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Howard's End: The Perfect Bomb

The increasing number of suicide belt-bombers and the diversity of their backgrounds is causing concern to global security experts who now fear the low-cost and difficult to detect bombing tactic could be used more often on buses, trains and in shopping malls of Western countries. Maree Howard writes.

The recent flood of willing belt bombers has completely undermined efforts to create a useful profile of potential bombers, according to security experts.

As security defences improve against hijackings, car bombs and other terror tactics, terrorists have moved over to suicide belt-bombing which is extremely difficult for law enforcement agencies to deal with. Experts are now saying it's like a missile that's been launched. Once it's launched, it's nearly impossible to stop.

Initially, suicide belt-bombers were young, single men with few ties and fewer prospects. But recent belt-bomb attacks have been carried out by young women, by well-educated men and by parents.

It is a watershed in the history of terrorism because it shows that it is not as hard to make a suicide bomber as many people wanted to believe, says Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation's Washington office and the author of Inside Terrorism.

Under the right conditions, bombers require little or no persuasion, they usually volunteer, and they don't need constant supervision.

What once was considered a rare, costly gesture - involving the intensive recruitment and indoctrination of a human bomb, along with careful selection of a target worthy of such scarce resources - now looks more like an easily replenished weapon.

Successful terror tactics normally spread when the tools are cheap and not complicated, says David Rapoport, editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Violence.

Suicide bombers have used cars, trucks, ships and airplanes but the human bomb is even simpler. And they are not just from the Middle East.

Homegrown terrorists and disaffected people with grievances against their government could find inspiration in the effectiveness of human belt-bomber tactics. Disco's, busy cafes, restaurants and malls are likely targets.

The belt-bomb is a difficult weapon to counter. Concrete barriers might deter truck bombers. Heightened airport security can challenge hijackers. But stopping human bombs is an incredibly difficult business, says Christopher Langton an analyst of terrorist threats at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

It's cheap, it has the most accurate guidance system available to mankind, it is easily concealed and the likelihood of its use is increasing rather than decreasing, Langton said.

The lessons of suicide bombings was first demonstrated in Sri Lanka in the late 80's. There, Tamil nationalists adopted suicide bombing on a large scale. 250 suicide missions were launched with some of the most bold attacks carried out by women, including the belt-bomb assassination of India's Prime Minister, Rajiv Ghandi, in 1991.

What this means, the experts say, is that the conventional way of approaching the subject of human bombs is wrong. Too much attention is focused on the psychology of individual belt-bombers when it would be more useful to study them as a major new style of weaponry - a category alongside missiles, grenades and land mines.

A suicide bomber can make decisions that an unmanned weapon cannot. Not even the sharpest smart bomb can pretend to be a pregnant woman or pause at the target as more potential victims congregate, or choose a better target at the very last minute.

It allows you to put a fairly low-signature weapon on a high-profile target, says security analyst Javed Ali.

Suicide attacks are highly lethal even to those some distance from the attack, they attract wide media coverage, they require no escape plan and they prevent the capture of operatives who might reveal information about the group or person behind them.

The belt-bomber on the bus, the train, the restaurant, in places like shopping malls or even the corner grocery store, all where attendance is optional, are becoming the target of choice. People in some countries have become afraid to go out and buy food.

The suicide belt-bomber is the most difficult weapon to defend because it can be guided so precisely and detonated at a carefully chosen moment - it is a weapon with a message. And that message has been: No one is safe, anywhere.

Earlier this week New Zealand played host to international security experts at a terrorism conference. Nothing has been heard from the Government about it, or in the mainstream media of the outcome, and yet suicide belt-bombers are potentially the most serious and significant threat to our society.

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