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A suicide bombing is a bomb attack on people or property, committed by a person who knows the explosion will cause his or her own death (see suicide).

The Arab press generally refer to the suicide bomber as a "human bomb" or shahid (martyr) due to Islam's prohibition on suicide. Since 2002, the Bush administration has used the term homicide bombing, but it has not gained widespread currency.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Bombings
3 History
4 Profile of a bomber
5 Range of opinions
6 Usage and related-terms
7 External links, resources, references
8 Further Reading


Suicide bombings have taken various forms.

Throughout history, soldiers and others have resorted to suicide attacks out of sudden desperation, to prevent capture or to relieve a pinned-down unit, often by simply detonating a grenade or other explosive device while holding it near enemy troops.

During the Crusades, the Knights Templar destroyed one of their own ships, killing 140 Christians in order to kill ten times as many Muslims. In World War II, kamikaze pilots acted as "human missiles" by flying their planes, heavily laden with explosives, directly into enemy warships. After World War II, Viet Minh "death volunteers" were used against the French colonial army.

In the Middle East, hundreds of suicide bombings have been undertaken in the last few decades, primarily by Arab men and youths. During the Al-Aqsa Intifada the Palestinians have attempted to kill Israelis using suicide bombers nearly every single day. They strap themselves with high explosives (and sometimes shrapnel) and seek out a civilian target, often city buses crowded with people at rush hour or, rarely, a military target. If the suicide bombing is successful, the bomber usually kills a number of people, due to the enclosed locations he or she usually seeks out. Recent bombings have explictly targeted civilians, including women and children, and some have even been carried out by women or teenagers, sometimes with their parents' support and encouragement. See also: Female suicide bomber

The Tamil Tigers have committed 75 suicide bombings since 1980 [1].

Often there is a religious element involved, besides other motives such as politics or blackmail: many suicide bombers believe that they will attain an otherwordly reward for their sacrifice. Those who send suicide bombers on missions cultivate the belief that suicide bombers are martyrs. Besides the religious aspect, there is also a simple cost-benefit analysis that motivates suicide bombing. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri expresses the point clearly: "the method of martyrdom operation [is] the most successful way of inflicting damage against the opponent and the least costly to the mujahidin in terms of casualties."[1]

Military historians classify suicide bombing as a form of armed violence, belonging to the tactics of asymmetric warfare -- suicide bombings are only common when one side in a violent conflict lacks the means for effective "conventional" attacks.


Suicide bombing usually (but not always) targets poorly-guarded nonmilitary facilities and personnel. It can be either a military tactic, a political one, or a mixture of the two. It may qualify as terrorism where the intention is to kill, maim or terrorise a predominantly civilian target population, or fall within the definition of an act of war where it is committed against a military target under war conditions.

Explosive belt (actually, a vest) of Palestinian suicide bomber, captured by the Israeli PoliceEnlarge

Explosive belt (actually, a vest) of Palestinian suicide bomber, captured by the Israeli Police

As a political tactic, suicide bombings send a message of impassioned opposition to enemy forces (that the bomber is willing to die for his or her cause) and a message of desperate recklessness to third parties (that the bomber feels the justice of the cause so strongly that he would rather die than submit and that he is giving little thought to the danger). However, it may backfire, as suicide bombings ignite rage and hatred and undermine the belief in the humanity of the side performing them.

When used against civilian targets, suicide bombing usually causes fear in the target population greater than that caused by other forms of terrorism, as the fact that the bomber intends to die makes deterrence almost impossible. Though use against civilian targets have differing effects on their goals (see reaction below). Some economists suggest that this tactic goes beyond symbolism and is actually a response to commodified or controlled or devalued lives, and consider family prestige and financial compensation from the community to compensate for their own life.

The doctrine of asymmetric warfare views suicide bombing in terms of an imbalance of power. Groups with little significant power resort to suicide bombing as a response to actions or policies of a group with great power. Groups which have significant power have no need to resort to suicide bombing to achieve their aims: in consequence suicide bombing is overwhelmingly used by guerrilla, and other irregular fighting forces. Among many such groups, there are religious overtones: bombers and their supporters may believe that their sacrifice will be rewarded in an afterlife. Suicide bombers often believe, correctly or incorrectly, that their actions are in accordance with moral or social standards because they are aimed at fighting unjust acts.


Self-sacrifice has always been a concept as part of war. From the earliest days of honoring fallen soldiers as heroes, the concept of self-sacrifice for the cause of one's society or beliefs has been and remains a highly regarded archetype within human societies. Soldiers who lay down their lives to protect their comrades are commonly awarded the highest recognition for courage in battle, while those who survive combat are honored for their sacrifice of time, of innocence, and other injury. Both regular soldiers and suicide bombers have on many occasions been seen to be in breach of the laws of war and both may face military discipline if they are found to be so. Suicide bombers are more often associated with attacks on non military targets. Recently, mainly Islamic suicide bombers have been encouraged in this practice by their commanders.

The act of deliberately destroying oneself to inflict harm on an enemy is more restricted to modern times and the era of explosives. The line between the two is considered by some a matter of subjectivity, as in the argument that many WWII soldiers killed were "martyrs" (in the sense that they were to suffer for the sake of a principle, rather than dying as the penalty for refusing to renounce a belief) because their life expectancy in combat was very low -- often averaging only two or three months.

The ritual act of self-sacrifice during combat appeared in a large scale at the end of World War II with the Japanese kamikaze bombers. In these attacks, airplanes were used as flying bombs -- Later in the war, as Japan became more desperate, this act became formalized, ritualized, and planes were outfitted with explosives specific to the task of a suicide mission. Kamikaze strikes were a weapon of symmetric war used by the Empire of Japan chiefly against United States Navy aircraft carriers.

The Japanese Navy also used both one and two man piloted torpedoes called kaitens on suicide missions. Although sometimes called midget submarines, these were modified versions of the unmanned torpedoes of the time and should be distinguished from the torpedo-firing midget submarines used earlier in the war, which were designed to infiltrate shore defences and return to a mother ship after firing their torpedoes. Although extremely hazardous these midget submarine attacks were not technically suicide missions. By way of contrast, while the early kaitens were provided with escape hatches, there is no evidence that they were ever used or that the pilots had any intention of using them. Later kaitens provided no means of escape.

After aiming a two-person kaiten at their target, the two crew members were to embrace and shoot each other in the head. Social support for such choices was strong, due in part to Japanese cultural history, in which seppuku, honorable suicide, was part of samurai duty. It was also fostered and indoctrinated by the Imperial program to persuade, often through coercion (such as through doping), the Japanese soldiers to commit these acts.

Guerrilla groups that have employed suicide bombing include the Viet Minh, Kurdistan Workers Party and the Tamil Tigers. Suicide bombing has been a particularly popular tactic amongst some Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Bombers affiliated with these groups often use so-called "suicide belts", explosive devices designed to be strapped to the body under clothing. The manufacture and shipping of these devices is generally considered a form of support for terrorism. The term "suicide bombing" became commonplace after the attack on a United States Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.

The September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack used large fully-fueled planes as enormous cruise missiles flown into buildings, killing the planes' hijackers, and causing over 2,500 casualties in the process -- making it the most destructive suicide bombing in history. It also had vast economic and political impact: for a cost of 20 attackers' lives and apparently under US$100,000, global markets registered a trillion-dollar drop within a week, and huge new expenditures for military and surveillance technology were made in response.

After the U.S occupied Iraq in 2003, a wave of suicide bombings occurred. The suicide bombers target mainly United States military targets although civilian targets such as Shiite mosques and international offices of the UN and the Red Cross were also attacked.

Suicide bombings have occurred in more than 20 countries: Afghanistan, Argentina, China, Colombia, Croatia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Panama, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. (Suicide planes were also used in the United States).

Profile of a bomber

The most common initial reaction to a suicide bomber is to assume that he (or rarely she) was motivated by despair, and probably hailed from a poor, neglected segment of society. In fact, both President George W. Bush and the Dalai Lama have made this claim. However, noted anthropologist Scott Atran found in a 2003 study that this is not at all true.

Most bombers are educated, many with college or university experience, and come from Middle class homes. Many do show signs of psychological imbalance, and often had trouble relating socially as children. They often find solace in the ritualistic communion found in extremist circles, which are often headed by Charismatic individuals looking for new recruits. Social insecurities notwithstanding, many are concened for their families, and several organizations (Saddam Hussein's government among them) are known to provide financial compensation to the families of suicide bombers.

Range of opinions

World leaders usually express resolve to continue on their previous course of affairs after such attacks. Leaders around the globe denounce suicide bombings and sometimes vow not to let such bombings deter what they see as their efforts to further civilization.

Suicide bombings in Israel are usually followed by reprisals. As a successful suicide bomber himself (the bombers are almost always young men) cannot be targeted, responses often target the community, family, or organization he came from. In the West Bank the armed forces of Israel usually demolish homes that they claim belong families whose children have volunteered for such missions. Since many families encourage their children to volunteer to such acts given the expected financial reward from the Palestinian Authority and other Arab "charity" organizations (Saddam Hussein was known for paying the equivalent of $1010,000-25,000 to families of suicide bombers, many of whom live in destitution), the act of demolishing house provides a disincentive to those who are motivated by the idea of financial gain for their families. There are numerous reports in the Israeli press about families who turned in their children after learning about a possible suicide bombing attack, fearful their house would be demolished by the Israel Defense Forces.

It is sometimes claimed that suicide bombings, notably those of the Japanese kamikazes, the Palestinian bombers, and even the September 11, 2001 attacks, were military failures, and highly counter-productive to the perpetrators. In the case of the kamikazes, this is seen as untrue by some. Although the kamikaze attacks could not stop the Allied advance, they inflicted more casualties and delayed the fall of Japan for longer than might have been the case using only the conventional methods available to the Empire. The kamikaze attacks did reinforce the resolution of the World War II Allies to destroy the Imperial force, and may have had a significant effect in the decision to use atomic bombs against Japan. In the case of the September 11th attacks, the long-term effects remain to be seen, but in the short-to-medium term, the results were profoundly negative for Al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies. Furthermore, since the September 11 attacks, Western nations have diverted massive resources towards stopping similar actions, as well as tightening up borders, and military actions against various countries that the US and its allies believe to have been involved with terrorism.

The Palestinian suicide bombings are, for some indivduals, more challenging to assess. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was a steady and continuous deployment of suicide bombers in 2000 following the collapse of the Camp David II summit between the PLO and Israel. In response, Israel mobilized its army in order to seal off the Gaza Strip and re-occupy the West Bank, placing it under military rule with the area patrolled by tanks. The Israelis also began a campaign of targeted assassinations to terminate militant Palestinian leaders, using jets and helicopters to deploy high-precision bombs and missiles.

Most significantly, the suicide missions, having killed hundreds and maimed thousands of Israelis, are believed by some to have brought on a move to the political right, increasing public support for hard-line policies towards the Palestinians, and a government headed by the former general, prime minister Ariel Sharon. In response to the suicide bombings, Sharon's government has imposed restrictions on the Palestinian community, making commerce, travel, schooling, and other aspects of life difficult for the Palestinians, with the average Palestinian suffering due to the choices of the suicide bombers.

Social support by some for this activity remains, however, as of the calling of a truce at the end of June 2003. This may be due to the economic or social purpose of the suicide bombing and the the bombers' refusal to accept external judgements on those who sanction them. The peace plan presently being discussed may be better from the Palestinians' point of view than that which existed prior to the 2000 renewal of conflict. Such attacks have stalled and stopped peace plans in the past, which continued the Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and sparked deep mutual hatred and distrust, so these attacks may be counterproductive. Suicide bombing may thus "work" as a military tactic (in that it costs fewer lives than any conventional miltary tactic or targeting soldiers rather than civilians) and may or may not achieve the political objectives sought by the combatant. However, it is likely to remain a method of operation employed by Palestinians due in part to their enormous relative lack of military power relative to Israel.

Usage and related-terms

The factual accuracy of this section is disputed; See .

It seems that the usage of a phrase suicide bombing is back to as early as 1947. The Times (London) of April 15, 1947, page 2, refers to a new pilotless, radio-controlled rocket missile thus: ' Designed originally as a counter-measure to the Japanese "suicide-bomber," it is now a potent weapon for defence or offence '. The quotes are in the original and suggest that the phrase was an existing one. An earlier article (Aug 21, 1945, page 6) refers to a kamikaze plane as a "suicide-bomb".

In order to make positive or negative connotation, suicide bombing is sometimes referred by different phrases. Ari Fleischer, the press secretary of President George W. Bush, coined and popularized the term homicide bombing in April 2002 as a synonym for "suicide bombing" to de-emphasize the self-sacrificial connotations of suicide bombing and emphasize that suicide bombers are committing murder as well as suicide. The use of the term is not as common as that of suicide bombing, although FOX News and the New York Post, among others, have adopted its use.

Some people criticize that homicide bombing is an inaccurate phrase and it should not be used to describe suicide bombings, on the grounds that the term "homicide bomber" would refer to those who kill other people with bombs but not themselves, such as someone who leaves a booby-trap or tosses a grenade. One objection to the use of the phrase comes from people who disagree with the Bush administration as to whether the recent wave of suicide bombings in the Middle East constitute "murder". These advocates generally consider the bombers to be martyrs; they object to calling the people killed by the bombs "homicide victims".

The Arab term for suicide bombing are "Isshtahad" or "Shuada", whereas the suicide bomber is called a Shaid. The original meaning of the word "Shaid" in Arabic is a person who died in a Jihad in order to testify his faith in Allah.

The term "Shaid" is used extensively by the Palestinian Authority in part to overcome the stigma and Islamic strictures against suicide. This term has been embraced by Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a branch of Yasser Arafat's Fatah, and other Palestinian factions engaging suicide bombings. Other argue that Palestinians are using the term "Shaid" for any Palestinians killed during the 3 years of hostilities.

Compare with: Martyrdom operation

See also: terrorism, asymmetric warfare, assassination, female suicide bomber, child suicide bomber, Dead man's switch.

External links, resources, references

Further Reading