What is a suicide attack—or “Istishad (Martyrdom), as its proponents call it? A suicide attack is an operational method in which the very act of the attack is dependent upon the death of the perpetrator. The terrorist is fully aware that if he does not kill himself, the planned attack will not be implemented. Unlike other wartime activities, which involve great risk to soldiers in the combat, the perpetrator of a suicide attacks knows that if he does not kill himself during the attack – nothing happens. This of course requires a different state of mind from the point of view of the attacker. Unlike the Japanese Kamikaze, who had no way of returning back from their suicidal mission (due to lack of fuel in their planes), the suicide attacker who is not determined, prepared, indoctrinated, or threatened (with concrete risk to his family), could change his mind at the last minute and save his life by refraining from executing the attack.
The attack is carried out by activating explosives worn or carried by the terrorist in the form of a portable explosive charge, or planted in a vehicle he is driving.
Was the suicide attack in Iraq an act of terrorism? Not necessarily. The perpetrator was not a member of a terrorist organization. Nor was he acting on personal initiative, without any backup and support. In fact, the Iraqis confirmed that the perpetrator, Ali Nuamni, was a soldier in their army. Because the perpetrator was disguised as a civilian this act is in contradiction to the laws of war and international conventions. Thus, the attack in Iraq should be defined as a war crime and not necessarily as terrorism.
Suicide attacks constitute an additional stage in escalation with the clear intention of causing the maximum number of casualties and damage—even more importantly—of striking a blow to the morale or its civilian backers.
Suicide attacks are attractive to terrorist organizations—and as seen by the attack in Iraq, to states as well—as they offer them a variety of advantages:
* Suicide attacks result in many casualties and cause extensive damage.
Although a suicide attack is a very primitive and simple attack, the use of suicide tactics guarantees that the attack will be carried out at the most appropriate time and place with regard to the circumstances at the target location. This guarantees the maximum number of casualties. In this regard the suicide bomber is no more than a sophisticated bomb—a carrier that brings the explosive device to the right location and detonates it at the right time.
In a suicide attack, as soon as the terrorist has set off on his mission his success is virtually guaranteed. It is extremely difficult to counter suicide attacks once the terrorist is on his way to the target; even if the security forces do succeed in stopping him before he reaches the intended target, he can still activate the charge and cause damage. (Thus the need for accurate intelligence concerning the plans of the terrorist organizations is crucial, and the use of preliminary offensive measures such as targeted killings of the perpetrators, their commanders, trainers, etc).
Planning and executing the escape route after any attack is usually one of the most complicated and problematic stages. Suicide attacks require no escape plan.
Since the perpetrator is killed during the course of the suicide attack, there is no fear of him being caught afterwards, being interrogated by the security forces and passing on information liable to endanger other activists.
* Suicide attacks attract wide media coverage. A suicide attack is a newsworthy event for the media as it indicates a display of great determination and inclination for self-sacrifice on the part of the perpetrator.
Saddam would like to complicate the American campaign as much as he can, causing as many casualties as possible, delaying their progress, creating fear within their army units. He also would like to force them to retaliate against the Iraqi civilian population, who from now on must be regarded as possible enemy attackers, even when they allegedly come to asking for help, or offering to surrender. The use of suicide attacks serve all these goals simultaneously. These attacks can be made even more lethal in the future, should the perpetrators arm themselves with non-conventional capabilities. It’s also possible that the Iraqis will start using such methods against American and Western interests and civilian targets around the world; or they may provoke others to do so.
In summary, the latest “fashion” in terrorism in the Middle East and other countries worldwide—the suicide attack—has now found expression in the Iraq campaign. Countering this phenomenon requires thorough understanding and the adoption of new regulations that will safeguard the lives of American and British soldiers in Iraq, and yet will avoid playing into the hands of Saddam by causing damage and casualties to an innocent Iraqi civilian population. In contending with this phenomenon one should bear in mind that the suicide attack is not the act of a lone lunatic or desperate terrorist who decides to attack as an act of revenge. Rather it is a well-planned operation, which demands extensive preparations, planning, and the involvement of a number of activists.
Therefore, countering suicide attacks requires a combination of factors: effective intelligence, proactive offensive operations, unique defensive measures and regulations, special training for identifying and neutralizing suicide attackers, and psychological instruction for soldiers who might face a suicide attack in order to “immunize” them from the psychological effects of this attack. And all of this must be done under the added constraint of not allowing Saddam to capitalize on the propaganda gains entailed by any perceived attack upon the civilian population. The difficulties involved show why the suicide attack has become the favorite method of terrorism in a region acutely conscious of the role of the media in regional conflicts.