ATbar Suicide Terrorism: Development & Characteristics
Loading Search Engine

Suicide Terrorism: Development & Characteristics

21/04/2000 | by Schweitzer, Yoram  

A lecture presented in the International Conference on Countering Suicide Terrorism at ICT, Herzeliya, Israel on 21st February, 2000

Over the past two decades suicide terrorism has become an ever-widening phenomenon. Fifteen different terrorist organizations in twelve different countries resorted to the use of suicide tactics against their enemies. As of February 2000 about 275 suicide incidents occurred (table 1).

When suicide terrorism was first introduced in the Middle East it seemed that this new phenomenon was invincible and that it might change the innate imbalance between terror groups and their rivalry governments. This did not in fact occur.

Looking at history of terrorism, it can be seen that suicide attacks are in actuality a very old modus operandi . In ancient times two notorious sects, the Jewish Sicairis and the Islamic Hashishiyun became infamous for such attacks. In the 18th century, suicide tactics were used on the Malabar coast of Southwestern India, in Atjeh in Northern Sumatra and in Mindanao and Sulu in the Southern Philippines. In all of these places Muslims carried out suicide attacks in their fight against Western hegemony and colonial rule. [1]

However, contemporary suicide terrorism differs from such historical tactics, just as the whole phenomenon of terrorism differs from ancient modes of warfare.

Modern suicide terrorism is aimed at causing devastating physical damage, through which it inflicts profound fear and anxiety. Its goal is to produce a negative psychological effect on an entire population rather than just the victims of the actual attack.

The relatively high number of casualties guaranteed in such attacks, which are usually carried out in crowded areas, ensures full media coverage. Thus, suicide terrorism, ranks with other spectacular modus operandi such as blowing up airplanes in mid air or the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction as a sure means to win maximum effect.

For the purposes of this paper a suicide terror attack is defined as a politically motivated violent attack perpetrated by a self-aware individual (or individuals) who actively and purposely causes his own death through blowing himself up along with his chosen target. The perpetrator’s ensured death is a precondition for the success of his mission. (see also Boaz Ganor’s article Defining Terrorism)

Thus this paper deals with a very specific kind of attack. It does not deal with the very high-risk terror operations that leave only little chance of survival to their perpetrators. Such attacks as the Japanese Red Army’s (JRA) attack at Lod airport in 1972, Abu Nidal’s attack on a synagogue in Istanbul in 1986 and the PFLP-GC hand-glider attack on an army barracks in Kiryat Shmona in 1987 fall outside the scope of this paper. Also excluded were the self-inflicted deaths of members of terrorist organization, such as the famous leaders of the German Bader-Meinhof gang (1977) or the self-starvation to death of Bobby Sands from the P.I.RA (1981).

This paper portrays a general overview of the modern history of suicide terror activity worldwide, focusing on its main characteristics and the various aims and motivations of the terror groups involved.

The current phenomenon of suicide terrorism has usually involved terrorists carrying explosive charges concealed on their bodies or carried by various vehicles, usually a car, truck or boat. In some instances the explosives were transported by bicycle, or loaded on a pack animal (table 3).

Hizballah suicide terrorism

Suicide terror attacks started in Lebanon in April 1983. A small—and until then unknown—group by the name of Hizballah directed a number of suicide attacks against Western targets. The first attack was directed at the American embassy in Beirut (April 1983), followed by attacks on the U.S. Marines headquarters and the French Multinational Force (October 1983). The last two were executed simultaneously and resulted in 300 casualties and dozens of wounded. The later attack made an indelible impression on world public opinion and terror organizations alike.

After the withdrawal of the Western forces from Lebanon, Hizballah redirected its suicide activities in Lebanon against Israeli Defense Forces (convoys, posts and boarder passages) and against South Lebanese Army posts. Hizballah henceforth significantly decreased its use of this modus operandi to one attack per year or less. Despite this it enjoyed its legacy as the pioneer of suicide bombings in the region.

The aims of Hizballah suicide missions changed and developed over the course of time. Initially, Hizballah was interested in building up it image as a power. Since it was until then a small and little-known group in Lebanon, let alone in the rest of the world, the introduction of this new and devastating modus operandi served the goal of gaining local and global publicity and notoriety.

Hizballah also represented its Iranian patrons with a valuable image for the spread of the Islamic revolution. The readiness of Shi’ite terrorists, utterly fearless and ready to sacrifice themselves for the defense of the “oppressed on earth” was an important propagandist instrument for both Iran and Hizballah.

Hizballah’s suicide attacks were successful in driving the foreign UN Peace Keeping forces out of Lebanon. The attacks also caused the Israeli army to withdraw from the heartland of central Lebanon to a narrow strip in the South.

Suicide attacks also served the organization as a weapon of retaliation and deterrence against Israel. After the Israeli Air-Force killed Hizballah’s secretary general, Abas Musavi in February 1992, the organization carried out a suicide attack against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires (March 1992) killing 29 people and wounding 250.

In 1994 Hizballah executed another such attack in the same city, against the “AMIA” building of the local Jewish community in retaliation for I.D.F. aerial attack in Lebanon against a Hizballah training camp in Ein Dardara.

Lebanon had seen around 50 suicide attacks between 83-99. The Shiite organizations, Hizballah and Amal were responsible for about half of these. The second half is attributed to five other groups espousing a non-religious nationalist ideology. Impressed by the effectiveness of Hizballah’s attacks in precipitating the withdrawal of the “foreigners” from Lebanon, the nationalist groups followed suit.

Hizballah also influenced a number of terrorist organizations in other countries. Occasionally this influence went beyond merely being a role model.

In Kuwait there two suicide attacks were attributed to El-Dawa, a local Kuwaiti-Shiite fundamentalist group. The first suicide attack was carried out in December 1983 as one in a series of “conventional attacks” of attacks on American, French and Kuwaiti interests. The second attack was directed at the Emir al-Sabah, in May 1985. Hizballah’s direct involvement was proven when the Kuwaiti authorities arrested and tried seventeen people, among them, Mustafa Bader-el-Din a prominent terrorist in Hizballah’s external terror apparatus. Hizballah’s continuous and extensive efforts to release him and his partners came to be known as the “Dawa Seventeen” affair.


One of the groups that followed Hizballah—even exceeding it in both execution and number of incidents—was the LTTE, the Tamil separatist group in Sri-Lanka.

The LTTE is unequivocally the most effective and brutal terrorist organization ever to utilize suicide terrorism. Between July 1987 and February 2000 it has carried out 168 suicide terror attacks in Sri-Lanka and India leaving thousands of innocent bystanders dead or wounded.[2] Its suicide unit, “The Black Panthers” is comprised of both men and women. One characteristic unique to the LTTE is the fact that every member of the group carries a cyanide capsule around his/her neck, which he or she may consume upon capture in order not to disclose the group’s secrets. The members of the “Black Panthers” unit have demonstrated their continuous readiness to die when they were surrounded by security forces. In many instances they blew themup or bit cyanide capsules rather than risk captivity and subsequent interrogation which could force them to betray their comrades.

The LTTE has directed its attacks primarily against the highest Sri Lankan and Indian political and military personnel. It is the only organization that succeeded in assassinating two heads of states. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991 by a female suicide-bomber while campaigning for re-election. Sri-Lanka president Prendesa was assassinated in 1993 by a male suicide-bomber who had infiltrated the president’s inner circle, and even lived at the president’s premises for about one year before executing his mission.

The LTTE persists in its efforts to eliminate the ruling elite in Sri-Lanka. In December 1999 it tried to assassinate the current president, Mrs. Kumaratunga who survived the attack but lost an eye. On 5 January 2000, the Prime Minister’s residence was attacked by a suicide-bomber, apparently in an attempt to assassinate the Defence Minister. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Defense Minister was injured. The LTTE also killed several senior army commanders, as well as prominent and Tamil politicians who cooperated with the government in order to find a peaceful solution in Sri-Lanka.

Due to the LTTE’s intensive suicide campaign, Sri Lanka politicians seem reluctant to openly confront or declare an all-out war against the group.

Suicide Terrorism in Israel

In Israel, Suicide terrorism started in 1993.The Hamas (Harkat el-Mukawma el Islamiya or “The Islamic Resistance Movement”) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) carried out about 30 suicide terror attacks which caused about 120 fatalities and wounded hundreds.

Hamas and the PIJ were also inspired and assisted by Hizballah. The PIJ leadership maintained close relationships with Iran and Hizballah from the early 80’s. The relationship between Hamas with Hizballah gained momentum after Israel deported a few hundred operatives to Lebanon in 1992. There they established a close liaison with Hizballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Both groups learned suicide techniques in Lebanon.

Hamas and the PIJ focused their initial suicide attacks on military targets in the “territories” but quite rapidly shifted their attacks to civilians in central cities and crowded areas. The two Palestinian Sunni fundamentalist groups succeeded in inflicting a high number of casualties among the Israeli civilian population, which had a profound negative impact on the Israeli public’s sense of personal security. This effect was intensified by the fact that the terror campaign accompanied a peace process, which was supposed to bring tranquility to the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. Another influential factor was the continuity of the attacks; sometimes they were a weekly occurrence. The suicide factor in the Palestinian terror campaign thus had strategic ramifications on the Israel-Palestinian peace-process.

At the beginning of March 2000, Hamas attempted to carry out 3 to 5 suicide attacks in Israeli cities. The operation was thwarted when Israeli security forces liquidated the cell before it could act. Two of the cell’s leaders escaped and were later caught in Nablus by the Palestinian security forces as part of a joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

Egyptian Terrorism

The Egyptian terror groups also contributed their share to the suicide phenomenon. Each of the two leading groups, the Gama’a al-Islamiya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Jihad Group) carried out one attack. The Gama’a al-Islamiya operated in Croatia in October 1995, attacking a local police station in Rijake. This was a retaliatory act to the disappearance of one of the group’s leaders in Croatia and his eventual extradition to Egypt. The Jihad Group used two suicide bombers to destroy the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan causing 15 fatalities and wounding dozens (November 1995). This was attack too was in retaliation for Pakistani-Egyptian cooperation in extraditing terrorists to Egypt.

It should be noticed that both groups avoided using such tactics on Egyptian soil. This can be attributed to their reluctance to alienate their constituency in Egypt by causing the indiscriminate death of innocent bystanders. The greater efficiency of the security forces in Egypt as compared to that in other countries may also have played a role.


Another group that has used suicide terror attacks in the past is the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The PKK has carried out a total of 21 suicide attacks or attempted attacks (15 attacks were actually carried out and 6 were intercepted). Its suicide campaign started on 30 June 1996 and ceased on 5 July 1999 at the decision of its leader Abdullah Ocalan. This terror campaign caused relatively low casualties: 19 were killed and 138 were wounded.[3]

The PKK resorted to suicide terrorism at a time when it was facing heavy military setbacks in Southeast Turkey, which had had an adverse effect on the moral of its members. Since the group’s terrorist activities have declined constantly between 1994-1996 the organization was seeking an effective means to reverse this trend and to boost the moral of its fighters. Suicide missions were therefore chosen as a consolidating tool. They served as a demonstration of the PKK’s capability to operate and to damage their enemies. The attacks demonstrated the supreme willingness to sacrifice everything, including one’s life for the Kurdish national goals. For some time, such attacks were used for retaliatory purposes.


al-Qaida headed by Osama bin Ladin is the last group to have resorted to suicide attacks and has a close operational connection to the Egyptian groups. Al-Qaida was responsible for two of the most spectacular and lethal suicide attacks in recent times. The simultaneous attacks against the American embassies in Nairobi and in Dar-e-Salaam in August 1998 resulted in 300 fatalities and five thousands wounded, most of them innocent local bystanders. (tables 2 and 3.)

The role of women in suicide terrorism

Women have played an important role in the terrorist activity of some of the prominent groups that use suicide terrorism. In general this prominence is limited to the organizations with a nationalist orientation. The fundamentalist Islamic terror groups have never let women to take part in their terrorist activities, let alone in suicide terrorism.

The nationalist groups, such as the PKK, the LTTE and the P.P.S. enable women to participate in their most extreme modus operandi. The leaders of these groups often exploit the female members’ profound desire to prove equality with their male peers and encourage—some times even manipulate them—to “volunteer” for such missions.

Women’s share in suicide attacks was in high percentage: In the LTTE they participated in about 30% to 40% of the group’s overall suicide activities. In the PKK, women carried out 11 out of 15 attacks, while the perpetrators of 3 out 6 attacks that were intercepted were women. (a total of 14 out of 21 suicide attacks, or 66 % of the total ). In the P.P.S./S.S.N.P. (Syrian Sicialist Nationalist Party) women took part in 5 out of the group’s 12 suicide activities.

The reasons for using women in particular in this kind of operation evolved from a variety of considerations on the part of the organizations. However, all of them, deceptively used the innocent appearance of a “pregnant” woman in order to by-pass the heavy security arrangements while approaching their targets. All of them dwell on women’s desire to prove their abilities and devotion to the organization and to their supreme leader. In several cases, especially in P.P.S there were romantic feelings involved.

Concluding remarks:

Looking at suicide terrorism from a perspective of seventeen years one may conclude that it has not been a “winning card” in the hands of terror organizations, nor has it changed dramatically the inherent imbalance between states and terror organizations in favor of the terrorists. However, it was proven to be an effective instrument in the service of the terrorist’s agenda.

In certain situations invothe presence of military forces on foreign soil or during a delicate period of political negotiations during a peace-process, suicide attacks may have a profound negative influence. For example, Hizballah was successful in its campaign to expel the M.N.F. from Lebanon. Hamas was successful in delaying the implementation of the Oslo accords in the Middle East and the LTTE succeeded in halting the deployment of the Indian peace keeping troops to Sri-Lanka and the subsequent postponement of the peace-talks in Sri-Lanka.

However, most of the groups that were involved in suicide terrorism either stopped using it or eventually reduced it significantly. Thus, suicide terrorism is not increasing though it may spread in future to other areas of conflict given the “copy-cat” nature of terrorism.

The greatest potential risk suicide terrorism may pose in future is if terrorists carry out operations combined with other spectacular tactics such as blowing up airplanes or the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Such a combination will increase immensely the death toll of a single terror attack and will have a shocking psychological effect on public moral. At this level suicide terrorism would constitute a genuine strategic threat and would probably be confronted as such.



“Religious Suicide in Islamic Asia,” Stephen Fredric Dale, Department of History Ohio State University.

Rohan Gunaratna, Lecture at ICT Conference: Countering Suicide Terrorism, February 2000.

Professor Dogu Ergil, Lecture at ICT Conference: Countering Suicide Terrorism, February 2000.