Improvised Explosive Devices

Eight suicide bombings that shook the world

Suicide bombing causes widespread devastation and fear around the world. It is a tactic designed to take the lives of many, and used to promote an ideology or undermine people’s faith in a government’s ability to provide security.

This article will examine a range of suicide bombings throughout history. Some have caught international headlines, others remain unreported. Each offers an insight into some trends and patterns of this deadly and growing phenomenon.

The first suicide bombing

The assassination of Alexander II. Drawing by G. Broling 1881

The assassination of Alexander II. Drawing by G. Broling 1881

On 13 March 1881, 25-year-old Ignaty Grinevitsky, a member of the left-wing terrorist organisation The People’s Will, dropped a bomb at feet of Tsar Alexander II, killing them both. Before the attack, Grinevitsky wrote:

‘It is my lot to die young, I shall not see our victory, 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 no one in the world can demand more of me.’

Prior to his assassination, Alexander II abolished serfdom and introduced liberalising reforms in the government, judiciary and military. Yet any hopes of continued reform was quickly swept away under his son’s autocratic regime.

This was history’s first suicide bombing, carried out by a young, disaffected male. A century later, suicide terrorism saw a revival in the 1980s. Today it has spread to 36 countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen, Pakistan to Iraq, Sri Lanka to Nigeria. And it has taken a terrible toll. From 1981 to 2011, suicide bombing has been responsible for almost 30,000 deaths, and injured over 76,000 according to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.

The first female suicide bomber from the Occupied Palestinian Territories


Wafa Idris

Suicide bombings today are an almost daily occurrence. In 2012 AOAV recorded some 212 attacks worldwide in one year alone. Contrary to a popular image, though, these attacks are not just carried out by young males. Wafa Idris was the first female suicide bomber from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Idris, a volunteer medic for the Palestine Red Crescent Society, carried a rucksack containing a 10kg bomb into a shopping district in Jerusalem. There she detonated it, killing herself and an elderly Israeli man. She wounded more than 100 people. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade took responsibility, and set up a special unit to train female suicide bombers.

At first, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, denounced female suicide bombers, but sensing the increasing support for female martyrs and bowing to public pressure, Yassin changed his position. By 2004, Hamas sponsored Reem Riyashi, a young mother, as a suicide bomber.

There are strategic advantages in using women to carry out suicide bombings. First, they do not attract the same level of suspicion and are therefore subject to fewer security measures than men. They are also better able to conceal explosives, with some attackers feigning pregnancy.

But are female bombers are equal to their male counterparts? Unlikely, notes Mia Bloom, a security studies expert at the University of Massachusetts. She refers to the LTTE, where the top leadership has few women. It has also been known for terrorist organisations providing a stipend of approximately $400 per month to the families of male suicide bombers but only $200 per month to the families of female bombers

The youngest suicide bombers

Suicide bombers tend to be young and impressionable men and women, aged over 18. But there have also been cases where children have been recruited for such attacks. In 2009, an 11-year-old boy called Abdullah from Peshawar, Pakistan, was caught in Afghanistan wearing a jacket packed full of explosives. In an interview with journalist Bill Neely, the boy told how he attended a religious school that taught him the principles of jihad.

The Telegraph recently reported that children as young as nine are being recruited by the Taliban to carry out attacks, and given amulets containing verses from the Koran and told that they would be protected from the blast.

There have also been reports that individuals with mental illnesses have carried out suicide attacks. On 1 February 2008, bombs carried by two mentally ill women were detonated remotely, killed 70 people in a Baghdad market.

Attacks involving children and the mentally ill illustrate the complexity of the term ‘suicide bombing’. There has to be a willingness to take the lives of many and die during the act. So it is inaccurate to label those who do not make that choice as ‘suicide bombers’. Attempts to replace the term with ‘homicide bomber’ in order to remove some of the symbolic power of the acts and to direct more attention to its victims have so far been unsuccessful.

 Suicide attacks and religion

I am the martyr Reem Saleh Riyashi. I hoped that the shredded limbs of my body would be shrapnel, tearing Zionists to pieces, knocking on heaven’s door with the skulls of Zionists. How often I spoke to my soul: “Oh soul, if you loathe the Zionists, enemies of my religion, my blood shall be my path to march to Heaven”… How often I desired to carry out a Shahada-Seeking [suicide] operation inside Israel, and by perseverance, and with Allah’s grace, my wish was fulfilled.’

In 2004, 22-year-old Palestinian mother of two Reem Riyashi, sent by Hamas, blew herself up and killed four Israelis at a Gaza border crossing. Clearly there are religious overtones in Riyashi’s statement. The majority of suicide bombings in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have been the work of religious self-martyrs belonging to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But there is still a question as to what extent religion motivates as well as justifies suicide attacks.

Some attacks are justified by Islamic militant group’s interpretation of the doctrine of jihad, meaning ‘struggle’ in Arabic. Struggle can be interpreted as a non-violent inner, spiritual struggle, or a more physical struggle against the enemies of Islam.

According to Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, there are two elements to jihad. One is defensive and a ‘manifestation of a genuine sense that they are warriors engaged in a desperate struggle for survival against an aggressive and powerful enemy.’ The other is an offensive battle to destroy an enemy in order to establish a new political system. But as Burke continues, it is incorrect to view jihad as a tactic for achieving a specific goal: ‘Fundamentally, acts of jihad are conceived of as demonstrations of faith performed for God by an individual.’ It is hoped that these demonstrations of faith would inspire and motivate others to join the struggle.

As noted by Mohammed Hafez in Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad equate suicide attacks with opportunities for religious redemption. The groups insist that jihad is an individual obligation, with the aim to liberate their lands from oppressors. They draw upon Islamic texts concerning martyrdom, and promise that those killed will be given rewards such as immediate admission to heaven (and not suffer the punishment of the grave) and entry to the highest gardens of heaven.

But there has been much debate as to the extent to which religion really drives suicide attacks. Is religion ‘the vehicle through which individual bombers frame or give meaning to their different motivations for self-sacrifice,’ as Hafez claims.  Or, as Robert Pape and James K. Feldman argue in Cutting the Fuse, is religion just a recruiting tool in the context of national resistance?

In the majority of cases, it is difficult to clearly identify the motivations of suicide bombers. In many cases they are an overlapping tangle of rationales.

For example, the 21-year-old suicide bomber Mahmoud Ahmed Marmash, who blew himself up in Netanya, Israel, said in his last statement:

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 Hejjo, 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.’

There is the religious element, referring to ‘martyrs’, but there is also nationalist language and personal motivations to avenge the death of a particular baby girl.

“Foreign occupation” and suicide terrorism


The explosion of the Marine Corps building in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983

In October 1983, over 300 American and French military personnel were killed when two trucks, each containing some 1.4 tonnes of explosives hit military barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. It was the deadliest suicide attack prior to 9/11. The troops were acting as peacekeeping forces between factions in the Lebanese civil war and the attack eventually led to the withdrawal of troops in February 1984.

Robert Pape holds that suicide terrorism is a strategy used to achieve political goals, such as compelling foreign forces to withdraw from national homeland. He argued that between 1980 and 2004, 95% of suicide bombings had a central objective of compelling a democratic state to withdraw their presence in a foreign land.

But far from all attacks achieve this aim. Some bombings just escalate into much more violent responses. In March 2002, a suicide attack carried out by Hamas, at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel, killed 30 people. Following two more suicide bombings, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, targeting cities in the West Bank with the aim of destroying bomb factories and capturing or killing Palestinian militants. A UN report detailed the destruction caused by the campaign: 497 Palestinians were killed, while Palestinian health authorities and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society reported 1,447 wounded. A further 2,800 homes were damaged and 878 were destroyed, and 50 schools were damaged by Israeli military action.

The notion of foreign occupation as the primary driver of suicide bombings has also attracted criticism. Assaf Moghadam in Motives for Martyrdom: Al-Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Spread of Suicide Attacks, argues it does not explain why suicide bombings occur in situations where there is no occupation. He also points to the rise of foreign jihadists, individuals who are not most affected by occupation, yet who themselves have carried out suicide attacks.

Pape and Feldman claim that these foreign jihadists are ‘transnational suicide attackers’, individuals living in countries far removed from the occupied countries with multiple national loyalties to different communities. Foreign occupation of a ‘kindred community’ provides a motivation for an individual to carry out an attack. For example, the martyrdom videos of the 7/7 bombers make numerous references to the UK’s occupation of Iraq.

The rise of al-Qaeda and the world’s deadliest suicide attack

In 2001, hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack.

Al-Qaeda was a relative latecomer in joining the list of groups carrying out suicide attacks, beginning as they did fifteen years after Hezbollah started its suicide operations. Osama Bin Laden founded al-Qaeda in the late 1980s, calling for a global jihad and a strict interpretation of Sharia law. The group’s first suicide attack was on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, ‘perceived as the outstretched long arms of American foreign policy’ according to Yoram Schweitzer in Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism. Over 200 people were killed in the bombings.

The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing

The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the aftermath of the August 7, 1998, al-Qaida suicide bombing

Schweitzer believes that suicide terrorism was embraced by al-Qaeda because it serves as a symbol for global jihad.

Two years after the bombing of the embassies, al-Qaeda launched an attack on the American destroyer USS Cole, where a boat laden with explosives detonated alongside the hull of the ship, killing 17 sailors. According to Ami Pedahzur in Suicide Terrorism, the attacks on the embassies and the USS Coledid not bring about the anticipated results in terms of organizational goals and so the Al-Qaeda leader opted for more drastic measures.’

After 9/11, al-Qaeda’s affiliated groups used suicide attacks as their weapon of choice. This includes the Bali bombing, carried out by militant Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which killed 203 people.

There have been some monumental consequences to such suicide attacks.  September 11th, most notably, caused the Bush administration to declare a ‘War on Terror’ in response.

The ‘War on Terror’ has had long and deeply impactful consequences. It saw the US and its allies launch operations in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, as well as the Philippines and the Horn of Africa. Domestically, the USA PATRIOT Act was pushed through, extending the powers of law enforcement authorities to fight terrorism. This act attracted much controversy, with civil liberty groups claiming that the powers are sweeping, and violate people’s rights to privacy. The ‘War on Terror’ has lead to many human rights scandals, such as Guantanamo Bay and the torture inside Abu Ghraib prison.

Arguably, it has spawned more suicide attacks. Before the invasion of coalition forces in 2003, there had never been a suicide terrorist attack in Iraq, according to Pape and Feldman. Since then, the country has seen a proliferation in suicide attacks. In Afghanistan, for instance, suicide attacks leapt from less than 20 in 2005 to almost 140 in 2007.


The first reported use of body cavity bomb

Suicide terrorism takes on a variety of forms. It includes flying planes into skyscrapers, detonating trucks packed with tonnes of explosives outside embassies, and blowing up explosive vests filled with shrapnel, in packed crowds. But, increasingly, bombers are looking for more ‘innovative’ ways to conceal explosives.

Since an attack in 2009, there has been mounting concern at the use of body cavity bombs. 23-year-old Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, connected with al-Qaeda, concealed a device internally, later detonated by a mobile phone. The target was Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, but the Prince survived with few injuries. It is thought that the force of the blast went downwards which is why only the bomber died.

The fear is that body cavity bombs can remain undetected, as in the case of al-Asiri, but there have been no other reports of body cavity bombs (yet there have been sensationalist reports about doctors who have been trained to plant explosives inside the breasts of female suicide bombers).

The everyday suicide terror

Suicide bombs have been used to assassinate prominent politicians, to destroy embassies and attack legitimate military targets. However, in many cases, suicide attacks are directed against ordinary civilians going about their daily lives. This indiscriminate targeting of civilians is done with the intention of undermining their feelings of security and exposing the limits of the government’s powers.

In 2007, more than 500 people were killed in coordinated suicide truck bombings targeting the Yazidi communities in Northern Iraq, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent. That year, two other suicide bombers also killed 119 people at crowded Shiite marketplaces in Baghdad. In Peshawar, Pakistan, a car bomb killed at least 100 people in a marketplace in 2009.

International targets tend to grab headlines, but local bombings remain largely neglected by the western media. Reporting tends to focus on immediate casualties but there is little consideration of the long-lasting harm communities face in the aftermath.

Even services offering humanitarian assistance have been targeted. On 25 December 2010, a suicide bomber struck a food distribution centre run by the World Food Programme in the Pakistani town of Khar. At least 45 people were killed, and the Programme was forced to suspend operations in Bajaur affecting 300,000 people. The Taliban justified this attack on civilians by saying that the victims were members of the Salarzai tribe, which had supported the Pakistani military.

Read more about AOAV’s work on suicide bombings and other improvised explosive devices here.