- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Understanding and Preventing Suicide Bombings

| Spring 2005

Belfer Fellows Instruct NATO on Suicide Attacks

In March, International Security Program research fellows Ersel Aydinli and Assaf Moghadam participated as co-instructors in a week-long pilot course on defense against suicide bombings. Organized by the Centre of Excellence- Defence Against Terrorism (CoE-DAT) in Ankara, Turkey, the seminar was one of the first projects of its kind. Its aim was to familiarize representatives of the military and police forces of over 35 NATO and Partnership for Peace (PfP) countries with the causes, nature, tactics, and possible responses to suicide attacks.

What motivates suicide bombers and what steps can be taken to prevent these attacks?

At a recent conference, we joined our colleagues from around the world, including the United States, Turkey, and Britain, to explore the causes of suicide bombings and motivations of suicide terrorists with the purpose of developing strategies to stem the phenomenon of such attacks. The prevailing sentiment was that motivations and capabilities of individuals and organizations must be tackled simultaneously to reduce the number of terrorist attacks.

Terrorism is primarily a power struggle. The strategy of terror must be seen as a tool for political ends-a means of redistributing political power between the "weak" and "strong." Suicide terrorism represents a huge leap for terrorists. It is the equivalent of a state going nuclear in its arms race with other states. Even religiously-motivated terrorists are not immune from the need to develop innovative methods of destroying their foe and, like all terrorists, must do so on a more "cost efficient" basis than nation-states. Failing to escalate risks the loss of prestige, public support, and, ultimately, defeat. For the traditional strong state power to build up a nuclear arsenal requires materials and laboratories. For the terrorist organization to arm its conventional warriors with the super weapon of suicide terror, religious incentives, or a concept of martyrdom provide the ideal software.

To reduce the incidence of suicide bombings, Western policies must acknowledge the heterogeneous nature of Islam, Islamism, and Jihadism, as well as the resulting internal war in the Islamic world over whose discourse is going to dominate. It is imperative that the West support the moderate segments of this heterogeneous body in order to marginalize the radical challenge.

A coordinated strategy to counter suicide terrorism must overcome several challenges, including national budgets, the competition of counter-terrorism with other national security interests, and the general preference for immediate results-by both the public and the government- over long-term prevention.

To contain suicide terrorism, several defensive and offensive elements must be utilized. In order to reduce the motivation for such attacks in the long term, the grievances that give rise to terrorism must be addressed at the same time. Law enforcement, mobilization of the public, domestic inter-service and international cooperation, and consequence management, among other steps, are critical elements of a national strategy to counter suicide terrorism that a government must utilize simultaneously. The role of intelligence is central, with the aim of preventing acts of suicide terrorism from occurring in the first place.


The campaign must also be accompanied by an effort to separate the communities that

support suicide bombings from the organizations that plan and execute them. To the extent that the problem is an Islamist phenomenon, moderate Islamic clerics must be convinced to issue religious edicts that forbid

suicide attacks, which indeed are unjustifiable in Islam. Most importantly perhaps, affected states must wage public information campaigns that identify the many contradictions of suicide attacks, including the reluctance of the leadership of terrorist organizations to sacrifice themselves or close family members in such a fashion. In addition, the hypocrisy of terrorist networks such as al Qaeda, which on the one hand accuses the West of hedonism, but on the other hand promises would-be-martyrs heavenly luxuries, must be exposed.

Further exploration into the causes of suicide terrorism is needed and will direct policymakers on the steps they must take to mitigate this threat. Our presentations at the March conference in Ankara to familiarize military and police officials with this phenomenon were a step toward improving international cooperation to prevent suicide attacks.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Understanding and Preventing Suicide Bombings.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Spring 2005).