for National Geographic News
Suicide has likely been a war tactic throughout history, but it is only in the last couple of decades that suicide terrorismaimed at both military and civilian targetshas 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."
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