This post was last updated in November 2016.
This report offers a brief overview of the growth of the suicide bomber as a weapon of war, from sporadic early attempts, to the development of the situation that we see today – where there are daily headlines of suicide bombings around the world.
The first bombing
On 13 March 1881, Ignaty Grinevitsky watched as his accomplice threw a small bomb at the convoy of Tsar Alexander II outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Safely enclosed in a carriage made from bullet-proof material as a gift from Napoleon III, the Tsar stepped out, dazed but unhurt.
Grinevitsky saw his chance.
The young man, a member of The People’s Will left-wing terrorist group, rushed towards his target, dropping a bomb at the Tsar’s feet killing them both.
The night before the attack Grinevitsky had written: ‘I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumphs, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do.’
And in that deadly act, Grinevitsky was to make his mark on history: the first recorded suicide bomber.
Fast forward 130 years and suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq are a regular occurrence. They have been used in over 40 different countries and territories over the last 30 years, killing at least fifty thousand people. They are, today, the weapon of choice for some of the most feared terrorist organisations.
But how did they come to be so prevalent, and why have suicide attacks emerged as the weapon of choice in some contexts but not in others?
What do we mean by ‘suicide attacks’?
Suicide bombings are those that involve the deliberate death of the perpetrator. The perpetrator functions as a sophisticated guidance system for the weapon, capable of approaching a target and detonating at the most devastating moment.
Admittedly, the word ‘suicide’ can imply a degree of choice that may not always exist. There are frequent reports of vulnerable people, like children or the mentally ill, being coerced or manipulated into carrying out attacks. In Afghanistan, child suicide bombers are even sometimes given an amulet containing Koranic verses and told that it will protect them.
For ease of reference, though, we term these attacks as ‘suicide’. But to do so is not with the intention of overstating the responsibility of all suicide bombers – it is clear that, in some cases, the perpetrator is a victim as well.
Japanese Kamikaze pilots
Despite what we may assume from the current, highly reported tactics and rationale of suicide bombers, they were not always exclusively the preserve of terrorist organisations.
Some of the first suicide bombings of the twentieth century involved the Japanese military, fighting as they were in the Second World War. Faced with the overwhelming naval aerial superiority of the Allied forces in the Pacific, they desperately resorted to the use of the Tokkotai. This ‘special attack unit’, popularly known as Kamikaze or ‘divine wind’, consisted of planes and boats loaded with bombs. The pilots were instructed to crash into naval targets. Their ranks were plucked from volunteers from conscripts or universities.
The militaristic Japanese culture at the time forbade any form of surrender, and the leap from this sense of death with honour, to volunteering as a human bomb was not such a large one.
The Tokkotai were first deployed at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. A plane struck the St Lo aircraft carrier, triggering a fire which eventually sunk the ship. Their use peaked at the Battle of Okinawa where 30 Allied ships were sunk or put out of action. In total around 3,860 suicide attacks were carried out by the Japanese before the end of the war.
Their impact in addressing the balance of naval power in the Pacific, however, should not be over-estimated. It was expensive and often the planes lacked the penetrative force to sink a ship – only around 50 ships were sunk by Tokkotai.
But the attacks did have a real and lasting psychological impact on the Allied sailors. Admiral Halsey, commander of the US Third Fleet declared that it was ‘the only weapon I feared in war’. The attacks also sent a message of fanaticism and intimidation to Japan’s enemies.
Unlike modern suicide bombings, the Tokkotai attacks were directed exclusively at military targets. That said, the themes in the Japanese tactics of a military imbalance, indoctrination, and psychological intimidation can be seen years later – and are today seen in suicide bombings by non-state groups.
It is hard, then, not to see the dark foreshadows of the September 11th 2001 attacks in the tactics of the Tokkotai.
Lack of suicide bombings during the Cold War
There were no reported incidents of suicide bombings after the Second World War until the 1980s, despite conflicts between insurgent groups facing a larger and better armed opponent (such as in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola, Northern Ireland, and Nicaragua).
Partly this reticence to use suicide bombers by non-state actors, may have been due to the relatively easy access to conventional weapons supplied by the two dominant super powers of the time – the US and Russia. It may also have been down to the lack of a successful precedent to inspire copycat attacks.
During this period, though, there were developments that would be important influences in the emergence of suicide terror at the end of the 20th century. After the Second World War, the US and UK encouraged and strengthened radical Islamic movements in the Middle East to contain the spread of the Soviet Union and to suppress nationalist movements hostile to the West. It was also during the 1970s that Saudi Arabia began to spend billions of dollars to promote Wahhabism, an ultra conservative reading of Islam, around the world. Today Wahabbist or Salafist groups are among some of the most prolific users of suicide attacks.
The first large suicide bombing campaign after the Second World War occurred in the 1980s, during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The largest bombings happened on 23 October 1983, when a truck was driven into a US Marine base in Lebanon, using 2,000 pounds of explosives. The bomber killed himself, along with 241 military personnel. Seconds later, another bomber struck the operations building of French paratroopers and killed 58 more.
These bombings were blamed on Shiite militant groups supported by Iran. They eventually became the militant group Hezbollah. They went on to be responsible for a series of around 20 suicide attacks directed at the Israeli and Lebanese armies in the 1980s.
Car bombs in Lebanon were already a regular occurrence but suicide attacks added a new dimension to the threat. They required a broad range of security measures and their novelty captured widespread media attention.
Muhammad Hussein Fadalallah, a spiritual guide of Hezbollah, described under what circumstances suicide bombers were to be deployed: ‘We believe that suicide operations should only be carried out if they can bring about a political change in proportion to the passions that incite a person to make his body an explosive bomb.’
These attacks were, then, not seen to be – on the part of the users – pointless acts of brutality but were carefully considered and believed to have a real political impact. In some ways this thinking was borne out by realities. The bombing of the military bases successfully undermined US public support for continued involvement in the Lebanese war, and the Multinational Force withdrew from Lebanon. Similar suicide attacks on Israeli military bases persuaded the Israelis to move out of population centres.
At this stage, for the most part, suicide bombings were directed at military targets, though civilians were sometimes part of the collateral damage.
The highly organised campaign in Lebanon was a breakthrough moment in the history of suicide bombings. The strategic successes helped to popularise the tactic and raise the profile of Hezbollah. They were the first Islamic group to carry out suicide attacks and the group would go on to play an important role in exporting their knowledge to Palestinian militant groups.
(Data from the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism)
The Palestinian territories
In 1994, around 10 years after suicide attacks began in Lebanon, Palestinian groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad began using suicide bombers against Israeli targets to disrupt talks for a potential peace process. Many of these attacks were deliberately targeted at civilians. Over time, at least 742 civilians were killed and 4,899 were wounded by suicide bombings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories according to data from the University of Chicago. In Lebanon a further 88 civilians were killed by suicide bombings and 160 were wounded.
The first attacks occurred in April 1994, when eight people were killed in a car bomb attack on a bus in Afula in Israel. Hamas claimed responsibility. Bombings continued sporadically in the 1990s with seven in 1995, three in 1996, five in 1997, two in 1998 and two in 2000.
An upsurge in Palestinian suicide bombings followed in the next three years decade with 103 bombings. The increase corresponds with the second intifada following the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations. As violence intensified, the military wing of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, also began to deploy suicide bombers.
Many of these attacks were deliberately aimed at civilians. In part this reflects a broader decline of the taboo on targeting and killing civilians over the last century. But it is also a specific feature of the campaigns of the Islamic militant groups involved.
Attacks against Israeli civilians were justified by claiming that two things. First, that they are non-believers who are an extension of the Israeli occupation, and therefore legitimate targets who do not qualify as civilians. Second, that Israel had killed many innocent Palestinian civilians and this was therefore a justified act of revenge.
Mahmoud Ahmed Marmash, a twenty-one-year old suicide bomber who blew himself up near Tel Aviv in May 2001 explained such a decision on a video before his mission: ‘I want to avenge the blood of the Palestinians, especially the blood of the women, of the elderly, and of the children, and in particular the blood of the baby girl Iman Heijo, whose death shook me to the core…. I devote my humble deed to the Islamic believers who admire the martyrs and who work for them.’
His argument captures the mixture of religious and personal motivations which fuel suicide bombings. On the one hand his death was part of a wider religious Jihad, on the other it is motivated by a very personal desire for revenge.
For the first time suicide bombings began to be used as a means of transmitting fear throughout a whole population. These attacks were no longer unorthodox tactics in a guerrilla war against a state military, but a horribly effective means of terrorising civilians.
Popular support for suicide bombings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains high. A 2013, Pew survey of global attitudes found that 62% of those questioned in the Palestinian Territories believed that suicide bombing can often, or sometimes, be justified. In Pakistan, though, that figure is just 3%.
Such figures are important for those who seek to reduce the spread of suicide attacks. Groups carrying out suicide bombings are hoping to win public support; if the bombings do not resonate in a positive way then their cause will fail. And so long as support for bombings remains, there may well be a resurgence of the tactic among Palestinian militant groups in the future.
Not all groups that have deployed suicide bombers have a national-religious ideology. In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a secular guerrilla movement, began using suicide bombings in the late 1980s, as part of their campaign to create a separate state for Tamil people in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.
The group was led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. He developed a cult of personality around himself and played a pivotal role in the recruitment of suicide bombers known as the Black Tigers. LTTE members training at Hezbollah terrorist camps were convinced by the successes of the Beirut bombings in 1983.
To join the Black Tigers, LTTE members had to write application letters to Prabhakaran who would decide whether they were worthy. There were so many applications that a lottery for martyrs was created.
The first suicide bombing in Sri Lanka had strong similarities with the Beirut bombings four years previously. On 5 July 1987 an explosives-laden truck was driven into a Sri Lankan Army Barracks, killing 55 soldiers. The perpetrator of the attack was commemorated with a statue in the Tamil occupied town of Jaffna. Even in this secular campaign there existed a kind of martyrdom for those prepared to give their lives.
The Black Tigers were the world leaders in suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003. Time Magazine describe the LTTE as ‘the most successful terrorist organization in the world.’ Of the 137 suicide bombings carried out by the LTTE, two were high profile assassinations: the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Five further Sri Lankan cabinet members were assassinated by suicide bombings. The Black Tigers also invented the suicide belt which would go on to be used regularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Black Widows
Female suicide bombers have also been used in a wide range of conflicts. The University of Chicago recorded 125 attacks involving female suicide bombers between 1981 and 2010 – just over 5% of those they recorded.
Among the most famous group of female suicide bombers are those referred to as the ‘Black Widows’ by the Russian media. Fighting for independence in Chechnya, they were often women who had lost husbands and brothers to the conflict.
Attacks carried out by women have a range of tactical advantages. Firstly, they attract significant media interest, sending a message that the cause has spread beyond a radical male youth. Secondly, the bombers attract less suspicion than their male counterparts, and are able to access areas which men cannot. Female suicide bombers are still used today for these reasons, particularly by the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram.
Al Qaeda and suicide terror
In recent years, suicide bombings have become the most high profile weapon of a global jihad.
Al Qaeda was formed in Pakistan in 1988 with the stated mission of implementing Sharia law and ridding the world of non-Muslim influences. They carried out their first suicide bombing in 1995 at a US military base in Saudi Arabia, killing five people. In 1998, the Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden issued a fatwa which declared all American citizens legitimate targets. On 7 August that year, they launched twin suicide attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223.
Then came 9-11. Al Qaeda became infamous, almost overnight, around the world after hijacked airliners were used in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 2001. Nearly three thousand people were killed in the most deadly suicide bombings ever carried out.
The attacks led to complete overhauls in US domestic security and foreign policy and involvement by the US in lengthy military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. The US’s response, in turn, was to severely damage US standing in the some parts of the Muslim world. As such, bombing campaigns against the US and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have some of their roots in the rubble of the twin towers.
Over the following years attacks by Al Qaeda and their offshoots spread throughout the world, including the bombings in London in 2005 and in Bali in 2002. Disturbingly, Al Qaeda quickly developed a reputation for sophisticated attacks designed to inflict the largest number of civilian casualties, and today they are responsible for three of the five most deadly suicide bombings ever carried out.
The most deadly country for suicide bombings over the last decade is Iraq by some distance. A Lancet study found that at least 1,003 suicide bombings caused civilian casualties in Iraq between 2004 and 2010. Around 12,000 civilians were killed in this time period.[i] There were around 60 times more civilians killed than soldiers. Civilians were not merely ‘collateral damage’ but were being deliberately targeted.
Many of the attacks were part of sectarian violence. In particular, Shiite Muslims have been repeatedly targeted by Sunni insurgents dissatisfied at the political regime following the Anglo-American occupation.
Suicide attacks began in Iraq in 2004, following a dispute over the number of Sunni Arabs appointed to the Iraqi Governing Council. The targets included a Shiite mosque, the UN headquarters, and the Red Cross headquarters. Further upsurges in the violence occurred following events like the killing of Abu Masab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and increases in US troops. Many of those carrying out bombings were from outside of Iraq, with Saudi Arabia contributing the highest number of fighters.
Suicide attacks in Iraq have continued despite the withdrawal of US troops and attempts to make civilians more secure seem to be failing. Efforts by the government included the establishment of hundreds of checkpoints.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) – an al Qaeda offshoot – in Iraq is largely behind this continuation of suicide attacks in Iraq. This has meant that Iraq has retained its unenviable position as being the country most impacted by suicide bombing. Between 2011 and 2015, AOAV recorded just under 350 suicide attacks in Iraq that resulted in the death and injury of over 12,000 people. Of these, over 75% were civilians. Most were committed by IS.
Another 3,000 people have been killed and injured by suicide bombers in Iraq in 2016 alone, as IS strategically use them as part of their offensive and counter offensive efforts.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Two forms of violence dominated the Taliban insurgency against the Western presence in Afghanistan. One was the use of victim activated IEDs to target troops and the other was the use of suicide bombings in populated areas to undermine any sense of security. Suicide bombing played no role against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s; it only began to be used as a tactic in 2004, perhaps inspired by the success that such bombings were having in Iraq.
Many of the attacks in Afghanistan were carried out by children; those as young as nine have been intercepted on suicide bomb missions. Often trained at Pakistani madrassas, such minors are particularly vulnerable to indoctrination. ‘These kids might disappear at 12 and come back at 15 fully militarised and conscious of their own bodies as weapons.’
Pakistan is also highly impacted by suicide bombers, where government forces and minority groups are the targets. Shia communities in particular are targeted and Human Rights Watch have criticised the Pakistani government’s failure to protect them.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the psychological effects of suicide bombing
In 2015, 9,109 civilians were reported killed or injured in suicide attacks around the world – lives shattered in 248 incidents in mosques and markets, checkpoints and restaurants. It was a year where 21 countries saw men and women blow themselves up in a rising tide of violence that seems to be spreading by the day.
In this way, suicide attacks are getting steadily worse. In 2011, when AOAV started our monitor of global news reports, 5,107 civilians were reported killed or injured by suicide bombers. In 2015, that was up 78%.
Admittedly, it was not the worst year for suicide attacks on record – 2007 was. That year, according to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, some 20,400 people were killed or injured in suicide attacks. But in 2007 the vast majority of these were in Iraq and Afghanistan and suicide bombs were recorded in just 12 countries.
By contrast, in 2015 places previously untouched by suicide attacks were hit. Chad was targeted for the first time (459 civilians killed or wounded), as was Cameroon (431). And Nigeria’s civilian death and injury rate (which, at 2,062, was the highest from suicide bombings) was 14 times that of 2011.
Last year also showed another trend: that of the suicide bomb as terrorists’ explosive weapon of choice. In 2015, according to AOAV’s data, suicide attacks were behind 56% of the 16,180 civilian deaths or injuries from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) worldwide – including car bombs and roadside bombs. In 2011, it was just 38% (5,107 of 13,336).
What is clear is that the people suffering most are Muslims. Most of the 21 countries hit were majority Muslim, and most of the perpetrators were doing so in the name of Islam. So while the use of suicide bombing may have roots in nationalist agendas, today it is more often the use of Salafi-Jihadi (believers in an ultra-conservative political-religious strand of Islam that emphasise the importance of military struggle) groups.
There are no easy fixes. Last year, when Mozambique declared itself free of landmines, you saw the remarkable result of a coalition of states and charities at work. But improvised explosive devices which are triggered by the user are not prohibited under the Mine Ban Treaty.
There are no legitimate suicide vest factories that can be shut down by governments. The materials used in suicide bombs often have additional, legitimate uses – such as fertiliser – so it is often impractical to ban the precursor explosive materials that make up suicide vests.
But Governments still need to fund a coordinated response. They need to ensure that explosive munitions stockpiles are properly regulated; they must help the civilians whose lives have been shattered by this pernicious weapon, and engage with religious leaders, charities and other groups to find ways to stigmatise their use. They must ensure a co-ordinated response to transnational smuggling networks.
[i] Hicks, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei; Dardagan, Hamit; Bagnall, Peter M.; Spagat, Michael; Sloboda, John A. ‘Casualties in civilians and coalition soldiers from suicide bombings in Iraq, 2003–10: a descriptive study’. The Lancet, Vol. 378, No. 9794, 03.09.2011, p. 906–914.
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