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Where Have All the Bombers Gone?

20/04/2008 | by Toronto, Nathan W.  

In 2007, there were 226 suicide bombings around the world, but only one of those occurred in Israel. The double suicide bombing in Dimona, Israel, on February 4, 2008, was the first suicide attack in over a year, and was probably an anomaly. In fact, even though there has been a worldwide increase in suicide bombings over the past eight years,[1] there has been a dramatic decrease in Palestinian suicide bombings in the same period. Figure 1 illustrates this trend. It represents each confirmed Palestinian suicide bombing from July, 2000, to November, 2007, as a vertical line, such that a lower density of lines indicates a lower frequency of suicide attacks. Even more surprising than this decrease is that—before the attack last February 4—the most recent Hamas-claimed suicide bombing occurred on January 18, 2005, over three years earlier. Even Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian group seemingly most committed to the continuation of suicide bombings, has significantly slowed the pace of its attacks leading up to its most recent suicide bombing, on January 29, 2007.[2] Palestinian terrorist organizations, it seems, have largely abandoned suicide bombing as a tactic.

The demise of Palestinian suicide bombing is especially puzzling when one considers how gruesomely effective it has been. Since the first Palestinian suicide bombing, on April 6, 1994, such attacks in Israel have claimed the lives of 866 victims (not including the bombers). Since the 1967 Six Day War, however, 659 victims have died as the result of all other types of confirmed Palestinian attacks in Israel. If fatalities are an indicator of the level of terror that a suicide bomb attack induces—not an implausible assertion, since the number of fatalities always seems salient enough to make news reports—then suicide bombing has by far been Palestinian terrorists’ most effective tactic.[3] If the global trend is towards a greater number of suicide bombings, and if this tactic has been so effective at inflicting casualties in Israel, why have Palestinian terrorist organizations gone away from it?

They are either unable or unwilling to launch these attacks, or both. They might be unable to launch suicide bombings because of Israel’s preventive security measures, such as the security fences around the Gaza Strip and West Bank or the extensive intelligence network with which Israel anticipates and prevents attacks. It may be that, in the past year, such security measures have prevented all but two Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel. After all, since 2005, Palestinian terrorist penetrations into Israel have been exceedingly rare, limited only to a handful of suicide bombings and attacks with firearms. However, the effectiveness of Israeli security measures does not explain why Hamas stopped launching suicide bombings fully two years prior to Islamic Jihad’s most recent attack (see Figures 2 and 3). If these security measures fully explain the almost total evaporation of Palestinian suicide bombings, then these bombings should have ceased at around the same time for both groups.

There is more to the story. Palestinian terrorist organizations may have been ableto launch only one suicide bombing in the last year (with Hamas taking a three-year break from the tactic) because of a lack of resources like money, materiel, or potential suicide bombers. This seems unlikely. Even though Iraqi funding for Palestinian suicide bombers’ families dried up in 2003,[4] there does not seem to be a shortage of resources for Palestinian terrorist organizations. The Terrorism Knowledge Base indicates that Iran currently contributes funding to both Hamas and Islamic Jihad,[5] and it seems unlikely that Iran would direct Hamas to stop using suicide bombings two years prior to Islamic Jihad. Other resources are probably getting to Palestinian terrorist organizations in the occupied territories, too. On December 25, 2007, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni accused Egypt of failing to secure its border with the Gaza Strip, and other Israeli officials note that smugglers have brought in dozens of tons of weapons and explosives. This smuggling activity has apparently increased since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June, 2007.[6] In early January, 2008, furthermore, Israel expressed concern that Palestinians returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca could enter the Gaza Strip with money and contraband for Hamas.[7] The Hamas-orchestrated destruction of the Gaza-Egypt border fence only increased Palestinian terrorist organizations’ access to external support. It is unlikely that Hamas—or any major Palestinian terrorist organization, for that matter—has not had enough money or materiel in the last year to launch more than one successful suicide bombing.

It is equally unlikely that there is a shortage of personnel with which to conduct suicide bombing operations. In a December, 2006, public opinion poll—conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR)—56.5 percent of those surveyed supported the continuation of armed action against Israel.[8] This support for armed action was not ephemeral, either. From December, 2005, to June, 2006—a time during which Hamas launched no suicide bombings—Palestinian support for armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel increased from 40 to 56 percent. In addition, when asked to express their approval or disapproval of specific suicide bombings, about half of Palestinian respondents have typically expressed approval.[9] This level of Palestinian support for armed action against Israel suggests that Palestinian terrorist organizations would not be hard-pressed to find willing personnel for suicide bombing operations. In short, if anything has made Palestinian terrorist organizations unable to conduct suicide bombings, it is Israeli security measures, but these measures do not explain why Hamas took a three-year hiatus from suicide bombings.

The answer may be that, in addition to Israel’s preventive security measures, Palestinian terrorist groups have actually become unwilling—and not simply unable—to conduct suicide bombings. One explanation for this unwillingness may be that suicide bombings have not been as effective in inducing terror as the tremendous number of fatalities suggests. In other words, Palestinian terrorist organizations may have undergone a tactical shift away from suicide bombing, all while maintaining their strategic goals of coercing Israel.[10] For this to be the case, though, there needs to be a more effective or terrifying tactic to replace suicide bombing.

Figure 4 suggests that indirect missile attacks may constitute such a replacement. These attacks, which include mortar and rocket attacks, have increased over time in direct proportion to the decrease in suicide bombings. The question remains, though, “Are indirect missile attacks more effective at inducing terror than suicide bombings?” The raw number of fatalities suggests that they are not: from the beginning of the second intifada in September, 2000, through March, 2007, 29 victims died as a result of indirect fire missile attacks.[11] However, it may be that indirect missile attacks generate a level of terror that the number of fatalities does not capture, but, even if this is the case, this increased terror would only extend to those Israelis living within missile range of the Gaza Strip, since only very rarely have Palestinian terrorist organizations launched missiles from the West Bank. If Palestinian terrorist organizations judge that they can accomplish their strategic objectives to coerce Israel by inducing terror in only the small proportion of the Israeli populace that lives within missile range, then the shift from suicide bombings to indirect missile fire makes strategic sense. That this is the case also seems unlikely.

It is likewise unlikely that the tactical shift from suicide bombers to missiles constitutes a strategic shift towards accommodation with Israel. The most obvious evidence supporting this contention is that no accommodation between Palestinian terrorist organizations and Israel has occurred since the second intifada began. In fact, while Hamas has proposed a ceasefire, neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad has seriously broached the possibility of renouncing terror or recognizing Israel, the two preconditions that the Palestine Liberation Organization had to meet in 1989 before entering into negotiations with the United States and, later, Israel. The most recent PCPSR survey in the West Bank and Gaza Strip suggests that such an accommodation would be unlikely. Only 28 percent of those who support Hamas (as compared to 63 percent of supporters of President Mahmud Abbas’ Fatah party) also support the Clinton final status parameters, which form the basis for the newest round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, launched in November, 2007.[12]

If Palestinian unwillingness to launch suicide bombers reflects neither a strategic shift towards accommodation nor a tactical shift towards more effectively coercing Israel, then what explains the shift away from suicide bombings? One possibility fits this evidence: Palestinian terrorist organizations have other strategic objectives besides coercing Israel. In this vein, it may be useful to think of Palestinian terrorist organizations not as hives of fanatical ideologues intent upon Israel’s destruction but as firms marketing different brands of Palestinian resistance. Their principal objective may be less to modify Israel’s behavior than to maintain or advance their organization’s relevance in Palestinian politics. They do this by gaining Palestinians’ approval for defending the one genuine path—according to them—to defeating Israel. As long as there are high levels of Palestinian support for armed attacks against Israel, and as long as large numbers of Palestinians blame Israel for their plight, there will be competition amongst Palestinian terrorist groups for the largest possible share of the resistance market.

The circumstances surrounding the February 4 bombing seem to support this. After a three-year hiatus from suicide attacks, Hamas launched this attack against a city that had not been struck before, and at a time when there had not been a Palestinian suicide bombing for a year. The suddenness of the attack made it potentially potent for popular Palestinian support for Hamas’ brand of resistance. Initially, Hamas did not claim the attack, but al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and two other groups did. Hamas issued its claim in response—saying that it had waited for security reasons—and Israeli security forces demolished the homes of the Hamas suicide bombers. In addition, the pictures of the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades’ bombers did not match the bodies at the scene, and the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades website went down for three days, presumably the result of an electronic attack after its bogus claim.[13] Hamas stood to make huge gains in popularity because of the boldness of the Dimona attack, and, when other organizations claimed the attack, Hamas had to do the same, as well as provide evidence that Hamas was the genuine perpetrator. Hamas could not let others profit at its expense.

This dynamic helps explain the effective cessation of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks over the last three years. Palestinian terrorist organizations—as resistance firms—must respond to the circumstances that Israel imposes upon them. Israel’s preventive security measures have undoubtedly kept some suicide bombers out of Israel, but Israel’s active security measures have had such a detrimental effect on Palestinian terrorist organizations’ viability that suicide bombing has ceased to be cost-effective in terms of marketing a brand of resistance. In other words, so long as Palestinian terrorist organizations themselves—and not the Palestinian people at large—have felt the brunt of Israeli security measures, then it has become less likely that they could continue suicide bombings while, at the same time, marketing their particular brand of resistance. The early evidence on this score is suggestive. Israel instituted its current policy of targeted killings in December, 2000, shortly after the start of the second intifada. By 2004, this tactic had achieved significant results against Hamas. In that year, Israeli security forces targeted and killed Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the two principal leaders of Hamas. Then, in January, 2005, Hamas launched its last suicide bombing for three years.

The alternative to suicide bombing—indirect missile fire—has not exactly been a detriment for resistance branding, either. If anything, it has made resistance branding even more cost-effective. Missile attacks kill many fewer people and affect far fewer Israelis on a daily basis than suicide bombings do. Thus, they do not elicit as strong a response from the Israeli polity. Still, they do elicit a response, which is enough to induce the Israeli government to take action against the Palestinians, as evidenced by the recent economic isolation of the Gaza Strip, whose lifting the Israelis have made contingent on the cessation of indirect missile attacks. These Israeli responses are a boon to Palestinian terrorist organizations: more Palestinians either blame Israel for their harsher conditions or exhibit greater sympathy for terrorist organizations’ causes, or both. In addition, by launching missiles into Israel, Palestinian terrorist organizations demonstrate that they are doing something to resist Israel’s occupation, which also bolsters their market share amongst Palestinians. In essence, then, Palestinian terrorist organizations are translating indirect missile attacks on Israel into shares of the Palestinian resistance market.

Palestinian terrorist organizations—as terror firms marketing competing brands of resistance—have made a dramatic shift from suicide bombings to indirect fire missiles. Only time will tell if this shift holds, but if the IDF keeps up its targeted killings and nearly daily raids into the Palestinian territories, and if months or years continue to pass between suicide attacks, then it will be increasingly certain that competition between Palestinian terrorist organizations affects the timing and type of attacks that they launch. Palestinian terrorist organizations are out to destroy each other just as much as they are out to destroy Israel.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3Figure 4Source: Terrorism Knowledge Base

Note: Vertical lines represent days on which Palestinian terrorist groups and/or Palestinians (i.e., when links to any one group are unclear) have launched indirect fire missiles at Israeli targets. On a given day, multiple missiles could be fired. Data on indirect missile attacks extends only to March, 2007. The pattern, however, indicates a tactical shift from suicide bombing to indirect fire missile attacks.


* Dr. Toronto is a researcher at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he studies insurgency and military professionalization in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy, or position, of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

[1] The one suicide bombing in Israel in 2007 was a joint Islamic Jihad–Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades attack on a bakery in Eilat, on January 29. In 2000, there were only 10 suicide bombings worldwide. This number peaked at 336 in 2005, and fell to 226 last year. While there has been a decline in the past three years, the number of worldwide suicide bombings is still much higher than it was eight years ago. See the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism’s (MIPT) Terrorism Knowledge Base, “Terrorist Incident Reports: Incidents by Tactic,” accessed January 14, 2008, available from

[2] For incident descriptions of individual Palestinian attacks, see Terrorism Knowledge Base, “Knowledge Base Directory: Incidents: Geographical Location: Middle East/Persian Gulf: Israel [and] West Bank/Gaza,” accessed April–December, 2007, available from (for incidents in Israel) and (for incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip).

[3] Yoram Schweitzer, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, notes the greater psychological impact of suicide bombings as compared to indirect fire missile attacks on Israel: “The rockets are much less effective in terms of fatalities, and this is very crucial. This is a weapon of harassment, rather than a weapon of killing. It’s good for harassment, but at the end of the day, the number of casualties has the largest psychological effect.” This quote is from Dion Nissenbaum and Cliff Churgin, “2007 May Be Safety Milestone for Israel,” McClatchy-Tribune News Service (December 7, 2007), p. 1.

[4] From the beginning of the second intifada in September, 2000, to the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein distributed more than $35 million to the families of slain Palestinian militants and civilians. These disbursement included payments of $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers. See Associated Press, “Saddam Pays $225,000 to Families of Slain Palestinians,” St. Louis Post–Dispatch, (March 14, 2003), p. A15.

[5] Terrorism Knowledge Base, “Group Profile: Hamas” and “Group Profile: Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ),” Website, accessed January 14, 2008, available from and, respectively.

[6] Isabel Kershner, “Israel and Egypt Spar over Arms Smuggling to Gaza from Sinai,” New York Times, (December 26, 2007), p. A11.

[7] Zvi Mazel, “The Unholy Return of the Palestinian Pilgrims,” Jerusalem Post (January 3, 2008), p. 3.

[8] In this poll, 20.7 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the peace process is not successful in ending occupation [sic] and should be stopped in favor of resort [sic] to armed action” and 35.8 percent agreed with the statement that “the peace process should not be stopped because it still might succeed, but at the same time armed action should continue.” This poll sampled 1270 Palestinian adults and had a margin of error of ±3 percentage points. See Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Survey Research Unit, “Palestinian Public Opinion Poll No. 22 (December 14–16, 2006),” accessed January 14, 2008, available from

[9] In June, 2006, 69 percent of Palestinian respondents expressed approval for a suicide bombing that had taken place the previous April. In September, 2005, 37 percent of Palestinian respondents expressed approval for a suicide bombing that had taken place the previous August. See Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Survey Research Unit, “Palestinian Public Opinion Poll No. 20 (June 15–18, 2006),” accessed January 14, 2008, available from This poll sampled 1270 Palestinian adults and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

[10] While most Palestinian terrorist organizations want to coerce Israel, not all necessarily want to coerce Israel to do the same thing. For example, some of these organizations have stated a desire for Israel to cease to exist, while others demand a complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Dozens of Palestinian terrorist organizations and splinter groups have been active in Israel at one point or another, all with subtly different strategic objectives. Coercing Israel is an idea that unifies most of these strategic objectives, although with the above caveat.

[11] Only three victims died in such attacks on Israeli targets before the second intifada began.

[12] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Survey Research Unit, “Palestinian Public Opinion Poll No. 26 (December 11–16, 2007),” accessed January 14, 2008, available from This poll sampled 1270 Palestinian adults and had a margin of error of ±3 percentage points.

[13] On February 4, al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades’ website issued its claim for the Dimona attack, but after February 7, the claim was no longer there and the following message was: “We apologize to all the visiting brothers for the sudden interruption over the past three days. It was due to an issue beyond our control. Praise be to God, we have returned to you once again” (Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades’ Website (Arabic), “News, 7/2/2008,” available at See also Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Arabic), “Qassam [Brigades] Disperse Uncertainty about the Dimona Operation: They Announce Their Responsibility and That the Bombers Left from Hebron” (February 7, 2008), available at