BLOWING herself up at the Karachi University (KU) campus, the woman suicide attacker left behind many questions. Finding the answers requires reflection: is such an incident to be interpreted in isolation or understood from an ethnopolitical perspective? Why do human beings carry out suicide attacks? Why does a woman from a tribal society opt for this extreme option? Why do bombers accept an irrational decision as a rational one?
Suicide bombing is an effective weapon wielded by violent non-state actors. It generates a significantly larger number of casualties than other attacks. It is cost-effective, and attackers can be assigned to kill even well-protected, high-profile personalities. Suicide terrorism also enables attackers and groups to gain public attention. It helps terrorist groups prolong their survival.
Despite innovative weapons systems, it remains an attractive tactic for terrorist groups. Suicide bombers usually wear explosive vests, carry bags or drive explosive-laden vehicles. The use of ball bearings and nails in suicide vests increases their lethality. These ‘weapons’ generally require devices and material which can be found at home, making them low-cost compared to other, more sophisticated alternatives.
Suicide bombing also allows the attacker to detonate at a preferred time and location, thus offering more controlled options to kill than remote-controlled bombs. If a bomber detonates earlier than planned, that may inflict even more damage. Since suicide bombers enjoy a high degree of control over their targets and prefer to detonate in populated areas, this form of attack may primarily be termed an urban phenomenon.
Democracies are less likely to experience suicide bombings.
The goals for suicide bombers vary — from extracting concessions from a rival power, increasing fear among the general public and eroding public confidence, to undermining the state’s writ, establishing a homeland, or forcing foreign troops out of a territory.
Foreign occupation is often seen as a push factor for suicide bombing but the IRA, despite their perception of the British occupying Northern Ireland, did not adopt it. The Hezbollah in Lebanon, considered the pioneer of modern suicide bombing, began using the tactic in the 1980s. The resort to suicide bombing impacted the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as most attacks were perpetrated against civilians. Before 9/11, Palestinian groups conducted 114 attacks. Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers (LTTE) were responsible for 69 such attacks. But both had different targets: Palestinian groups targeted civilians, while LTTE preferred military targets. Technology enabled groups to learn from each other: the LTTE was considered the innovator of suicide vests.
Post 9/11, there was an increase in the lethality and frequency of suicide bombings, with groups including Al Qaeda and Hamas adopting them, attracting media attention. ‘Martyrdom operations’ became a component of Al Qaeda’s ideology. The US and its allies’ invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) fuelled the growing propensity for suicide bombing tactics. The desire for revenge against occupiers was an important factor. Religion, ethnicity and political marginalisation became other major push factors.
In more patriarchal societies, the employment of female suicide attackers proved of great advantage to militant groups. Due to societal stereotypes, female bombers became assets that could be used to stage tactical surprises. Women bombers could access places usually difficult for men to enter.
Generally, it is assumed that suicide attackers are less well-off and unmarried. However, it is difficult to establish a link between poverty and the decision to become a suicide bomber. Suicide bombers are usually from poor backgrounds; however, there have been instances where they’ve belonged to better-educated classes. For example, the woman bomber who attacked the Chinese at KU was a married university student from an educated family.
The link between the type of regime and suicide bombings can also be established. Non-democratic regimes are likely to experience more suicide attacks. Democracies are less likely to experience such trends, as established democracies focus and invest in counterterrorism (CT) measures, socioeconomic empowerment and political emancipation.
Proactive CT operations, intelligence sharing, more coordinated efforts of law enforcement agencies and target hardening may help reduce the threat of suicide bombings. Conflict-ridden societies should opt for a diagnostic approach, invest in communities, protect fundamental rights and desist from direct engagement in external conflicts. The real challenge in such societies is how to counter the extremists’ narrative that is in sectarian, religious and political layers, and how to identify and neutralise sympathisers and punish facilitators.
The writer is the author of Pakistan:In Between Extremism and Peace.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2022