AOAV: all our reportsUnderstanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Types of SIEDs

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

SIEDs can be deployed by a series of different means, and can be classified as Vehicle-Borne, Air-Born, Water-Borne, Animal-Borne, Person-Borne IEDs, and among these, Proxy-Borne.

Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (Suicide VBIEDs)

Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) are IEDs which are delivered by, or concealed in, a ground-based vehicle. These can range from compact vehicles to large trucks, and carry the potential of being able to conceal up to several tons of explosives without attracting suspicions.  From all suicide missions recorded in English language media by AOAV between 2011 and mid-2016, over 40% of them used suicide VBIED’s as their method of employment. As a result of these attacks, 8,462 people were killed and around 18,000 injured.

This is, perhaps, of little surprise. Suicide VBIEDs can be extremely deadly. On 3 July 2016, the death toll exceeded the 300 victims when an IS suicide bomber detonated a truck in a crowded area in Baghdad. The blast started a substantial fire in the main street, substantially increasing the death toll and damaging surrounding buildings.

Suicide Water-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (Suicide WBIEDs)

Suicide WBIEDs are those SIEDs which are delivered by or concealed in a water-based vehicle, such as a boat, a ship or a submarine. This method of employment has not been frequently used in suicide missions in recent times, but has been used on a few occasions.

WBIEDs can be traced back to World War II, when the Imperial Japanese Navy developed its Kaiten manned torpedoes and Shinyo suicide boats programmes. The Kaiten program consisted of submarine-launched torpedoes commanded by suicide pilots. The Shinyo-class suicide motorboat was also part of the Japanese efforts to succeed in World War II. These were fast boats, driven by one man and could carry up to 300kg of explosives. Detonation would come over impact or could be activated manually by the driver.

In recent years, three cases of WBEIDs suicide missions have been recorded. In October 2000, the USS Cole destroyer was hit by a suicide boat while being re-fueled in Aden’s harbour in Yemen. In 2001, at least five boats thought to belong to Tamil Tiger rebels carried out a suicide operation against a fuel ship in Sri Lanka, sinking the vessel.  And in 2009, the Tamil Tiger rebels launched another suicide WBIED attack – this time against two merchant ships carrying humanitarian aid to the North of Sri Lanka. Three boats were used but only one managed to impact one of the ships, causing considerable damage.

Suicide Animal Borne Improvised Explosive Devices

A Suicide Animal Borne Improvised Explosive Device is an SIED delivered to a target by means of an animal. The use of animals in (non-suicidal) warfare is not new, and the Romans used flaming squealing pigs to repel Pyrrhus’ elephants. In World War II, the United States developed a bat-bomb program that, though never put into effect, intended to set on fire 40 miles of Japanese houses with incendiary bombs attached to the bats. A pigeon-guided bomb program was developed by the US Military that was also canceled, but the concept was later used by the early electronic guidance systems.

But the use of animals to help deliver a suicide bomb is much rarer. Some suicide attacks have been conducted with the use of animals. In July 2013, a suicide bomber rode a donkey towards a NATO operation in Afghanistan. Three NATO troops were killed and four Afghan soldiers were wounded. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack.

Person-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (PBIED)

A Person Borne Improvised Explosive Device is an IED worn, carried, or housed by a person, either willingly or unwillingly. Besides the historical examples demonstrated above, in more recent years suicide vests have been designed to allow the bomber to move discretely towards their target, making a real-time decision on the time of detonation to maximize the lethality.

According to an FBI report on suicide vests and belt improvised device tactics in the Middle Eastern, African and European Regions of 2015, the most common explosives used include triacetone triperoxide (TATP), trinitrotoluene (TNT), Semtex, C4, Research Development Formula X (RDX), and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN). These vests and belts were usually contained in a fragmentation jacket and include steel balls, nails or others to produce shrapnel. However, the diversity of the types of vests observed in each region means you cannot link a particular type of device to a particular terror group.

PBIEDs are the most frequent type of suicide attacks. To avoid detection, some groups have gone as far as to develop Body Cavity Bombs (BCB); some may even consider surgically implanted explosive devices. The latter has not been confirmed as ever having been used, however, they have created massive media speculation and a number of reports have been written on the implications that such devices would have on airport security systems.

There might be some validity to this concern. In 2009, Abdullah al-Asiri, the younger brother of al-Qaeda’s chief bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, evaded two sets of airport security and the Palace security by concealing a bomb in his rectum. The target was Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, head of Saudi Arabia’s counter terrorism operations. The prince was only to suffer minor injuries. The body of the bomber absorbed most of the impact, making it an assassination failure but a security-defeat success.

A senior fellow at the FBI Academy was to later release a book called “Body Cavity Bombers, The New Martyrs”. It suggested a series of surgically implanted bomb scenarios: vaginal, gastro-intestinal, subcutaneous, and even breast implants. A post-analysis research study, mentioned in the book, states that most current security systems at airports would be evaded by BCB and those which would not, would carry a high level of inconvenience or even health risks for normal passengers.[i]

Complex attacks

A complex attack is an attack conducted by an enemy that employs at least two distinct classes of weapon systems (i.e. indirect fire and direct fire, IED and surface to air fire) against one or more targets.

The type of complex attack most predominantly used by the groups examined in this report is during so called inghimasi operations. An inghimasi operation essentially indicates a suicide mission. The word inghimasi comes from the Arabic word ghamassa, which means to submerge or to plunge oneself into something. IS usually uses this as an offensive tactic during raids.

Inghimasi fighters will charge their enemies using small firearms, whilst trying to penetrate enemy lines before ‘plunging’ into their enemies and detonating suicide vests.  As this is occurring, IS usually fires rockets and mortars behind enemy lines, in an attempt to create as much confusion and chaos as possible – a tactic that demonstrates the method’s complexity.

The tactic is surprisingly effective. This is demonstrated by events such as the death of an American soldier, who was killed north of Mosul in May 2016. The infantryman was between 2-3 miles behind the front line when he was killed by an IS fighter.

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.


[i] Bunker, R.J. Flaherty, C. (2013) Body Cavity Bombers: The New Martyrs. A Terrorism Research Center Book. iUniverse, Inc. Bloomington, 2013.