We shall never know what Grinevitsky was thinking at the fatal moment, but we do know that by opposing Alexander he had already accepted that his life was no longer his own. The night before the attack he wrote: “It is my lot to die young, I shall not see our victory, I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumph, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do, and no one in the world can demand more of me.”

Over the next several decades numerous other Russian revolutionaries severely injured and in some cases killed themselves to attack their targets at close range. These suicidal and near-suicidal missions amounted to a tiny percentage of the overall terrorist violence against the Russian state, but they were among the most dramatic and memorable attacks.

They also anticipated the suicide bombing of the late twentieth century in two significant ways. First, the missions inevitably required the death of the attacker. In all of these cases, the bomb thrower died as a consequence of the mission, either during the course of the mission or through arrest and execution afterward.

The second important similarity is that the terrorists themselves became control elements rather than agents of violence. Their physical prowess and proficiency with weapons were irrelevant. Instead, what mattered was their ability to recognize the precise time and place to detonate their weapons for maximum effect.

From Russia to Japan: Suicide Bombing Becomes Organized

The organizational level characteristic of suicide bombing today never emerged in Imperial Russia. None of these groups developed managerial structures for recruiting, indoctrinating, and deploying more bombers or for exploiting the public spectacle of their suicide attacks. The decision to die, or at least to risk death, remained in the hands of the individual bomber rather than with the organization.

During World War II, the use of human guidance systems was coupled with a powerful, coercive organizational apparatus producing the most prolific suicide bombing complex yet seen, the Japanese Kamikaze.

The government of Imperial Japan launched more than 3,000 human bombs—known more properly as the Tokkotai, short for Tokubetsu Kogekitai (special attack units)—against American naval forces during the last year of World War II.

The Tokkotai were conceived in desperation. Japan’s navy was completely destroyed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, and the Japanese homeland was subject to increasingly brutal aerial bombardment. The Tokkotai were meant to have an impact on the battlefield, but more importantly, they were meant to send a message of fanaticism and determination to Japan’s foes in order to make the prospect of a full scale invasion of Japan more intimidating.

Cost efficiency characterized the Japanese effort. The government built stripped-down aircraft that were little more than flying bombs to convey the men to their targets. Regular pilots with formal training were deemed too valuable for such missions, so the government compelled young men from outside the military to participate as “pilots.” Many of these young men had no desire to die, but saw little alternative in the context of wartime Japan.

Some were perceptive enough to see that they were being used as disposable components of disposable weapons, not as soldiers in a war. The night before his mission, Uehara Ryoji wrote: “As Special Unit Pilots we turn into machines once we board our airplanes … We become a machine whose function is to manipulate the control-column.”

Tactically, the impact of the Tokkotai was insignificant. They simply were not a large enough or effective enough force to offset American naval superiority. They did, however, send a powerful psychological message of intimidation that has remained a hallmark of suicide bombing.

Suicide Bombing Comes to the Middle East

American military forces again received just such a chilling message on October 23, 1983. At 6:45 that morning a smiling young man driving a Mercedes truck crashed his vehicle into the operations building serving as a base for Marines deployed as peacekeepers to Lebanon.

A couple of seconds after the vehicle came to a stop, the driver detonated the tons of explosives inside, destroying himself and the building and killing 241 U.S. military personnel. Seconds later a second bomber struck French paratroopers stationed five miles north, destroying their operations building and killing 58.

These bombings, and several high-profile blasts before them, were the handiwork of Shiite militant groups sponsored by Iran, which would coalesce in the mid-1980s into Hezbollah (Party of God).

Like the Kamikaze, Shiite use of suicide bombers was motivated by desperation. Lebanon had been devastated by a multi-front civil war beginning in 1975. In 1982 Israel launched a full-scale invasion to destroy Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. The Shiites of south Lebanon, already reeling from civil war, were caught in the middle and desperate for a retaliatory weapon.

The government of revolutionary Iran organized and enabled systematic use of suicide bombing by Lebanon’s Shiites, just like the government of Imperial Japan had driven the Kamikaze. Iran’s leaders glorified the idea of self-sacrifice on the part of the community, legitimized suicide bombing more specifically, and provided expertise and explosives that made massive vehicular bombs a reality.

Hezbollah’s turn toward suicide bombing therefore did not just happen, nor was it purely the result of religious fanaticism. It was an organizationally mediated form of attack that drew on both desperation and fanaticism, using them to great effect.

The Spread of Suicide Bombing

The media spectacle of Hezbollah’s suicide bombing quickly inspired other groups in Lebanon, including Christian and secular militant groups, to try it as well. The number of attacks grew rapidly in the mid 1980s before declining near the end of the decade.

In 1993, Palestinian groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad began using suicide bombers against Israeli targets in an effort to derail the Oslo-Cairo peace process, then taking place between the Israeli government and the PLO. Hezbollah trained many of the radicals in how to use suicide attacks from late 1992 to early 1993.

This use of suicide bombing was relatively controlled, with a few attacks during any given year, interspersed with relatively long periods of cessation.

In 2001, when the peace process collapsed entirely, a massive intensification of Israeli-Palestinian violence ensued in which Palestinian militants, now including members of Arafat’s own Fatah, used suicide bombings in a completely uncontrolled and indiscriminate manner, launching hundreds of attacks against Israeli targets.

Thousands of miles away, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a guerilla movement in Sri Lanka, began its own use of suicide bombings in the late 1980s.

The LTTE was a nationalist group with a vaguely left-wing agenda. Its objective was the creation of a state for the Tamil people in the northern and eastern portions of the Island of Sri Lanka. The LTTE was disciplined and centralized. Its leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, exercised extraordinary control over the group’s rank and file.

Members of the group pledged loyalty first to Prabhakaran personally and only secondarily to the cause of Tamil statehood. Thanks to Prabhakaran’s cruelty and absolutism the LTTE used suicide bombers more often and more effectively than any other group in the 1990s, earning them the epithet “masters of suicide bombing.”

The example of the LTTE demonstrates that suicide bombing and religious fanaticism need not go hand in hand. Suicide bombing requires individuals ready to fight and die for a cause, secular or religious, but more importantly it requires an organization ready and willing to use these people’s lives without reservation.

The centrality of organizational leadership for suicide bombing was driven home by the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. During the last stages of the fighting Prabhakaran was killed. He left no successor; indeed, he was probably too paranoid to trust a subordinate with such status. Consequently his death destroyed the discipline that held the group together and made suicide bombing possible.

The use of suicide bombers simply stopped with the destruction of the LTTE and has not been resumed in the nearly four years since.

Culture and Society: The Last Leg of the Tripod

The end of Tamil suicide bombing in the aftermath of the LTTE demonstrates one last factor that is necessary for suicide bombing to become a firmly established phenomenon rather than the product of one particular organization’s agenda. This factor is a culture and society that is willing to embrace suicide bombers as heroes, to support the organizations that deploy them, and to give up its sons and daughters for suicide missions.

Social support cannot be taken for granted and is therefore one of the strongest constraints on the organizational use of suicide bombers. When the members of a society feel threatened, for example, they are more willing to support desperate measures. But absent this pressure—or when the use of suicide bombers yields no appreciable political or social benefits—their support wanes.

For example, the indiscriminate use of suicide bombers by Palestinian radicals in the early 2000s brought no tangible political benefits. Quite the opposite: by 2003, Israeli officials were intercepting the overwhelming majority of bombers before they could complete their missions, making a long stay in an Israeli jail rather than “martyrdom” the most likely outcome for prospective bombers.

Accordingly, Palestinian groups effectively stopped using suicide bombers after 2006. In this case, the organizations, leaders, and prospective bombers remained, but what changed was social willingness to pay the human and political prices of suicide bombing when it was becoming increasingly ineffective.

The Future of Suicide Bombing

This brings us back to the suicide bombing by the radicals of Osama bin Laden’s global jihadi network. In the new millennium radicals from this movement brought suicide bombing with them to new areas of conflict around the world, resulting in the exponential increase in suicide bombing noted at the beginning of this article.

At the same time, the radicals have remained outsiders in all of these societies. They have provoked and intensified conflict without regard to the costs and in so doing have alienated themselves from the populations that are necessary for global jihadism to become a political force rather than a bloody, nihilistic menace.

Accordingly, after more than a decade of suicide missions the elusive goal of suicide bombing’s most enthusiastic users—restoration of Islamic governance in the form of a new Caliphate unifying the world’s Muslims—is no closer.

Instead of marking progress toward the goal, the hundreds of attacks the movement has mustered have tended to serve shorter-term goals such as publicizing the movement, giving it a claim for defending the Islamic community, and gaining recruits. This emphasis on short-term rather than long-term goals has cut the jihadis off from nearly all sources of social support.

The jihadis, therefore, have only two of the three mutually reinforcing relationships necessary to make suicide bombing work both tactically and politically. They have the leadership and radical ideology necessary for suicide bombing but are only weakly connected to their communities, limiting their political impact. Jihadi over-use of suicide bombing has thus become an incomplete form of attack, more like sequential mass suicide than the use of self-sacrifice for an achievable political goal.

This complex phenomenon is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Groups such as Palestinian Islamists or Hezbollah certainly are capable of resuming use of suicide bombers if conditions should lead their communities to favor such attacks. Global jihadis will continue to use suicide bombing for its tactical benefits regardless of whether or not it helps them politically.

However, by seeing suicide bombing as the product of multiple factors we can better understand why it has ended in particular areas in the past and develop strategies that are likely to minimize its use in the future.

At the very least, by understanding it as an organizational phenomenon in which the human propensity for self-sacrifice on behalf of others has been reduced from a noble character to a tool, we can strip away the mystery that still seems to make suicide bombing inexplicable and intimidating, and begin undoing the psychological damage of the 9/11 attacks.


Read more about the history of suicide bombing in the author’s book: The Business of Martyrdom: A History of Suicide Bombing and visit the author’s website businessofmartyrdom.osu.edu.