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A suicide bombing is a bomb attack on people or property, committed by a person who knows the explosion will cause his or her own death (see suicide, suicide weapons). Suicide bombing is a kind of tactic typically employed by extremely committed military or paramilitary groups that are at a disadvantage to their target. This term came into popular usage in the Western media in the Second World War to describe the actions of Japanese kamikaze pilots who caused the maximum damage by flying their aircraft into targets. In more recent times, the term is most often used in describing attacks by Muslim jihadists.
Suicide bombings have taken various forms.
History shows numerous examples of soldiers and others that have resorted to suicide attacks out of sudden desperation, to prevent capture or to relieve a pinned-down unit, often by simply detonating a grenade or other explosive device while holding it near enemy troops.
During the Crusades, the Knights Templar destroyed one of their own ships, killing 140 Christians in order to kill ten times as many Muslims. Another early example of suicide bombing occurred during the Belgian Revolution, when the Dutch Lt. Jan van Speijk detonated his own ship in the harbour of Antwerp to prevent being captured by Belgians. In World War II, kamikaze pilots acted as human missiles, flying their planes, heavily loaded with explosives, directly into enemy warships. Following World War II, Viet Minh "death volunteers" were used against the French colonial army.
In the Middle East, hundreds of suicide bombings have been undertaken in the last few decades, primarily by Arab men and youths. Multiple Palestinian militant groups have sent specially trained suicide bombers to kill Israelis.
The bombers strap themselves with powerful explosives (often mixed with shrapnel) and seek out a civilian target (often cafés or city buses crowded with people at rush hour) or a military target (for example, soldiers waiting for transport at roadside). By seeking enclosed locations, a successful explosion usually kills a number of people.
Often there is a religious element involved, besides other motives such as politics or blackmail: many suicide bombers believe that they will attain an otherworldly reward for their sacrifice. Those who send suicide bombers on missions cultivate the belief that suicide bombers are martyrs. Palestinian television has aired a number of music videos and announcements that promote eternal reward for children who seek "martyrdom" .
Besides the religious aspect, there is also a simple cost-benefit analysis that motivates suicide bombing. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri expresses this view clearly: "The method of martyrdom operation [is] the most successful way of inflicting damage against the opponent and the least costly to the mujahidin in terms of casualties" . The economic benefits were also considered by kamikaze pilots, who saved on fuel by ruling out the return journey.
Military historians classify suicide bombing as a form of armed violence, belonging to the tactics of asymmetric warfare -- suicide bombings are only common when one side in a violent conflict lacks the means for effective, conventional attacks. However in the situation of many suicide bombings, the attacks are carried out against civilians rather than military targets, depriving the tactic of any legitimacy in the eyes of many.
Suicide bombing usually (but not always) targets poorly-guarded nonmilitary facilities and personnel. It can be either a military tactic, a political one, or a mixture of the two. It may qualify as terrorism where the intention is to kill, maim or terrorise a predominantly civilian target population, or fall within the definition of an act of war where it is committed against a military target under war conditions.
As a political tactic, suicide bombings send a message of impassioned opposition to enemy forces (that the bomber is willing to die for his or her cause) and a message of desperate recklessness to third parties (that the bomber feels the justice of the cause so strongly that he would rather die than submit and that he is giving little thought to the danger). However, it may backfire, as suicide bombings ignite rage and hatred and undermine the belief in the humanity of the side performing them.
When used against civilian targets, suicide bombing usually causes fear in the target population greater than that caused by other forms of terrorism, as the fact that the bomber intends to die makes deterrence almost impossible. Though use against civilian targets have differing effects on their 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 bombers apparently consider family prestige and financial compensation from the community to compensate for their own lives.
The doctrine of asymmetric warfare views suicide bombing in terms of an imbalance of power. Groups with little significant power resort to suicide bombing as a response to actions or policies of a group with great power. Groups which have significant power have no need to resort to suicide bombing to achieve their aims: in consequence suicide bombing is overwhelmingly used by guerrilla, and other irregular fighting forces. Among many such groups, there are religious overtones: bombers and their supporters may believe that their sacrifice will be rewarded in an afterlife. Suicide bombers often believe, correctly or incorrectly, that their actions are in accordance with moral or social standards because they are aimed at fighting unjust acts.
The concept of self-sacrifice has long been a part of war. From the earliest days of honoring fallen soldiers as heroes, those who sacrificed themselves to further a political, moral, or cultural ideology have been and still remain highly regarded character archetypes in human societies. Soldiers who lay down their lives to protect their comrades are commonly awarded the highest recognition for courage in battle, while those who survive combat are honored for their physical and psychological sacrifice.
However, both conventional (eg. soldiers) and nonconventional (eg. suicide bombers) combatants often commit atrocities and may face military discipline if they are found to be in breach of the laws of war. Suicide bombers are more often associated with attacks on civilian or non-military targets. In recent times, it has been mainly Islamic suicide bombers who have been encouraged in this practice by their commanders.
The act of deliberately destroying oneself to inflict harm on an enemy is more restricted to modern times and the era of explosives. The line between the two is considered by some a matter of subjectivity, as in the argument that many WWII soldiers killed were "martyrs" (in the sense that they were to suffer for the sake of a principle, rather than dying as the penalty for refusing to renounce a belief) because their life expectancy in combat was very low—often averaging only two or three months.
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, ritualized, and planes were outfitted with explosives specific to the task of a suicide mission. Kamikaze strikes were a weapon of symmetric war used by the Empire of Japan chiefly against United States Navy aircraft carriers.
The Japanese Navy also used both one and two man piloted torpedoes called kaitens on suicide missions. Although sometimes called midget submarines, these were modified versions of the unmanned torpedoes of the time and should be distinguished 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. Although extremely hazardous these midget submarine attacks were not technically suicide missions. By way of contrast, while the early kaitens were provided with escape hatches, there is no evidence that they were ever used or that the pilots had any intention of using them. Later kaitens provided no means of escape.
After aiming a two-person kaiten at their target, the two crew members were to embrace and shoot each other in the head. Social support for such choices was strong, due in part to Japanese cultural history, in which seppuku, honorable suicide, was part of samurai duty. It was also fostered and indoctrinated by the Imperial program to persuade, often through coercion (such as through doping), the Japanese soldiers to commit these acts.
Guerrilla groups that have employed suicide bombing include the Viet Minh, Kurdistan Workers Party and the Tamil Tigers. Suicide bombing has been a particularly popular tactic amongst some Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Bombers affiliated with these groups often use so-called "suicide belts", explosive devices designed to be strapped to the body under clothing. The manufacture and shipping of these devices is generally considered a form of support for terrorism. The first suicide bombing of the modern phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was carried out by a Japanese person. In 1972 Tsuyoshi Okudaira , part of the Japanese Red Army, deliberately killed himself and those around him with a grenade in a part of the Lod Airport Massacre. The term "suicide bombing" became commonplace after the attack on a United States Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.
The September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack involved the hijacking of large fully-fueled 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, thus making it one of the most destructive suicide attacks 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-Qaida, 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.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, waves of suicide bombings were carried out. The suicide bombers attacked United States military targets, although many civilian targets (eg. 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, 2005 on January 30, 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 .
Suicide bombings have occurred in more than 25 countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, China, Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Panama, the Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. (Suicide planes were also used in the United States).
Profile of a bomber
The most common initial reaction to a suicide bomber is to assume that he (or rarely she) was motivated by despair, and probably hailed from a poor, neglected segment of society. In fact, both President George W. Bush and the Dalai Lama have made this claim. However, anthropologist Scott Atran found in a 2003 study that this is not a justifiable conclusion. 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." Quote Original Paper.
In fact, most bombers are educated, many with college or university experience, and come from middle class homes. Many do show signs of psychological imbalance, and often had trouble relating socially as children. They often find solace in the ritualistic communion found in extremist circles, which are often headed by charismatic individuals looking for new recruits. Social insecurities notwithstanding, many are concerned for their families. As a result, Israel demolishes the home of suicide bombers and several organizations (former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Baathist government and The Palestinian Authority among them) are known to provide financial compensation to the families of suicide bombers.
Range of opinions
World leaders usually express resolve to continue on their previous course of affairs after such attacks. Leaders around the globe denounce suicide bombings and sometimes vow not to let such bombings deter what they see as their efforts to further civilization.
Suicide bombings in Israel are usually followed by reprisals. As a successful suicide bomber himself (the bombers are almost always young men) cannot be targeted, responses often target the community, family, or organization he came from. In the West Bank the armed forces of Israel usually demolish homes that they claim belong to families whose children have volunteered for such missions. Since many families encourage their children to volunteer to such acts given the expected financial reward from the Palestinian Authority and other Arab "charity" organizations (Saddam Hussein was known for paying the equivalent of $10,000-25,000 to families of suicide bombers, many of whom live in destitution), the act of demolishing house provides a disincentive to those who are motivated by the idea of financial gain for their families. There are numerous reports in the Israeli press about families who turned in their children after learning about a possible suicide bombing attack, fearful their house would be demolished by the Israel Defense Forces.
It is sometimes claimed that suicide bombings, notably those of the Japanese kamikazes, the Palestinian bombers, and even the September 11, 2001 attacks, were military failures, and highly counter-productive to the perpetrators. In the case of the kamikazes, this is seen as untrue by some. Although the kamikaze attacks could not stop the Allied advance, 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 Empire. The kamikaze attacks did reinforce the resolution of the World War II Allies to destroy the Imperial force, and may have had a significant effect in the decision to use atomic bombs against Japan. In the case of the September 11th attacks, the long-term effects remain to be seen, but in the short-to-medium term, the results were profoundly negative for Al-Qaeda as well as for the Talibans. Furthermore, 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 that the US and its allies believe to have been involved with terrorism.
The Palestinian suicide bombings are, for some individuals, more challenging to assess. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was a steady and continuous deployment of suicide bombers in 2000 following the collapse of the Camp David II summit between the PLO and Israel. In response, Israel mobilized its army in order to seal off the Gaza Strip and re-occupy the West Bank, placing it under military rule with the area patrolled by tanks. The Israelis also began a campaign of targeted assassinations to terminate militant Palestinian leaders, using jets and helicopters to deploy high-precision bombs and missiles.
Most significantly, the suicide missions, having killed hundreds and maimed thousands of 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 commerce, travel, schooling, and other aspects of life difficult for the Palestinians, with the average Palestinian suffering due to the choices of the suicide bombers.
Social support by some for this activity remains, 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. The peace plan presently being discussed may be better from the Palestinians' point of view than that which existed prior to the 2000 renewal of conflict. Such attacks have stalled and stopped peace plans in the past, which continued the Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and sparked deep mutual hatred and distrust, so these attacks may be counterproductive. Suicide bombing may thus "work" as a military tactic (in that it costs fewer lives than any conventional military tactic or targeting soldiers rather than civilians) and may or may not achieve the political objectives sought by the combatant. However, it is likely to remain a method of operation employed by Palestinians due in part to their enormous lack of military power relative to Israel.
The Islamist View
The basis for the Islamist view - which is not supported by all Muslims - is that the individual undertaking a martyrdom operation is doing what that individual understands is his/her Islamic duty, and thus regards their own life, in this world, as but a stage, a path, toward the next, and eternal, life. That is, such a martyrdom operation may result in them be rewarded, by Allah, with Paradise (Jannah). That is, they are willing to sacrifice their own life in the hope of becoming a Shaheed, a martyr.
Usage and related terms
The usage of the term "suicide bombing" dates back to as early as 1947. The Times (London) of April 15, 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 (Aug 21, 1945, page 6) refers to a kamikaze plane as a "suicide-bomb."
Nonetheless, in order to assign a more positive or negative connotation to the act, suicide bombing is sometimes referred to by different terms. The Arab term for suicide bombing is "Isshtahad" or "Shahadat," whereas the suicide bomber is called a "Shahid" (pl. "Shuhada"). The original meaning of the word "Shahid" in Arabic is a person who died in a Jihad in order to testify his faith in Allah. The term "Shahid" is used extensively by the Palestinian Authority in part to overcome the stigma and Islamic strictures against suicide. This term has been embraced by Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a branch of Yasser Arafat's Fatah, and other Palestinian factions engaging suicide bombings. Others argue that Palestinians are using the term "Shahid" for any Palestinians killed during the 4 years of hostilities. (Compare with: Martyrdom operation)
President George W. Bush attempted to coin the term "homicide bombing" in April 2002 as a synonym for "suicide bombing" in order to de-emphasize the self-sacrificial connotations of suicide bombing and emphasize that suicide bombers are committing murder as well as suicide. The use of the term has not gained widespread popularity, although the media outlets FOX News and the New York Post have adopted it.
- Islamist terrorism
- asymmetric warfare
- female suicide bomber
- child suicide bomber
- Dead man's switch
- Suicide weapons
External links, resources, references
- The Birth of Suicide Bombings as a Popular Weapon
- The psychology of Palestinian suicide bombing and Israeli paranoia
- The Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Bruce Hoffman published in The Atlantic Magazine June 2003* Reporting Terrorism
- Suicide Bombers - Why do they do it, and what does Islam say about their actions?
- What makes suicide bombers tick? - Suicide bomber profile and info
- The Culture of Martyrdom - How suicide bombing became not just a means but an end by David Brooks in The Atlantic Magazine June 2002
- Erased In A Moment : Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians [Human Rights Watch]
- History of use of the phrase "suicide bomber"
- History of use of the phrase "homicide bombing"
- USAF Suicide Bombers Intelligence Brief
- Has Israel beaten the suicide bombers? The Telegraph.
- Women Armed for Terror - list of women terrorist-bombers.
- An Islamist view of Martyrdom Operations
- The Maidens of Jannat
- Bernard B. Fall. 1966. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Da Capo Press. (References to suicide bombers on pages 352 and 368).
- M.R. Narayan Swamy. 1996. Tigers of Lanka: From Boys to Guerrillas, 2nd Ed. Vijitha Yapa Bookshop (Colombo).
- Dr. Eyad Sarraj. "Why we have become Suicide Bombers".התאבדות]
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