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.
This section will offer some tangible suggestions as to what can be done to reduce the number of suicide bombings and their impact globally.
Quelling the cult: stopping suicide bombings
One thing is clear – there are no easy solutions to either terrorism in general or suicide bombings in particular. However, based on the traits displayed by the suicide bombers examined in this report, it is possible to identify certain key issues that need to be addressed in order to address the rising cult of the suicide bomber. In order to understand how to limit the spread of suicide attacks, though, there is virtue in first trying to understand if suicide attacks, indeed, achieve the end goals that they seek to achieve.
We know that – as described above – before 1980, suicide attacks were largely carried out under military orders and were motivated by a form of acute nationalism or political ideology. That between 1980 and 2001, suicide attacks changed, driven by a response to perceived or real iniquities carried out by forces or governments (often liberal democracies) occupying the attackers’ homeland. And that since 9/11, most suicide attacks have been carried out for reasons largely framed under the banner of Salafist-Wahhabism jihadism, and that the spread of this ideology today has turned the use of suicide attacks into the form of a growing and pervasive death cult.
It is important to note this shift in motivations and reasons behind suicide attacks, because they what might have worked in the past in addressing the rise of the suicide bomber might not work in the present or the future.
The failure of the Kamikaze
For instance, the use of the Kamikaze in the Second World War was a powerful weapon against the might of the US military. Despite not being specifically strategically of merit (they did not, in the end, sink as many ships as many might think and were certainly not a tangible threat to the Pacific fleet), the sustained attacks on the US fleet still sent shock waves of fear through the rank and file.
It also entrenched a mind-set in the US High Command that saw in the suicidal willingness of the Emperor’s troops to die no matter what, the dark shadows of a long and drawn out war through Japan’s mainland. Such a concern about the cost of a protracted guerrilla war in American soldiers’ lives was to harden the US’ resolve. And in this way, the use of atomic weaponry to break the back of Japan’s Empire was condoned at the Oslo Agreement. The end game of this was that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to see ‘ruin rain from the sky’. The two bombings, which killed at least 129,000 people, remain the only use of nuclear weapons for warfare in history.
Such a nuclear Armageddon was to crush the Japanese will to continue fighting. On August 12, just three days after Nagasaki, the Emperor informed the imperial family of his decision to surrender. In his declaration, Hirohito referred to the atomic bombings: ‘Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.’
In essence, when faced with the small but destructive power of the Japanese suicide bomber, the US brought out the most destructive weapon ever invented. It took a nuclear weapon to stop the use of the Kamikaze.
Such a lesson from history tells us two things. First, that when confronted with mentalities that are so extreme as to die in the pursuit of an ideal, the measures taken to combat such mentalities might have to be extreme in themselves. Second, that there is a real danger that, to coin the legendary phrase, that in order to save the city you have to destroy it. Certainly, using such an extreme weapon as the nuclear arsenal to crush the rise of the suicide bomb in Iraq or Syria is not a viable solution today. The transnational and dispersed nature of today’s perpetrators of suicide bombers means that they cannot be so easily defeated by conventional weaponry. The US high command resorted to atomic bombs (and the Sri Lankan government ended up bombing civilian areas with impunity so as to stem the attacks against them). As such, there is – in this report’s opinion – little of merit to be learnt from the historic confrontation of the Kamikaze.
Attacks against liberal democracies
Between 1980 and September 11, 2001, there were at least 188 suicide attacks globally. Such attacks tended to follow an attempt to force liberal democracies to make territorial concession. In this way, suicide bombers attempted to forced US and French forces to leave Lebanon (1983); Israeli forces to leave Lebanon (1985); Israeli forces to quit the Gaza strip and West Bank (1994 and onwards); the Sri Lankan government to create a Tamil state (1990 and onwards); and the Turkish government to grant autonomy from the Kurds in the late 1990s. Of these attempts, the only one that appears to have ‘worked’ – at the time of writing – was in Lebanon.
The case of Lebanon
The Multinational Force in Lebanon suffered its greatest number of casualties on October 23, 1983 when Shia suicide bombers driving two truck bombs loaded with the equivalent of six tons of TNT plowed into the U.S. and French barracks in two simultaneous attacks, killing 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French paratroopers.
America eventually ended its participation in the Multinational Force at the end of March 1984. President Reagan said at the time: “Once the terrorist attacks started there was no way that we could really contribute to the original mission by staying there as a target just bunkering down and waiting for further attacks.” The rest of the alliance left Lebanon in April 1984. Later that year 20 people were killed after the US embassy was attacked by another suicide bomber.
Gen. Colin Powell later aptly summarized the whole military misadventure: “Beirut wasn’t sensible and it never did serve a purpose. It was goofy from the beginning.”
Regarding this ‘goofiness’, a few things are worth noting when trying to understand how suicide attacks worked in the case of Lebanon.
First, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff were unanimously opposed to the deployment and Regan did not have Congress’ approval. This lack of political support meant that there was no stomach for a prolonged and drawn out engagement in Lebanon, particularly with the ghosts of the Vietnam War still very fresh in the minds of many politicians and generals.
Second, the US force was effectively neutered in terms of engaging with the enemy. As Reagan said at the time: “Their mission is to provide an interposition force at agreed locations,” but “in carrying out this mission, the American force will not engage in combat.” As such, there was no ‘fight back’ after the bombings. Reagan never retaliated against Hezbollah or their Iranian and Syrian sponsors responsible for the bombings, a position widely endorsed by senior military officials. As then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Vessey declared: “It is beneath our dignity to retaliate against the terrorists who blew up the Marine barracks.”
Third, there appears to have been a very mixed understanding of what the US forces’ primary goal was. Reagan contended that they would “assist the Lebanese Armed Forces in carrying out their responsibility for ensuring the departure of PLO leaders, officers, and combatants in Beirut from Lebanese territory,” and “facilitate the restoration of the sovereignty and authority of the Lebanese Government over the Beirut area.” He added: “In no case will our troops stay longer than 30 days.” On Oct. 28, 1983, however, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger contradicted this, saying: “What we need is a multinational force until certain conditions have been achieved. Nobody knows when those conditions can be achieved. It is not an open-ended commitment.” Overall, sending US Marines to Lebanon for such an imprecise and unachievable end-state was a tremendous mistake. And it was more a lack of domestic political will and a reluctance to expand the operation that led to the US withdrawal, than the power of the suicide bomber.
Nonetheless, Lebanon is a relatively rare case where suicide attacks appeared directly to work when they were used against an occupying force (other cases include Soviet use of suicide attacks in World War II, North Koreans in the Korean War and the Viet Cong in the Vietnam war).
Overall, suicide attacks do not appear to have worked against an incumbent government by a minority force (eg. In the case of the Tamil Tigers and the PKK). And they have yet to be shown to work by a supranational terrorist force (insofar as the Caliphate has yet to be established).
In short, it is worth noting, then, that a lack of political will supporting the force under attack from suicide bombers, a poorly defined mission, and the case of a foreign force with feet in a foreign land all increase likelihood of suicide bombers achieving their goals.
Stopping the drivers of suicide bombings
In addition to understanding how military forces ‘lose’ against suicide bombers, it is also worth understanding what factors drive suicide bombers and what measures might be taken to address these drivers.
Preventing Human rights abuses
It is clear that human rights abuses against opposition groups and repressive policies against non-violent Islamist parties in the Middle East have fuelled the attractiveness of ideological extremism and the desire for revenge.
These abuses must cease. The vast majority of Middle Eastern countries producing suicide bombers have a history of oppressing political dissidents, including Islamist groups. A large portion of today’s jihadi commanders have spent time as political prisoners, including Abu Muhammad al-Jolani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is a cliché that violence breeds violence, but state violence against non-violent groups is perhaps the most common foundational motivation among today’s Salafi-Jihadi groups. More inclusive and democratic procedures are needed to keep people off of the path of jihad.
Stopping the spread of Islamaphobia
In the West, social cohesion needs to be promoted between different faith groups. Furthermore, the issue of Islamophobia must be taken seriously. Whether real or perceived, it demands more attention given that almost every Western suicide bomber has seen Islamophobia in the West as foundational element to their actions. Even though Islamophobia is a soft concept that might be difficult to prove, the comparatively high levels of unemployment and widespread socio-economic deprivation among Europe’s Muslim communities are statistically proven. Programmes promoting integration in both the educational and professional sector are needed across Western countries to ensure social inclusion of young Muslims.
Targeting individuals vulnerable to extremism
Does understanding why people are radicalized or understanding the process they tend to undergo before committing their suicide attacks have value in developing solutions to prevent future harm? Does early community interventions and vigilance from families, schools or mosques help identify those young people ‘at risk’ from being radicalised and weaponised?
Such questions are crucial to understanding the degree to which engagement with community and religious leaders may reduce the number of radicalized youth in an area, but the answer to such questions are notoriously hard to gauge.
One of the main challenges to answering these questions is the issue of cause and effect. It is hard to prove that interventions absolutely work – especially when the end goal is the absence of something (extremism) rather than the presence of something. The other challenges is that there are, as this report has laid out, many diverse drivers of extremism. Indeed, the breadth of countering violent extremism was highlighted when the then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon revealed the UN’s plan of action in January, 2016. Over 70 recommendations were made for member states, ranging from development policy initiatives, good governance, human rights, to youth empowerment, gender equality, and the role of social media. And yet, despite these wide range of intervention, hard and fast correlations between improving structural development factors (such as high unemployment or low levels of education) and reducing terrorism are at best unclear and often contraindicated.
Nonetheless, countering violence extremism programmes have become rapidly institutionalised within national bureaucracies, and internationally through bodies like the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund. But there is no clear agreement on the alternative ideology to be promoted, and the charge of hypocrisy against the West and its allies is an ever-present problem.
In addition, the fight against extremism can often be blind to the very grievances that stoked the extremism in the first place. Promoting a vision of tolerance, for instance, sounds to many insincere when it is juxtaposed against media headlines that chronicle deepening xenophobia in the West. And the perception that certain communities are being targeted can also stigmatise and alienate. Overall, policymakers should disaggregate even the most radical movements and look for opportunities to end violence, not lump others in with them.
The first wave of countering extremism in the West was generally aimed at building community resilience to extremist ideas. This was usually a case of trial and error – with far more lessons on what not to do than examples of what worked. As such, and increasingly, the “battle of ideas” approach is being dropped in favour of more individual-level interventions so as to address specific cases of radicalisation. It is, in this space, clearly necessary to find more efficient ways to identify vulnerable individuals and to empower them in a manner that turns them away from terrorism. In some instances, this might mean giving them fulfilling employment. In others, it may mean preventing someone from criminal activities, which may lead to radicalisation. What is clear is that, just as every suicide bomber is diverse, preventive methods will need to be diverse as well.
Diffuse extremist messaging
Religious extremist messages promoting violence must be prevented from being diffused, both on social media and in mosques around the world. To some this might seem naïve, but if the suicide bombings, torture and murder videos as used by ISIS, for instance, were viewed with the same judicial repugnance as images of paedophilia, then there might be a way to address the spread of such black propaganda.
It is clear that the impact of violent videos as a propaganda tool is well known by terror groups. Indeed, IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in July 2015 that their group would desist from filming the actual moment of execution (though it will continue to show the moments before and after), indicating that even the terror group knows there are limits to their social impact.
Of course, it is difficult to prove that the filming of violent deaths has helped fuel suicide bombings. But what is striking, as the editor of this report has already expressed in the Guardian Newspaper, is that there are far fewer international legal restrictions on someone watching clips of a suicide bomber’s last moments compared to, say, viewing the sexual abuse of minors. Websites like LiveLeak.com just post a warning sign to viewers before they click through to images showing intimate death.
This begs the question: why is not more being done to attack this pornography of violence? While Facebook has a system called PhotoDNA that scans photographs then matches it with a police database in order to combat child pornography, when it comes to torture and violent murder the company relies on users complaining about such images. Google, similarly, has a zero tolerance approach to child sex abuse imagery, and shows warning messages for more than 13,000 search terms related to it. The same does not apply, though, to search terms such as suicide bombings or beheading.
But could blocking the dissemination of viscerally violent films reduce the impact that such films have? And in so doing might it reduce the use of such filmed torture? Imposing a “child pornography” approach to censoring terror videos could possibly limit the suicide bomber’s impact, even leading them to shift away from such graphic, public statements.
Of course civil liberty advocates will argue against the use of censorship. But, then again, there are few voices speaking out against the banning of viewing child pornography, so why not against watching the videos of suicide bombers targeting civilians?
Support or engage with Islamic leaders in theological, non-violence debate
First and foremost, preachers and mosques inciting violence or recruiting for jihadi organisations must be prevented from doing so. This needs to be done delicately, nonetheless. In the interest of free speech, ultra-conservative religious messages should be able to be expressed so long as they do not incite violence or recruit for jihadi groups. Past mistakes include stigmatising Salafi and other conservative communities based on the belief that their beliefs automatically lead to violence, which is both incorrect and counter-productive to C-IED strategies.
Nonetheless, it must be recognized that faith communities are among the most important partners in the struggle against terror, and although it might be difficult for intelligence agencies identify where Salafism ends and jihadism begins, followers must not be made into suspects solely on the basis of their faith.
In this way, there is merit in repeated engagements with opinion makers in the MENA religious hierarchies, in order to seek to express to the wider Islamic world the merit of non-violence.
One of the most interesting recent instances of such engagement, for instance, was the 2010 New Mardin Declaration, where an international conference was convened in Turkey over two days. It was designed to re-examine Ibn Taymiyah’s famous ‘Mardin fatwa’. Dozens of high-profile Islamic scholars from various countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iran, Morocco, Mauritania and Indonesia attended the conference, which was held in the historic city of Mardin. The conference was aired live on Al Jazeera television.
The famous ‘Mardin fatwa’ was given in the early 14th century by Islamic scholar scholar Ibn Taymiyah, against the Mongol rulers of the town. It has been used by some extremist groups such as Al Qaeda to justify terrorism. The way Ibn Taymiyah denounced the Mongol rulers of his time, who claimed to be Muslim to placate those whose lands they had taken over, has provided justification for some radical groups to denounce Muslims they view as less strict as ‘apostates’.
The scholars at the meeting agreed that this seven-century-old religious opinion has been taken out of context. It is being misinterpeted today and misapplied to the political realities of the modern world. They stressed the original fatwa did not designate Mardin as an abode of war, but rather asserted that non-Muslims needed to be taken care of as opposed to attacked. Overall, the conference unanimously announced that ‘nothing can justify terrorism and indiscriminate murder in the name of Islam… actions of terrorist groups are not jihad but arbitrary murder.’ The conference also noted that Islam ‘unequivocally forbids indiscriminate killing and murder,’ and that ‘terrorists are destroying their own faith and disparaging the honor of Islam.’
Such a meeting alone would have little deep impact, of course. But if there was a concerted and repeated effort to bring Islamic scholars together again and again, across time and space, to debate issues such as the use of suicide as a form of attack, the targeting of civilians as justified in Islamic teachings and the use of fire as a weapon, it would, this report contests, have merit. The intellectual and theological findings from such meetings should have PR support to ensure that they are widely reported on – perhaps teaming up with international media outlets to achieve impact.
Scrutinise the impact of western foreign policy
Policy-makers should seriously assess the impact Western foreign policy has had on the Middle East in order to avoid past mistakes. This does not mean to surrender and accept the conspiracy-laden narrative presented by jihadi organisations. Neither is it realistic to assume that Western policies towards the region going back for decades can be completely altered. However, policy-makers should aim actively to factor in a potential future terrorist backlash whilst assessing partnerships with totalitarian regimes, and potential armed intervention in the region.
This includes the inadvertent arming of future jihadi groups though the US’ and other states’ uncontrolled supply of arms and explosives to militaries and police in the Middle East. For instance, AOAV’s analysis of a wide range of open source data reports showed that the US government has sent at least 1,452,910 small arms to Iraq and Afghanistan (949,582 for Iraq; 503,328 for Afghanistan) between September 11th, 2001 and September 11th, 2016. Such inadvertent supply of weapons to the Middle East must cease, if peace in the region is to be gained.
Furthermore, the use of drone strikes by the US and other Western governments has been shown, repeatedly to fuel support for Salafist-jihadism. As of end of February, 2017, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London based investigative unit, has recorded at least 2,017 US drone strikes, killing between 6,149 and 8,834 people. Of these at least 734 were civilians (at most 1,389), and between 240 and 305 of these were children.
In addition, AirWars, another London-based casualty counting outfit that monitors civilian casualties from international airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya, has recorded 18,662 coalition Strikes (11,276 in Iraq, 7,386 in Syria) over 929 days. In that time, at least 2,405 civilians have been estimated killed by the US-led coalition, with over 69,337 bombs and missiles being dropped.
Such an amorphous and endless ‘war on terror’, claiming so many civilian lives, plays into conspiracy theories: Washington wantonly kills innocent Muslims across the globe, jihadists argue. Carrying out secret drone strikes worldwide with no explanation bolsters their claims. And holding prisoners for years in Guantanamo Bay without trial bolsters extremists’ argument that the US honours basic rights for its own citizen but ignores them for others.
Response to drone strikes is varied. Revenge is often targeted at those within the easy range of extremists (this means that in places such as Pakistan, those who are harmed by US drones strikes are often Pakistanis). The victims of these revenge terrorist attacks also often consider the drone strikes as being responsible for the violence. Consequently, both terrorists and ordinary people are drawn closer to each other out of sympathy. This is against the logic of any successful counter-terrorism policy – which is to win over public confidence so that they join in the campaign against the main perpetrators of terror. To this end, public outrage against drone strikes circuitously empowers terrorists. It allows them space to survive, move around, and maneuver.
Such a debate is not one just held by liberal anti-war activists. Robert Grenier, the former head of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, has warned that the American drone program in Yemen has risked turning the country into a safe haven for Al Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan — ‘the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan.’ While the politician Imran Khan has said that drone attacks in Pakistan are ‘fomenting radicalisation’ and called on the US to name victims to prove they are killing terrorists, not civilians.
In light of this, drone and air strikes should be conducted with extreme caution – for every child killed by one pushes the father closer to the suicide vest, and every father killed by one sends the son.
Encourage peace building in the MENA region and beyond
The most important challenge in terms of quelling the cult of the suicide bomber lies in stopping the conflicts in which the vast majority of today’s suicide bombings and their casualties are found. Even though some of the problems identified above may persist, there would not be such an arena for widespread suicide bombings if the conflicts plaguing the Middle East today did not take place.
In the Middle East, terrorism is at an all-time high, battle deaths from conflict are at a 25-year high, and the number of refugees and displaced people are at a level not seen in 60 years.
Saudi Arabia’s plan for a Muslim alliance against terrorism – announced at a press conference in Riyadh early in December 2015 – was purportedly designed to display determination to fight the jihadis of Islamic State and to help the West do so. But key details about how it will work and whether it will even involve military forces on any front lines have been unclear from the get-go. The alliance goes beyond the obvious candidates in the Gulf and Egypt to include Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia as well as Nigeria, Mali and other African countries. It conspicuously excludes Iran and Iraq – supporters of what the Saudis call “Shia terrorism” – and Syria, where Riyadh backs rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It also excludes Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, as well as Oman, the most independent state in the Gulf.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, said the coalition would share intelligence and deploy troops if necessary, but there has been little evidence that they have followed up the announcement with tangible actions.
Of course, many NATO states – and beyond – seek to peace-build in the MENA region. To do so, they often focus on liberal state-building activities, seeking to induce democratization, economic growth and the use of multilateralism and cooperation to implement region-building. This is based on a belief that peace can be built by eliminating poverty and the surrounding lack of opportunity, by creating democracies, and by transforming relations between states through cooperative links. After at least two decades, however, this approach has failed to work.
Partly, this is because a ‘functionalist-liberal’ approach does not correspond with the political reality of the Middle East – specifically the Arab states. The extent to which the regional system is amenable to integration and cooperative relations is questionable as the region’s actors operate in a very different way. In addition, while many NATO states hold a liberal vision of peace and a practical, reform-oriented process of peace-building, traditional Arab-Islamic notions of conflict and its resolution do not match these. They are based more on immediate conflict resolution, and seek a return to the status quo, rather than seeking wholesale transformation and reform.
In light of this, peace-building initiatives in the MENA region need to reflect the cultural conditions of the region, and not be a simple ‘sticking plaster’ of western sensibilities.
Bolstering CIED capacities
More needs to be done to fund specific CIED work in the Middle East and beyond. This intervention needs to be imaginative and nimble, able to respond to developing trends and threats. CIED work needs to spread beyond demining operations – any Attack The Network approach has to acknowledge that the network is built on cultural and ideological grounds, and that a militarized approach to preventing suicide bombing only goes so far. More on this can be read in the separate report published under this trilogy of reports – Addressing the threat posed by IEDs.
Record the impact of suicide bombing
Far more needs to be done in recording the impact of suicide strikes. Without a substantive evidence base funds on both a national and supranational level cannot be easily argued for.
Casualty recording the number of people killed or injured by suicide attacks is a crucial practice for the respect of human dignity, for the sake of surviving family members, and for the establishment of facts. It also brings additional benefits. Publicly accessible casualty records that are transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability, and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability.
Such records can humanize victims, reduce the space for dispute over numbers killed, help societies understand the true human costs of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts.
Research by AOAV has also shown that casualty recording is also valuable during conflict. Casualty data can feed into humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need, and contribute to the protection of civilians. Casualty records can also play a role in mechanisms that support increased compliance by conflict parties with the law and reductions in civilian harm from their actions.
Addressing the spread of pre-cursor materials
In addition to recording the deaths and injuries from suicide bombings, far more needs to be done in understanding how to prevent would-be bombers getting their hands on pre-cursor materials. AOAV undertook a major analysis of pre-cursor material and their role in IED creation – Material Harm – found on our website. In it, AOAV recommended the following:
All states should increase efforts to control access to the components of IEDs, including addressing the transfer and trade of illicit materials.
States should sign up and support the work of Programme Global Shield, and should provide resources to ensure its continuing survival.
As a matter of urgent priority states should share purchase information of large or suspicious transactions of precursor materials between countries and its law enforcements, as well as the industries that produce and sell precursor materials.
States and the private sector should both give and ask for support to secure stockpiles of explosives and detonators in the mining and construction industry need greater security.
States and the private sector should work together to create a database containing detonator manufacturers and the characteristics of their detonators, such as serial numbers or other distinguishing markings, would be beneficial to the international community. Such a database would allow detonators to be traced back to their point of origin.
States, the private sector and international organisations should create a greater awareness that unsecured stockpiles, whether fertiliser stockpiles, stockpiles of commercial or military explosives and detonators, is a source for those who manufacture IEDs.
Securing stockpiles must be a high priority for invading forces and states involved in armed conflict. Stockpiles must be guarded to prevent those who wish to make IEDs from accessing the material.
Finally, in order to achieve these recommendations outlined above, significant funding needs to be found to ensure that civil society, businesses, trade officials, police units, UN agencies, militaries and any other key component of the CIED networks come together to respond imaginatively and creatively to this terrible weapon. Without there being a coherent, co-ordinated, well funded and systemic approach to combating the rising cult of the suicide bomber, then there is little hope that the spread of this weapon will be curtailed.
This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.
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