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The Rise of Suicide Bombers

09 May 2019

Throughout recent decades, suicide bombing has become an increasingly prominent method of attack used by terrorist groups and other non-state actors worldwide. As communication technology has progressed, the issue of suicide attacks has undeniably become a global one, evoking fear and panic worldwide. There is no single underlying cause behind suicide bombing, but rather a combination of factors.

Suicide attacks tend to be more deadly than other forms of terrorist attack, such as shootings, stabbings, or vehicular attacks – largely because they require no escape plan. Suicide attacks are responsible for some of the most fatal terrorist attacks in history. The deadliest terrorist attack in human history are the September 11 suicide attacks, which killed an estimated 2,996 people overall, with the 2014 Camp Speicher massacre in second place with 1,566 fatalities.

Although suicide bombings were not an unheard-of concept before 2001, the impact of 9/11 was felt worldwide, and the use of suicide bombings as a violent tool for militant groups has become an increasingly common occurrence in the two decades since. Although the 1982 Hezbollah attack on the Israeli army is often seen as the beginning of so-called ‘modern’ suicide bombings, figures from the 80s and 90s are incomparable with those of recent decades. During the 1990s, the global rate of suicide attacks averaged about one a month; however, in the two years after 9/11, this figure rose to almost one a week. In the last decade, the global average has risen further still to one a day. Global annual totals never surpassed 22 suicide attacks before 2000. According to annual reports from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, 348 verifiable suicide attacks were carried out in 2017, killing approximately 4,310 people, with a notable increase in female bombers. The most recent report by the same institute indicates around 293 suicide attacks were carried out in 2018, killing some 2,845 people – a decrease from the previous year but still representative of the general increase in suicide attacks, which has seen them become a permanent fixture in regional conflicts over the last 18 years. The vast majority of these attacks have been carried out by Islamic extremist groups.

This is not to say that suicide bombing has stemmed from Islam, but rather it’s important to remember that suicide bombers are not without a cause. ‘Istishhad’ is the Arabic word for martyrdom but can also mean ‘heroic death’ – emphasising how Islamic extremists glorify ‘martyrdom operations’ as a heroic act of sacrifice, which over time has been developed into a military and political strategy. Within Islamic extremist groups, suicide bombing is often seen as the ultimate martyrdom: to sacrifice oneself for the ‘greater religious cause’ – usually based on a religious or ideological difference between the group and a government or other religious communities. For example, the IS in Afghanistan are known to target Shia Muslims. In March 2019, rockets were fired at a Shia Muslim gathering in Kabul, killing at least three people and wounding dozens more. The attack was later claimed by the IS.

More recently, were the Easter Sunday suicide bombings which targeted Christian churches and hotels, killing at least 253 people in Sri Lanka last month. The attack was claimed by the IS in a vaguely worded statement, while the government has attributed the attack to little-known local Islamist groups, National Thoweed Jamath (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). Junior Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene claimed the Easter Sunday attacks were carried out in retaliation for the mass shooting by a white supremacist, killing at least 50 people in Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers in New Zealand earlier this year. On Wednesday 08 May, another suicide bombing left 10 people dead outside the Data Darbar shrine in the Pakistani city of Lahore. Unconfirmed reports indicate a teenage boy carried out the attack, targeting a police van. That same day, Taliban insurgents targeted a non-governmental organisation (NGO) building in Kabul, Afghanistan. At least five people were killed and dozens more were wounded in the attack, which targeted US aid group, Counterpoint International. A suicide car bomb was set off outside the offices before armed insurgents stormed the building, resulting in a stand-off with the security forces whilst at least 200 workers were evacuated. The Taliban later stated that the NGO had been targeted for its alleged involvement in “harmful Western activities”.

Part of the reason behind the exponential growth in suicide bomb attacks being carried out by extremist groups is down to the psychological element. Terrorists actively aim to install a sense of fear and panic in the target population, often by eliminating public ‘safe-areas’ and societal trust in the government. As a fighting strategy, suicide attacks can be hard to preempt and prevent, and typically inflict a high number of casualties. As IS-held territory is diminished in Iraq and Syria, it’s increasingly likely IS-affiliated cells in other countries will be mobilised, with many experts predicting a rise in the number of high-fatality suicide attacks. These attacks are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, with small militant networks now more capable than ever of coordinating complex attacks.

As communication technology has improved, social media has played an increasingly important role in terrorist attacks. Social media sites and encrypted instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp provide militant groups with the organisational capacity to coordinate major attacks such as the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. In the aftermath of the attack, the Sri Lankan authorities imposed a social media ban in an attempt to curb further attacks.

How to Tackle the Problem

Some have argued that more substantial action needs to be taken to prevent would-be suicide bombers from acquiring the materials needed to manufacture bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs); however, such an approach would be relatively difficult to implement as powerful explosives can be made from common household products, such as fertiliser, paint stripper, hair bleach, or pool sanitiser.

Military campaigns targeting extremist camps, so-called ‘schools’, and militant training grounds have seen some success; however, these counter-terror operations could benefit greatly from being accompanied by awareness campaigns led by Islamic scholars and Imams, working together to prevent radicalisation and to counter the message and teachings of violent extremist groups which could inspire suicide bombers.

Governments have also become increasingly aware of how intrinsic the internet has become in enabling militant networks to communicate and organise attacks. Clamping down on popular messaging systems and social media sites following major attacks is thought to have been vital in preventing immediate follow-up attacks. Unfortunately, enforcing social media bans not only punishes the perpetrators, but also the civilian population.