On 30 October 1980, in the midst of the Iran–Iraq war, the Iranian army was defending the key town of Khorramshahr in southern Iran. The Iraqi forces were on the verge of making a breakthrough. Iranian soldiers had taken heavy casualties, and their ability to resist the advancing Iraqis was fast evaporating. At this point, Hossein Famideh, a young Iranian, strapped explosives to his body and ran into the leading line of Iraqi tanks, blowing them and himself to bits.
Famideh’s suicide attack halted the Iraqi advance, rallied the Iranians and turned the battle in their favour. Ayatollah Khomeini declared Famideh a national hero, and a tomb was erected in his honour outside Tehran. His death, or martyrdom—as Iranians saw it— inspired several legends and sagas that are recounted in Iranian schools to this day.
Hossein Famideh, the world’s first suicide bomber, was 13 years old when he died.
Within two years, several hundred Iranian soldiers were copying Famideh’s feat, and “martyrdom” had become an acknowledged Iranian weapon of war. In 1982, the Iranians helped create one of the most feared Islamic terror groups—the Hezbollah, or the “Party of God”, in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In addition to getting financial aid, weapons and training, the Hezbollah also learnt the force multiplier effect of the suicide bomber.
On 11 November 1982, 19-year-old Ahmed Qasir drove a car filled with explosives into an Israeli barrack in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, killing 74 and injuring scores more. With this, Qasir became the world’s first car bomber, and 11 November became known as Martyr’s Day in Lebanon.
Just six months later, on 18 April, another suicide bomber struck the US embassy in Beirut, killing 60 people and gutting the building totally. Incredibly, another six months later, on 23 October, two suicide bombers struck the US and French barracks, causing the largest casualty on a single day in the history of the Marine Corps since the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, and the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II. These twin blasts led to the death of nearly 300 soldiers and the withdrawal of the international peacekeeping forces from Lebanon, thus establishing the strategic role of the suicide bomber in modern irregular warfare. In 2005, a study by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago chronicled a total of 462 suicide attacks between 1980 and 2004.
To appreciate the finer point of suicide attacks, it is important to distinguish this strategy from committing suicide in protest, (for example, self immolations by Tibetan nationalists protesting against the Chinese) or suicide missions where there is a strong possibility of eventual death (like the fidayeen attacks in Kashmir). The essential distinction of the suicide attack is that suicide is the centrality of the attack itself, like the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Interestingly, secular groups, and not Islamic fundamentalists, have been responsible for more than half of suicide attacks, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—a Marxist group— holding top spot. Secular groups with Marxist or anti-religious beliefs (such as the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization) also account for more than one-third of Islamic terrorist attacks.
There are, however, some commonalities between suicide attacks across Lebanon, Chechnya, Russia, Sri Lanka, Israel, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq and even India. The first is the terrorists’s objective of compelling the removal of what they see as an occupation force; or, as in the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, a preemptive effort to forestall such a deployment.
The second is that suicide attacks are usually carried out by “walk-in” fanatics who are not long-time members of terror groups. In some instances, they approach the terrorist organizations just days before the attack, with the sole purpose of carrying out that one devastating act. That, coupled with the absence of an escape strategy, halves the usual planning and logistics that go into terrorist attacks, and makes the suicide attacker very difficult to profile or track.
Motivations for suicide attacks vary from seeking prestige, peer pressure, revenge or religious ideology. Paradoxically, such attacks are seldom driven by abject poverty or ignorance.
Statistics show that most suicide attackers belong to the middle class, and are better educated than the average.
This has relevance for us, because apart from fidayeen attacks in the Kashmir valley and the 2008 Mumbai attacks (the latter can be argued to be a suicide mission rather than a suicide attack), India has been largely untouched by this genre of terrorism. But that is likely to change, as suicide attacks gain salience across the world. More worryingly, such attacks have proven to be the deadliest form of terrorism. Although they constitute fewer than 5% of all terrorist attacks, they cause nearly 50% of the fatalities—too attractive a return for terrorist organizations to ignore, and an effective rallying call for potential recruits.
And while relatively low-impact acts such as the recent blast in Varanasi jolt us out of complacency, the suicide bomber is the ultimate smart bomb—a fact that terrorists know only too well, and a tool they will resort to sooner than later.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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