Suicide Attacks Evolving, Increasing

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 29, 2005
Suicide has likely been a war tactic throughout history, but it is only
in the last couple of decades that suicide terrorism—aimed at both
military and civilian targets—has flourished.

Suicide terrorist attacks worldwide have risen from an average of 3 per year in the 1980s to about 10 per year in the 1990s, according to Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. 2004 alone saw 158 suicide attacks, according to Scott Atran, a research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France.

This year is proving even more deadly, with suicide attacks in Iraq alone averaging about one a day, Atran said.

While the underlying causes of suicide terrorism remain murky, one thing is clear: Such attacks can be chillingly effective in inflicting punishment on the target.

"Although suicide terrorism accounts for just 3 percent of all terrorist events [between 1980 and 2003], it accounts for 48 percent of all deaths," Pape said.

"It makes the average suicide attack 12 times deadlier than other forms of terrorism."

Far More Deadly

Barring notable exceptions like the 9/11 airplane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, suicide attacks generally take the form of bombings. The low cost and high lethality of the tactic have made it a favorite with guerilla groups.

"Suicide bombings are far more lethal than any other strategy," said Ami Pedahzur, a professor of political science at the University of Haifa in Israel. "The suicide bomber decides when and where to detonate the explosive device. This assures maximum damage."

When used against civilian targets, suicide bombings can cause greater fear in the target population than other terrorist acts: The bomber's intent to die makes deterrents ineffective. The public may become fearful that other suicide attacks will follow.

"We saw this dynamic quite clearly in this month's London bombings," said Pape, who is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago in Illinois. "The authorities' announcement that it had been a suicide attack made many people far more fearful."

Watershed Event

The modern form of suicide terrorism—in which an attacker kills others and himself or herself at the same time by, for example, detonating a car bomb or a suicide vest —was unheard of before the 1980s.

A turning point came in 1983, when the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah exploded a truck bomb at the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The blast killed 241 soldiers, and a nearly simultaneous attack on the French military barracks killed 58 soldiers.

Those attacks and a string of others that followed compelled the United States, France, and Israel to withdraw their forces from territory that the suicide attackers viewed as their homeland.

"It sent a message to terrorist leaders around the world that suicide terrorism pays," Pape said.

One organization that picked up on that message was the Tamil Tigers. With 76 suicide attacks to its name, the Sri Lankan rebel group led the world in suicide assaults from 1980 to 2003, according to a database compiled by Pape. The database counted 315 total suicide attacks worldwide in the same period.

"What over 95 percent of suicide attacks have in common is … a specific strategic goal to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from a territory the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly," Pape said.

Murky Motivations

That motivation is driving many Palestinian suicide bombers to launch attacks against Israeli targets. It may also fuel the increasing barrage of suicide attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq.

But some experts say the motivation behind recent suicide attacks in western Europe by Islamic extremists associated with the al Qaeda network is far murkier. No single strategy or political logic may drive such suicide attacks.

"Suicide attacks were perhaps once mainly organized campaigns aimed at ending perceived occupation of the attackers' homeland," said Atran, the research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

"But [they] are now mostly religiously motivated actions by small, loosely connected groups to exorcise cultural humiliation, of which military occupation may be just one manifestation," he added.

Atran has spent years interviewing potential suicide bombers. He debunks the myth of the suicide bomber as a destitute criminal who "hates freedom." Instead, he says, many suicide bombers are educated and maintain strong social networks.

Many potential suicide bombers live in immigrant communities in the West, often marginalized from the host society.

"Today small suicide cells can pop up everywhere, even in Western cities," Atran said. "Seeking a sense of community and a deeper meaning in life, small groups of friends and family from the same area back home bond as they surf Isalmist Web sites to find direction from al Qaeda inspiration, with some veteran jihadi perhaps triggering the group into action."

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