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Suicide Bombings - The Ultimate Weapon?

07/08/2001 | by Schweitzer, Yoram  
The violent confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians has escalated in recent months to a state of a limited, but constant, war. In this war, the Palestinian Authority has emerged as a terrorism-supporting entity, operating alongside the “traditional” terror organizations who carry out intensive terrorist and guerilla activities. One of the main means of attack open to these organizations is suicide terrorism. The choice of this type of attack emanates from the fact that it is easily put into practice and materially “inexpensive” to execute, while at the same time very damaging to the enemy’s morale. This article will endeavor to briefly examine the phenomenon of suicide attacks perpetrated today by the Palestinians, before examining other aspects of the phenomenon worldwide. The ultimate goal is to determine whether such attacks constitute a “winning” strategy as employed by terrorists around the world or whether it is merely one more in a progressive series of spectacular, but limited “show case” operations.

What constitutes a suicide attack?

Suicide attacks, like all other terrorist attacks, are first and foremost aimed at giving their perpetrators widespread media coverage, thereby inflating their own image. For this purpose, the terrorist organizations exploit diverse media venues in order to advance their interests.

It should be pointed out that suicide attacks by terrorists are nothing new; the phenomenon appeared among the Jewish Sicaris in the 1st century, among the Moslem Hashishiyun in the 11th century, and among the Asians in the 18th century(1). In the Twentieth Century too, members of the Palestinian organizations and their colleagues from the leftist organizations perpetrated high-risk attacks which almost cross the border into the realm of suicide terrorism. However, the perpetrators of these attacks nevertheless stood a chance—however minute—to survive; their remaining alive did not tarnish their success in carrying out the attack. However, “modern” suicide terrorism is unique and unlike its predecessors. In the last two decades suicide attacks have been carried out by one or more persons who were aware that they are “human time-bombs.” The suicide bomber carries the explosives on his body or in a vehicle driven by himself and, by personal choice and with full self-awareness, he approaches a previously chosen target and blows himself up. The suicide bomber himself, in accordance with the prevailing circumstances,  chooses the time and place to execute the explosion so that it will cause the maximum damage to the target. Defining a terror attack as a suicide bombing depends primarily on whether the perpetrator is killed. In the event that his mission is incomplete, it is not a suicide bombing. The death of the perpetrator is the key to the success of the attack; and he knows in advance that success depends entirely on this death.

Therefore, we can define a “modern” suicide attack as a violent, politically motivated attack, carried out in a deliberate state of awareness by a person who blows himself up together with his chosen target. The pre-meditated certain death of the perpetrator is the pre-condition for the success of the attack (2).

Suicide attacks have been carried out in Israel since 1993 and continued sporadically until 1999. Since the beginning of so-called “al-Aqsa Intifada,” the Palestinian terrorist organizations, this time assisted by the Palestinian Authority, have once again begun perpetrating suicide bombings against the Israeli civilian population. Between October 2000 and July 2001, there were 18 suicide bombings in the disputed territories and in Israel. The two leading terrorist organizations perpetrating this type of attack are Hamas and The Islamic Jihad in Palestine. It was these organizations that first imported this type of attack into Israel in the 1990’s. Activists from these two groups, who were deported from Israel to Lebanon, received in addition to spiritual motivation, military instruction from Hizballah and the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards” who provided hospitality for them in Lebanon. These organizations still receive assistance from Hizballah in the perpetration of terror attacks in general and suicide bombings in particular.

To date, these two organizations have carried out between 50 and 55 suicide attacks* aimed at civilian and military targets in Israeli and the disputed territories, which have resulted in hundreds of casualties, and have seriously affected the morale of the Israeli public. Suicide attacks carried out in February and March 1996 apparently influenced the outcome of the Prime Ministerial election of May ‘96, and delayed the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. The outcome of the suicide attacks in Israel also played a role in the fact that the Israeli security establishment came to regard terrorism as a strategic threat, rather that just a tactical one. This shift was in the wind even before the attacks of 1996, as evidenced by statement of the late Prime Minister, Itzhak Rabin, in 1995.

Suicide terrorism worldwide

In general, suicide terror attacks in Israel are no different from those carried out worldwide. As of the middle of 2001, there have been well over 300 suicide attacks carried out in 14 countries by 17 terror organizations.

Modern suicide bombings was introduced by the Shi’ite terrorist organization Hizballah in 1983 in Lebanon, and it was in Lebanon that this modus operandi was refined throughout the 1980’s. During the 1990’s the attacks continued, but declined in frequency, until today, suicide attacks in Lebanon are a rare occurrence. All together, 50 suicide bombings were carried out in Lebanon, half of which were perpetrated by the Hizballah and Amal, and the remainder by secular communist and nationalist organizations, including the Lebanese Communist Party, the Socialist-Nasserist Organization, the Syrian Ba’ath Party, and the P.P.S. (3).

The perpetrators of the suicide bombings in Lebanon did not achieve strategic results. Hizballah succeeded in hastening the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Lebanon and harassed the IDF in Lebanon. However, the suicide bombings were not a significant factor in Israel’s decision to withdraw from the security zone. Moreover, in the 1990’s, the Hizballah drastically reduced the number of suicide attacks due to “rational” cost-benefit considerations. (4)

The Hizballah’s success in this sphere was mostly in achieving respect; the group became a symbol of sacrifice and a source of inspiration for the terrorist organizations worldwide. In Sri Lanka, Turkey, Egypt, Chechnya and others, militants adopted and even improved on the suicide bombings of the Hizballah.

The most prominent of these organizations was the LTTE, “The Tamil Tigers.” This organization, currently fighting for an independent Tamil state, began carrying out suicide bombings in 1987 and has since perpetrated over 200 such attacks. These bombings were particularly lethal and caused hundreds of casualties. Their targets are usually senior political and military officials in Sri Lanka. This organization is the only one in the world to succeed in assassinating two heads of state by suicide bombings. A suicide attack killed former India Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, while he was on an election campaign tour in Madras on 21 May 1991. Then, in May of 1993, President Primadassa of Sri Lanka, was killed by a suicide attacker, along with 22 other people. On 17 December ‘99, the organization attempted to assassinate Chandrika Kumaratunga President of Sri Lanka, using a female suicide bomber who blew herself up at an election rally. The President was wounded but survived the attack.

The LTTE has also targeted politicians from the Singhalese majority, pragmatic politicians from the Tamil minority, and senior military officers, as well as boats, command centers, and economic installations, such as fuel depots. The organization has never been particularly mindful of the safety of passersby and has never spared innocent bystanders who happened to be in the vicinity of their attacks. The LTTE suicide squads draw their inspiration from a combination of a strong nationalistic motive and the charismatic leadership of the head of the organization, Parabakan. The LTTE is still the most active group using suicide terrorism, but has so far not succeeded in achieving its declared strategic aim—an independent Tamil state.

The Kurdish PKK, a secessionist “secular Islamic” movement, perpetrated 16 suicide attacks in the years ‘96-’99 (plus 5 foiled attacks), which killed 20 people and wounded scores (5). However, these suicide attacks did little to persuade the Turkish government to accept the organization’s demands for Kurdish autonomy. The PKK suicide attacks were inspired and carried out on the orders of the organization’s charismatic leader Ocalan, who was perceived by the members of his organization as a “Light to the Nations.” Following his arrest and death sentence in 1999, his organization ceased its suicide bombings.

The Egyptian organizations, “Gama’a al-Islamiyya” and “Egyptian Jihad,” carried out two suicide attacks—one in Croatia in October ‘95, and the other at the Egyptian embassy in Karachi, Pakistan in November ‘95. Osama bin Laden’s organization “al-Qaida,” was responsible for two simultaneous suicide bombings against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-e-Salaam, in which 224 people were killed and about five thousand wounded. But these attacks, too, failed to obtain their strategic political aims beyond the casualties which they caused. Another suicide attack carried out apparently by al-Qaida, or at least in collaboration with it, was perpetrated by two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in a boat in Aden harbor next to the USS Cole, killing 17 U.S. sailors.

In June and July 2000 Chechnyan militants fighting against the Russian army joined the circle of suicide bombers. To date, the Chechnyan suicide bombers have carried out at least 7 attacks, in which scores were wounded and over one hundred Russian soldiers and police officers were killed.

In India, at least two suicide attacks have been carried out against military targets. The most recent was perpetrated against an army camp in Srinigar, by a young British terrorist of Pakistani origin who was recruited into an organization called “Jaish Mohammed” (Mohammed’s Army). 10 soldiers were killed in this attack.

A winning strategy?

There are many motives for suicide attacks: religious beliefs, nationalistic ideologies, or obedience to charismatic and authoritarian leaders. The modus operandi may vary, whether to use one or several suicide bombers, whether to use men or women. The explosives can be concealed on the human body, on an animal, or in a vehicle, and conveyed by sea, over land. The targets can be senior government officials, military targets, economic installations, or public transport vehicles, while the level of operations can range from scores of attacks to solitary or sporadic attacks.

For most of the organizations who have used these tactics, the common denominator is their success in causing large-scale casualties and negatively influencing public morale, while at the same time entirely failing to change regimes or to force their governments to surrender to their strategic demands.

However, it should be pointed out that in certain political circumstances, the perpetrators have succeeded in delaying strategic political processes for brief periods of time, such as the case with the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and between the Tamils and the Senegalese. In addition, some organizations have managed to hasten the withdrawal of foreign forces from their countries.

From seventeen years of dealing with suicide terrorism, the Israeli public can testify that the suicide terrorist weapon is not a decisive one. Nor has it altered the balance of power between the State of Israel and the terrorist organizations in favor of the latter.

Coping with suicide terrorism

In all probability, Israel will be obliged to continue dealing with the threat of suicide terrorism, as the use of “human bombs” is unlikely to be abandoned by the Palestinian Authority and its allies among the fundamentalist terror organizations. Moreover, the suicide bombings are unlikely to cease, even if the political process is resumed, although it is expected to significantly decrease in volume. Therefore, Israel must deal with this challenge on two main planes: on the intelligence or operational level and on the psychological plane.

On the operational level, a successful response requires comprehensive knowledge of the apparatus for the recruitment and training of the suicide bombers. This apparatus also operates on two parallel tracks, selection and training of the suicide bomber, and the operational preparation of the attack. On the first track, the potential suicide bomber must be pinpointed, either when he joins the organization or during his “basic training” period. Usually, the person who enlisted the suicide bomber also accompanies him throughout his military training and his spiritual preparation for the attack. Meanwhile, the operational groundwork is laid for the attack. This includes preparing a safe-house for the bomber, acquiring and hiding weapons, preparation of the explosives according to the method to be used, and finally, transfer of the attacker and the explosives to the target area. In addition, a video is made to memorialize the suicide bomber.

All of these preparations are the primary target for an intelligence operation. This type of activity requires the use of human, technical, and operational measures, in order to neutralize the suicide attack in its preparatory stage. If the suicide bomber has already been dispatched to the intended target, everything must be done by the security forces, as well as mobile and stationary technical devices, to try and minimize the physical damage of the attack by keeping the attacker away from enclosed and crowded areas.

In addition to coping physically with suicide bombers, it is also important to deal with the psychological aspects. This requires an intensive educational effort by experts in the fields of psychology and counter-terrorism. Within this framework, the general public in Israel must be informed of the real size and strength of the terrorist organizations with which Israel must contend, their goals in using this particular type of terror, and the propaganda manipulations that they employ against the Israeli public.

Countering suicide attacks, both in Israel and in the rest of the world over the years, has taught us that suicide terrorism is not a winning strategy, and must not be treated as such; we must not give its perpetrators a decisive capability which they don’t actually have.

The ability to cope with terrorism in general rests on three factors: the political handling of the basic problems that give rise to the attacks, proactive military and intelligence action against the perpetrators, and the public’s ability to endure.

* These numbers are according to my definition of suicide attacks, and are collected from the Israeli newspapers. Based on a different definition, the numbers would be about 70 suicide attacks, including those intercepted in different stages of the operation. , 21st April, 2000.


  1. “Religious Suicide in Islamic Asia,” Stephen Fredric Dale, Department of History, Ohio State University.
  2. “Suicide Terrorism: Development and Characteristics,” Yoram Schweitzer, ICT website (
  3. IBID.
  4. Eitan Azani “Suicide Attacks – The Phenomenon, its Roots, Characteristics and the Iranian-Lebanese Connection” – M.A. Thesis, Tel-Aviv University, Oct. ‘97
  5. “Lecture on P.K.K. Suicide Attacks” – Prof. Dogu Ergil, ICT Conference on Suicide Terrorism, February 2000.