WASHINGTON – Unheard of only a few decades ago, suicide bombings have rapidly evolved into perhaps the most common method of terrorism in the world, moving west from the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s to the Palestinian intifada of recent years to Iraq today. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide attacks in the United States, suicide bombers have struck from Indonesia to India, Russia to Morocco.
Now governments throughout the West – including the United States – are bracing to cope with similar challenges in the wake of the deadly July 7 subway bombings in London, which marked the first time that suicide bombers had successfully mounted an attack in Western Europe.
The pace of such attacks is quickening. According to data compiled by the Rand Corp., about three-quarters of all suicide bombings have occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The numbers in Iraq alone are staggering: About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In May, an estimated 90 suicide bombings were carried out in the war-torn country – nearly as many as the Israeli government has documented in the conflict with Palestinians since 1993.
Saturday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body at a gas station near a Shiite mosque south of Baghdad, triggering a huge fuel tanker explosion that killed at least 54, according to police.
The bombings in London, which killed 55 people, illustrate the profound difficulty of preventing such attacks, experts say. Intelligence officials believe the bombers, in a common pattern, were foot soldiers recruited for the occasion, young men of Pakistani and Jamaican backgrounds reared in Britain who had recently converted to radical Islam. The four bombings required no exit strategy and were pulled off with devices that apparently were made in a bathtub and small enough to fit in backpacks.
“With the exception of weapons of mass destruction, there is no other type of attack that is more effective than suicide terrorism,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand, a California think tank. “The perception is that it’s impossible to guard against.”
Motives behind suicide bombings often are mixed. Terrorism experts and intelligence officials disagree on the extent to which political strategy and religious fervor have led to the tactic’s rising popularity. But in addition to the death toll, a key objective of such bombings is clearly to sow terror by violating deeply held cultural and religious taboos against suicide, experts say.
Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Clinton administration counterterrorism official, points to the frequent glorification of death and martyrdom by the leaders of al Qaeda and other extremist groups. In his famous fatwa, or declaration of war, against the United States in 1996, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden told U.S. officials: “These youth love death as you love life.”
“This is their way of saying they are much more determined than we are,” said Benjamin, who co-wrote the book “The Age of Sacred Terror.”
“They realize we are very unnerved by this. … I see the spread of it as a tactic as an indication of the strength of the ideology for Muslim radicals,” Benjamin said.
Sri Lanka roots
The use of suicide attacks is not new. Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II tried to cause maximum damage by crashing their fighter planes into U.S. ships. Walter Laqueur, an expert in the history of terrorism, also says that, for centuries, any attack on military or political leaders was a form of suicide because the act usually occurred at close quarters and brought swift and certain death for the killer.
One watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out several dozen more suicide attacks.
Most experts agree that the modern style of suicide bombings first gained its greatest prominence outside the Middle East, in the island nation of Sri Lanka.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, is an avowedly secular rebel movement of the country’s Tamil ethnic minority. It carried out scores of suicide bombings from the late 1980s until a cease-fire in 2002. The conflict between the Tigers and the government, which is dominated by members of the majority Sinhalese population, began in 1983 and claimed an estimated 65,000 lives.
Though dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions. The Tigers’ early and aggressive use of suicide attacks, analysts say, reflected a pragmatic calculation of the need to level the military playing field against a larger and better-equipped foe.
The group created an elite force to carry out such attacks, the Black Tigers, whose members underwent rigorous training and were reportedly treated to dinner with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before being sent on their missions.
The rebels carried out their first suicide bombing in 1987, when a captain blew himself up along with 40 government troops at an army camp in the northern part of the country. Tamil Tiger spokesmen emphasize the use of suicide attackers against military targets, but the group has also used them against political and economic targets in strikes that have cost hundreds of civilian lives.
In 1991, a suspected Tamil Tiger assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Two years later, a suicide bomber killed Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and 23 others in Colombo. Tamil Tiger suicide attackers also staged devastating strikes on the country’s central bank, its holiest Buddhist shrine and its international airport.
Robert Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, calls the group the world’s “leading instigator” of suicide attacks. In his recent book “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” Pape says that the group accounted for 76 of 315 suicide attacks carried out around the world from 1980 through 2003, compared with 54 for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and 27 for Islamic Jihad.
Some analysts say the group’s strategy, though reprehensible, was effective in pushing the government toward a negotiated settlement.
“The suicide bombings in civilian areas, especially outside the conflict zones of the northeast, brought to the people outside the horror of the war and the vulnerability of society, ” Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, an advocacy group in Colombo, said in a telephone interview.
Laqueur, the author of several books on terrorism, disagrees, arguing noting that the Tigers’ primary goal to gain power has not been achieved after more than two decades of bloodshed. But he said Sri Lanka does illustrate how religious extremism has not always been central to the tactic.