The Human Use of Human Beings: A Brief History of Suicide Bombing

Editor's Note

Since the attack on the World Trade Center in on September 11, 2001 the world has grown accustomed to reports of "suicide bombers." They are often portrayed as deluded or crazed, and they hold an almost lurid fascination for their willingness to kill themselves while killing others. This month, historian Jeffrey William Lewis puts what many of us see as a recent phenomenon in a longer historical perspective. He argues that it is more useful to think about suicide bombers as a type of human military technology that is controlled by an organization rather than as a form of individual fanaticism.

On similar topics, readers should see The International Traffic in Arms; The U.S. and Iraq, U.S.-Iranian relations, coalition warfare in Iraq, U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, and what WikiLeaks tells us about American foreign relations.

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.

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.

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Suggested Reading

Arthur, W. Brian. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Barkun, Michael. “Appropriated Martyrs: The Branch Davidians and the Radical Right.” Terrorism and Political Violence 19 #1 (2007): 117-24.

Beyerchen, Alan. “Rational Means and Irrational Ends: Thoughts on the Technology of Racism in the Third Reich.” Central European History 30 #3 (1997): 386-402.

Blanford, Nicholas. Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. New York: Random House, 2011.

Bloom, Mia M. Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated by John A. Spaulding. New York: The Free Press, 1951.

Hafez, Mohammad M. Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007.

Merari, Ariel. Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Oxford, 2010.

Moghadam, Assaf. The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Pacey, Arnold. The Culture of Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.

Pedahzur, Ami. Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.