On February 1, 2013, a suicide bomber killed himself and a security guard at America’s embassy in Ankara, Turkey. This attack, carried out more than a decade after 9/11, reveals a great deal about the phenomenon we have come to know as suicide bombing.

First, a radical left-wing group with a vaguely Marxist agenda (The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party in Turkey) claimed responsibility, demonstrating that suicide bombing is not the exclusive domain of religious fanatics.

Second, the bomber detonated his explosives before he had the opportunity to enter the embassy complex. This shows that individual initiative and fallibility are important aspects of the organizational process of suicide bombing—a process that requires expertise and practice to be truly effective.

Finally, the attack confirms that suicide bombing will continue to be a dangerous security nuisance for the foreseeable future.

A decade after the attacks on the World Trade Center, suicide bombing remains frustratingly mysterious to most Americans. Horror at the devastation caused by such attacks and a lurid fascination with the mindset of suicide bombers have tended to keep most people at an intellectual distance, preventing a deeper understanding.

If we step back, however, and examine not only the mindset of the bombers, but the motivations of the organizations that deploy them and the cultures that approve of their violence, suicide bombing becomes understandable as a type of weapon. It is an alternative technology—the systematic mechanization of human beings—that confers upon militant groups many of the same capabilities of the sophisticated weapon systems of advanced states.

Suicide bombing finds its origins in nineteenth century Russia, and has been employed from Japan to the Middle East to Sri Lanka and elsewhere. To succeed, campaigns of suicide bombing need three factors: willing individuals, organizations to train and use them, and a society willing to accept such acts in the name of a greater good.

A Human-Centered Weapon System

The 9/11 attacks provide a useful case in point.

Suicide attacks had been used against American interests previously—for example the bombings of American embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Yet the 9/11 attacks came as a surprise since they completely re-wrote the rules of airliner hijacking. Until then, hijackings had been theatrical affairs in which the hijackers traded power over their hostages’ lives for political concessions.

The September 11 hijackings, however, were about the aircraft, not the people on board. The passengers, in fact, were a liability rather than an asset, as demonstrated by the brave resistance of the passengers on United Flight 93.

The goal of the hijackings was to reprogram the guidance systems of the airliners so they could be used as massive cruise missiles. To direct these missiles to their targets, the hijackers installed their own control systems—human pilots.

The September 11 attacks therefore had more in common with America’s arsenal of precision-guided munitions than with the history of aviation terrorism.

From such a perspective, the pilots of the four hijacked aircraft were not typical hijackers carrying out a common terrorist tactic. Instead, they were the control elements of a weapon system whose destruction was a necessary and anticipated consequence of a successful mission.

This system—aircraft, “muscle” hijackers, and pilots—was in turn used by other actors who were not even physically present—the al Qaeda leadership that planned and directed the mission. This basic relationship, in which human beings are used by other human beings, is the defining characteristic of suicide bombing.

Since the 9/11 attacks, a host of terrorist groups have used suicide bombers in increasingly innovative and destructive ways. The global number of suicide bombings peaked in 2007, but the use of this weapon has continued at a very high level, regularly wreaking havoc in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Mechanizing Humans

Suicide bombing integrates people with material devices to create a weapon both inexpensive and intelligent in the truest sense.

Throughout history, human beings have been used by other humans as components of economic and technological systems; indeed, Aristotle thought of human slaves as “living tools.”

Not only human physical labor, but also mental labor, can be exploited in technological systems. By the late 1800s people were used as data processors within extremely sophisticated computational systems. By the Second World War, human and machine elements were integrated into hybrid control systems in which both human and machine were engineered and modified to improve system performance.

One designer of such systems, an MIT engineer, wrote: “This whole point of view of course makes the human being … nothing more or less than a robot, which, as a matter of fact, is exactly what he is or should be.”

Suicide bombing therefore draws on a long history of the human use of human beings as the data processing centers in technological systems.

Between Martyrdom and Suicide: What is Suicide Bombing?

Because organizations increasingly sponsor and facilitate suicide bombings, it has become increasingly difficult to understand these events as self-sacrificial violence.

Suicide bombers’ communities and sponsoring organizations have understood them as martyrs in the traditional sense of the word—individuals who sacrifice their lives for a cause. Historically, however, martyrs have mostly suffered, rather than inflicted, harm. Since suicide bombing by its nature often inflicts grievous, indiscriminate damage, many analysts now believe that suicide bombing cannot be understood in terms of conventional martyrdom.

The term martyr is derived from the Greek martus which literally means witness. In the early Christian Church, the term was initially applied to the Apostles, signifying their personal witness to the public life and teachings of Christ.

Since such testimony was risky in the Roman Empire of the time, the term quickly evolved to incorporate elements of its current meaning—one who serves as witness at great personal risk to him- or herself. The word now defines the willing sacrifice of one’s life on behalf of a larger cause, such as faith or community.

Historically, the decision to die on behalf of others has been the right of the individual. But now, that decision has been at least partially appropriated by the organizations that train and deploy suicide bombers.

By guaranteeing that individual suicide bombers will be remembered as martyrs dying for their communities, organizations play on broad trends of altruism and self-sacrifice that can be found in nearly any community. This use of martyrdom imbues the role of suicide bomber with reverence and heroism, rendering it more attractive to recruits.

The organization thus gains a measure of control over the prospective bombers. Control of this kind should not be understood as “brain-washing,” but as a reciprocal process. Prospective bombers exchange the glories of martyrdom for the necessity of their own deaths while retaining a degree of individual initiative. Indeed, this combination of reliability and creativity is what makes suicide bombers so dangerous.

Since suicide bombing stems simultaneously from individual and organizational motivations, it is indeed different from most historical instances of martyrdom. But suicide bombers, often motivated by community or religious obligation, retain the traditional martyr’s willingness to die on behalf of others.

In this new, mechanized form of martyrdom, organizations participate in what would otherwise be an individual act, and in so doing make martyrdom predictable and usable.

Suicide bombers are not individual suicides, moreover, since suicide is lethal self-violence driven by personal rather than social motivations. Certainly some suicide attackers appear to have been motivated by despair, fatalism, and even self-aggrandizement, making their choice selfish, but many are motivated by social causes and most are probably driven by some combination of both.

Suicide bombers therefore do not fit easily into either category. Depending on individual motivations some may fall closer to the ideal of classical martyrdom, while some resemble individual suicide. Neither exactly martyrdom nor exactly suicide, suicide bombing is something different—the human manipulation of human self-sacrifice.

Origins of Suicide Bombing

It is tempting to look for the wellspring of suicide bombing in historical groups such as the Assassins (a group of radical Shiite Muslims active between the 11th and 13th centuries who were characterized by their willingness to die for their beliefs)—tempting, but inappropriate.

Such self-sacrificing zealotry is common in the history of armed conflict, but the use of human beings as guidance systems, rather than as fighters, is relatively novel. The first human bombs did not arrive on the scene until shortly after conventional bombs were first used by militant groups.

The invention of dynamite in the 1860s presented radical groups with a frightening new weapon nearly twenty times more powerful than gunpowder. Revolutionary and terrorist groups in Europe began using dynamite bombs but soon found that despite their power, technical challenges such as detonating dynamite in the right place at the right time were daunting, making failure more common than success.

Almost by accident, Russian terrorist Ignaty Grinevitsky found that one effective way to use a dynamite bomb was to couple it to a human trigger.

Grinevitsky was a member of the People’s Will, a terrorist organization committed to murdering Alexander II, leader of Imperial Russia. The People’s Will tried on numerous occasions to kill Alexander using dynamite bombs between 1879 and early 1881. All of these attempts failed, so by the time Grinevitsky was called upon to participate in a plot to kill Alexander, both he and the organization were desperate.

Grinevitsky and another bomber planned to ambush Alexander using small, hand-thrown bombs with a lethal area of about one meter in diameter. The first man threw his bomb from a short distance away, damaging Alexander’s carriage and forcing it to stop. He was immediately arrested.

Inexplicably, Alexander remained in the area, allowing Grinevitsky to get very close to him and throw the small bomb he had been carrying against the ground, causing it to detonate and kill both men.