Suicide Bombings in Operation Iraqi Freedom
Suicide Bombings in Operation Iraqi Freedom
Suicide bombing is the act of blowing oneself
up in order to kill (destroy) or injure (damage) a target. The target
may be military or civilian or both. Typically, the killing or physical
destruction of the target is less important than the terror generated
by undertaking the act. This ultimately makes suicide bombing a
"disruptive firepower" capability (based on Bond-Relationship
Targeting) utilized by opposing forces (OPFORs) which lack traditional
Suicide bombing can be defined as a "criminal-warfighting"
technique because it almost always falls within the "not crime
and not war overlap" of nonstate OPFOR operations. When conducted
by state forces, such as the Iraqi military, those forces violated
the rules of war by taking off their uniforms in an attempt to appear
as noncombatants (thus mimicking nonstate OPFORs) for stealth-masking
purposes. The Japanese use of Kamikaze aircraft in World War II
would be considered a legitimate use of military force against military
force, but that early-prototype form of suicide bombing has not
been used for almost 60 years.
Persistent suicide bombings in Operation Iraqi
Freedom (OIF)-pre-, trans- and postmajor combat operations-promote
the perception that this "criminal-warfighting" technique
will be used with increasing frequency against U.S. Army and allied
forces deployed for combat and humanitarian missions in and around
Islamic lands.2 This will require Army,
Marine and constabulary personnel to develop appropriate intelligence,
countermeasure and force protection capabilities to interdict, mitigate
and respond to what has become a threat against U.S. forces in the
global war against radical Islamic terrorism and insurgency.
To support this need, this essay will first
provide historical baseline information by discussing suicide operations
in the world's dominant military traditions. Second, it will place
suicide bombings in operational context and compare and contrast
groups that engage in suicide bombings. Third, it will provide a
chronology of suicide bombings that took place just prior to and
during the major combat phase of OIF. Fourth, it will cover suicide
bombings that occurred postmajor combat OIF up to 20 March 2004.
Finally, it will look at the future potential of suicide bombing
and provide information on emergent trends for indications and warning
Suicide Operations and Military Traditions
Suicide operations (bombings and attacks) fall
within three dominant philosophical military traditions: Western,
Oriental and Islamic. Each of these traditions holds varying views
on this offensive technique at both the individual and unit levels
of doctrinal employment.
At the individual level, the Western tradition
does not advocate suicide operations. Soldiers or pilots may, on
their own initiative and typically when mortally wounded, take as
many opposing soldiers with them as possible. In this instance,
the combatant has nothing to lose, as in the case of a dying U.S.
torpedo-bomber pilot ramming his aircraft into a Japanese warship
during World War II. In rare instances uninjured individuals heroically
sacrifice their lives against hopeless odds in defense of their
comrades; one example is the two Delta snipers in Mogadishu in 1993
choosing to come to the aid of a downed Black Hawk crew.3
At the unit level, desperation in war can result
in suicidal or near-suicidal operations. The holding action of King
Leonidas and his Spartan bodyguards at the Battle of Thermopylae
in 480 B.C. forms the basis of what at times can be considered a
"heroic" activity. More than a millennium and a half later
the battles of Verdun and The Somme in World War I were clearly
suicidal operations as the opposing forces repeatedly attempted
to break the trench stalemate with massed human wave attacks. In
the early days of the Korean War, the hasty blocking action provided
by Task Force Smith was also near-suicidal in nature but required
by dire circumstances.4
Still, within this tradition, soldiers do not
strap explosive vests to their bodies or purposefully ram cars or
trucks laden with explosives into buildings.5
For this reason, the suicide bombings taking place in Iraq are totally
alien to a Western military tradition, which in no way views such
action as heroic in nature.
Suicide operations within this tradition are
found sporadically across different cultures. References to Mongol
light cavalry "suicide troops" (mangudai) date back to
the 13th century. These troops were used as bait to charge the enemy
and then retreat, hoping the enemy would break ranks and pursue
them into a well-coordinated trap.6
However, Mongol suicide or near-suicide operational concepts did
not extend into the modern world as did those of the Japanese.
The Japanese military drew upon principles
of Bushido, "the way (do) of the warrior (bushi)." These
ideas were based on a fusion of Zen Buddhism and later Confucianism
and were described in such works as the Hagakure written in 1716
and Inazo Nitobe's Bushido: The Soul of Japan, translated into English
in 1900. This warrior code contained within it the provision for
ritual suicide (seppuku) and made death preferable to the dishonor
of being taken prisoner by enemy forces.7
This tradition resulted in the prevalence of suicide operations
as Japan went on the defensive during World War II. Examples were
suicide charges led by sword-wielding officers and the emergence
of Kamikaze ("divine wind") suicide bomber aircraft units,
midget submarine units and explosive motorboat units.8
Later, suicide bombings took place in the Vietnam
War. The Viet Cong utilized sappers (demolition commandos) who would
carry or wear satchel charges. These individuals would purposefully
blow themselves up to destroy U.S. and Republic of Vietnam equipment
Suicide bombings were also undertaken in Sri
Lanka and India by the special commando "Black Tiger"
units of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The Tamils are a unique group
because they possess a hybrid of Western and Oriental traditions
that "advocate a Tamil nationalism that is expressed by its
leaders in religious terms referring to the cult of martyrs."9
This group also is innovative, having copied Hezbollah suicide bombing
concept of operations (CONOPS) in 1987-years before non-Shi'ia Palestinian
terrorist groups used such methods. About 200 Tamil suicide bombings
occurred from 1987 to late 2001, resulting in this group's status
as preeminent users of the technique. Currently, this terrorist
group is in a state of "strategic pause" with regard to
suicide bombings but is capable of starting them up again at any
This tradition is of specific interest because
it is in this philosophical context that suicide bombings within
Iraq are being conducted. Raphael Israeli has written the best overview
of suicide bombing's Islamic philosophical origins. The conceptual
basis for the Shi'ia (Shi'ite) cult of martyrdom is a tradition
that originates with the legendary suffering of Hussein ibn Ali,
grandson of the prophet Muhammad. According to the Ashura story,
Hussein sacrificed himself for Allah when he and his followers were
annihilated by the army of Caliph Yazid at Karbalah in 680. The
idea of individual "selfless sacrifice" was used during
the Iran- Iraq War of the 1980s when units of Iranian children with
the "keys to Paradise" hanging on their necks cleared
Iraqi minefields with their bodies. These Shi'ia sacrifices were
immortalized with the blood-red colored water in the fountain dedicated
to martyrs in Tehran. 10
In 1982 the Iranian revolution under the Ayatollah
Khomeini was exported to Lebanon, where the Islamic Resistance,
a precursor of Hezbollah (Party of God), launched a series of suicide
attacks against U.S., French and Israeli targets. Thus, Hezbollah,
created in 1982 as a counter to the Israeli invasion, provided the
impetus for modern suicide operations. Hezbollah exploited the images
of the cult of Hussein to inculcate self-sacrifice and "martyrdom"
as an ideal for its fighters. This Shi'ia group, which utilizes
both terrorist and guerilla techniques, conducted its first large
suicide bombing in April 1983 against the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
That bombing was directly influenced by the first documented vehicular
suicide bombing (in December 1981) against the Iraqi embassy in
Lebanon. The 1981 bombing was conducted by the Shi'ia Amal group,
which had links with Hezbollah upon the latter's formation.
Suicide bombings remained solely a Shi'ia activity
for a decade until Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), a Sunni
terrorist group, conducted a suicide bombing within Israel in April
1993 against Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. This ideological
transference from Shi'ia to Sunni came about through two circumstances.
The first was Israel's exiling of more than 400 Islamic activists,
many of them Hamas members, to southern Lebanon in December 1992.
These activists were befriended by Hezbollah based on the simple
rationale that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." While
in exile the Hamas members were influenced by Hezbollah's suicide
bombing CONOPS and took these techniques back to the West Bank when
they were repatriated. The second event was the fatwas (religious
edicts) created by fundamentalist Sunni scholars to rationalize
how Shi'ia concepts of "selfless sacrifice" could fit
into Sunni thinking about martyrdom and the punishing of one's enemies.
Suicide bombings spread to other fundamentalist Sunni terrorist
groups and then to more secular and nationalistic terrorist organizations
such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The Brigades emerged in 2000
as an offshoot of Yassar Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO).
This migration of suicide bombings from the
religious to the secular set the stage for Saddam Hussein's attempts
to use this technique against allied invasion forces in OIF.11
It also explains why suicide bombings could be conducted by any
combination of former Iraqi Ba'ath party loyalists (to a limited
extent) and fundamentalist Shi'ia and Sunni terrorists now operating
From the perspective of individual and unit-level
doctrinal employment, radical Islamic elements advocated suicide
bombers at both levels. Suicide bombers look forward to death because,
as shuhada (singular shahid), or martyrs, they expect to be rewarded
by Allah in paradise while they and their families gain social status
within their societies. Economic benefits, such as monetary payments,
may also come to family members as an additional bonus for the completion
of a successful operation. For example, Saddam Hussein provided
cash payments of $25,000 to the families of Palestinian insurgents
killed in suicide attacks against Israeli targets during the Second
Intifada.12 Suicide operations range
in organizational sophistication as well. A single suicide bomber
may act individually against a target, two or three may coordinate
the bombings, or a larger number of suicide bombers may participate,
as exemplified by the 19 al Qaeda members who hijacked four U.S.
airliners on 11 September 2001, coordinating their activities as
part of a strike force against multiple targets.
Suicide Bombings in Operational and Strategic
As previously noted, suicide operations, which
are more inclusive than suicide bombings, have historically taken
place in all three dominant military traditions. However, only in
the Islamic tradition are suicide bombings currently employed. The
Tamil Tigers, representative of the mystical Western-Oriental tradition,
have not engaged in suicide bombings for the past few years.
As noted earlier, modern suicide bombings were
first operationally employed in the early 1980s in southern Lebanon
by the terrorist Amal and Hezbollah groups. The technique spread
to the Tamil Tigers in 1987 and to Hamas in 1993. Over the ensuing
decade, an increasing number of terrorist groups have engaged in
suicide bombings: Palestine Islamic Jihad in 1994, Kurdistan Workers
Party in 1996, al Qaeda in 1998, Chechens in 2000 and al-Aqsa Martyrs
Brigades in 2002.13 Since 1993 this
pattern, with the exception of the Kurdistan Workers Party, is derived
from radical Islamic groups netting together in a global insurgency
against the United States and her allies.
Major groups engaging in suicide bombings can
be analyzed by delivery modes (see table 1) and target set (see
table 2). The Tamil Tigers and al Qaeda top the list in suicide
bombing sophistication, followed by the Chechens and Hezbollah.
Less sophisticated groups are Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad and
al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, though they have engaged in a greater
number of suicide bombings than some of the other major groups.
The Kurdistan Workers Party is at the bottom of the sophistication
More sophisticated groups use larger and higher-order
explosive devices. They engage in simultaneous (multiple suicide
bombers or targets) or sequential attacks (secondary and tertiary
suicide bombers at the same target) and often combine the attack
with other weaponry. They have the ability to engage "hard"
rather than solely "soft" targets, partially as a result
of larger bombs and better explosives, and can draw upon more delivery
methods. Triggering methods (fuses, pull cords, cell phones) also
increase with sophistication, as does the lessened detection of
explosive devices by sensors (x-rays, metal detectors, dogs, soldiers).14
Operational advantages of suicide bombings
over normal terrorist bombings include the following:
• The device is precisely delivered to
the target. The suicide bomber functions as a "precision weapon"
taking the explosive device right to the target. This is a dimension
of a standoff attack in the sense that the terrorist is "invisible"
(stealth-masked) until the device is detonated, which helps overcome
the Western advantage of standoff targeting based on physical distance.
• Harder targets can be attacked. Targets
which cannot normally be attacked can now be reached. Heavily fortified
compounds with proper standoff distances will not be damaged by
normal terrorist bombings whereas suicide bombers can crash through
the front gate of a fortified compound and reach the desired target.
Such gate crashing has taken place repeatedly in vehicular suicide
• The device has no window of vulnerability.
The explosive device cannot be found and moved or rendered safe
prior to detonation.
• No planned egress is required. The
explosive charge simply has to be delivered to the target. Escape
routes and avoidance of capture afterward are not a consideration.
• No one is left alive to interrogate.
Because suicide bombers are not typically captured, operational
security (OPSEC) of the terrorist group is better maintained. The
Tamil Tigers use poison capsules as a fail-safe method in this regard.
Some of the Palestinian groups use a redundant, cell phone-activated
detonator that can be set off by calling the cell phone number in
case the bomber attempts to back out of his or her mission.
• No burden of wounded comrades exists.
Injured comrades create a logistical strain on a group.
• The "horror factor" increases
the psychological impact. Suicide bombers are blown to pieces with
their heads (as in the case of wearing a bomb vest) typically being
separated from their bodies. Individuals also eye one another with
suspicion in areas where suicide bombings frequently take place.
This can create higher levels of anxiety for U.S. troops when dealing
with locals. Everyone in a crowd now has to be scanned for bulky
clothing and unusual behavior.
• Blood-borne pathogens can be delivered.
Suicide bombers infected with hepatitis and HIV can create a "hazmat"
incident by spreading disease to targeted personnel. Bone fragments
and blood-covered bolts and nails may directly transmit pathogens
from the bomber to nearby victims. While this is less commonly used
and of questionable utility, some Palestinian terrorist groups have
used infected bombers.
Another strategic consideration: suicide bombings
create martyrs for the society from which the group recruits. As
more suicide bombers kill themselves and gain prestige and heavenly
rewards in the eyes of their society, the cycle of violence can
escalate into a "religious movement" among the faithful.
Already, Palestinian society is taking on characteristics of a death
cult with young children preferring to grow up to be suicide bombers
rather than engineers and doctors. Recruitment of new suicide bombers
is no longer difficult as the movement grows.
Radical Islamic networks, which include al
Qaeda, are engaging in a global insurgency against the West. Martyrdom
is one of the common bonds that hold this insurgency together, and
it is increasing in strength as more terrorist groups engage in
suicide bombings. The Roman Empire faced a similar strategic dilemma
with Christian martyrs. The radical Islamic link to martyrdom, now
more than 20 years long, must be broken before it becomes too fully
entrenched. Failure to do so has the potential to create a strategic
dilemma for the United States.
Suicide Bombings in Operation Iraqi Freedom
Suicide operations have become emblematic of
postmodern terrorism and war. As a tactic, human-, vehicle- and
vessel-borne suicide bombers are a continuing concern to military,
police and security forces. This concern extends to Iraq and has
been seen in all phases of operations in the Iraqi theater. The
account of "major combat" operations presented in David
Zucchino's Los Angeles Times Magazine article "The Thunder
Run" mentions suicide bombers during that phase of operations.15
"The Thunder Run" covers the prelude to the fall of Baghdad
from 4 April to 8 April 2003. In his account, Zucchino, embedded
with Task Force 4-64 of the 2d Brigade, 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized),
describes attempted suicide attacks against U.S. forces.
For example, while traversing Highway 8 toward
Baghdad on 5 April, a mechanized column encountered small arms and
rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire. Intermingled with Iraqi military
vehicles were "civilian" cars, taxis, buses and motorcycles.
Some Iraqi combatants wore military uniforms, some wore civilian
clothes, and others wore the black attire of the Fedayeen Saddam.
During this encounter, while Task Force 1-64, a battalion known
as Rogue, was taking heavy fire, "Two suicide vehicles packed
with explosives speed down the offramps"16
toward U.S. forces. These vehicles were destroyed before they could
complete their attack. Later in the article, Zucchino describes
suicide vehicles, including an orange-and-white taxi loaded with
explosives-intermingled with Fedayeen, Arab volunteers and Republican
Guards-attempting to ram a mechanized U.S. column.17
Such events would become increasingly familiar to U.S. and coalition
forces in Iraq as the conflict matured.
This section attempts to place these suicide
operations in context by describing them in the premajor combat
buildup, during major combat operations (transmajor combat) and
during the postmajor combat phase of Iraqi Freedom. In addition,
the postmajor combat phase is divided into two segments: pre- and
postcapture of Saddam Hussein. We also identified those attacks
occurring during Ramadan 2003. Our analysis is based exclusively
on open sources (known as open source intelligence, or OSINT). We
relied primarily upon media reporting from multiple sources, including
wire services, news websites and newspapers. Several chronologies
and databases also were consulted. In all cases, attempts were made
to deconflict varying reports and casualty figures. Not all sources
agreed upon details, but the major trend is consistent.18
For example, on 19 March 2004, one day before
the one-year anniversary of the end of major combat, the Associated
Press (AP) reported that at least 660 persons were killed in 24
suicide bombings over that year. The AP report started its tally
on 29 March 2003 and ended it on 18 March 2004, recounting 18 vehicular
and six human-borne bombings. The AP article noted that this frequency
was greater than the Israel-Palestinian toll over the past three
and one-half years.19 We recorded 49
entries for the same time period (some being potential incidents,
some attempts, other multiple strikes). Our results are provided
in appendix 1, "Chronology of Suicide Bombings in Operation
Iraqi Freedom." Capabilities of potential "suicide operations
sponsors" are provided in table 3. These capabilities are described
in the narrative below as well as in the specific entries in appendix
Overall, we identified a total of 54 entries.
Some of these accounted for multiple attacks during a single coordinated
assault. The 54 entries yielded total casualties of approximately
813 killed and 2,154 injured. Our numbers are approximations given
the discrepancies among reports. The figures include the suicide
bombers in the totals. When we divided by phase we found two events
during the premajor combat phase (five killed in one vehicle and
one humanborne assault), nine events during the transmajor combat
phase (17 killed, 33 injured in five vehicle and four human-borne
assaults) and 43 events during the postmajor combat phase (791 killed,
2,121 injured in 35 vehicle, eight human-borne and one unknown-mode
assaults). When we subdivided the postmajor combat phase into periods
taking place before and after the capture of Saddam Hussein, we
documented 18 events before capture (totaling 274 killed and 749
injured in 16 vehicular and two human-borne attacks) and 25 events
postcapture (517 killed, 1,372 injured in 18 vehicular attacks,
six human-borne and one unknown mode). We observed six events occurring
during the so-called "Ramadan Offensive" in 2003 which
yielded 102 deaths and 354 injured.
Our first entry occurred on 26 February 2003
during the buildup to the war. The combat phase started on 20 March
2003 with President Bush's announcement of the war's start, and
our first entry in this phase was recorded on 22 March 2003. We
begin the postmajor combat period on 2 May 2003-the date of President
Bush's announcement that major combat operations had ended. Our
last entry is on 18 March 2004 because our analysis ends on 20 March
2004, one year from the start of major combat. Suicide attacks have
continued, however, and we envision a follow-on analysis to document
The premajor combat phase includes entries
on 26 February 2003 and 13 March 2003. Both of these events involved
Ansar al-Islam attacking Kurdish interests. In addition to these
attacks, this time frame is notable for calls for suicide attacks
against U.S. and coalition forces should war begin as Islamists
started the buildup to suicide operations in Iraq. For example,
Iranian hard-liners, including Hosein Shariatmadari in a 21 January
2003 editorial in Kayhan, called for Palestinian suicide bombers
to target U.S. forces in the region.20
By 11 February, Iraqi officials also were threatening suicide operations
should the war commence, with Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan
asserting that Iraq would deploy thousands of suicide attackers.21
On 11 February, global jihadi Osama bin Laden
joined the information campaign with an audiotape aired on Qatar's
Al-Jazeera television network calling on Iraqis to carry out suicide
attacks against U.S. forces. This call was echoed on 23 February
by Afghani warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who urged Iraqis and Muslims
worldwide to carry out suicide attacks against the United States.
By 12 March, Saddam Hussein was calling for martyrdom-seeking Arabs
to join the struggle and conduct suicide bombings against the U.S.
military. Meanwhile, British naval leadership expressed concerns
about potential Iraqi suicide vessels, and reports of Iraqi suicide
training camps began to surface.
The declared war beginning 20 March 2003 initiated
the transmajor combat phase. The first attack in this phase also
occurred in Kurdistan and was directed against a Kurdish military
checkpoint at Khurmal. In addition to the suicide bomber, at least
three Kurds and an Australian news cameraman were killed. By 21
March Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad had joined the call to
employ suicide bombings, with the late Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi urging
Iraqis to prepare suicide belts and confront America with all possible
means, including martyrdom operations. In response, U.S. forces
were advised to strip prisoners of war to counter potential suicide
bombings.22 Additionally, Iranian naval
forces reportedly intercepted an explosive-laden Iraqi fast boat,
claiming that at least four additional suicide vessels had been
spotted.23 On 26 March, expatriate
Ansar leader Mullah Krekar told Dutch television that Ansar suicide
commandos would attack U.S. troops, a claim that had to be taken
seriously given the Ansar attacks in Kurdistan. Information began
to surface that foreign fighters, including Hezbollah in an expedition
organized by Hassan Nasrallah, were en route to join the war.24
The first successful attack against U.S. forces
occurred on 29 March in Najaf when four U.S. Soldiers were killed
in an Iraqi vehicle-borne suicide attack. Iraqi leaders claimed
this was the beginning of a "routine military policy,"
and the attacker, junior army officer Ali Hammadi al-Namani, was
posthumously awarded two medals by Saddam Hussein.25
In the immediate aftermath of this attack, information operations
supporting Iraqi and jihadi use of suicide operations increased.
These propaganda actions were supported by an "affinity"
attack in Netanya, Israel, on 30 March, injuring 49 Israelis in
what Islamic Jihad called "Palestine's gift to the heroic people
of Iraq."26 Other indicators of
foreign suicide bomber potentials also surfaced, including claims
that the al-Quds Brigades had deployed suicide operatives to Baghdad.
Islamic leaders, websites and newspapers across the Middle East
and elsewhere amplified the call to jihad and encouraged suicide
martyrs to defend Iraq.27
U.S. Marines found a cache of suicide vests
in a Baghdad school on 13 April 2003. The vests, lined with C4 plastic
explosive and containing ball bearings, were believed to have been
secreted by paramilitary fighters associated with the Fedayeen Saddam.
Additional vests and evidence of suicide training and recruitment
by Iraqis and foreign jihadis were also found during this period.
Suicide attacks during the transmajor combat
phase were limited in scope and sophistication. Most assaults were
directed against U.S. military convoys, columns or checkpoints.
While suicide attacks during major combat had little military significance,
they were an emerging force protection concern. Their inherent symbolic
component appears to have served as a precursor for suicide operations
in the insurgency that followed.
Suicide operations gained momentum during the
postmajor combat phase with at least 43 suicide events occurring
after the end of major combat. These yielded a higher level of casualties
and, in some cases, demonstrated increased sophistication in terms
of targeting and coordination. Attacks during this phase continued
to focus on U.S. military targets but added other targets of increasing
strategic importance. New targets included Italian Carabinieri,
the International Committee of the Red Cross, Iraqi police, Shi'ia
religious venues, political figures and diplomatic sites such as
the Jordanian and Turkish Embassies and United Nations (UN) facilities.
The first attack documented in this phase was
the 7 August truck bombing of the Jordanian Embassy. Coming after
a lull in operations, this appeared to signal the start of concerted
suicide bombings in support of an Iraqi insurgency. It was followed
by the 19 August attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Employing
a suicide-initiated vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED),
the truck-borne assault targeted the front of the headquarters located
in the former Canal Hotel. The UN attack killed 25 and injured 100
others; among those killed was the head of mission, UN Special Representative
Sergio Viera de Mello. This attack was clearly intended to erode
public and international support for the U.S. reconstruction of
Iraq, and a result of the attack was the severe curtailing of UN
operations. A second attack against the UN was initiated on 22 September
in what appeared to be a reinforcing action aimed at eroding coalition
The start of Ramadan resulted in the apparent
resurgence of anticoalition suicide attacks. Called a "Ramadan
Offensive" in the media, the time period of 26 October to 24
November 2003 accounted for six suicide events. Two of these were
of major symbolic and strategic importance: the 27 October attack
on the Red Cross offices, which was coordinated with attacks at
five Iraqi police stations (40 killed and more than 200 injured),
and the 12 November attack against the Italian Carabinieri base
in Nasiriya (31 killed and 80 injured). These attacks are believed
to be the work of jihadis with al Qaeda influence. They resulted
in the suspension of humanitarian operations by many nongovernmental
relief organizations and political discussions worldwide on the
presence of coalition forces. Attacks on Shi'ia religious leaders,
mosques and shrines also occurred in this period, fueling lack of
confidence in the coalition's reconstruction plans.
During this phase, suicide bombings were increasingly
used as a tool to stimulate insurgency. Sophistication also increased,
with larger bombs, the use of fuel tankers, the perfidious use of
ambulances and police cars, combination assaults employing twin
suicide operations, and suicide operations augmenting armed assaults.
During this phase foreign jihadi fighters apparently played a crucial
role. The premajor combat information operations seems to have resonated.
Some accounts suggest al Qaeda links, including the infusion of
Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Chechen members of bin Laden's International
Islamic Front (IFF), as well as Pakistanis, Saudis and Jordanians.28
As noted in a 14 December 2003 Los Angeles
Times account, insurgents demonstrated increasing sophistication
in terms of tactics, strategy and intelligence operations supporting
a multipronged insurgency. Suicide operations were central to this
mix: "A menacing wild card in the war is the corps of suicide
bombers, mostly believed to be foreign born jihadis, whom the insurgent
forces appear to be able to call on for precision attacks, such
as the bombings at the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad and
a strike at Italian military police headquarters in the southern
city of Nasiriyah."29
By 29 November media reports detailed al Qaeda
links to the Iraqi insurgency, noting that Iraq had become central
to its global insurgency efforts. European jihadis were being recruited
for Iraq, and the importance of Abu Musab Zarqawi's network, as
well as the role of a Zarqawi-Ansar alliance in the staging of suicide
operations against military, diplomatic and humanitarian targets
in Iraq, emerged.30 In early February
2004 Islamist leaders were proclaiming that martyrdom operations
were a religious obligation in Palestine and Iraq.31
By 29 February 2004, media reports suggested that the jihadi suicide
bombing imperative had "taken root in the ravaged landscape
of postwar Iraq."32 This phase
of operations is significant for the increased employment of suicide
attacks within an increasing insurgent operational tempo. The gains
in sophistication demonstrated in the attacks on the UN, Red Cross
and Carabinieri prior to Saddam's capture carried into the postcapture
period, with an increase in events, casualties and sophistication.
Suicide bombings had become firmly embedded in the Iraqi insurgent
Suicide bombings during OIF started with a
series of low-key, preconflict indicators. A couple of successful
bombings took place in Kurdistan and were followed by calls from
the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein to use martyrdom operations
to thwart U.S. intentions. These indicators gained steam as Islamist
leaders made Saddam's call their own to stimulate their vision of
an anti-United States and anti-Western global jihad while fueling
their own global insurgency. During major combat operations, a relatively
small number of tactically insignificant suicide attacks were directed
against U.S. military forces. These attacks did not forestall the
collapse of Saddam's regime or affect the outcome of combat operations.
These attacks-like any attack employing suicide
operations by irregular forces cloaked in civilian attire-were clear
violations of international law, specifically Article 37 of Protocol
1 to the Geneva Conventions of 1977.33
As such they constitute perfidy or "acts inviting the confidence
of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or
is accorded, protection under the rules of international law."
While the United States did not ratify the 1977 additional protocols,
customary prohibitions of such conduct still apply. In addition,
the targeting of civilians is clearly terrorism and constitutes
a war crime. International humanitarian law absolutely prohibits
intentional targeting of civilians (including police).
While traditional Islamic law explicitly proscribes
suicide and the targeting of innocent civilians, the jihadi movement,
exemplified by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and International Islamic
Front, Palestinian insurgents and "secular" groups such
as Fatah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, sidesteps these prohibitions.
These groups do so by referring to suicide bombers as martyrs and
interpreting their actions as a religious duty. The tactic of "extreme
revenge"34 has been transported
to Iraq and-perhaps in the future-elsewhere.
The suicide bombings in Iraq, particularly
their use against first U.S. troops, then their extension to UN,
Red Cross, police and civilian targets, demonstrated a new chapter
in the struggle against global terrorism and insurgency. Istishad,
or martyrdom operations, signal an escalation in conflict since
they seek maximum casualties and destruction. Suicide attacks are
low-cost precision means that yield a high symbolic return. At the
tactical level, suicide operations allow precision targeting through
manipulation of organic stealth: the bomber is masked until the
operation occurs, barring accurate tactical intelligence derived
from human sources within the combatant cell.
Because many suicide operations-at least among
sophisticated adversaries, as is the case in Israel and Palestine-involve
secondary or twin attacks, an awareness of secondary attack potentials
must be ingrained in all military and constabulary forces involved
in counterinsurgency, peacemaking, peacekeeping, stability and support
operations. Once the first bomb goes off, forces must always look
for the secondary or tertiary potentials. Tactical response should
include separating suspicious actors from crowds and massed forces.
This is a "police" type operation and, as such, requires
that increased training in constabulary operations and a higher
number of constabulary forces be integrated into future military
force structures. Because checkpoints are frequently targeted, solid
standoff distances at checkpoints and during intervention with suspicious
actors are key. Countering suicide attacks demands enhanced intelligence,
appropriate offensive military and constabulary operations, effective
defensive and force protection measures and a force structure tailored
to the counterinsurgency environment.
As seen in this short analysis, tactics, techniques
and procedures (TTPs) employed by suicide bombers evolve. The best
solution for dissecting evolving TTPs is through real-time intelligence
collection, assessment and dissemination. As soon as a suicide operation
occurs or an attempt is interdicted, the TTP needs to be documented
and an advisory on the equipment used and behavioral attributes
of the human bomber (i.e., actions before detonation) should be
disseminated to friendly forces immediately. This quick tactical
assessment must not be delayed because the OPFOR will evolve its
tactics to get on subsequent targets.
Suicide bombers in Iraq (or in any other theater,
for that matter) will conduct operations based upon local conditions
and capabilities. For example, vehicle-borne attacks frequently
rely upon high-speed approach to circumvent tactical security measures
while multiple attacks are designed to overwhelm operational-level
coordination and force allocation. TTPs used in Palestine and by
the LTTE in the Indian subcontinent provide good background information,
as do the events recounted here. However, the current and future
OPFOR will adapt its TTPs to local context, capabilities and countermeasures.
Strategically, suicide bombings erode the confidence
of the public in the affected region and the home audience of expeditionary
forces. In Iraq, attacks appear to have stimulated the insurgency
and undermined attempts to build a secure civil society. International
organizations, such as the UN, Red Cross and humanitarian entities,
become reluctant to operate in the contested theater, and that hinders
attempts to restore stability. The UN attack, for example, led to
the withdrawal of nearly all UN personnel from Iraq, retarding progress
toward transfer of sovereignty and political evolution.
Perhaps most important, the experience of suicide
bombings and their role in nurturing and sustaining a serious insurgency
provides key strategic lessons. Iraq, perhaps like much of the Arab
world with little historical tolerance for occupation (especially
by non- Muslims) in combination with the contemporary appeal of
radical jihad, finds itself in an incendiary political mixture that
provides Iraqi insurgents motivation, legitimacy and a global support
network. Adding to this the infusion of foreign jihadi fighters
and the influence of transnational organized crime makes paramount
the need for intelligence and law enforcement components in the
military counterinsurgency.35 The jihadi-criminal-insurgent
mix challenges civil governance and the rule of law. Military forces
cannot reconstruct civil society alone. The Iraqi experience demonstrates
the need for expanded constabulary forces and the integration of
military units, intelligence, police forces, planning and operations
in concert with (or supporting the formation of) civil authorities.
As the United States seeks stability in Iraq
and, potentially, in other states captured by radical Islamists,
such interaction is essential. Suicide bombings have continued in
Iraq beyond the time frame covered by this paper. As we write this
conclusion, additional attacks are taking place with regularity,
fueling insurgency and stimulating jihadi support. U.S. Soldiers
and Marines continue to find indicators of future suicide potentials,
including new caches of bomb belts and jihadi propaganda promoting
suicide tactics. We hope to capture those lessons learned as the
United States continues its struggle against extremists who use
the suicide of their warriors as the ultimate sign of their resolve
and rejection of global civil society built upon the rule of law.
1 See the bond-relationship
targeting [BRT] section of Robert J. Bunker, "Higher Dimensional
Warfighting." Military Review, Vol. 79, No. 5. September-October
1999, pp. 57-59.
2 Suicide bombings are
known by different terms based upon the orientation of the group
in question. Jihadi and other radical Islamic groups term these
bombings as "martyrdom operations" and those who blow
themselves up as a "martyr" (shahid). Many officers in
U.S. law enforcement commonly use the imprecise term "homicide
bombers." Some academics, such as Raphael Israeli, refer to
suicide bombers as "Islamikazes" (Islam + the suffix "-kazes"
derived from the Japanese term "Kamikazes"). For purposes
of simplicity we will use the dominant terms "suicide bombings"
and "suicide bombers."
3 Sergeant First Class
Randy Shughart and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon were posthumously
awarded the Medal of Honor. For more on their heroic actions, see
Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press,
4 Task Force Smith was
viewed by General Douglas MacArthur as an "arrogant display
of strength." It was initially thought that this ad hoc 540-man
force might fool the North Koreans into thinking a larger force
was present or even make them retreat when they found out they were
engaging American soldiers- neither occurrence took place. After
two valiant tactical engagements at the Battle of Osan on 5 July
1950, what was left of the small task force had to withdraw in the
face of advancing KPA (Korean People's Army) units. See Maurice
Matloff, ed., American Military History. Vol. 2: 1902-1996 (Conshohocken,
Pa.: Combined Books, 1996), p. 207.
5 Fringe behavior still
existed in this regard. Some members of the anarchist movement of
the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the terrorists of their
day) conducted suicide attacks. In 1892 Russian anarchist Alexander
Berkman tried to ignite an explosive capsule in his teeth while
being subdued by police in the botched assassination attempt of
industrialist Henry Clay Frick (Caleb Carr, The Lessons of Terror
[New York: Random House, 2002], p. 148). This means that even in
Western tradition terrorists have the potential to engage in suicide
attacks. In fact, early Christianity considered suicide for God
as lawful-"He who knows it is unlawful to kill himself may
never the less do so if he is ordered by God," wrote Bishop
Augustine in the 4th Century. See City of God, Book I, Sections
18-26. Summa Theologica 2-2, q. 64,5.
6 James Chambers, The
Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe (Edison, N.J.: Castle
Books, 2003), p. 63.
7 Robert J. Bunker,
"Bushido," in Stanley Sandler, ed., World War II in the
Pacific: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 2001), pp.
8 For an extensive list
of Japanese suicide units, see Richard O'Neill, Suicide Squads (Sydney:
Lansdowne Press, 1981).
9 Peter Schalk, "The
Revival of the Martyr Cults," Temenos, Vol. 33, 1997, p. 151.
10 Raphael Israeli,
"A Manual of Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism," Terrorism
and Political Violence, Vol. 14, No. 3, Winter 2002, pp. 23-40.
11 While suicide bombings
spread to the secular socialist Kurdistan Workers Party years prior
to Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, it was probably too early to
directly influence Iraqi thinking.
12 See "Iraq
continues paying Palestinian suicide bombers families," Iraqi
Kurdistan Dispatch, 20 June 2002, http://www.ikurd.info/news-20jun-p2.htm;
and "Saddam stokes war with suicide bomber cash," Sydney
Morning Herald, 26 March 2002, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/03/25/
13 These initial incident
dates are derived from open source information (OSINT).
14 More specific information
on tactics and techniques are outside the scope and venue of this
work. OSINT documents which can be referenced are The International
Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center,
Herzliya; Countering Suicide Terrorism, Anti-Defamation League of
B'nai, 2002; Human Rights Watch, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing
Attacks Against Israeli Civilians, New York, 2002, www.hrw.org/reports/2002/isrl-pa/.
U.S. military and law enforcement should see the unclassified but
restricted Technical Support Working Group, Suicide Bombing in World
Terrorism, 26 June 2003.
15 David Zucchino,
"The Thunder Run," Los Angeles Times Magazine, 7 December
2003, pp. 19-38.
17 Ibid. While Zucchino's
account chronicles several attempted suicide attacks against U.S.
forces on 5 and 7 April during the battle for Baghdad, our OSINT
chronology contains several others. Needless to say, media reporting
of the situation in Iraq is clouded by the "fog of war."
Undoubtedly, accounts of these attacks vary, some are not reported,
and details are often sketchy. All of these events should therefore
be viewed as representative rather than definitive.
18 Media reports surveyed
included the wire services Reuters, Agence France Press, Associated
Press and United Press International. Websites including BBC, CNN,
Fox News, Reuters Alertnet, "The Agonist" and the Royal
United Services Institute (RUSI) Iraq Information Portal. Print
media (including online versions) consulted included the New York
Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor,
Times of London, Asia Times, Times of India, Sydney Morning Herald
and Manchester Guardian. The Terrorism Research Center's premium
Content Terrorist attack database and Counter-OPFOR Program, NLECTC-West,
Suicide Bomber Webbase were also reviewed. We sought to use the
most recent and corrected reports when available; yet, ambiguity
19 Tarek al-Issam,
"Suicide attacks ravage Iraq," Associated Press, as carried
in the Toronto Star, 19 March 2004.
20 "Iran and
Threats to U.S. Forces in Middle East," Strategic Forecasting,
Inc. (Stratfor), January 2003, http://www.stratfor.com/coms2/page_home?referid=1290.
21 "Iraq Threatens
Suicide Attacks Against U.S. Troops," Reuters, 1 February 2003.
22 Oliver Poole, "PoWs
to be stripped in suicide bomb fears," The Telegraph (UK),
22 March 2003.
23 "Four Iraqi
suicide speedboats spotted, one intercepted," World Tribune.com,
27 March 2003, found at http://18.104.22.168/2003/me_terror_03_27.html;
and "Suicide boats 'major threat' to Australian ships,"
Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2003, found at http://www.smh.com.au/
of Hizbullah enroute to northern Iraq," The World Tribune (online),
28 March 2003.
Kills Four U.S. Troops, 3/30/03," PBS, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/
26 Jason Keyser, "Suicide
Bombing Injures 30 in Israel," The Washington Post, 30 March
27 Numerous reports
detail the extent of Islamist extremist support and recruitment
to engage in jihadi activity in Iraq. A representative account is
found in Philip Smucker and Dan Murphy, "A broad call for 'martyrs'
for Iraq," Christian Science Monitor, 1 April 2003.
28 B. Raman, "Jihadi
anger: After Italy, Australia?" Asia Times, 14 November 2003.
29 Patrick J. McDonnell
and John Hendren, "U.S. Officials and Iraqis Agree That Conflict
Will Get Worse," Los Angeles Times, 14 December 2003.
30 Sebastian Rotella,
"3 Terror Network Suspects Arrested," Los Angeles Times,
29 November 2003.
31 "New Muslim
Brotherhood Leader: Resistance in Iraq and Palestine is Legitimate;
America is Satan: Islam will Invade America and Europe," Middle
East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series-No.
655, 4 February 2004.
32 Patrick J. McDonnell
and Sebastian Rotella, "Making Bombers in Iraq," Los Angeles
Times, 29 February 2004.
33Text available online
34 See Avishai Margalit,
"The Suicide Bombers," The New York Review of Books, Vol.
50, No. 1, 16 January 2003, for a discussion of suicide operations
in Palestine and their motivation.
35 See Steven Metz,
"Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq," The Washington
Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter 2003-04), pp. 25-35 for an excellent
analysis of the current insurgency in Iraq and the need to develop
integrated security structures to address the insurgent, criminal,
This paper represents
the opinions of the author and should not be taken to represent
the views of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense,
the United States government, the Institute of Land Warfare, or
the Association of the United States Army or its members. (c) Copyright
2004 by The Association of the United States Army. All rights reserved.
Inquiries regarding this and future Land Warfare Papers should be
directed to: Director, ILW Programs, AUSA's Institute of Land Warfare,
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