Suicide Bombers

The decisive weapon of modern conflicts

Opinion | Justin McCauley | May 2010

The recent suicide bombs in Moscow’s underground are a reminder of the pervasiveness and inexorable power of this crudely effective weapon. Every time these attacks occur, people try to figure out two things: Why do they do this? And how do we stop it? The political motivations are easy enough to grasp – anyone can understand Palestinian nationalism or one’s violent reaction to an American occupation – but why kill yourself? Stopping it is even more difficult without throwing society into a complete, unsustainable paralysis – and it would probably still happen anyway.

The simple fact is that it’s the perfect insurgent weapon. Jihadists have used Islamic concepts such as shahid to justify and encourage the practice. The first modern suicide bomber was 13-year old Hossain Fahmideh, an Iranian boy who blew himself up under an Iraqi tank during the Iran-Iraq War.

The 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut caused a rapid withdraw of U.S. forces from Lebanon. Hezbollah suicide attacks against the Israelis in southern Lebanon resulted in Israel’s withdraw from the country in 2000. Useful as a military tool, the suicide bomb began to be used more and more against civilian targets. Hamas bombers blew themselves up in Israeli cafés and teen discos, and "martyrs" in Iraq often target markets and squares over the U.S. military.

Many frequently view these attacks as a problem for the U.S., Britain and Israel, but the suicide bomb is international. From Sri Lanka to Indonesia to Chechnya to Russia to Spain, the suicide bomb is everyone’s problem. Moreover, it is thoroughly indiscriminate; originally a military tactic used by Iran and Hezbollah (to whom the Shia tradition of martyrdom is omnipresent), al Qaeda, Hamas and other nihilistic, takfiri Sunni groups appropriated it specifically to target civilians, regardless of the victims’ political positions. You could be sitting in a café bemoaning American imperialism and the wars in the Middle East, only to get on a bus ten minutes later and be blown up by a jihadist you have endless sympathy for. Iraqi shahid have killed hundreds more Muslims than crusader infidels. While its original usage against the Iraqi, Israeli and U.S. armies can be justified on military grounds, targeting civilians is aimed solely to wear down the political will of a state.

The Chechens have used suicide bombs before, originally against the Russian military, but also against so-called "soft targets." Since 2000, Chechen suicide attacks have targets civilians eight times. More divisive is the Chechens’ preference for female suicide bombers (shaheeda in Arabic or shahidka in Russian). Despite tough talk from Russian President Dimitri Medvedev ("We will destroy them"), there is little the country can do to stop these attacks. No one has found an effective way of preventing suicide bombs – Israel has greatly reduced the frequency of attacks, but only by building a virtual fortress along its boarders with the Palestinians.

In short, there is little that can be done to stop the suicide bomber. Intelligence services have had only marginal successes despite magnanimous efforts over the last decade – penetrating a Salafi cell makes infiltrating the CIA or FSB look like child’s play.

Furthermore, the employment of takfir methodology (allowing one’s self to live in sin in order to deceive and defeat the infidel) makes detection doubly hard. Suicide bombs can accomplish what even the most powerful of conventional weapons can’t, for the price of a few hundred dollars. Mujahideen can bog down a superpower (America in Iraq), expel a seemingly invincible foe (Israel in Lebanon), or assassinate a national leader (Lebanon’s Rafic Hariri in 2005).

In the era of asymmetrical warfare, the suicide bomb is the quintessential weapon. Moscow is the latest to be stung, but surely not the last. It can happen anywhere, and there’s no way – at least not yet – to stop it.

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