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History of suicide bombings

Kumail Soomro

The writer is a media studies student with experience in journalism.

On May 21, 1991, Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi was campaigning in Tamil Nadu state where he was greeted and garlanded. In the town of Sriperumdur, a woman approached and bent down to touch his feet, detonating a RDX explosion-laden belt tucked under her dress. Gandhi and 14 other people were killed in the attack. The woman, Dhanu, was a member of Tamil Tigers who were waging a brutal insurgent movement in Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers, were notorious for using women and children in combat. It is known for popularizing the suicide vest as a weapon, now used by militant groups around the world. It is known to carry out 378 suicide attacks between 1978 and 2008 which include 104 carried now by women.

Suicide bombings have been used as a weapon of war since World War II. Around 4% of the attacks are suicide bombing but they are responsible for one-third deaths. It has been described as a weapon of psychological warfare, using in over 40 different countries and territories over the last 30 years, killing at least 50,000 people. It is now a weapon of choice for some of the most feared terrorist organizations.

Contrary to what we may assume from the current situation, suicide bombings were not always used by terrorist organizations. The first recorded suicide bomber was a Russian man named Ignaty Grinevitsky who killed Czar Alexander II with a bomb on March 13, 1881. The invention of dynamite had given revolutionary groups and more dangerous weapons.

During the Second World War, the Japanese military overwhelmed by fighting the Allied forces in the Pacific, formed the Tokkotai, a special attack unit, popularly known as the Kamikaze, consisting of planes loaded with bombs. The pilots were instructed to crash into naval targets. The Japanese militaristic culture forbade any form of surrender and volunteers were chosen randomly as a human bomb. In total around 3,860 suicide attacks were carried out by the Japanese before the end of the war.

There were no reported incident of suicide bombing until the 1980s despite the conflicts. The reticence to use suicide bombers may have due to proliferation of weapons during the Cold War.

The first large suicide bombing camping after the Second World War occurred in the 1980s during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The largest bombings happened on October 23, 1983, when a truck drove into a US Marine base carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives, killing 241 military personnel. Moments later, another bomber struck the operations building of French paratroopers and killed 58 others. The blasts were blamed on Hezbollah, a Shia militant group in Lebanon. Car bombing were already a regular occurrence and suicide bombings received widespread media attention. They were directed at military targets, though civilians were often collateral damage. The highly organized campaign was a breakthrough moment and popularized the tactic in other militant groups.

Around ten years later, Palestinian groups start using suicide bombers against Israeli targets. The first attacks occurred in April 1994, when eight people were killed in a car bomb attack on a bus in Israel. The attacks was claimed by Hamas. Over time, at least 742 civilians were killed and 4,899 were wounded by suicide bombings in Israel and Palestine. During the Second Intifada following the breakdown of Camp David peace negotiations, there was an upsurge in suicide bombings. Al-Aqsa Brigades, the military wing of Fatah, started using deploying female suicide bombing, making it a feature of Islamic militant groups.

Among the most famous groups of female suicide bombers were the ‘Black Widows’ – women who lost their husbands or brothers in Chechnya conflict. The Boko Haram, a terror group in Nigeria, also use female suicide bombers. Female suicide bombers can hide bombs more easily than men, concealing them under loose clothing. The bombers attract less suspicion than men and significant media interest.

In recent years, suicide bombings have the most high-profile weapon of terror groups. In 1998, Al-Qaeda launched twin suicide bombings on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223. Then came Sept 9/11 attacks when terrorists hijacked airlines and crashed them on World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon. The events drastically altered the world and overhauled US domestic security and foreign policy leading to military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. Al-Qaeda is responsible for three of the five most deadly suicide bombings ever carried out.

The most deadly country for suicide bombings over the last decade is Iraq. A study found that at least 1,003 suicide bombings caused 12,000 civilian casualties between 2004 and 2010. These were part of sectarian violence and the presence of US troops. These continued despite US withdrawal due to the rise of ISIS which used them as part of their terror efforts.

In Afghanistan, suicide bombings played no role during Soviet invasion in 1980s but were used during the Taliban insurgency post 2001. Many were carried by young men trained at maassahs. Pakistan is also highly impacted by suicide bombers, where security forces and minority groups are the main targets.

On April 26, 2022, a female suicide bomber blew up a minivan outside a Chinese language centre at the University of Karachi, killing herself and three Chinese teachers. The 30-year-old woman was named as Shari Baloch, a mother of two, and an activist of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army. This was the first time that proscribed outfit used a female suicide bomber as part of the insurgent movement. The blast will mark in new chapter how Baloch insurgents will use suicide bombings as a weapon of choice in their conflict with the Pakistani state.

In the past four decades, the main victims of suicide bombings are Muslims. Most of the 21 countries hit are Muslim-majority and many ultra-conservative groups justify it for the sake of Islam. In 2018, over 1,800 clerics in Pakistan issued a fatwa declaring suicide attacks as ‘haram’ or forbidden in Islam. Western countries have overhauled security, tightened borders and deployed massive resources. Despite being counter-productive, there is a risk that suicide bombings can be a weapon of war.  





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