Counter-Terrorism: October 4, 2004

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For the last three decades, suicide terrorist attacks have become a growing problem. The first large scale suicide terrorist campaign was not carried out by Moslems, but Hindus. These were the fanatic members of the LTTE, a Hindu separatist organization in the island country of Sri Lanka (where the majority population is Buddhist.) About a quarter of the suicide attacks in the last two decades were from the LTTE. The Moslem use of this sort of thing came out of revolutionary Iran in the early 1980s, when desperate measures were needed to deal with the Iraqi invasion. The religious leaders who had taken over Iran preached that it was glorious and virtuous to undertake suicidal military actions. This attitude spread to Iranian backed terrorist groups in Lebanon, who used it to great effect. Eventually it spread to Sunni Arab groups, like al Qaeda. 

At this point its important to note that suicidal terrorism is an ancient tactic. The use of bombs is relatively recent, because compact high explosives (that could be worn by the bomber without attracting undue attention) were only developed in the late 19th century. Another important thing to remember is that suicide bombing tactics dont work. They are a desperation measure favored by those supporting lost causes. They are the tactics of despair and a weapon of the defeated. Suicide attack campaign often give the illusion of success, and sometimes achieve small concessions. But in the end, the suicide attack campaigns always fail. 

But suicide attackers do accomplish one thing, they terrorize. Since the early 1980s, there have been nearly 300 suicide terror attacks (not all can be confirmed), and the majority of the people killed so far died in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The 911 attacks demonstrated that suicidal attacks could kill large numbers of people. If nuclear, biological or chemical weapons were used, there could be very large casualties. This raised the stakes in the battle against suicide terrorism.

Since the early 80s, some trends have become obvious. First, there is pretty obvious technique to recruiting the suicide terrorists. This begins with a propaganda campaign showing the suicide attacker to be a major hero for the cause. Since no successful suicide attacker will come back to contradict you, anything goes here. This sort of thing gives you a large supply of volunteers, who then have to be screened (to get rid of those too unreliable for the task), and then trained and psychologically prepared to kill themselves for the cause. 

An analysis of targets shows that in 52 percent of the cases, it was a transportation facility (airports, bus and rail stations.) The next most likely targets (24 percent) were shopping areas (markets and malls) and entertainment venues (theaters, clubs or bars). Then came military targets (21 percent) and the rest were miscellaneous, mostly rural. 

The Israelis have shown that you can sharply limit the success of an aggressive suicide terror campaign. In 2001 there were 35 successful suicide attacks against Israeli targets (mostly civilians.) This increased to 60 in 2002, then declined to 26 in 2003 and 14 so far this year. Israel has used a combination of intelligence work (who is in the terror organizations and what do they do), and aggressive actions (to arrest or kill key people in the terror organizations) to reduce the number of successful suicide attacks. The suicide attackers themselves are not a major target, except when they have gotten to the point where they are wearing their explosives and on the way to a target. The Israelis have had much success in intercepting, and even capturing alive, many of these suicide bombers. Once away from their handlers, and in the custody of the Israeli police,  suicide bombers often break down and talk freely. 

One reason most of the suicide attackers these days are Moslem, is because much of the Moslem media energetically praises the suicide attackers are big heroes, thus making it easier to recruit people for these attacks. But the key to making suicide attacks work is having good technical people to rig the bombs, and capable leadership to supervise the recruiting, training and running (getting them to a target) the suicide attackers. As any sniper knows, the best way to take out a dangerous foe is to put a shot into the brain.

 


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