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Alex Shea: The Rise of the Suicide Bomber

The Rise of the Suicide Bomber

by Alex Shea

Terror In Vogue

Car bomb-massacres, hijackings, and assassinations. Much like fashion, the tactics of terror tend to dictate trends of their own – It's as if there's always one method of murder that appears in vogue.

The seventies saw Palestinians make hi-jacking the in thing, while the eighties promoted car bombings with help from the I.R.A. Attacks in the nineties however, produced no real standout technique; the Unabomber preferred to post his plastique, whilst Al-Qaeda grew terror with fertiliser bombs. The decade became a menagerie of death and destruction, as the violent methods of previous years matured into middle age – then came the millennium.

In hindsight, it seems such an innocent time. The moment before Osama and Anthrax became household names; when apocalyptic undertones were limited to Y2K; a hysteria that saw people stock up on supplies – terrified that technology would devour the earth, destroy social order and cast them back into the depths of the dark ages. The place envisioned as a worst case scenario was a violent wasteland with no ATM’s... a place otherwise known as Afghanistan. For one man, however, the above characteristics was Afghanistan's appeal. Forgoing the distractions of modern day life, Osama Bin Laden had the undisturbed luxury of immersing himself in his various interests. Unfortunately, one of them happened to be the destruction of the western world.

Nevertheless, this was not a solo pursuit. For his master plan to materialise he needed several committed individuals; the kind of men who over the past five years have come to sit at both the forefront of terrorism and the back of our minds. Their purpose? To engage in a form of terrorism more shocking than all others. A technique which in recent times has taken on the appearance of the young Muslim extremist; not only as an operative, but also as a weapon.

This new incarnation of self-sacrifice took hold two decades before, as communist distractions forced the West to ignore the rising tide of Islamic extremism. It was also around this time, that the American Marines left for Lebanon. Their mission was to keep the peace, but like most of Americas Middle East jaunts – things didn't quite go to plan.

Beirut 1983

It is a Sunday morning, and just before dawn, a yellow Mercedes truck rolls down the highway towards Beirut International Airport. Turning into the car park, it picks up speed and starts heading north towards the Marine Base. Accelerating through the fence, it destroys a group of sandbag barriers. Finally reaching the four-story barracks, it smashes through the lobby and detonates. The explosion rips through the sleeping building, collapsing it into a concrete concertina that will eventually kill 241 and injure 70 others.

The FBI calls it the largest non-nuclear blast they have ever examined. The date is October 23, 1983. The time is 6:22 am - and the Middle East has just given birth to the modern suicide bomber.

A Lethal Legacy

So began a new chapter in the history of suicide attacks; a Jewish sect called the Sicaris carried out the first of which in the 1st Century AD, followed by the Islamic Hashishiyun's (Assassins) reign of terror, one thousand years later. The Assassins conditioned their minds for murder through the consumption of the drug Hashish. Using knives to pierce the hearts of their enemies, death became their perceived salvation.

The Kamikaze pilots of World War 2 also shared traits with modern day bombers. Most of them were young, well educated, and praised as eternal heroes – but that is where the likeness fades. There’s a difference between flying a plane into an aircraft carrier and bombing the Number 30 bus in Tavistock Square. As the New York based Human Rights Watch puts it, suicide bombing “targets everyday life”.

This brand of terror shares the ethos of Hamas; a translation of their handbook revealing the phrase, "Why hunt the tiger, when you can hunt the sheep?” Thus, legitimising attacks on innocent civilians.

Nevertheless, the responsibility for suicide bombing doesn’t lie solely with militant Islam. In fact, the most enthusiastic executors live half a world away on the island of Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) have carried out the largest number of attacks than any other single group. Their dedication to death is second to none. At the conclusion of their training, the Black Tiger suicide squads are presented with a cyanide pill to hang around their neck; a last ditch dietary supplement in case they survive an attack. Their fear of death is dispelled by their Hindu belief in reincarnation, and the damage they inflict is often rationalised away by their religious concept of Karma.

Motives Of A Suicide Bomber

Whilst it is often said that terrorists carry out their mission in the name of jihad (leaving behind a scene from hell as they transcend into paradise), the cases of women in Chechnya and Palestine casts doubt on this assumption. Female suicide bombers first became operational in the mid 1980's, yet in recent times, new conflicts have seen a dramatic rise in their ranks. Palestinian women have carried out four successful bombings, not to mention twenty or so failed attempts in the past few years. Chechen women too have carried out attacks, the most notorious of which was the siege of Beslan in September 2004. The Chechens are known as Black Widows in reference to their marital status, but as the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) points out, both groups share a similarity in that they have been equally radicalised by violence. The clichéd theory of brainwashed extremists neglects a more rational explanation to these undeniably irrational acts. As the IPCS says, “the reasons are often personal rather than religious or political”.

Such was the case with Hussam Abdo, a 15-year-old Palestinian intercepted at an Israeli checkpoint. In an interview with the BBC he explained his real motivation; "The first reason was because my friend was killed, (and) the second reason (was) because I didn't want to go to school”

Suicide bombing will never be understood until its motives are properly analysed, no matter how irrational they seem, and because of this, the Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) is currently proposing a research plan to profile suicide bombers. The only conclusive information known about them at present is that the majorities are created in the same crucible of inequality and chaos as conventional terrorists - societies that encounter pessimism, unemployment, and occupation.

On a trip to The Occupied Territories after Arafat’s death, I met a Palestinian shop owner who I sat talking with for a few hours. I remarked on the fact business seemed slow and he told me that he hadn’t had a customer in two weeks. That’s not to say the shop was empty however, in fact the place bustled with activity. His friends – mostly unemployed tourist guides – would drop by to watch TV, smoke cigarettes, and talk politics.

He told me because business was so bad, there was no real point in opening, “but what would be the point” he continued, “if I do that I will just sit at home and watch TV”. Among the flow of visitors was a man in his fifties who wore a tidy woolen sweater and thick, square rimmed glasses that looked 25 years out of date. He talked of ‘the situation’. Echoing a well-worn cliché, he likened it to chess. Politics was the game. The people were pawns. If what he was saying was true, then the chessboard appeared full of jobless, chain-smoking pawns; just down the street stood another group of men, their shoulders huddled against the cold. Anywhere else in the world they would have been at work, but due to the situation, either the jobs weren’t there, or they weren’t allowed to travel.

Motives Of A Terrorist Group

Obviously, the number one reason these groups carry out such attacks is to spread outright terror. As Islamic Jihads leader, Fathi 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Shikaki told the New Yorker magazine, “results can be achieved through explosion, which forces the Mujahid (bomber) not to waver, not to escape, (but) to execute a successful explosion for religion and jihad, and destroy the moral of the enemy and plant terror into people”. However, there are also other, more subtle reasons for carrying out such attacks.

Before September 11, little was heard of Al Qaeda, but nowadays there are even other groups performing suicide attacks in their name. Why? The main reason is publicity. In essence, Al Qaeda is a brand – a franchise – and what better way to get people to buy into that franchise than to get free advertising on CNN. Suicide attacks in their very nature make good business sense. Both are very efficient in terms of publicity, as well as their balance of attrition. This latter fact was recognised by Yahya Ayyash, Hamas’s head bomb maker. When commenting on suicide bombers, he told the New Yorker that they “make the cost of the occupation that much more expensive in human lives (and) that much more unbearable”. Yet, what makes them especially deadly is the precision of the attack. As a senior Hamas leader told the same magazine, “The main thing is to guarantee that a large number of enemy will be affected... with explosive belt or bag, the bomber has control over vision, location and timing”.

Yet, for every success, we’re told there are many more failures. Take for example Hussam Abdo. His ultimate failure was an Israeli victory. The fact that he was only 15, underscored terrorisms immoral nature and his later confessions to the press had him admitting he wouldn’t do it again.

In reality however, his repentant comments wont make that much difference; there are many more young men (and women) out there willing to take his place.

When Will It End?

As terror attacks escalate and anxiety rates soar, people are left to wonder when it will all end. It seems the only way the West can reduce such attacks is to stop people joining terrorist groups in the first place. A task ultimately requires an intelligent approach.

A quote from a U.S. government report gives some enlightening advice. It was written two years before September 11 and four years before Iraq. Predicting the World Trade Center attack, it became infamous when it turned out that no one had actually read it. A section titled How Guerrilla and Terrorist Groups End gave this advise about what not to do when dealing with terrorist groups; “A U.S. Counter terrorist policy should avoid making leaders like Osama Bin Laden heroes or martyrs for Muslims. To that end, the eye-for-an-eye Israel policy of striking back for each act of terrorism may be highly counter productive when applied by the worlds superpower against Islamic terrorism, as in the form of cruise missile attacks against, or bombings of, suspected terrorist sites. Such actions, although politically popular at home, are seen by millions of Muslims as attacks against the Islamic religion and by many people in many countries as superpower bullying and a violation of countries sovereignty. U.S. Counter terrorist military attacks against elusive terrorists may serve only to radicalise large sectors of the Muslim population and damage the U.S. image worldwide.” …hmmm, sound familiar.


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