Suicide terrorism: a global threat
Traditionally viewed as a problem affecting the Middle East and South Asia,
the threat posed by suicide terrorism is spreading around the globe. Rohan
Gunaratna assesses the nature of the threat, preventive and reactive
security measures, and examines future trends.
THE ENHANCED international and domestic threat of suicide terrorism from
terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia was the focus of the
First International Conference on Countering Suicide Terrorism, held in
Israel between 21-23 February 2000. The conference brought together some 80
police, military, intelligence and security specialists to share their
national experiences, and was prompted by the growing need for governments
to identify the threat and co-operate at strategic and tactical levels to
disrupt suicide terrorism.
Suicide terrorism is the readiness to sacrifice one's life in the process of
destroying or attempting to destroy a target to advance a political goal.
The aim of the psychologically and physically war-trained terrorist is to
die while destroying the enemy target.
In the 1980s suicide terrorism was witnessed in Lebanon, Kuwait and Sri
Lanka. In the 1990s it had spread to Israel, India, Panama, Algeria,
Pakistan, Argentina, Croatia, Turkey, Tanzania and Kenya. With enhanced
migration of terrorist groups from conflict-ridden countries, the formation
of extensive international terrorist infrastructures and the increased reach
of terrorist groups in the post Cold War period, suicide terrorism is likely
to affect Western Europe and North America in the foreseeable future.
There are now 10 religious and secular terrorist groups that are capable of
using suicide terrorism as a tactic against their governments and/or foreign
governments. They are: the Islam Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the
Palestinian Islamic Jihad of the Israeli occupied territories; Hizbullah of
Lebanon; the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Gamaya Islamiya (Islamic Group
- IG) of Egypt; the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria; Barbar Khalsa
International (BKI) of India; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of
Sri Lanka; the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) of Turkey; and the Osama bin
Laden network (Al Quaida) of Afghanistan.
There were also four pro-Syrian, Lebanese and Syrian political parties
engaged in suicide terrorism in the 1980s, but they are currently inactive
in the terrorist front. These groups staged around 25 suicide attacks in
Lebanon. As more than one group claimed some of the attacks, perhaps to
diffuse the threat to the group, it is difficult to identify the group
responsible. The groups engaged in suicide operations in Lebanon alongside
Hizbullah were the Natzersit Socialist Party of Syria; the Syrian
Nationalist Party; the Lebanese Communist Party; and the Baath Party of
There are two types of suicide operations: battlefield and off the
battlefield. In battlefield operations, suicide bombers are integrated into
the attacking groups. Most off-the-battlefield operations have involved
single suicide bombers. In the case of the LTTE and Hamas, there have been
multiple suicide bombers. The targets have been static and mobile, against
infrastructure and humans. Suicide bombers have destroyed military,
political, economic and cultural infrastructure. They have committed
terrorist attacks by killing civilians in buses, crowded places and in
buildings. Suicide bombers have also assassinated political and military
Examination of suicide terrorism across a range of groups has revealed that
terrorist groups use suicide bombers when they are both strong and weak. In
terms of military and economic power, Hizbullah and the LTTE lead the list
of suicide operations. In terms of numbers, the LTTE has conducted the
largest volume of suicide operations, followed by Hizbullah, Hamas and the
PKK. In terms of range, only some of the groups have operated beyond their
As well as abortive attempts to conduct suicide operations in Israel,
Hizbullah has successfully conducted suicide operations in Argentina. The
LTTE has conducted one suicide operation in India. It is the only group to
have killed two world leaders - the former prime minister of India, Rajiv
Gandhi, and the president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa - using male
and female suicide bombers.
The Egyptian groups have conducted suicide operations in Croatia against a
police station and in Pakistan against the Egyptian embassy. Al-Quaida used
at least one Egyptian suicide bomber in the 1998 East African embassy
bombings. All the other active groups have conducted suicide operations
within their own territory. The PKK has threatened to conduct suicide
operations in Germany where there is a large Kurdish diaspora.
All the suicide terrorist groups have support infrastructures in Europe and
in North America. Leaders and members of these groups are known to travel to
the West, and key activists live either in Europe or in North America
distributing propaganda, raising funds, and in some instances procuring
weapons and shipping them to the various theatres of conflict.
Suicide-capable groups differ in form, size, orientation, goal and support.
A review of the key characteristics of the 10 suicide-capable groups reveals
that any group can acquire suicide bomb technology and engage in suicide
· Al Quaida is a mix of several associate groups that are internationally
dispersed. From Afghanistan, Bin Laden provides the overall direction to the
organisation. Al Quaida efforts are primarily directed against the USA
('Great Satan') and Israel ('Little Satan'), and their allies. More
recently, Al Quaida has directed its efforts against India on the issue of
Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan. The USA has
directed its resources to disrupting Al Quaida support operations in the
USA, especially after the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
· The Indian counter insurgency specialist, K P S Gill, broke the backbone
of the Sikh insurgents in Punjab, northern India. BKI is fighting for an
independent 'Khalistan' in the predominantly Sikh state of Punjab. It has a
small presence in the target country - India - but enjoys a significant
presence in the diaspora - UK and Canada. In January 2000, when BKI was
planning to conduct its second suicide operation, the Indian security forces
apprehended the bomber.
· The GIA has staged only one suicide operation as part of its fight to
establish an Islamic state in Algeria.
· Hizbullah, responsible for suicide bombing the US Marine Corps barracks
and the headquarters of the French paratroopers in Lebanon in 1983, is
fighting to oust the Israelis from southern Lebanon. Hizbullah is supported
by Iran, a steadfast state sponsor. Today, Hizbullah is also a political
· Hamas and PIJ, operating in Gaza and West Bank, have vowed to destroy the
'Zionist state of Israel'. Currently, Hamas and PIJ are controlled by the
Palestinian Authority under its President, Yasser Arafat. Shin Bet (the
Israeli security agency) and the Mossad (the Israeli external intelligence
agency) have regulated the efficacy of these two groups by removing their
key operatives and military leaders.
In a deep-penetration operation, Shin Bet agents placed a micro explosive
device in the mobile phone of the Hamas suicide bomb maker, Yahiya Aiyyash,
killing him. Due to the efficiency of the countermeasures adopted by Israeli
police, military, intelligence and security organisations, the number of
fatalities and casualties caused by Hamas, the PIJ and Hizbullah bombing has
steadfastly declined. Towards the last few bombings, the explosions only
killed the bomber. Although Hamas is likely to retain a military capability,
the group will probably join the political mainstream in the foreseeable
future. The PIJ became weak after the Mossad assassinated Shikaki, its
military and political commander in Malta.
· The two Egyptian groups - IG and EIJ - are fighting to establish an
Islamic state in Egypt. The leader of the EIJ, Dr Ayman Al-Thawaheri, lives
in Afghanistan and works closely with Bin Laden.
· Until the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK fought for an
independent Kurdistan in southeastern Turkey. Today, the PKK is demanding
autonomy and equal cultural rights.
· The LTTE is fighting for an independent Tamil state in northeastern Sri
Lanka. As the quality of targets chosen by the LTTE is high, it has a
sophisticated training programme that lasts for about a year. As well as
training the bomber, the LTTE research unit tests the effects of explosives
on dogs and goats to ensure that the attack is successful. The list of Sri
Lankan VIPs killed in suicide attacks includes one president, one
presidential candidate, the State Minister of Defence, the Navy Chief and
various area commanders. No country has lost so many leaders in such a short
period of time as Sri Lanka has to the LTTE suicide bombers.
Some of suicide groups are motivated by religion, religious/ethnic
nationalism, or ethnic nationalism. Al Quaida's religious philosophy
transcends territorial borders. Hamas, the PIJ and Hizbullah are primarily
religious groups, but they are also driven by ethno-nationalism. BKI is the
only non-Islamic religious group. While the LTTE and the PKK are driven by
ethno-nationalism, the PKK is also infused with Marxist-Leninist ideology.
As such, the motivation of Hamas, the PIJ and Hizbullah suicide bombers is
primarily Islam. The motivation of the LTTE and the PKK suicide bombers is
mainly Tamil and Kurdish nationalism respectively.
Dependent on the political environment and potential and actual donors, a
new ideological orientation can be built into a group. With the end of the
Cold War, most groups are abandoning Marxist, Leninist and Maoist ideologies
and embracing ethno-nationalist and/or religious ideologies.
There are some constraints that affect the deployment of female suicide
bombers. An examination of the groups driven by religious ideology reveals
that Islam has constrained the use of women suicide bombers. Nevertheless,
about five of the suicide operations in Lebanon were women. Although the PIJ
once planned to use a woman to suicide bomb the Israeli prime minister's
residence in Jerusalem, the operation was thwarted. About 30% of the suicide
operations in Sri Lanka have been conducted by women.
A higher percentage of women have featured in off-the-battlefield suicide
operations, which requires infiltration, invisibility and deception. A woman
staged the suicide operation that killed Rajiv Gandhi in India. Most suicide
operations in Turkey are by women. For many reasons, women are the preferred
choice of secular groups when it comes to infiltration and strike missions.
First, women are less suspicious. Second, in the conservative societies of
the Middle East and South Asia, there is a hesitation to body search a
woman. Third, women can wear a suicide device beneath her clothes and appear
The organisation of suicide operations is extremely secretive. The success
of the mission depends on a number of elements: level of secrecy; thorough
reconnaissance; and thorough rehearsals. Secrecy enables the preservation of
the element of surprise, critical for the success of most operations.
Thorough reconnaissance enables the group to plan, often by building a scale
model of the target. Thorough rehearsals allow the bomber to gain stealth
and speed. There are other elements, such as getting the bomber to the
target zone and then to the target itself. The bomber is usually supported
by an operational cell, responsible for providing accommodation, transport
food, clothing and security to the bomber until he/she reaches the target.
Resident agents help generate intelligence for the operation, from target
reconnaissance to surveillance. The cell members confirm the intelligence.
Often, immediately before the attack, the bomber conducts the final
As a comprehensive knowledge of the target is essential for the success of a
suicide operation, terrorist groups depend on building solid agent-handling
networks. Some security and intelligence agencies have succeeded in
penetrating the agent-handling network of various terrorist groups. In some
cases, the only form of defence is to penetrate the terrorist group itself.
This is because bombers penetrate governments or societies as sleepers and
gradually gain acceptance as a trusted member. Thus the bomber can reach and
destroy a valuable target - human or infrastructure.
In such cases, even the presence of a few hundred bodyguards or guards
assigned to protect sensitive installations cannot serve as a counter
measure. As such, penetration of the terrorist group is the first line of
defence. The last line of defence is hardening the vulnerable and likely
There are six types of suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These
are: the human-borne suicide IED, also known as the suicide bodysuit; the
vehicle-borne suicide IED; the motorcycle-borne suicide IED; naval
craft-borne suicide IED; scuba diver-borne suicide IED; and aerial-
(microlight, glider, mini-helicopter) borne suicide IED. All these
categories have been used in South Asia and the Middle East.
The largest number of suicide IEDs used has been the suicide bodysuit. As
terrorists are cost conscious, there have been only a few cases of bombers
using aerial-borne suicide IEDs. Yet these are the most difficult to thwart.
Their small size makes them hard to detect on radar, but the range of a
light aircraft is limited, weather sensitive and lacks accuracy.
The traditional concept of security is based on deterrence, where the
terrorist is either killed or captured. The success of a suicide terrorist
operation is dependent on the death of the terrorist. The suicide terrorist
is not worried about capture, interrogation (including torture), trial,
imprisonment and the accompanying humiliation.
Furthermore, in suicide attacks, there is no need to provide an escape
route, or for the extraction of the attacker/attacking force. The group does
not have to concern itself with developing an escape plan, often the most
difficult phase of an operation. Therefore, a suicide terrorist could enter
a high security zone and accomplish his/her mission without worrying about
escape or evasion. The certain death of the attacker enables the group to
undertake high quality operations while protecting the organisation and its
cadres. As every prisoner has a point of breaking under psychological or
physical pressure, the certain death of the attacker or attackers prevent
the captor extracting information.
The development of counter measures has led to a decline in the number of
suicide attacks. In Israel, several rings of security prevent the suicide
bomber from reaching the intended target. In response, groups try out novel
methods of infiltration. In this game of 'cat and mouse', one side can learn
from the other in an attempt to 'checkmate' the opponent. While most groups
can improvise, only a few are innovative.
To detect persons carrying explosives, security authorities have used
sniffer dogs, with a maximum attention span of 30 minutes. One terrorist
group has hired the services of a dog handler from France to monitor the
ability of sniffer dogs. It is likely that this group will develop a suicide
body suit with a repellent to evade the attention of sniffer dogs. With
these developments, it is likely that the role of the sniffer dog will
diminish with time and more innovative mechanisms will be necessary to
detect the bomber.
The suicide body suit has evolved to improve concealment and is becoming
increasingly small. Initially, the device was a square block of explosives
worn in the chest and the belly area. Gradually, the device evolved into a
heart shaped block of explosives placed just above the navel. As body
searchers for suicide devices are usually conducted around the abdomen, a
group is also developing breast bombs.
Most suicide body suits have no/little electronics, making it difficult for
security agencies to develop counter-technologies to detect these devices. A
suicide body suit can be made from commercial items. With the exception of
the malleable plastic explosives and detonator, all the other components can
be purchased from a tailor shop (stretch denim) and an auto shop (steel ball
bearings, wires, batteries and switches). Furthermore, when a device is
sophisticated it becomes difficult to operate, as well as fixing it when it
fails to function. Suicide devices will thus remain simple.
However, there are likely to be variations of suicide devices. Terrorists
tend to select from a repertoire of tactics. This is to retain an element of
surprise and to evade the attention of security authorities directed at
countering a standard set of tactics.
Terrorist groups learn from one another. Unlike in the 1970s and the 1980s,
post-Cold War groups share resources intelligence, technology, expertise and
However, due to the need to preserve counter-technologies or political
rivalry, there is either a lack of co-operation or no co-operation at all
between affected countries. For instance, the British do not share counter
remote-control bomb technologies against the Provisional IRA (PIRA) with
their US counterparts. This is, primarily due to suspicion of access or
infiltration of the US military and security industries by PIRA activists
and supporters. Similarly, there is no co-operation between Israel and Sri
Lanka, the most affected countries. During the Cold War, Indian pressure,
and subsequently, the Sri Lankan Muslim lobby led to a rupture of
Israeli-Sri Lankan ties that included Israeli technical co-operation in
training Sri Lankan bomb technicians.
An example of how a lack of co-operation between the VIP security divisions
of India and Sri Lanka affected security was the failure of the Sri Lankan
Presidential Security Division to estimate the kill radius of the suicide
device. In India, over 18m is maintained between the political VIP and the
public. The distance between the LTTE female suicide bomber and President
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who was partially blinded by an
explosion in December 1999, was less than 12m.
Other than co-operation at strategic and tactical levels between VIP
security divisions, the lack of research into the technical capability of
terrorist groups has gravely weakened the ability of security divisions to
protect their VIPs.
Strategic and tactical countermeasures can be used against suicide
operations. They could be preventive and reactive. Preventive measures range
from propaganda directed against potential suicide bombers, to infiltrating
the suicide organisations of terrorist groups. Reactive measures range from
the hardening of targets, to using dummy cars to protect VIPs. Yet security
agencies agree that suicide terrorism is hard to fight. The US secret
service argues that if an assassin is willing to die, it is impossible to
protect the president. Nonetheless, affected governments have tried to
protect their VIPs and critical infrastructure.
A growing threat
The threat of suicide terrorism is likely to spread with time. As many
second-generation operations have been conducted away from the theatre of
war, it is likely that suicide terrorism will affect Western Europe and
North America in the future.
Terrorist groups are increasingly providing intensive training to their
bombers, with the intention of increasing their endurance. For instance, the
suicide bomber who destroyed the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998 had been
resident in Kenya for four years. He had married in Kenya and lived in the
capital before carrying out the suicide operation. Similarly, the suicide
bomber who assassinated President Premadasa of Sri Lanka had lived in the
capital, Colombo, for three years before carrying out the attack.
Terrorist groups are setting a dangerous trend of using suicide bombers to
destroy targets far away from their theatres of war. Many groups are likely
to use suicide bombers to infiltrate target countries and conduct suicide
attacks against Western VIPs and critical infrastructure in the foreseeable
Dr Rohan Gunaratna is a specialits on insurgency.
NUMBER OF SUICIDE ATTACKS BETWEEN 1980-2000
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and in India 168
Hizbullah and pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, Kuwait and Argentina 52
Hamas in Israel 22
The Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey 15
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Israel 8
Al Quaida in East Africa 2
The Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) in Croatia 1
The Islamic Group (IG) in Pakistan 1
Barbar Khalsa International (BKI) in India 1
The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria 1