How Suicide Bombers Work

Residents of Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, walk past the slippers of those killed and injured in the Feb. 20, 2009, suicide bombing of a Shiite funeral procession.
­AP Photo/Ishtiaq Mehsud

­The Shiite funeral procession began like any other. Pakistani mourners carried the body of a slain Muslim cleric through the streets of Dera Ismail Khan. They grieved for another dead leader, another corpse bound for the grave -- a tale as old as civilization. Then another figure joined the procession, rushing to the very center of the crowd. The resulting blast ripped their solemn rite to bloody tatters.

Attacks such as this February 2009 incident have become a seemingly common occurrence in the world. Media images of the aftermath, for all the horror they evoke, are familiar: dead bodies in the street, scores of empty slippers among pools of creeping blood, traumatized survivors wailing at the sky or simply staring in silent shock. Thirty people died in the attack. Sixty more were injured [source: Mahshud].


­From a purely strategic standpoint, suicide bombings are chillingly logical. By concealing explosives on a willing carrier, a faction can smuggle death int­o densely populated areas or close to key targets. The precision of this delivery method surpasses even the most sophisticated missile guidance systems, allowing the will of a single individual to rival the technological arm of a superpower. How can anyone stop an adversary who has already forsaken everything for his or her cause?

Yet emotionally, the suicide bomber is often a hard pill to swallow. A man, woman or even a child gives up his or her life and, in doing so, drags down even more lives with them. Faced with such senseless carnage, we often write them off as brainwashed pawns and fanatical monsters.

­Despite all t­he misery and death they embody, suicide bombers are merely human and, far from being the product of a particular age or religion, their roots dive deep into the annals of history.

Dying for God

Artists often depict the martyred St. Bartholomew draped in his own flayed skin, bloodied yet unbowed.
Shane Gorski/Creative Commons License

To understand suicide bombers, you have to understand the idea of martyrdom. Martyrs traditionally forsake their lives for a principle or faith. By valuing an idea more than their own existence, they elevate their cause.

A martyr's demise serves as a rallying point for his living compatriots and as an affront to tormentors. Tyrants tend to wield torture and death as the ultimate punishment for disobedience, but how can they cow a people who would sooner die than submit? How can they strike down opposing leaders without transforming them into even more powerful martyrs?


The history books are ripe with examples of martyrdom: individuals broken by blade and fire, subjected to unspeakable torments and elevated to the status of legend. While there is no shortage of secular martyrs, religion adds an additional dimension to sacrifice.

In Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of the fiery furnace shows just what can happen when you inject God into a tale of martyrdom. Recounted in the Book of Daniel, the story tells of how King Nebuchadnezzar gave Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego a choice: renounce their Jewish faith or perish in a blazing fire. The three youths refused to yield and were cast into the furnace -- only to miraculously emerge unscathed. The message was simple: God protects those who would die in his name.

Most martyrs don't benefit from such divine intervention. Still, the idea soon emerged among the Jews that dying in the name of God would yield rewards in the afterlife [source: Barlow]. In the face of religious persecution from Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), beliefs changed to vindicate those butchered for their beliefs.

­The Seleucid emperor's brutality reached horrific proportions. Whole families chose to forfeit their lives rather than their faith. The story of the nine Maccabees serves as a prime example of this. A wife was forced to witness the brutal torture and execution of first her husband and then her seven sons. Both Book II Maccabees and IV Maccabees relate the fates of the Maccabeen martyrs, though the fourth book introduced a new element into the tale. When the torturers came to the last and youngest son, the child didn't just submit -- he leaped willfully into fire [source: Barlow].

Through martyrdom, the otherwise forbidden act of suicide attained a holy status.

Birth of the Warrior Martyr

Jihad and holy war clash during the First Crusade in this A.D. 1150 painted window.
Hulton Archive/­Getty Images

­The idea that it's better to die by your own hand than suffer at the hands of an enemy gained ground among the ancient Jews. Rather than surrender to Roman authorities in A.D. 64, a rebel group under Eleazar ben Yair slayed every last man, woman and child among them by the sword. Ten chosen men performed the bloody task, and then one man killed his fellow nine. The sole survivor committed suicide, leaving 960 corpses for the Romans in the fortress of Masada [source: Jewish Virtual Library].

Around the same time, Christians were also raising the ire of their Roman overlords. Empowered by the story of Jesus' martyrdom, thousands of followers refused to renounce their faith. Instead, they gave themselves up to execution. According to their beliefs, they achieved immortality in the afterlife for their sacrifice, and many live on today as legendary icons.


In both Judaism and Christianity, we see examples of laying down one's life rather than submitting to an enemy. In the stories of the nine Maccabees and the fall of Masada, suicide even emerges as a noble act. But what of killing in the name of God?

Just as Islam arose in the seventh century from the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, so too did it elaborate on the struggle faced by the faithful: jihad. The term has two connotations in Arabic: an inward struggle of the soul and a righteous battle in the physical world. While critics of Islam often overlook the former, the latter became an essential aspect of the faith early on.

Islamic belief holds that Muhammad received his first holy vision in A.D. 610. By 624, the prophet and his followers were already fighting for their lives. That year, they scored their first major military victory, defeating the powerful Qurayshi army of Mecca at the Battle of Badr.

In the ensuing years, the followers of Allah would carve a place for themselves out of the war-torn region. Not surprisingly, the Quran vindicated defense combat in the name of protecting the faithful, as well as retaliation: "And kill them whenever you find them, and drive them out from where they drove you out … and fight not with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, so if they fight you (in it), slay them" (Surrah 2:191).

"Such," the verse concludes, "is the recompense of the disbelievers."

Suicide Bomber History

A U.S. Marine stands guard as rescue workers search the rubble of the U.S. embassy in Beirut for bodies following the 1983 suicide attack.
AP Photo/Bill Foley

Jihad washed across the Middle East up until the eighth century. In 1095, European Christians launched their own version of sanctified warfare in the form of the Crusades, a military conquest of the Holy Lands. Jews, Christians and Muslims all developed a way to reverse death through concepts of afterlife and rebirth. To this day, there is little violence that can't be justified with the right holy scriptures.

Such faith, when combined with sufficient will, can prove an effective weapon for those who wield it. Yet there's only so much a willing warrior martyr can accomplish with a sword or dagger. Outside of traditional army service, this restricted the use of such holy warriors to the role of assassin. In fact, the term itself comes from the Persian word Hashishin, the name of a medieval radical Shiite sect. The work of the Hashishin, or Assassins, was the public murder of influential leaders -- true suicide missions.


The Assassins used their martyr tactics to pursue political ends, spreading terror and awe through the crowds who bore witness to their attacks. The sect was eventually wiped out by the invading Mongol hordes in 1257, but its legacy would continue centuries later.

The development of gunpowder made it possible for martyrs to yield even greater results. Japanese kamikaze pilots used suicide tactics during World War II. Inspired by dedication to their emperor and their traditional code of honor, they crashed explosive-laden planes directly into enemy ships.

­The first known modern suicide bombing attack occurred in Lebanon in 1981 during a civil war between Christian and Muslim militants [source: PBS]. A lone Shiite suicide bomber struck the Iraqi embassy in Beirut. The United States entered the conflict the following year, leading to accusations of Christian bias from Muslims in the region. In 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into the city's U.S. embassy, killing 63 people [source: Daragahi].

­Many historians point to these incidents a­s the birth of the modern suicide bomber. In the decades to follow, the world would see the rise of such tactics throughout the Middle East, India, ]Sri Lanka, Chechnya and the United States.


Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber

A mother of two from Gaza City makes a video statement for Hamas days before blowing herself up, killing four Israelis and wounding seven others.
Handout/Getty Images News/­Getty Images

­Both the glamorization of martyrdom and its establishment as a gateway to rewards in the afterlife are central factors in the suicide bomber equation. They create a mantle of power and glory, but not everyone is willing to wear it.

In the late 1990s, Israelis were eager to understand the psychology of militant Islamic extremists. They found that most of the suicide bombers they investigated were between the ages of 18 and 24 [source: MacFarquhar]. Perhaps you remember what it was like to be a young adult -- or experience it daily. There's often a sense of despondency in teens, as well as the feeling that the whole world rails against their aspirations or needs.


Combine these feelings with political tyranny or foreign occupation, and angry youths often have a very real reason to feel embattled. In troubled times they are already a step closer to accepting the role of the suicide bomber, but one additional factor can help spark it: personal loss. When Israeli psychiatrists sifted through the lives of suicide bombers, they invariably discovered connections to slain, wounded or imprisoned loved ones. The blame was always placed on Israel. In this, suicide bombing takes on the added incentive of revenge.

In the 1990s, most of the suicide bombers were male, many with backgrounds full of poverty and personal frustration. Today, these individuals come from both sexes and varying economic backgrounds. While many are young adults, others are middle-aged or even children. Yet the personal loss aspect of suicide bomber mentality holds true.

They may be willing to die for their cause, but how do they rationalize murdering innocent civilians? Many, though not all, terrorists exhibit a lack of empathy for the suffering of others, which may be signs of antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy [source: Wilson]. Overall, however, the dichotomy of "us vs. them" serves terrorist efforts perfectly. The more foreign and dehumanized the "them" in this relationship is, the easier it becomes to rationalize murder. Instead of seeing relatable humans caught up in a torrent of culture and politics, they see savage invaders, cowardly tyrants or nameless strangers.

­Yet these rationalizations generally need reinforcing to see a willing suicide bomber through to fruition. This requires support and encouragement from a social network. Just before an attack, the bomber's handlers isolate the individual from all contact with friends, family or the outside world. Often, the responsible organization films a martyrdom video as well. While these videos are later used as propaganda, they also serve as a point-of-no-return for the martyr-to-be [source: Hoffman].

Suicide Bomber Technology

Uzbek officials display confiscated homemade bombs, guns and suicide vest
Uzbek officials display confiscated homemade bombs, guns and suicide vests on April 2, 2004, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images/­Getty Images

­Recruitment and training costs aside, a suicide bomber generally carries a price tag of around $150 [source: Hoffman]. Considering the range and adaptability this form of attack offers, you can see the advantage it has over even high-tech weaponry. A properly trained and equipped suicide bomber can walk into sensitive areas and even alter plans at the last minute, depending on security and crowd sizes.

The quantity of explosives used in a suicide attack range from what you can strap to your person to what you can load into a vehicle. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, demonstrated how a highly successful suicide attack could weaponize commercial aircraft. For the individual, however, two basic methods of suicide bombing exist.


One approach is to fill a duffel bag with explosives and iron shrapnel, which adds to the bomb's lethality. The explosives are typically wired through a couple of batteries and up the pants leg to a simple trigger device, usually hidden in a pocket. Once the suicide bomber is in place, he has only to flip the switch. The duffel bag tactic has become less prevalent over time, given the added suspicion that the luggage can introduce.

The other method involves the use of a special belt or vest worn under the suicide bomber's clothing. The pockets of these garments contain explosives and bits of shrapnel, though everything from the bomber's wristwatch to his bones essentially becomes shrapnel with this tactic. The explosives connect to a detonator, which in turn connects to a pocket trigger. A handler often accompanies a suicide bomber to the proposed scene of an attack. In addition to guiding and encouraging the attacker, the handler also sometimes triggers the explosion remotely by use of a cell phone or other wireless device.

­The exact explosives used vary, depending on what's available. Some of the earliest bombs used against Israelis were made from smuggled Egyptian ­land mines [source: MacFarquhar]. As terrorist technology evolves, authorities fear the use of even more advanced explosives, as well as chemical attacks.

Does Suicide Bombing Work?

A Japanese kamikaze pilot ties on his honorary ribbon before departing on his suicide mission.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The modern world is in its third decade of suicide bombings, and there seems to be no end in sight. This leads to the inevitable question: Does the tactic work? Or is it, like so many terrorist acts, an exercise in futility -- a violent revenge drama carried out in an unwinnable war? To learn more about the history of terrorism and the philosophy behind it, read How Terrorism Works.

On one hand, frequent suicide bombings help to meet the more immediate ends of terrorism. While a single attack probably won't drive out an occupying force or bring about political or cultural change, it can spread fear and attract attention to a terrorist organization's message. And in some cases, the groups behind terrorist attacks have made substantial victory claims.


Take Lebanon, where the first modern suicide bombings took place. U.S. troops entered the country in 1982 to help stabilize the region, but pulled out in 1984 following several deadly suicide attacks against U.S. and French embassies. In his memoirs, then President Ronald Reagan attributed the decision to the loss of 241 Marines in a suicide truck bombing [source: ­Barlow].

­­Japanese kamikaze tactics led to a different decision from U.S. forces in World War II. Believing that the Japanese inclination for martyrdom would make a land war on the island nation too costly, the ­United States instead dropped atomic bombs on the densely populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

­Suicide attacks can not only embolden your enemy, but also make it easier for your adversary to dehumanize you -- which in turn makes the choice to employ deadlier tactics even easier. Such escalations can lead to unending conflicts and wars of extermination.


Fighting Suicide Bombers

Masked Islamic militants wear fake explosive belts during a 2002 rally in Gaza City.
Abid Katib/Getty Images News/­Getty Images

­While we continue to search for ways to stop such cycles of violence, scientists and law enforcement professionals work toward the prevention of attacks. With the use of various chemical detectors and radar scanners, we can identify explosive materials and electronic devices, but high costs generally prevent their widespread usage. Likewise, increased human security and checkpoints can only spread so far.

Stricter law enforcement and racial profiling create additional problems. In 2005, London police were heavily criticized for using lethal force against a suspected suicide bomber. Seven gunshots to the head later, they realized the suspect was an innocent man of Brazilian descent. While killing a suicide bomber before he can pull the trigger follows a cold sort of logic, it doesn't leave much room for the checks and balances most free societies demand of their governments.


Alarmingly enough, advance warning might actually lead to more deaths, according to a National Research Council report. If a dense crowd had time to flee from a detonating suicide bomber, they could decrease the human shield surrounding the blast. More fragments could potentially harm even more people in a wider blast radius.

Israeli settlers have proposed burying dead suicide bombers in pigskin body bags to deter Islamic suicide attacks. The theory behind this tactic is that sufficient defilement of a dead martyr would effectively cancel out the one-way ticket to paradise that holy martyrdom ensures -- or at least convince would-be bombers that this is the case [source: Philips]. The problem with this notion of prevention, in addition to further emboldening an enemy through atrocity, is that it depends on a simple understanding of martyrdom ideology. Religious faith is not the primary motivation behind every terrorist, and if anyone is going to shake terrorist faith in the fruits of martyrdom, you can bet it's not going to be a dehumanized adversary who defiles dead compatriots.

Explosives have made martyrdom a potent weapon for terrorists around the globe -- a threat based in a tangled web of belief, politics, history and science. Whether the tactic truly "works" or not is debatable, but it certainly endures.

­Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about terrorism, explosives and the history of human conflict.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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  • "A Chronology of U.S. Military Interventions." PBS Frontline. 1999. (March 2, 2009)
  • "Crusades (Christianity)." Britannica Online Encyclopædia. 2009. (Feb. 23, 2009)
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