Evolution of the Suicide Attacker

The war in Iraq has enabled insurgent groups to develop the relatively modern innovation of suicide bombs into a strategic weapon.

Suicide operations, the signature weapon of the Iraqi insurgency, have evolved into a tactical method of warfare used by insurgents around the world. These "moving and thinking bombs" are more effective, numerous, adaptable and sophisticated -- able to carry out both mass killings and targeted political assassinations -- and are harder to counter since women and children are being used to carry them.

A study by the Gulf Research Center, a Middle East think tank, analyzes these operations from a technical perspective. The report, "Security and Terrorism: Suicide Bombing Operations," published in Arabic and English, focuses on suicide operations in Iraq, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Israel.

Although the study does not provide evidence of direct relations between insurgent groups operating in different countries, their similar tactics strongly suggest that they are learning from each other. The Iraq war has served as a suicide operations school for insurgent groups around the world, Dr. Mustafa Alani, director of Security and Terrorism Studies at the Gulf Research Center, told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television network.

Suicide bombings in Afghanistan increased from one attack in 2001 to 118 in 2006, according to Hekmat Karzai, director of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul. Half of all operations carried out by the Taliban in Afghanistan are now suicide operations.

The Taliban has successfully used these operations to undermine the Kabul government. This was evident in the latest attack on a police bus in the heart of Kabul on Tuesday, which killed 13 officers and civilians. Immediately after the attack, Afghan President Hamid Karzai offered the Taliban several posts in his government if leader Mullah Omar agreed to enter into negotiations with him. The Taliban refused the offer, a clear indication that they have the upper hand.

Suicide operations have evolved into a strategic weapon, Alani writes, because "in many cases, the suicide bombing technique has proved to be smarter than the high-tech Smart Bomb." These "human-driven bombs" can reach their targets like no other weapon, making them effective in targeted assassinations as well as mass killings. This is attributed to two unique characteristics of these so-called "moving and thinking bombs," Alani adds. "Moving bombs" refer to vehicle-born bombs, while "thinking bombs" refer to person-born bombs.

Mass killing suicide bombings are designed to maximize the number of causalities and psychological impact of the operation. Techniques such as the "trap combination attack" involve two suicide bombers: one detonates in a confined place, while a second bomber detonates near the exits as victims seek escape. "The rule is that the higher the number of human casualties inflicted in the attack, the better and higher the rate of gain and the impact generated for the group and its interests," Alani explains.

Nicole Stracke, a researcher in the Gulf Research Center's Security and Terrorism Program, studied 550 cases of suicide operations that took place between 2003 and 2006. She reached a similar conclusion: "Suicide attacks in Iraq appear to be a successful technique," she writes, "as the insurgent groups utilizing this method have developed a flexible approach and responsive, adaptable tactics in their operational planning." Stracke adds that these attacks have weakened the Iraqi government, prevented its legitimacy, limited the freedom of movement of American soldiers and restricted their interactions with ordinary Iraqis.

According to Alani, up to 150,000 Iraqis have fallen victim to suicide bombing attacks. Many American soldiers in Iraq have also been killed in suicide bombings. The most lethal attack took place on Dec. 21, 2004, when a suicide bomber detonated his bomb in a mess tent on an American base in Mosul, killing 14 U.S. soldiers.

Suicide operations are increasingly being used to assassinate high-level officials in Afghanistan. In 2001, two Al Qaeda members pretending to be journalists blew themselves up near commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and strongest opponent of the Taliban. In 2006, the list of assassinated Afghan officials included the late governor of Paktia, Hakim Taniwal, former governor of Helmand, Muhammad Daoud, and Member of Parliament Pacha Khan Zadran.

In Iraq, suicide operations have been used both in both mass killings and targeted assassinations. On Aug. 29, 2003, a suicide bomber detonated an ambulance loaded with explosives outside Imam Ali Mosque, killing 126 people. Since then, many high-level Iraqi officials have been assassinated. The latest of these was on Sept. 13, 2007 when Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, an alliance of tribes who declared their support for the Iraqi government and U.S. forces, was killed just 10 days after he met with President Bush and one day after General Petraeus addressed Congress about U.S. progress in Anbar.

One of the techniques used to increase the success rate of suicide operations is the use of women and children, who are less likely to be searched and detected.

Mia Bloom, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., writes that "between 1985 and 2006, there were more than 220 women suicide bombers, representing about 15 percent of the total number of such attacks."

The number of women suicide bombers is especially high among Chechen insurgents. Forty-two percent of all Chechen suicide operations between 2000 and 2006 were carried out by women, according to Faryal Leghari, a researcher in security and terrorism at the Gulf Research Center. Of the remaining 58 percent perpetrated by men, some suicide bombings were mixed operations.

In the Dubrovka Theater operation in October 2002, 19 out of the 41 Chechen hostage takers were women. Although the mission was not a suicide operation, the women were wearing explosive seat belts. They wrote notes before carrying out the operation, saying that they were willing to die fighting the Russian crimes committed against the Chechens. These women were dubbed by the media as Chechnya's "black widows."

Iraqi and Palestinian insurgent groups use women in supporting roles such as information gathering, target selection and observation, transporting suicide bombers, and detracting suspicion. Between 2002 and 2004, seven Palestinian women carried out suicide attacks in Israel. Seven women have carried out suicide operations in Iraq.

According to Alani, some insurgent groups are beginning to recruit children through tactics adopted from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, who collect children from refugee camps, many of whom have lost their families. The children, who range from 10 to 13 years old, are brought up in the "Red Garden" in complete isolation from everything except for their leader. Similar tactics are now being used by insurgents in Algeria and Afghanistan, says Alani, who points out that both the Taliban and Al Qaeda's new affiliate in North Africa, called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have used children in their latest attacks.

But the high number of suicide bombings carried out by Muslims gives the wrong impression that Islam promotes such operations. In fact, only 43 percent of the 384 suicide attackers between 1980 and 2003 in Sri Lanka, Israel, Chechnya, Iraq and New York, were affiliated with religious groups, according to Suggeeswara Senadhira, a consultant director in the Government Information Department and former associate director of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Colombo, Sri Lanka. "Strikingly," he writes, "during the Lebanese civil war, some 70 percent of suicide attackers were Christians (though members of secular groups)."

A significant number of suicide operations are carried out by non-Muslim insurgent groups such the Tamil Tigers, whose members are mainly Hindus and Marxists, as well as the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party.

Islamist insurgent groups have adopted their suicide operations from these secular groups. Islamic insurgencies faced the challenge of convincing their followers to violate traditional Islamic principles that ban suicide and the targeting of unarmed civilians. However, Islamist insurgents have managed to get around this by introducing new religious ideologies such as "defensive Jihad," "Istihlal" and "Takfirism" to justify suicide operations.

Although mainstream Muslims oppose these extreme ideologies, Islamist insurgents have managed to use Islam to recruit large numbers of suicide bombers for two reasons. First, prominent Muslim scholars and intellectuals have failed to take a clear and vocal stance against suicide operations that target civilians, especially when the victims are Israelis. Second, Islamist insurgents have successfully used the widespread resentment among Muslims, to what they perceive as tremendous injustices committed in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya to break Islamic traditions and cultural norms that oppose suicide operations and the targeting of civilians.


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