Suicide Bombing: history’s least successful military tactic

A general view of the scene that shows rescue services near the covered bodies outside a restaurant following a shooting incident in Paris, France, November 13, 2015.   REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
A general view of the scene that shows rescue services near the covered bodies outside a restaurant following a shooting incident in Paris, France, November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs 
November 20, 2015

It is cold comfort, certainly, with the horrors of Paris and Beirut still fresh, but the terrorist tactics adopted by the Islamic State show clearly the group is heading down a path of political irrelevance and self-destruction.

The adoption by Islamic State (IS) of suicide attacks as its terrorist brand is a sure sign this is a doomed, nihilist group. Its destruction is only a matter of time.

Suicide attacks have been used throughout the history of warfare — and they have an unrivalled record of total failure. They have never worked either as a last-ditch defence or as an offensive tactic aimed at overwhelming the opponent.

In the midst of last week’s attacks in Paris there was a compelling picture of the stupidity and futility of suicide attacks. One of the would-be suicide bombers was foiled by security guards from getting into the Stade de France, packed for a soccer match between the national team and Germany. So the bomber wandered off about 500 meters down a dead-end street and blew himself up, killing or injuring no one else. What a lonely and pointless “martyrdom operation,” IS’s preferred description of suicide attacks.

Suicide attacks have always been pointless. In the 1980s Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka started using suicide bombers in an effort to force the Colombo government to give them independence. They failed utterly.

More recently, various Palestinian terror groups used suicide attacks – first with bombs and now knives – with the aim of conclusively demoralizing the state of Israel. That has not happened and there is no sign it will happen.

In September 2011, al-Qaida launched suicide attacks on New York and Washington with the purpose of terrorising the United States into abandoning its Arab allies. Osama bin Laden believed al-Qaida could take over Saudi Arabia with the U.S. out of the equation. His entire strategy was wrong.

IS is going down the same well-trodden and entirely misconceived route. It seems to think that its suicide attacks in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere will terrorize its opponents into abandoning their campaigns to drive IS out of the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.

Wrong yet again. Not only have France’s allies rallied around the Paris government as it steps up its efforts in the anti-IS campaign in Syria/Iraq, the threat of a widening terror campaign is creating an extraordinary alliance of necessity among the group’s enemies. The U.S., Russia and Iran are not about to make a formal pact to fight together against IS, but there is clearly a degree of co-ordination of their campaigns being managed.

The task for European, North American and other leaders of the anti-IS coalition is how to help facilitate the group’s self-immolation with as little collateral damage as possible.

French President Francois Hollande speaks at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, the day after a series of deadly attacks in the French capital, November 14, 2015.   REUTERS/Stephane de Sakutin/Pool
French President Francois Hollande speaks at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, the day after a series of deadly attacks in the French capital, November 14, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane de Sakutin/Pool

Sadly, the announcement by French President Francois Hollande, that in the wake of last weekend’s attacks on Paris his country is “at war” with IS, is the wrong strategy. It is an entirely understandable political response in the face of the Paris outrage, but it gives IS a stature and appeal among the world-wide reservoir of young, naïve and impressionable recruits on which it depends to survive.

It is the same mistake President George W. Bush made when he declared “war on terror” a few days after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. We are still dealing with the backlash of Bush’s ignorant stupidity. Indeed, the rise of IS in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars and its occupation of large tracts of territory in the border region is a direct result of Bush’s 2001 mistake.

If Hollande persuades France’s allies to re-commit to an outright “war” against IS, the long-term results will be just the same. It will give IS an appearance it does not deserve, of being a major enemy of the West, equal in stature and potency to its opponents. That is the most powerful recruiting poster IS can hope for.

A far more effective strategy would be to treat IS as the gang of thugs that it is. IS should be contained, constrained and constricted without fanfare. The campaign should be more a police and civilian security action than a military one. IS’s ability to draw recruits from the West via poisonous, jihadist Internet sites should be targeted ever more vigorously, as should the venom spread by radical Muslim mullahs, many of them financed from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

(One of the best arguments I know for investment in renewable and alternative energy sources is that it will empty Saudi and Gulf State coffers, and limit their ability to spread their murderous religious and political doctrines. It will also liberate Western governments from oil supply blackmail and allow them to deal with the Arab oil tsars with the contempt they deserve.)

And when IS does present a target, it should be destroyed methodically, quickly and conclusively. IS depends for its survival on seeming to have momentum; appearing to be an ever-victorious, ever-expanding movement. Without that image it will quickly shrink into irrelevance as the supply of brainwashable recruits dries up. This is what is happening to al-Qaida, which has atrophied as IS has grown.

No doubt a new brand of vermin will emerge as IS withers and dies. This destructive, wack-a-mole cycle will continue until the people of the Middle East stop continuously blaming other people for their misfortunes, recognize they are to a large extent the authors of their own anguish, and take their futures into their own hands.

And part of that self-assertion should be that suicide attacks never won anybody anything.

Military history has plenty of examples of what are described as suicide squads. But it is often difficult to make a clear distinction between those who went into battle with the clear intention of dying and those prepared to fight to the death through fanaticism or simple military discipline.

One of the most clear modern examples of an attack by a suicide squad was the 2008 attack on the Indian commercial centre of Mumbai by 10 Pakistani-trained jihadis. They killed 164 people in four days of roving murder and mayhem. Only one of the attackers, Adjmal Kasab, was captured. He was tried, convicted and hanged.

Last week’s attacks in Paris, using both the machinegunning of crowds and suicide bombs to spread death and terror, appears to owe much to the Mumbai example.

The first clearly distinct suicide bombing was on March 31, 1881, outside the Russian Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. After left wing assassins had failed to penetrate the armoured coach of Tsar Alexander II with their bombs, one of the attackers, Ignaty Grinevitsky, waited until the Tsar arrived at his destination and disembarked. Then Grinevitsky rushed up to the Tsar and detonated his bomb, killing both of them.

The most blatant military use of suicide bombers came towards the end of the Second World War. The Japanese deployed Tokkotai – Special Attack Units – more popularly known as Kamikaze, to try to halt the allied advance on Japan. These were simple, bomb-armed aircraft piloted by young men with minimal training. Their task was to crash their planes into oncoming American, British and other allied warships. The young pilots were ostensibly volunteers, but in a military culture that scorned and forbade any form of surrender, it was a moot point.

There were about 3,000 Kamikaze attacks on the advancing allies, including some in small boats converted into floating bombs. They sank about 50 allied ships, most effectively the 30 that were sunk by Kamikaze at the Battle of Okinawa.

These attacks had a distinct psychological effect on the allied soldiers and sailors, however. The Kamakaze created a strong mood of foreboding among the allies about the intensity of the defence that awaited them as they approached the Japanese heartland. It was, of course, to avoid what was shaping up to be a merciless bloodbath that the allies justified using the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to surrender.

Thus the argument can be made that the use of the Kamakaze led directly to the first and so far only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Since then, the use of suicide bombers has been almost exclusively by Islamic terrorists and mostly in Muslim countries, according to a study by the University of Chicago.

The first major modern use of a suicide bomb was on October 23, 1983, when militants linked to what is now Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group sustained by Iran, attacked two targets in Beirut. In the first attack a truck loaded with 2,000 pounds of explosive was driven into a U.S. Marine base, killing 241 soldiers. A few moments later another bomb truck crashed into a French paratroopers’ barracks, killing 58 people.

These attacks are among the very few where suicide bombings can be argued to have been strategically successful. As a result of the attacks, the Multinational Force withdrew from attempting to moderate the Lebanese civil war, with the result that Hezbollah was able to emerge as the dominant force within the country that it is today.

An irony is that with Iran’s backing, Hezbollah fighters are now deeply involved in Syria fighting IS. Now, Hezbollah are not allied with the U.S. in fighting IS, they just happen to be on the same battlefield with the same enemy. The IS suicide bomb attack on a Shia district of Beirut a few days before the Paris attacks had, of course, the similar intention of trying to terrorize Hezbollah to quit the Syria conflict.

Among the people in Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in 1983 were several members of the Tamil Tigers from northern Sri Lanka, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. He was much impressed by the effect of the suicide truck bombs, the withdrawal of international forces and the rising power of Hezbollah. The Tamil Tigers became the only non-Muslim terrorist group to extensively adopt suicide bombing in their drive for independence for their region of northern Sri Lanka. In July, 1987, the Tamil Tigers mimicked the Beirut attacks with the truck bombing of a Sri Lankan Army baracks in which 55 soldiers were killed.

Among the dubious achievements of the Tamil Tigers was the invention of the suicide belt, a vest with pockets into which explosives and detonation devices are packed. And while the Tamil Tigers became in the 1990s the world’s most successful terrorists, their forte, with the aid of their suicide belts, became the murder of prominent politicians. In 1993 they killed Sri Lankan Prime Minister Rangasinghe Premadasa and, even more spectacularly in May, 1991, the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during an election campaign. The Tigers used suicide bombers to kill another five Sri Lankan cabinet ministers during the 1990s.

But it was all to no end. Attempts at a negotiated settlement got nowhere, in large part because of the intransigence of Tigers’ leader Prabhakaran. In 2009 the Sri Lankan Army made a determined and concerted push into Tiger-controlled areas of northern Sri Lanka. The 30-year civil war ended with tens of thousands of Tamil Tigers, their families, and supporters, being slaughtered in their last stronghold in the jungles of the Jaffna Peninsular.

Palestinians from groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad began using suicide bombers in the 1990s, and purposefully targeting Israeli civilians. The aim was to demoralize Israelis and to make them feel uncertain and unsafe in their homes. The hope, of course, was that Israelis would either accede to Palestinian territorial demands or even give up on the idea of sustaining a Jewish homeland. “The Israelis will fall to their knees,” said the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, in 2001. “You can sense the fear in Israel already; they are worried about where and when the next attacks will come. Ultimately, Hamas will win.”

Well, not yet and probably never. After thousands of suicide bomb attacks and even more thousands of deaths and injuries, Israel is still going strong. It has adapted its security procedures as the efforts of the terrorists demand. As it has become more and more difficult for Hamas and the others to get suicide bombers into Israeli communities, they have gone low tech. The latest Hamas suicide killers are young men with knives. On Thursday five civilians were killed in Israel in knife attacks. So were the two killers.

A definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome every time. Well by that description, after over 20 years of using suicide killer attacks on Israel without any strategic effect, Hamas and the other jihadist Palestinian organization are clearly demented and deserve to be treated as such.

The same goes for IS too if it continues to look at the evidence of history and still believe using suicide squads to slaughter civilians in Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere is going to hasten the creation of an Islamic earthly paradise.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015


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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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