The Real Origins of Suicide Bombings

Motives, History and Evolution
"Mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you tribes and sub-tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you." Quran 49:13

There are many motives for suicide attacks: religious beliefs, nationalistic ideologies, obedience to charismatic and authoritarian leaders, or desire for political change. The modus operandi may vary, whether to use one or several suicide bombers, whether to use men or women. The explosives can be concealed on the human body, on an animal, or in a vehicle, and conveyed by sea, or over land. The targets can be senior government officials, military targets, economic installations, or public transport vehicles, while the level of operations can range from scores of attacks to solitary or sporadic attacks.

For most of the organizations who have used these tactics, the common denominator is their success in causing large-scale casualties and negatively influencing public morale, while at the same time entirely failing to change regimes or to force their governments to surrender to their strategic demands.

As of the beginning of 2004, there have been well over 300 suicide attacks carried out in 14 countries by 17 organizations.

Modern suicide bombings was introduced by Hezbullah in 1983 in Lebanon, and it was in Lebanon that this modus operandi was refined throughout the 1980s. During the 1990s, the attacks continue, but declined in frequency. All together, 50 suicide bombings were carried by secular communist and nationalist organizations, including the Lebanese Communist Party, the Socialist-Nasserist Organization, the Syrian Ba'ath Party, the PPS, and the other half by Hezbullah and Amal.

The perpetrators of the suicide bombings in Lebanon did not achieve strategic results. Hezballah succeeded in hastening the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Lebanon and harassed the IDF in Lebanon. However, the suicide bombings were not a significant factor in Israel's decision to withdraw from the security zone. Moreover, in the 1990s, Hezbullah drastically reduced the number of suicide attacks due to "rational" cost-benefit considerations.

The Lebanese success in this sphere was mostly in achieving respect; the group became a symbol of sacrifice and a source of inspiration for several organizations worldwide. In Sri Lanka, Turkey, Egypt, Chechnya and others, militants adopted and even improved on the suicide bombings of the Lebanese group.

The most prominent of these organizations was the LTTE, "The Tamil Tigers." This organization, currently fighting for an independent Tamil state, began carrying out suicide bombings in 1987 and has since perpetrated over 200 such attacks. These bombings were particularly lethal and caused hundreds of casualties. Their targets are usually senior political and military officials in Sri Lanka. This organization is the only one in the world to succeed in assassinating two heads of state by suicide bombings. A suicide attack killed former India Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, while he was on an election campaign tour in Madras on May 21, 1991. Then, in May 1993, President Primadassa of Sri Lanka, was killed by a suicide attacker, along with 22 other people. On Dec. 17, 1999, the organization attempted to assassinate Chandrika Kumaratunga, President of Sri Lanka, using a female suicide bomber who blew herself up at an election rally. The President was wounded but survived the attack.

The LTTE has also targeted politicians from the Singhalese majority, pragmatic politicians from the Tamil minority, and senior military officers, as well as boats, command centers, and economic installations, such as fuel depots. The organization has never been particularly mindful of the safety of passers-by and has never spared innocent bystanders who happened to be in the vicinity of their attacks.

The LTTE suicide squads draw their inspiration from a combination of a strong nationalistic motive and the charismatic leadership of the head of the organization, Parabakan. The LTTE is still the most active group using suicide terrorism, but has so far not succeeded in achieving its declared strategic aim ? an independent Tamil state. The Kurdish PKK, a secessionist "secular" movement, perpetrated 16 suicide attacks in the years 1996-1999 (plus five foiled attacks), which killed 20 people and wounded scores. However, these suicide attacks did little to persuade the Turkish government to accept the organization's demand for Kurdish autonomy. The PKK suicide attacks were inspired and carried out on the orders of the organization's charismatic leader, Ocalan, who was perceived by the members of his organization as a "Light to the Nations." Following his arrest and death sentence in 1999, his organization ceased its suicide bombings.

The Egyptian organizations, "Gama'a al-Islamiyya" and "Egyptian Jihad," carried out two suicide attacks?one in Croatia in October 1995, and the other at the Egyptian embassy in Karachi, Pakistan in November 1995.

Osama bin Laden's organization was responsible for two simultaneous suicide bombings against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, in which 224 people were killed and about five thousand wounded. But these attacks, too, failed to obtain their strategic political aims beyond the casualties which they caused.

Another suicide attack carried out apparently by al-Qaida, or at least in collaboration with it, was perpetrated by two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in a boat in Aden harbor next to the USS Cole, killing 17 U.S. sailors.

In June and July 2000, Chechen militants fighting against the Russian army joined the circle of suicide bombers. To date, the Chechnyan suicide bombers have carried out at least seven attacks, in which scores were wounded and over one hundred Russian soldiers and police officers were killed.

In India, at least two suicide attacks have been carried out against military targets. The most recent was perpetrated against an army camp in Srinigar, by a young British citizen of Pakistani origin who was recruited into an organization called "Jaish Muhammad" (Muhammad's Army). Ten soldiers were killed in this attack.

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