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Suicide terrorism, up close

Hardly a day goes by without news reports of fresh suicide attacks in Iraq. Indeed, the phenomenon seems to have created a certain feeling o...

Written by D. Suba Chandran |
September 20, 2005

Hardly a day goes by without news reports of fresh suicide attacks in Iraq. Indeed, the phenomenon seems to have created a certain feeling of helplessness in state and society. It is therefore important to try and understand it, its growth in recent years, and its various strains and forms, in order to devise ways to survive it.

We need to state at the outset that suicide terrorism is not a new phenomenon, although it has been increasingly used as a lethal strategy in the last two decades. The Hamas were the first to popularise it in the Middle East; later it was picked up by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and the Worker’s Party of Kurdistan (PKK) in Turkey. Since 9/11, there have been suicide attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UK, Indonesia, and Iraq. Post-Kargil India has also seen suicide attacks in J&K.

We also need to recognise that the phenomenon does not last for ever. It is particularly important to understand this, so as not to exaggerate the threat it poses. It has mostly occurred in select regions during a particular period. The Hamas used it in the early ’80s; the LTTE in the late ’80s and early ’90s in Sri Lanka and India; the PKK in the mid-’90s, in Turkey; the Palestinians in Israel during the second uprising. The suicide attacks by the insurgents in Iraq, sectarian militants in Pakistan and the jihadis in J&K are a part of the current wave of suicide attacks in select regions. It is too early to predict whether the suicide attacks in London would trigger a series of attacks in the UK, or remain one spectacular strike, like that of 9/11.

A great deal seems to depend on how individuals and/or nations react during periods of crisis. Take the case of individuals committing suicide. When a crisis gets intense, some individuals in a particular region choose to commit suicide. This individual act then starts getting copied by others. But the phenomenon can end as abruptly as it began. For example, in India, the suicides of farmers in Andhra Pradesh, or the self-immolation of students during the Mandal crisis, began suddenly and ended abruptly. Similarly, suicide attacks in the regions where they were carried out also generally start suddenly and end abruptly. The two organisations which have carried out a significant number of suicide attacks — the Hamas and the PKK, after the arrest of its leader Abdullah Oclan — stopped their suicide terrorism abruptly.

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We also need to make clear distinctions in terms of the methodology employed by the suicide attackers. The LTTE primarily used individuals, with explosives strapped around them, to attack their targets; the Palestinian suicide bombers adopted a similar method. The insurgents in Iraq tend to use car bombs filled with explosives, which are then rammed into the target. The fidayeen attacks in Kashmir are in the nature of dare-devil attempts to confront the security forces, with very little prospect of escape. The sectarian suicide bombers, in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere, primarily choose to bomb the mosques of opposing sects. The suicide bombers in London targeted the public transport system.

There has been a wide debate over whether suicide attacks have been driven by political or by religious compunctions. Robert Pape has recently argued that it is the political and not the religious, that has been the fundamental factor. Most attacks have been directed against external occupation, he has argued. Many others maintain that the motivations are religious. Actually, it doesn’t make sense to place the objective in a straitjacket. There is a marked difference between the attacks before and after 9/11. Suicide attacks carried out by the LTTE, PKK, Hamas, and even the Palestinians, have primarily been political. Take the suicide attacks by the Hamas. Although they have been carried out by Muslims, there was nothing Islamic about them. Similarly, there was nothing Hindu in the attacks carried out by the LTTE. However, religious motivation seems to play a decisive role in the attacks after 9/11. Another significant distinguishing point is the deployment of women bombers. While women suicide bombers have been used by the PKK, the LTTE and the Palestinians, they don’t seem to have a role in the attacks in Iraq, Kashmir and the UK. Is this because the jihadis are primarily men, while “secular” terrorist organisations recruit both men and women? Possibly. The moot point is that suicide terrorism is a complex phenomenon which needs to be studied in sociological terms, rather then through the prisms of politics and religion alone.

The writer is assistant director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

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First published on: 20-09-2005 at 12:41:00 am

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