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The anatomy of a suicide bomber

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 25 July 2005

The London terrorist attacks were conducted by suicide terrorists. This has become the most deadly form of terrorism. Suicide attacks amount to just three per cent of all terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2003 but they account for 48 per cent of all terrorist fatalities. The average suicide terrorist attack is 12 times more deadly than other forms of terrorism (even if the immense losses of September 11 are still excluded).

An excellent examination of this form of terrorism has just been published in Australia. It is by the American political scientist Robert Pape at the University of Chicago. His book is called Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. It is one of the best books I have read on terrorism.

He calculates that between 1980 and 2003, there were 315 suicide bombings worldwide. Most of those attacks were directed at democratic countries. There are almost 200 countries in the world and yet almost all the attacks have taken place in - or against - a handful of countries: Australia, Britain, United States, France, India, Indonesia, Israel, Sri Lanka, Spain and Turkey. (Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iraq has also been a target of attacks.)


The common factor is that of forcing a democratic country to change its policy. Suicide bombing is a tactic of groups fighting for national liberation of some sort. They see themselves fighting an invader or occupier (such as the US and its allies).

Islamic fundamentalism is not the common factor. The largest number of suicide attacks has been done by the Tamil Tigers, a communist movement, in Sri Lanka, members of which are drawn from Hindu families. Of the 315 attacks, 76 were carried out by the Tamil Tigers. They are fighting for the independence of northern Sri Lanka from the majority Buddhist Singhalese.

Religion could be a motivating force in some cases to underpin morale. But the key aspect is the political agenda - rebelling against foreign occupation.

Modern suicide terrorist groups share a number of features. In general they are weaker than their opponents. Their political goals, if not their tactics, are broadly supported by a distinct national community. The militants have a close bond of loyalty to comrades and a devotion to their leader. They have a system of initiation and rituals signifying an individual’s level of commitment to the community.

Suicide terrorists are not necessarily poor, desperate unemployed people with no hope for the future. On the contrary, they are often well-educated people from affluent families. All of the terrorists involved with September 11 were well-educated men from wealthy families, mostly from oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

Nor are suicidal terrorists psychologically disturbed young men. They seem quite well adjusted. Some of the most effective terrorists are women.


The modern use of suicide attacks began in the early 1980s, with the Islamic Hezbollah group in Lebanon. The largest loss of American military personnel in history - in percentage terms - took place on October 23, 1983, when a suicide terrorist drove a truckload of explosives into the US Marines compound in Beirut: 241 soldiers were killed (about 10 per cent of the force). There was a near-simultaneous attack on the French base, which killed 58 French troops.

The US and France immediately quit Lebanon. The success of the suicide attack was an inspiration around the globe to others to use this technique.

Suicide attacks are used because they can be effective. They are not always successful but they do have an impressive record. They also helped force Israel out of southern Lebanon in 1985, and they have helped force Israel out of the Gaza Strip (the withdrawal is currently underway).

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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