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Terror groups exploit the weak for suicide bombings

By Joshua Sinai, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joshua Sinai: Moscow airport tragedy shows tactic of suicide terrorism is not going away
  • Groups solicit marginal people seduced by idea they will be important and famous, he says
  • Sinai knows of no group leader who became a suicide bomber himself or enlisted his children
  • Sinai: No suicide campaign defeated a government, but conventional terrorism effective
RELATED TOPICS
  • Suicide Attacks
  • Terrorism
  • Moscow
  • Hezbollah
  • Al Qaeda

Editor's note: Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at the Center for Technology, Security and Policy at Virginia Tech. He has more than 25 years' experience working on terrorism and counterterrorism issues. He worked at the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate and also was on a White House interagency working group on these issues.

(CNN) -- The horrific suicide bombing at the Moscow airport's arrival area that killed 35 and wounded more than 150 is yet another gruesome reminder that the tactic of suicide terrorism shows no signs of diminishing.

Suicide attacks, whether against civilian or military targets, persist in war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia (including those by "lone wolves" such as December's failed bombing in Stockholm, Sweden, by an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen). Why do certain terrorist groups continue to use such a grisly tactic, and how are they able to recruit willing individuals to blow themselves up for their cause?

What is suicide terrorism? It is a premeditated operation in which the attacker detonates an explosive intentionally to kill himself (or herself) to kill a lot of people, spread fear and panic, and coerce an adversary to concede to political or ideological demands. The crucial element is that no escape is possible for the attacker. This differs from conventional terrorism, where although the attacker is aware that his death is likely, he might be able to escape and resume warfare later.

Most suicide attacks are commissioned by organized groups directly or by "self-starter" cells, such as London's 7/7 bombers. This is one of the reasons why the Moscow bomber was likely aided by accomplices.

It is easier for groups to transform susceptible individuals into becoming terrorists by radicalizing, recruiting, indoctrinating and training them to become suicide bombers, sometimes in a matter of days, and then videotaping their commitment to martyrdom. It will be interesting to see if the terrorist group behind the Moscow airport's bombing posts a martyrdom video of the suicide bomber.

Such groups get their oxygen from extremist religions and societies that glorify martyrdom into an afterlife in "paradise" -- which is a concrete reality in the communities where these bombers are indoctrinated.

It is true that grievances, whether legitimate or perceived, against their adversaries drive terrorist violence. But the cult of death through martyrdom is reinforced through indoctrination and hate propaganda in extremist religious houses of worship, schools, media and even popular music.

Suicide terrorism's modern era began in the early 1980s in Lebanon, when Hezbollah's attacks included the devastating October 1983 car bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American troops. Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam often used this tactic, heavily relying on female bombers against the country's Sinhalese government.

Interestingly, Chechen terrorists have also long used female bombers, known as "black widows," in their suicide operations against Russia. This has spilled over into the North Caucasus, where Muslim militants were behind an attack by two female bombers in March against Moscow's crowded subway system. They killed at least 38 people. Palestinian groups have used female bombers against Israel, as has al Qaeda in Iraq, against civilians and military targets.

The most catastrophic resort to suicide terrorism was al Qaeda's simultaneous hijackings of aircraft on 9/11 as weapons of mass destruction against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000 people.

Can suicide terrorists be profiled? Yes, according to Israeli psychologist and terrorism expert Ariel Merari, who finds that those who are willing to kill themselves possess unique personality characteristics. In general, he writes, they are "introverted, loners, quiet, non-gregarious, and inhibited" as well as "socially marginal and downgraded by the people around them." Becoming a martyr, he believes, provides such vulnerable individuals "an opportunity to soar to importance and fame" within their communities. Practically none of his sample of Palestinian bombers was a member of a group before embarking on the mission.

Unlike the susceptible suicide bombers they exploit, a terrorist group's operational managers, according to Merari, tend to be (relatively speaking) "well adjusted" and, most tellingly, are "unwilling to carry out a suicide attack themselves." Israeli terrorism expert Anat Berko adds that a group's dispatchers have no compunction about sending others to certain death by picking a "sad guy ....social nonentities (who lack) status but who might get recognition by dying."

Confirming this assessment, I know of no instances in which leaders of terrorist groups, whether Palestinian, al Qaeda, Chechen or others, either have sacrificed themselves or any of their children on suicide "martyrdom" missions.

Are there tactical advantages for resorting to suicide terrorism? Yes, according to terrorism experts, because a suicide bomber becomes a "smart bomb," who, by his willingness to die, increases the chances for the attack to succeed. They are able to select their target according to a predetermined criteria and cause a larger number of casualties by blowing themselves up in a crowded area. Most important, in the event of "success," the bomber's death eliminates the risk that anyone will be arrested, an event that could smoke out accomplices.

As to strategic benefits, I know of no suicide campaigns that have led to the defeat of their targeted government.

Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah were generally more effective when they resorted to conventional tactics against the Israeli military in southern Lebanon in the late 1990s, and Hamas' firing of rockets and mortars into Israel in 2007-08 caused substantially more physical and psychological damage than its previous campaign of suicide attacks.

It is for this reason that the effectiveness of suicide attacks should not be overestimated since not all terrorist operations involve suicide tactics. For example, in the March 2004 bombing of trains in Madrid, which killed 191, the attackers did not intentionally blow themselves up at the time -- they did so only later when they were about to be captured. Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad attempted to escape from the scene in early May last year, while Maj. Nidal Hasan apparently did not try to kill himself as a "martyr" at a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.

How can suicide bombings be stopped? The key could rest with religious leaders. As Berko has argued, they "have the moral responsibility to forcefully condemn suicide bombing attacks and to issue unequivocal (rulings) against them." Religious leaders must emphatically state that those who carry out such attacks "not only do not automatically go to paradise, but that they automatically go to hell."

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Joshua Sinai.