The Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole is but the latest in a long list of major suicide attacks over the last two decades. From Chechnya to Sri Lanka to (apparently) Yemen, terrorists are embracing suicide bombing as their most deadly and horrifying strategy. But while most of the world sees suicide terrorists as lone, irrational zealots, they are, in fact, pawns in large terrorist networks that wage calculated psychological warfare. Contrary to popular belief, suicide bombers can be stopped - but only if security authorities pay more attention to their methods and motivations.
Suicide terrorism has confounded governments since it made its modern debut on Oct. 23, 1983, when two explosions destroyed the barracks of the US and French contingents of the multinational peacekeeping force in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen and 58 French paratroopers. Two centuries of experience had suggested that terrorists, though ready to risk their lives, wished to live after the terrorist act in order to benefit from its accomplishments. Suicide terrorism defies that belief. It seems almost supernatural, extremely lethal, and impossible to stop. The attack on the USS Cole, an 8,600-ton destroyer armed with missiles and torpedoes, only aggravates the sense of vulnerability.
But the experiences of the past 20 years have yielded important insights that demystify the nature and motivations of suicide bombers. A careful survey of all the organizations that have resorted to suicide terrorism since 1983 suggests that the key distinction among them is the degree to which suicide bombing is an institutionalized strategy.
At the simplest level are groups that neither practice suicide terrorism on a regular basis nor approve of its use as a tactic. Local members or affiliates of such organizations, however, may initiate it on their own for a variety of reasons, such as imitating the glorious acts of others, responding to a perception of enormous humiliation and distress, avenging the murder of comrades and relatives, or being presented with a special opportunity to strike. Within this category are the irregular attacks conducted over the years by the Egyptian Islamic Group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Kuwaiti Dawa, and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group.
At another level are groups that formally adopt suicide terrorism as a temporary tactic. Their leaders obtain (or grant) ideological or theological legitimization for its use, recruit and train volunteers, and then send them into action with a specific objective in mind. The most spectacular operations of Hizbullah between 1983 and 1985 and of Hamas between 1994 and 1996 fall in this category. Leaders who opt for this type of terrorism are fully aware of the potential costs associated with suicide terrorism (such as devastating military retaliation). They consequently have little difficulty in suspending suicide bombing or calling it off entirely.
In rare instances, some organizations adopt suicide terrorism as a legitimate and permanent strategy, harkening back to the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. Currently, suicide battalions of the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - or Black Tigers - are the only example of this phenomenon. The Black Tigers launched their first attack in July 1987, and since then suicide bombings have become an enduring feature of the LTTE's ruthless struggle. The Black Tigers offer significant proof that suicide terrorism is not merely a religious phenomenon and that, under certain extreme political and psychological circumstances, secular volunteers are fully capable of martyrdom. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the brutal and charismatic LTTE leader who initiated the practice, appears to have been greatly influenced by the spectacular successes of Hizbullah in Lebanon.
These case studies reveal that suicide bombers are not lone zealots, but instruments of terrorist leaders who expect their organizations to gain tangible benefits from this shocking tactic. The key to countering suicide bombers, therefore, is to make terrorist organizations aware that this decision will incur painful costs.
It may not be possible to apprehend would-be suicide bombers, but once it has been established that an organization has resolved to use suicide terrorism, security services can strike against the commanders and field officers who recruit and train the assailants and then plan the attacks. Regardless of the presence or absence of hard evidence for planned operations, it is essential to put potential terrorists on the run.
The physical protection of potential target areas is another essential tactic. The idea of erecting concrete barriers against a martyr driving a truck loaded with tons of explosives might seem ludicrously inadequate. But such physical protection reduces the effect of the suicide bombing if and when the terrorist hits the target area, and it serves as a deterrent against potential suicide strikes.
Such security measures offer another important benefit: They reassure the public. Ordinary citizens should be aware that suicide terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. Free people who are told that they are being subjected to psychological manipulation will develop a stronger immunity against it.
Ehud Sprinzak is dean of the Lauder School of Government, Policy, and Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. This essay is adapted from an article in the September/October issue of Foreign Policy magazine.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society