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.