Counter-Terrorism: It Takes a Village, and a Good Publicist


April 11, 2007: Suicide bombers are a creature of the media, and a way to maintain morale while fighting a hopeless battle. This aspect of suicide attacks is generally overlooked. That's because suicide bombing tactics are designed to take advantage of mass media weaknesses, and needs.

Leaders of weak political movements, that have decided to use violence, find suicide bombings to be an affordable weapon. Not only that, this tactic increases the stature of the terrorist organization, and obtains lots of publicity. This, in turn, aids recruiting and fund raising. Suicide bombing will make the organization stronger, but won't win the battle by itself. In fact, suicide bombing can backfire if not used carefully.

The Sri Lankan Tamils (the LTTE) and the Palestinians (several terrorist groups), used suicide bombing carefully, avoiding killing people from their own group. The LTTE, one of the more energetic early adopters of suicide bombings, represents a Hindu minority on the largely Buddhist island of Sri Lanka. The LTTE wants to partition the island, to create a Tamil state. The Buddhist majority (and Christian and Moslem minorities) do not want this. The LTTE has tended to use their suicide bombers in a very precise fashion, going after government and military leaders. Similarly, the Palestinians used nearly all their suicide bombers within Israel, and avoided areas where there were a lot of Arabs. Although many of their attacks killed Arabs, they did not kill enough to turn Israeli Arabs against them. Hizbollah, which has since given up suicide bombings, was also careful to only use these attacks against enemy populations. Even so, the Hizbollah attacks that killed a lot of women and children were unpopular, which was one of the reasons Hizbollah abandoned the tactic.

Not so successful was al Qaeda, which backed the use of suicide bombings against Shia Arab civilians in Iraq. They also tried to get at American and other foreign troops in Iraq, but were not very successful. Al Qaedas decision to make most of their suicide bombing attacks against Iraqi civilians backfired, causing their popularity throughout the Arab world to plummet.

In Afghanistan, al Qaeda has again tried to direct their suicide bomb attacks against foreign troops, but lack of support personnel has led to frequent failed attacks, and the deaths of many Afghan civilians. The result has been blowback, with al Qaeda becoming more hated than respected.

The Afghan experience shows how important skilled and experienced support personnel are. A suicide bombing is very much a team effort. Terrorist sponsored publications, captured documents and interrogations of captured terrorists has revealed the details of how a suicide bombing organization operates. First you need a population that is enraged enough for some to be willing to undertake suicide attacks.

The actual bombs are cheap and simple to make. The most difficult task is planning the movement of the suicide bomber, on foot or driving a vehicle, to the target. The Palestinians have a particularly difficult time doing this, since the Israelis have successfully targeted the terrorist scouts, planners and guides who put the suicide bomber inside Israel. The Palestinian suicide bomber campaign has actually been defeated by these tactics, but the Palestinian terrorist groups keep trying, because to admit defeat would be devastating for their reputation and prestige within the Palestinian community.

Taking advantage of mass media eagerness to cover spectacular events like suicide bombings, terrorist groups also make it out to be a heroic thing to do. Most of the suicide bombers themselves are guys (and a few women) who feel they are losers. But the suicide bombers are made out to be heroes in their own communities. While much is made of the "72 Virgins Once You Get To Paradise" angle, religion is not necessary to run a successful suicide bombing operation. The LTTE uses the "hero" angle alone, lavishing their suicide bombers with public praise, memorials and cash to their families. The money, and other gifts, paid to the families of suicide bombers is important. Many of the suicide bombers are from poor families, so a large cash payment (often tens of thousands of dollars) makes a big difference. This makes it more difficult for parents to protest, at least in public, over losing a son. It's no secret that terrorist recruiters will target weak willed and vulnerable young men to recruit for suicide bombing missions. Anything goes in this respect. Chechens, for example, would often recruit the widows of men killed by the Russians. Getting revenge is a big deal with the Chechens, and widows don't have many options. So the Chechens were able to obtain the services of some female suicide bombers. Women are not scrutinized as carefully, as men are, by security forces, so a female suicide bomber has a better chance of getting close to a valuable target. The LTTE has used female suicide bombers successfully in this manner, almost killing the prime minister of Sri Lanka in 2000.

Suicide bombing tactics can only be sustained by a population willing to supply the bombers, and lionize those who carried out attacks. Many populations will not tolerate suicide bombing tactics for long. The PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, tried suicide bombing in the 1990s, but abandoned the tactic after four years. Historical experience shows that populations tire of the suicide bombing angle eventually, especially when it does not provide any political results. That won't change.




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