Terrorist suicide attacks are not a new method; in fact they are a very old modus operandi. In ancient times two notorious sects, the Jewish Sicairis and the Islamic Hashishiyun became infamous for such attacks. In the 18th century, suicide tactics were used on the Malabar Coast of South western India, in Atjeh in Northern Sumatra and in Mindanao and Sulu in the Southern Philippines. In a grim shadow of future events in all of these places the suicide terrorists were Muslims fighting against Western dominance. That said modern suicide attacks are very different from those in history, the modern goal is mainly psychological, producing a disproportionate amount of fear among the target population compared to the actual damage done. Due to high number of causalities, which such attacks in crowded public places are virtually guaranteed, large-scale media and press coverage is ensured, making it a very cost effective weapon for the terrorist organisation. Of course for a suicide attack to be defined as an act of terrorism it must be politically motivated with the death of the terrorist being a successful outcome. This is different from a high risk terrorist attack where death is likely but not required for the attack to be successful, such as the Japanese Red Army’s attack at Lod airport in 1972; it also differs from politically motivated suicide such as the PIRA member Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in 1981.
The modern Modus operandi for the Suicide attacker is normally that of carrying concealed explosives on their bodies or in some kind of vehicle, even bicycles and pack animals have been used. The Attacks of September 11th would also fall into the category, as although no explosives were carried the attacks required the deaths of the terrorists to be successful.
The Arab terrorist group Hizballah has had considerable success with suicide attacks, starting in 1983 with some small scale suicide attacks against western targets in Lebanon. The first attack was directed at the US embassy in Beirut but was followed by the devastating attacks on the US Marine HQ and the French Multinational Force. These were carried out simultaneously and killed over 300. The attack on the US marines base with a truck loaded with explosives and gas canisters is widely regarded as one of the most destructive explosive based terrorist attacks the world has ever seen and without doubt altered US foreign policy for decades and was a major factor in the UN forces pulling out of Lebanon. With the withdrawal of Western forces from Lebanon Hizballah reduced its attacks to around 1 a year vs. Israeli defence forces and South Lebanese Army bases. Hizballah served as a pioneer of suicide attacks in the Middle East but it is interesting to note that nationalist but non-fundamental terrorist groups have carried out many suicide attacks in the Middle East.
The LTTE, the Tamil separatist group in Sri-Lanka is famous for being one of the most brutal and effective terrorist organisations at using suicide attacks, having carried out 168 suicide attacks between July 1987 and February 2000. Its specialist suicide group the Black Panthers comprises of both men and women and all carry a cyanide capsule on them to make sure they avoid being captured alive. They are also the only terrorist group to have assassinated 2 heads of state, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a female bomber while campaigning for re-election in 1991, while Sri Lanka president Prendesa was assassinated in 1993 by a male suicide bomber who had spent over a year infiltrating the president’s clossest companions. It has also come close to killing the current president in 1999 and 2000.
Women have always played an important part in many terrorist organisations and this is also true of suicide attacks. Women actually carrying out suicide attacks are normally limited to those with a Nationalist rather than religious basis as the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organisations never let women take a front line role in terrorist attacks let alone a suicide attack. In nationalist groups women often take part in suicide attacks as the groups leaders exploit the women’s desire to be seen as having equal status with the men. In the LTTE women were active in up to 40% of the group’s suicide attacks and this level of participation is common amongst Kurdish and Syrian terror groups. Using women has other advantages, as the innocent appearance of “pregnant” women can be effective in passing security and gaining close proximity to the target. Women motivation for carrying out such attacks can be the issue of equality as already mentioned but often-romantic feelings have been harnessed by the leaders to gain female volunteers or even the desire for revenge for a dead lover.
Terrorist suicide attacks have not proved to be the war winning weapon that they were first thought to be, but they are no doubt a very effective terror weapon and incredibly difficult to stop. Check points and tightened security can help prevent the bomber reaching a high profile target but some causalities are unavoidable. Preventing a random suicide bombing in a crowed public place is extremely difficult to prevent and even if a bomber is detected, safe capture and defusing of the explosives is almost impossible. The greatest potential risk suicide terrorism may pose in future is if terrorists carry out operations combined with other spectacular tactics such as blowing up airplanes or the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction such as a lone terrorist infected with biological agent such as smallpox or anthrax. Such a combination of attack methods would and has increased immensely the death toll of a single terror attack and has had a shocking psychological effect on public moral. At this level suicide terrorism would constitute a genuine strategic threat and would probably be confronted as such, but putting effective countermeasures in place is proving especially difficult in reality. For the UK the question is not if but when a suicide attack will take place.