TCS Daily

Not-So-New Threat: Disposable Terrorists

By Rory Miller - July 14, 2005 12:00 AM

The news that last week's London attacks were carried out by suicide bombers has shocked many, but such operations have been a key weapon in the arsenal of both secular and religious terrorists for two decades.

Between 1980 and 2000, the year prior to the 9/11 attacks, an estimated 271 suicide bombings were carried out worldwide. The first of these were carried out by Lebanese Hezbollah (the Party of God), the radical shi'ite group established in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It is estimated that in the ensuing decade Hezbollah and other Lebanese Islamist groups carried out more than 30 suicide attacks in Lebanon. The deadliest of these occurred in October 1983 when volunteers drove an explosive-laden truck into the headquarters of the US Marines in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen. This operation resulted in more casualties than the US suffered in any single action over the course of the Vietnam war. Indeed, until the August 1998 al-Qaeda suicide bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar as-Salaam, Tanzania, which left 224 dead and 4,500 injured , the 1983 attack in Beirut was the biggest suicide attack in history.

Not surprisingly, the Beirut bombing has gone down as something of a great day among Islamist extremists. In 2004 the Tehran-based Headquarters for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement unveiled a six-foot stone column to commemorate this important date in the struggle "against global blasphemy".

However, secular groups espousing Marxist and Arab nationalist objectives soon followed the Islamist precedent and also carried out a number of suicide attacks in Lebanon during the 1980s. A similar pattern can been seen in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Between 1993 and March 2000 Hamas (the Arabic acronym of the Islamic Resistance Movement) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad carried out more than 40 suicide attacks. However, following the beginning of the Al Aqsa intifada in September 2000 secular Palestinian groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Martyrs of Al-Aksa Brigades, which is affiliated to the mainstream Fatah movement, also carried out a significant number of such attacks.

The Kurdish PKK, a Marxist separatist group fighting for national and cultural rights in southeast Turkey, also carried out dozens of suicide attacks that killed scores and wounded dozens between 1996 and 1999. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), a Sri Lankan separatist group fighting for the independence of the Tamil minority against the Sinhalese majority, has carried out more than 200 suicide operations since adopting this tactic in 1987. Not only have the Tamil Tigers undertaken more of these operations than any other group they have also consistently demonstrated a willingness to undertake suicide attacks on targets in densely populated areas without concern for civilian injuries--the group also holds the dubious distinction of being the only organization to succeed in assassinating two heads of state in suicide operations-the former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and the Sri Lankan premier Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.

Thus the widespread perception that suicide terrorism is solely the preserve of Islamists, undoubtedly heightened by reports emanating from London since the attacks, is not correct. Just as Islamists are willing to martyr themselves in the name of God and in expectation of eternal paradise, there have been plenty of others who have been willing to do the same either out of a commitment to their cause or because of brainwashing by charismatic leaders.

What makes suicide terrorism of the Islamist variety different from its secular counterpart is that this is almost a defining aspect of belief inseparable from other religious duties. A document found in a deserted al-Qaeda safe house during the Afghanistan war listed the attainment of martyrdom in the cause of God, along with the establishment of the rule of God on earth and the purification of the ranks of Islam from elements of depravity, as the primary objective of a true Muslim. During his interrogation, following his capture in 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a leading figure in the 9/11 plot, explained that the most important quality for any al-Qaeda operative was his willingness to martyr himself.

Thus, upon arriving in Afghanistan, new recruits would fill out a general questionnaire on their backgrounds, education, skills and other personal details before being asked whether they were prepared to carry out suicide missions. Those willing to undertake such operations were interviewed by senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Muhammad Atef (aka Abu Hafs al Masri).

Similarly court testimony from the trials of suspected al-Qaeda members in the US have shown that upon arriving in Afghanistan volunteers received several lectures on the theological justification for using suicide as a weapon. It is not for nothing that an al-Qaeda guesthouse in Peshawar, Pakistan where extremists could take refuge was known as the House of Martyrs.

It has been argued that 9/11 was a watershed in terms of the threat we face from terrorism because it shattered existing taboos over "what is permitted and what is forbidden in the realm of terrorism". This is no doubt true, given the scale of the suffering that was inflicted on that infamous day. But suicide terrorism existed long before 9/11. Rather that day marked another kind of watershed because it was the first experience that we in the West had of a major suicide attack on our own territory. Thus it brought home to us the stark reality, already part of daily life across parts of Asia and the Middle East, especially in Israel, that we also faced grave danger from "disposable terrorists" willing to die for their cause. The suicide bombings in London, the first of their type in Western Europe, confirm how right that fear was.

The author is a senior lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King's College, University of London. His most recent book Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2005 was published this year.


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