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HomeCRIMEInside the mind of a suicide bomber

Inside the mind of a suicide bomber

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Liberals in India and liberal-minded analysts in the West have assiduously woven an aura of religious fervor behind suicidal attacks by terrorists particularly when they happen to be Muslims. It has been fashionable, almost de rigueur to say “The profile of a suicide-bomber is that of a young man from a religious home who has been approached by a radical maulvi, then recruited, radicalized, and trained in a madrassa.” Essentially, their desire is to reduce the criminality of these terrorists by suggesting that the suicide bomber was an innocent, good-at-heart man to begin with, but he was brainwashed by some radical maulvi into committing that dastardly act against people of other religions—otherwise, he would have been a good family man relishing the sweetness of communal harmony!

Exaggerated Role of Religion in Suicidal Attacks

The role of religion in suicidal terrorism has often been exaggerated and oversimplified—all these contrived notions shatter on the harsh rock of some cadre of the Sunni TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan) attacking their co-religionists Sunni Muslim policemen (that is, of even the same sect in Islam) praying in a Peshawar mosque on January 30? End of argument!

Etymologically also, the appellation given to them by these people has had nothing to do with religion. The root word of the Arabic word ‘fidayeen’ is ‘fida’ which means enamored, in love, captivated, or totally devoted.  From ‘fida’ we get ‘fidayee’ which means a lover, devotee, or faithful.  ‘Fidayeen’ is the plural of ‘fidayee’. 

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Suicide bombers are neither mentally unstable people in some inexplicable manner nor necessarily so vehemently fired by some contentious religious philosophy as understood by them or the obsessive desire of enjoying 72 hours in heaven that they are able to blow themselves up. Many of them are indeed religious fanatics but it is not necessarily the case—the Peshawar mosque bomber was obviously not a religious fanatic. Usually, their military, political or operational causes come first; religion comes later. We explain the psychology of their acts below.

Not Necessarily Poorly Educated or Losers, But of Low Self-Esteem

This is the last pic taken of Rajiv Gandhi before the blast. Hari Babu the photographer who took this pic also died in the blast. Dhanu -the lady with orange kanakambaram flowers was the killer.

It is a popular misconception, often fuelled by popular and entertainment media that suicide bombers are always poorly educated, gullible people who are easily brainwashed by radical maulvis into giving up their lives for what is told to them to be an act of religious merit that would earn them eternal enjoyment of 72 hours in heaven. It is not necessarily so.

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Kafeel Ahmed, an aeronautical engineer planted
bombs at the
Glasgow Airport

Many of the Islamic suicide bombers have been found to be well-educated and even technically qualified too. The Glasgow airport bomber (2007) Kafeel Ahmed had an M. Phil. in aeronautical engineering from the Queen’s University, Belfast, and was pursuing Ph.D. in computational fluid dynamics.

Hanadi Tayseer a law graduate blew herself up in a suicide attack in Haifa, Israel

The Haifa bomber (2003) Hanadi Taysser Darajat was a law graduate from Jareesh University, Jordan. However, even if they are not outright losers in life, most of them suffer from low self-esteem. In their own view, their lives are not really important and they feel that their death for a cause would be more useful than their continued existence on the planet. All such people commit their crimes knowing fully well their ramifications and consequences. One who sacrifices his life for a common cause contributes towards the success of his cause and is thus elevated in the eyes of his comrades. Thus, one of the motivating factors for suicidal missions is to gain the respect of peers.

All suicidal missions start from an implicit admission that either the situation is desperate or they are desperate. Nobody loves to blow himself up even if the pain lasts a fraction of a second.  They are obliged to do so when, at a military or operational level, they find that their usual repertoire of numerous terror tactics or other tactics of unconventional warfare is not proving sufficiently effective.

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Historically, Self-Sacrifice Has Been Regarded As Heroic

The very usage of the term ‘suicide terrorism’ is actually a misnomer. It is actually ‘sacrificial terrorism’, which involves a suicidal act. Suicide is different from sacrifice. Suicide can be pointless also or an admission of defeat. Sacrifice, on the other hand, is a socio-cultural concept that has been held in very high esteem in practically all cultures.

Samson’s monument in Poland, Pic by  Barbara Maliszewska

In the Bible, a reference to what was a suicidal mission is found in the story of Samson who died together with his victims as he collapsed a Philistine temple. “Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’ Down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more as he died than while he lived.” (Judges 16:30). In Greek history, King Leonidas who fought and gave up his life in the famous Battle of Thermopylae with his 300 Spartans fighting against nearly 20000 Persians—that is, certain death.

Charge of the Light Brigade in the Battle of Balaklava

The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Battle of Balaklava, even though a military blunder, is lauded in poetry and thus rendered immortal. The British regarded it as one of the great officer-like qualities to not flinch in the face of fire even as the soldiers around them ducked for cover. Everybody has heard about the Japanese kamikaze pilots in the Second World War. During the Battle for Berlin, the German Luftwaffe had also flown ‘Self-sacrifice missions’ (Selbstopfereinsatz) against Soviet bridges over the River Oder. Viet Minh ‘death volunteers’ fought against the French colonial army by using a long stick-like explosive to damage French tanks, as part of their urban warfare tactics. Throughout the course of military history, those few who stayed back to hold an untenable position so that the others could save their lives; those who fought a rearguard action, and those who volunteered for moving in first in a place of great danger have always been accorded the highest honors in history.

Hollywood films are in fact full of instances depicting acts of self-sacrifice. We may recall the self-sacrifice of the character (Harry) played by Bruce Willis in the film ‘Armageddon’ who stays back to detonate the nuclear bomb on the asteroid that was on collision course with the earth and certain to have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Since the bomb could not be detonated remotely, he chose to stay back and get killed with it so that the earth may be saved.

Suicidal Missions in Conventional Warfare

In the context of warfare, suicidal missions are purely tactical decisions. It is an admission of the fact that since they cannot fight the adversary on his terms, or that the war is not going favorably for them, they must devise their own terms of combat. It is thus the weapon of those who perceive themselves to be the weaker or disadvantaged side, at least at that moment.

Marshal Pierre Bosquet said, “It is magnificent, but it is not war!”

Unfortunately for them, in conventional warfare, in spite of the heroism and adulation associated with it, suicidal missions have rarely proved to be militarily effective. No decisive victory until the 19th century could ever be clinched by a suicidal charge. The French Marshal Pierre Bosquet had very rightly observed for the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava: “It is magnificent, but it is not war!”

Japanese pilots Kiyoshi Ogawa, 22, and Seizō Yasunori, 21, crashed their aircraft into US aircraft carrier Bunker Hill resulting in 389 deaths and 264 injuries. They were a part of the Japanese Special Attack Units. About 3,800 kamikaze pilots died in World War II

The tactic of kamikaze aircraft, for example, had failed miserably in spite of appearing fearsome. The Japanese sacrificed 1,465 aircraft and could damage only 47 ships—failing to sink any aircraft carriers, cruisers, or battleships.

Tactical Advantages of Suicidal Missions in Terrorism

Note that above, I have used the term conventional warfare. The situation changes materially in the context of unconventional/asymmetric warfare or terrorism which are a priori, unequal combats. Suicidal attacks do pay off for terrorists. The doctrine of asymmetric warfare views suicidal missions as a consequence of an imbalance of power, in which groups with little significant power resort to suicidal attacks as a convenient tactic to demoralize the targeted civilians or government leadership of their enemies.

Terrorists often resort to a suicidal bombing in response to actions or policies of a group, state actor, or alliance with greater military power as a coercive measure to force them to rethink their policies even as they might not expect any decisive victory over them. The Peshawar mosque bombing is an example of this situation.

Terrorists who use suicidal techniques do it simply because they have, at that particular juncture in their ‘business’, found it expedient to do so. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the former leader of Hamas had stated, “Once we have warplanes and missiles, then we can think of changing our means of legitimate self-defense. But right now, we can only tackle the fire with our bare hands and sacrifice ourselves.” Al-Zawahiri had also argued in his “testament” called ‘Knights Under The Prophet’s Banner’, that “the method of martyrdom operations is the most successful way of inflicting damage against the opponent and the least costly to the Mujahideen in casualties.”

Terrorists resort to suicidal terrorism for a variety of ‘operational reasons’. 

  1. Suicidal attacks have got a certain shock value attached to them. They send the target into a state of shock much beyond the actual damage inflicted upon him.
  2. Suicidal attacks are surefire methods. The chances of the attacks succeeding and inflicting considerable damage on the enemy are quite high.
  3. As such they are very cost-effective.  The same amount of damage to the target’s military resources (such as aircraft and ammunition dumps), men (such as the US Marines in Beirut), and economic resources (such as fuel depots) cannot be easily inflicted through conventional means of attack. Hence it makes them particularly attractive to non-state actors. When non-state actors find that militarily they cannot take on the military might of a state, they resort to suicidal attacks.
  4. They are a cost-effective means of countering sophisticated weapons at the disposal of the state, particularly the air force, armor, and heavy artillery, things that non-state actors lack, either in the combat zone or outside it. The destruction of more than a dozen aircraft including eight military and some civilian aircraft by the LTTE in a single suicidal attack on the Katunayake military airbase is a good example.
  5. As the LTTE Black Sea Tigers have demonstrated, considerable damage can be inflicted on small navies equipped with not-so-sophisticated vessels or vessels that are incapable of defending themselves adequately from such threats. Their small explosive-laden boats and divers become naval versions of the car bombs and have taken a heavy toll on the naval vessels of Sri Lanka, which is way disproportionate to the LTTE’s actual strength on the seas.
  6. Suicidal attacks are much simpler to plan. They do not have to concern themselves with making an escape plan, often the most difficult part of an operation. They have only to worry about penetration.
  7. The suicide device itself is reduced to a much simpler version as one does not have to bother about making a remote-controlled device or a delayed action device.
  8. Since the attacker is a human, making last-minute changes is easy. A time bomb placed somewhere becomes totally useless if the target changes his program and does not come there at the time when the device is set to go off.
  9. Since the attacker is a human, he can use deception and guile to penetrate a heavily defended target that may not be penetrated easily by mechanical means alone.
  10. They do not have to worry about some members getting caught and revealing sensitive information in the course of interrogation or torture.
  11. It has great psychological impact on the enemy.
  12. At times, if properly executed it can even result in strategic advantage to the non-state actor particularly if they have taken out some important leaders, vital for the conduct of operations against them. While a state can recover from any such elimination and introduce substitutes, there is undoubtedly some dislocation both in terms of time and planning of subsequent moves.
  13. It also makes the state waste its manpower and material resources in strengthening the security of its top functionaries, vital installations, and public places.
  14. In fact, the non-state actors can force the state to squander its resources merely by propagating a ‘hit list’ of their real or imaginary targets. Once that list is out, there are few governments which can afford to think rationally and most of them are forced to protect even those things which they would have never protected otherwise.
  15. Not only that, it forcefully introduces widespread panic and feelings of insecurity amongst the people and towards this end, they are aided by the media which is keen only on sensationalization. Further, the overreaction from the government aggravates the feeling of insecurity and indirectly fosters the image of the group is almost invincible if not an all-pervading force. They get a larger-than-life image at a very low cost.
  16. They can deliver a maximum shock to the enemy in a single attack. That is to say, they do not have to worry about conserving their resources for some other day.
  17. The fact that, in a suicidal attack, even high-security places can be attacked, serves as a great morale booster to them.  It has great propaganda value too.
  18. Suicidal attacks are living examples of supreme sacrifice.  They constitute the most convincing proof of the dedication and devotion of those who took part in it for their ‘cause’.  Thus they act as a source of inspiration to all those cadres who find their resolve wavering and that they are lacking in the fervor which they had once.
  19. They can hope to gain some sympathy amongst their covert or half-hearted supporters by such acts of daring and ‘bravery’.  Every movement looks for and eulogizes its martyrs.

Also Read:

Peshawar mosque bomb blast–is Pakistan paying the price for its Karma?

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Different Methods of Suicidal Attacks

They include:

  1. Suicidal attacks on foot using an explosive belt, satchel charge, or any explosive device carried on the person of the attacker. The attack requires that the entry must be gained surreptitiously or through some subterfuge. The target could be humans or even a vehicle, such as in the case of the assassination of Neelan Thiruchelvam, TULF MP in Sri Lanka. Somebody could try to blow up an airplane too—as Richard Reid, the ‘Shoe bomber’ had tried.
  2. Suicidal attacks on foot using firearms. In this type of attack, a forced entry can be made.
  3. Vehicle-borne IED—also known as car bomb or truck bomb
  4. A suicidal attack can be made using a boat. The attack on the USS Cole was made this way. The LTTE has used it numerous times with great success.
  5. The suicidal attack can be made using a small submarine or human-steered torpedo also. The Japanese had done it in WWII—the torpedoes were called Kaiten.
  6. Suicidal attacks mounted using airplanes—the kamikaze attacks for example.
  7. Suicidal attacks were made using animals as carriers of explosives. Donkey bombs were a specialty of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru.
  8. Explosives can be carried on bicycles also. The most famous example is the assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa
  9. In the 9/11 type of attack, an airplane itself could be used as a weapon.
  10. A suicidal attack can also be made by forcefully diverting a vehicle to an abyss, for example, in the  Tel Aviv Jerusalem bus 405 massacre in which a Palestinian traveling in a crowded bus en route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seized the steering wheel from the driver and crashed the bus over a steep precipice in the area of Qiryat Ye’arim

Limitations to Fanaticism or Desperation in Their Minds

In spite of the aura they associate with it, terrorists know that this is a technique that cannot be used indiscriminately; otherwise, the movement will soon run out of cadres. The idea, therefore, is to keep a sufficiently motivated cadre ready for the act and use them whenever the leadership feels that the tactical advantages accruing from it are compelling. 

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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