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Suicide bombing

Suicide bombing is a form of terrorism, belonging to the tactics of asymmetric warfare, where a person willingly delivers and detonates an explosive charge in such a way that it results in their own death and (if it works) that of a number of their enemies. It can be either a military tactic, a political one, or a mixture of the two.

As a political tactic, suicide bombings send a message of impassioned opposition to enemy forces (that the bomber is willing to die for his cause) and a message of desperation to third parties (that the bomber feels the justice of the cause so strongly that he would rather die than submit). When used against civilian targets, suicide bombing often causes fear in the target population greater than that caused by other forms of terrorism, as the fact that the bomber intends to die makes deterrence impossible. Some economists suggest that this tactic goes beyond symbolism and is actually a response to commodified or controlled or devalued lives, and consider family prestige and financial compensation from the community to compensate for their own life.

In common with other acts of asymmetric warfare, it is almost always a response by members of a group with little power to actions by a group with great power. Groups which have significant power have no need to resort to suicide bombing to achieve their aims: in consequence suicide bombing is overwhelmingly used by guerrilla and irregular fighting forces. Among many such groups, there are religious overtones: bombers and their supporters believe that their sacrifice will be rewarded in an afterlife. Suicide bombers often believe, rightly or wrongly, that their actions are justified because they are aimed at fighting a great injustice.


Homicide bombing is a political neologism, initially appearing in late 2001 to early 2002, that was coined to de-emphasize the self-sacrificial connotations of suicide bombing and suggest a criminal connotation. This term is favored by the Bush administration and some news organizations such as the Fox News Channel.

Proponents of this phrase believe that homicide is a more appropriate label than suicide, because suicide by definition refers to killing oneself, but the act referred to by suicide bombing is actually intended to kill many other people. This is an attempt to define the act as crime not acts of war or politics.

Critics contend that the phrase is tautologous because the bombing part of the phrase already conveys the homicidal nature of the action, whereas the adjective suicide is necessary to distinguish from bombing in which the bomber does not intend to be killed, because those willing to commit suicide are less susceptible to deterrence.

Martyrdom operation is a term coined in March 2003 by the Iraqi administration to refer to suicide attacks on invading troops during the 2003 Iraq war, and in particular their promise to retake the Baghdad airport.


The phenomenon first appeared in a large scale at the end of World War II with the Japanese kamikaze bombers. In these attacks, airplanes were outfitted with explosives that were set to detonate when the plane was flown into a target. Kamikaze strikes were a weapon of conventional (that is, not asymmetric) war used by the Empire of Japan chiefly against United States Navy aircraft carriers.

The Japanese also sent two-man midget submarines, essentially manned torpedoes, on suicide missions. After aiming the sub at their target, the two crew members were to embrace and shoot each other in the head.

Social support for such choices was strong, due in part to Japanese cultural history, in which seppuku, honorable suicide, was part of samurai duty.

Guerrilla groups that have employed suicide bombing include the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Tamil Tigers. Suicide bombing has been a particularly popular tactic amongst some Palestinian guerrilla groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Bombers affiliated with these groups often use so-called "suicide belts", explosive devices designed to be strapped to the body under clothing. The manufacture and shipping of these devices has been cited as a form of support for terrorism.

The September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack used large fully-fueled planes as enormous cruise missiles flown into buildings, killing the planes' hijackers, and causing over 2,500 casualties in the process -- making it the most destructive suicide bombing in history. It also had vast economic and political impact: for a cost of 20 attackers' lives and apparently under US$100,000, global markets registered a trillion-dollar drop within a week, and huge new expenditures for military and surveillance technology were "justified".


Suicide bombing usually brings a harsh reaction from enemy forces. As the suicide bomber himself (the bombers are almost always young men) can not be targetted, responses often target the community or organization he came from. In the West Bank the armed forces of Israel usually demolish homes which are claimed to be those of families whose children have volunteered for such missions.

It is sometimes claimed that suicide bombings, notably those of the Japanese kamikazes, the Palestinian bombers, and even the September 11, 2001 attacks, were military failures, and highly counter-productive to the perpetrators. In the case of the kamikazes, this is demonstrably untrue: although the kamikaze attacks could not stop the Allied advance, they inflicted more casualties and delayed the fall of Japan for much longer than was possible with the conventional methods available to the Empire. In the case of the September 11th attacks, the long-term effects remain to be seen, but in the short to medium term, the results were profound: since September 11th Western nations have diverted massive resources into unexpected areas and no citizen remains untouched.

The Palestinian suicide bombings, however, are more difficult to assess. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the steady continuous deployment of suicide bombers in 2000 following the collapse of the Camp David II summit between the PLO and Israel, caused Israel to mobilize its army in order to seal off Gaza and re-occupy the West Bank, placing it under complete military rule, with village-streets patrolled by tanks. In addition, the Israelis began a campaign of targeted assassinations to kill militant Palestinian leaders, even using jets and helicopters for this purpose. Most significantly, the suicide missions having killed hundreds and maimed thousands of Israelis is believed by most to have brought on a move to the political right and the rise of a hard-line government and policy headed by the militaristic general, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He has tightened the screws on the Palestinian community, making commerce, travel, schooling, and every-day life almost impossible for the Palestinians, with the average Palestinian suffering due to the choices of the suicide bombers. Social support for this activity remained strong, however, as of the calling of a truce at the end of June 2003.

This may be evidence of widespread acceptance of the economic or social purpose of the institution of suicide bombing, and the rejection of external judgements on those who sanction them. Too, the peace plan presently being discussed is in many ways superior from the Palestinians' point of view than that which existed prior to the 2000 renewal of conflict. So, suicide bombing may "work" as a military tactic, in that, it may cost fewer lives than any conventional war, and may achieve the same political objectives. It is likely to remain popular.

See also: terrorism, asymmetric warfare, assassination

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