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Sophia Akram

Suicide bombings: martyrdom or military tactic?

The use of suicide bombing can be traced back to Hezbollah in 1981 [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 March, 2016

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Comment: 2015 saw more suicide bombings than ever before. To reduce 'human smart bomb' attacks, we must understand the mind-sets of the suicide bombers and act accordingly, says Sophia Akram

Suicide bombings - a chilling and archetypal representation of terrorism for the West - have increased year-on-year, and 2015 has seen the most number of suicide attacks led by Improvised Explosive Devices to date.

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) reported that 10,538 persons were killed or injured in suicide attacks with 9,109 of the victims being civilians. This is a 78 percent escalation over the past four years and a dramatic extrapolation since 1981 when the first and only suicide bombing took place.

As well as a spike in numbers, the geographical trend of suicide attacks has also grown, reaching 28 countries. Their impact per attack acceding to circa 31 persons per explosion, mostly in non-conflict zones.

This growing trend needs to be addressed but may result in more aggressive policies that has the added effect of challenging freedoms, derogating rights, and creating a chain reaction that leads inevitably to more long-term harm.

Evolving appropriate measures comes from understanding the problem, but too often the motives of the "suicide bombers" is written off as an uninfiltratable mindset of those willing to die and believe they are acting in the name of religion. A quest for a place in paradise with the so often quoted 72 virgins at their beck and call.

However, the use of a suicide bomber is more often to do with gaining military advantage and has been a growing strategic weapon that has furthered the gains of insurgent/terrorist groups' interests in this world rather than the hereafter.

Its politics

Lebanon's Hizballah first used the tactic in 1981 to get occupying forces to retreat; Tamil insurgents then used it during Sri Lanka's civil war, opposing ethno-phobic measures against minorities in the country - motivations that were overtly political, not religious.

However, 9/11 and the Israel-Palestine conflict has changed that paradigm as the tactic was adopted by Islamist groups but without Islamic motives. In Palestine, distrust in the PLO, particularly after the failed Oslo Accords, meant that alternative solutions were sought - legal and political brokering had had no effect.

Its use in warfare has been recognised and some legitimise its use in this context. In 2014, a Pews Global study amongst Muslim populations asked whether suicide bombings were ever justified. Sixty-two percent in Gaza said that suicide bombings were often or sometimes justified compared to three percent in Pakistan. Context is therefore everything and political conditions and level of oppression is key to that context.

Suicide attacks are now always associated with terrorism but perpetrators believe they are at war. War, however, can only be waged by the state to attain legality - the only thing separating war and terrorism – and just as war is waged with weapons to gain ground, suicide bombings are also used to gain ground.

The human smart bomb

What makes a suicide bomb so effective is that it's a weapon that opponents would never dare match. They are also fairly low-tech, requiring little training and are difficult to stop.

They have been labelled as a human smart bomb as they can be guided to reach intimate areas that may not otherwise be reached.

The impact and the element of surprise also impress supporters of groups that use this method of weaponry. Used in a coordinated attack, the effect is ruinous. Such a tactic is often utilised by the Islamic State group in Iraq as a means to take strategic towns in the country. In fact the use of suicide bombs in Iraq is a key part of the IS battle plan with a long history in the country.

Nationalists and Islamists in Iraq

After the Iraq war ended in 2003, suicide bombings started occurring at an unprecedented rate, around four per week. This was a key weapon by insurgents agains the new Western-backed Iraqi regime after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Baathist officers were removed from the national Iraqi army without compensation and felt disenfranchised. Sunni Arabs felt disempowered as a sectarian element to the conflict started emerged giving power to previously oppressed Shias and Kurds.

Riaz Hassan - author of Life as a Weapon - describes this as a feeling of collective humiliation stemming from ill-treatment of Iraqis, and at its microcosm was the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. The Iraq insurgency was an enactment of codes of revenge for dishonour including jihadis, Islamists and ex-Iraq army officers. They, and al-Qaeda, were responsible for the majority of suicide bombings that took place from 2003 onwards.

Consider the role of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, living in Iraq during the time of the insurgency. He must have seen the "success" of the suicide attacks by al-Qaeda during this time and decided to use them when he became leader of IS.

The insurgency's military might was unevenly matched by those against them and this asymmetry had to be compensated through improvised techniques. Suicide bombings had the desired lethal and psychological impact, and despite the secularity of Baath soldiers the pursuit of the goal was to restore a Sunni powerbase was paramount.

The nexus

The political ends to the means of suicide bombings may be there but the presence of religious sentiment cannot be denied. Cherry-picking religious texts justifying suicides - an antithetical concept to Islam - is done to mobilise support for acts they claim to be martyrdom operations. Those less well-versed on religious texts might be lured by its appeal without understanding its principles. Then pooling all of the conflicts around the world, means they frame their action as resisting the oppression on Muslims as a whole.

The gap that used to be apparent between strategy and ideology, perhaps, is closing in as IS adopt a more uniform vision than its predecessors in the Iraq insurgency. Religion may be a form of persuasion, but not the overring factor of why organisations commission such attacks.

Riaz Hassan believes that looking at motivations behind suicide is key:

"Suicidal behaviour in a variety of settings may be used not as an end in itself but as a means to achieve multiple ends, including self-empowerment in the face of powerlessness, redemption in the face of damnation, honour in the face of humiliation."

Perhaps suicide bombers are taking vengeance for dishonour imposed within Muslim countries; causing the casualties in the oppressors' lands mean they are regaining empowerment for wrongs against them.

Appropriate responses

Responses have been responses to terrorism as a whole - arbitrary, racial-profiling border control measures are typical strategies. Looking out for a would-be bomber with a freshly shaven beard or wearing heavy clothing in warm weather, military operations to take out significant terrorist leaders, or banning the face veil or unmarked cars are some strategies. These tactics have not worked.

AOAV suggests that better information sharing is needed between police and customs organisations, better security around weapon caches, more intelligence-led operations in finding bomb makers and arms factories, and more research around the strategy and motivation of suicide bombing.

If suicide bombing is a military tactic, pro-active policies that address the public grievances in societies that produce them, should be taken rather than measures amounting to collective punishment.

Violence in response to violence will ultimately lead to more violence and more angered individuals ready to join a war where they may become the weapons.


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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