not to back out include appraisals, religious rituals, pressure from revered leaders, and recording final statements (19).
Recently, explosive vests have become the primary form of weapon. SBIEDS (suicide-borne improvised explosive devices) are easy, cheap, lethal, and concealable (20). The device can often be detonated remotely and physically in order to ensure secondary control of the mission. The device has the ability of being physically activated and remotely detonated to ensure secondary control of the mission by a co-conspirator. Despite being more complex and expensive, vehicles are also utilised. This can involve preparing a vehicle with either fuel, TNT, PE4, mortar ammunition, or rockets (21). This approach seeks to implement great devastation, usually with a specific focus on military structures such as checkpoints or bases.
Countering suicide attacks can be a complicated process. Countermeasures can be organised into three primary categories: defensive, offensive, and ideological. Offensive countermeasures involve pre-emptive attacks on the insurgent group as a whole. This involves destroying infrastructure, arresting/assassinating leaders, and cutting off supply lines. Specifically, the state forces may uncover and terminate the terror cells preparing attacks. In general, this aims to reduce the insurgency's resources and capabilities. In more extreme circumstances, states may aim to collectively punish the perpetrating community through indiscriminate repression and/or crackdowns. However, these offensive strategies can be costly. As mentioned previously, a self-fulfilling cycle can emerge with greater targeting of insurgencies as it promotes the use of the ‘weapon of last resort’ and increases community support for suicide bombing. Additionally, extensive targeting of cells has little deterrence effect given the high degree of volunteering within subcultures of martyrdom (22). Ultimately, collective punishments that are perceived as unfair can actually strengthen the resolve to resist rather than encourage compliance (23).
In contrast, defensive measures aim to curtail the human and structural costs of suicide bombing campaigns. It involves preventing suicide bombers from reaching their targets through widespread surveillance, increased security checks, and physical impediments such as road blocks or checkpoints (24). Adapting new security distancing practices can be effective, however, defensive measures can often result in higher civilian casualties as security targets no longer become viable (25). Israeli security forces successfully implemented defensive countermeasures in the Lebanese War, as indicated by the decrease of fatalities per attack from 120.5 in 1983 to 2.1 in 1985 and an open admission from the leader of Hezbollah that the strategy was becoming untenable. Finally, the state can adopt a broad spectrum of ideological countermeasures. Media framing is often important, as state media can demonise the act by framing the perpetrators as fanatics and lunatics (26). This de-legitimises the group and reduces international support. Domestically, the state can take measures to combat radicalization and polarisation. Counter-information tactics, such as limiting access to insurgency propaganda or misinformation, and launching counterpropaganda campaigns, have the potential to disrupt the structures of martyrdom. Additionally, the political, cultural, or socioeconomic conditions that promote the insurgency and the subculture of martyrdom need to be addressed . Legitimising and engaging with moderate actors in the insurgency community can acquiesce the violence and direct the conflict towards an amenable solution. While optimistic, the latter strategies are dependent upon a litany of politico-military factors. Furthermore, counterpropaganda and ideological infiltration can be difficult objectives to achieve given the lack of structures within enemy communities.
Open-Source Intelligence & Field Examples
POV footage of an Iraqi M1A1 taking an Islamic State VBIED detonation.
Works Cited (Chicago-style) & Endnotes
(1) - Hamourtziadou, Lily. 2022. “Afghanistan: Taliban plans for suicide brigade reveal changing nature of warfare in 21st century.” The Conversation, January 13, 2022. https://theconversation.com/afghanistan-taliban-plans-for-suicide-brigade-reveal-changing-nature-of-warfare-in-21st-century-174829.
(2) - Lewis, Jeffrey William. "The human use of human beings: A brief history of suicide bombing." Origins 6, no. 7 (2013).
(3) - Merari, Ariel. "Suicide attacks as a terrorist tactic: characteristics and counter-measures." (2007).
(4) - Ibid.
(5) - Brym, Robert J., and Bader Araj. "Suicide bombing as strategy and interaction: The case of the second intifada." Social Forces 84, no. 4 (2006): 1969-1986.
(6) - De la Corte, Luis, and Andrea Giménez-Salinas. "Suicide terrorism as a tool of insurgency campaigns: Functions, risk factors, and countermeasures." Perspectives on Terrorism 3, no. 1 (2009): 11-19.
(7) - Reuter, Christoph. My life is a weapon: A modern history of suicide bombing. Princeton University Press, 2004.
(8) - Araj, Bader. "Harsh state repression as a cause of suicide bombing: The case of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31, no. 4 (2008): 284-303.
(9) - Ibid.
(10) - Brym, Robert J., and Bader Araj. "Suicide bombing as strategy and interaction: The case of the second intifada." Social Forces 84, no. 4 (2006): 1969-1986.
(11) - Lewis, Jeffrey William. "The human use of human beings: A brief history of suicide bombing." Origins 6, no. 7 (2013).
(12) - De la Corte, Luis, and Andrea Giménez-Salinas. "Suicide terrorism as a tool of insurgency campaigns: Functions, risk factors, and countermeasures." Perspectives on Terrorism 3, no. 1 (2009): 11-19.
(13) - Hassan, Riaz. 2011. “9/11: Why suicide bombers blow themselves up.” The Conversation, September 8, 2011. https://theconversation.com/9-11-why-suicide-bombers-blow-themselves-up-3256.
(14) - Ibid.
(15) - Reuter, Christoph. My life is a weapon: A modern history of suicide bombing. Princeton University Press, 2004.
(16) - De la Corte, Luis, and Andrea Giménez-Salinas. "Suicide terrorism as a tool of insurgency campaigns: Functions, risk factors, and countermeasures." Perspectives on Terrorism 3, no. 1 (2009): 11-19.
(17) - Merari, Ariel. "Suicide attacks as a terrorist tactic: characteristics and counter-measures." (2007).
(18) - Ibid.
(19) - Ibid.
(20) - De la Corte, Luis, and Andrea Giménez-Salinas. "Suicide terrorism as a tool of insurgency campaigns: Functions, risk factors, and countermeasures." Perspectives on Terrorism 3, no. 1 (2009): 11-19.
(21) - Ibid.
(22) - Merari, Ariel. "Suicide attacks as a terrorist tactic: characteristics and counter-measures." (2007).
(23) - Hassan, Riaz. 2011. “9/11: Why suicide bombers blow themselves up.” The Conversation, September 8, 2011. https://theconversation.com/9-11-why-suicide-bombers-blow-themselves-up-3256.
(24) - De la Corte, Luis, and Andrea Giménez-Salinas. "Suicide terrorism as a tool of insurgency campaigns: Functions, risk factors, and countermeasures." Perspectives on Terrorism 3, no. 1 (2009): 11-19.
(25) - Ibid.
(26) - Reuter, Christoph. My life is a weapon: A modern history of suicide bombing. Princeton University Press, 2004.