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From St. Petersburg to London: The Use of Suicide Bombers

5 MINS READJul 20, 2005 | 23:42 GMT
On March 13, 1881, a group of Nihilists wielding homemade bombs assassinated Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg, Russia, as he rode in his armored carriage near the Winter Palace. Alexander, who had escaped injury in the first wave of the attack, stepped out of his carriage to help his injured guards. At that moment, Ignaty Grinevitsky, an ethnic Pole disgruntled over the treatment of the Polish minority in the Russian Empire, approached Alexander and dropped his bomb. The explosion blew off the Tsar's legs and mortally wounded Grinevitsky. Both men died a few hours later in what was perhaps the first suicide bombing in modern history. Unlike the Madrid train bombers, who blew themselves up when law enforcement moved in to arrest them, or pilots who aim their disabled aircraft at an enemy target during warfare, suicide bombings are attacks that are planned from the start to kill the bomber and those in the vicinity of the explosion. This type of attack, which became possible after bombmakers developed small, powerful devices with reliable fuses, has become a part of modern warfare and insurgent movements. Japanese and German pilots used suicide tactics during World War II. In the Pacific, the Japanese Kamikaze pilots were organized into units with the intention of crashing their aircraft into Allied naval vessels in a desperate effort to prevent the invasion of the Japanese home islands. First used intentionally during the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Kamikaze attackers succeeded in damaging Allied warships, most notably the USS St. Lo, USS Intrepid, USS Franklin, USS Bunker Hill and the Australian HMAS Australia. In addition, the Japanese developed weapons intentionally designed to carry out suicide attacks, including the Kaiten manned torpedo, the Ki-115 purpose-built Kamikaze plane, and the Ohka rocket-powered Kamikaze plane. In Germany, the Luftwaffe organized several fighter units made of pilots who had sworn an oath to do whatever it took to destroy at least one Allied bomber on each of their interception missions, even by ramming one if necessary. Known as Rammjäger units, they experienced some success employing their ramming tactics, but were unable to stem the tide of Allied bombers. Toward the end of the war, as the situation became increasingly desperate for the Germans, calls for Selbstopfer (self-sacrifice) missions went out. During the war between Vietnamese guerrillas and French colonials in Indochina, the Viet Minh utilized "Death Volunteers" during the battle for Dien Bien Phu in March 1954. The Death Volunteers used explosives to blast holes in the French defenses to allow Viet Minh infantry to exploit the breaches. Lebanon's civil war sparked the beginning of the current major phase of suicide bombings. In October 1983, Hezbollah suicide bombers simultaneously attacked the barracks of U.S. Marines and French paratroopers who were on a peacekeeping mission in Beirut. In the Marine barracks bombing, the militants hijacked the truck that regularly delivered water to the U.S. base near Beirut International Airport, and replaced it with their own truck that contained and estimated 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of explosives. Ismalal Ascari, an Iranian, drove the 19-ton truck over the barbed-wire fence around the barracks, past two guard posts, and into the center of the compound, where he detonated the explosives. The bombing killed more than 240 Marines, soldiers and sailors, and eventually led to the withdrawal of the multinational force. Since then, suicide attacks have been occurring with increasing frequency in the Middle East and Asia. In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began using suicide bombings in 1987 in an attempt to prevent Sri Lankan army troops from entering the town of Jaffna. Since then, the group has carried out approximately 200 suicide attacks, more than any other single group. The Tigers have used the tactic to attack both military and civilian targets, as well as to conduct assassinations — most notably the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female suicide bomber and the 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Palestinian militants also employ suicide bombers — often with devastating results. In March 2002, a suicide bomber attacked a dining room full of people celebrating Passover in the Park Hotel in the Israeli city of Netanya, killing 30 mostly elderly Jews. In August 2003, Palestinian militant group Hamas staged a suicide bombing on a crowded bus in Jerusalem, killing 23 Israelis, including seven children. Two months later, another suicide bombing at Haifa's Maxim restaurant killed 21 Israelis. Palestinian suicide bombers also have employed refined tactics, often using two attackers — the second one waiting to attack emergency response personnel and security forces after they arrived at the scene of the first bombing. Unlike the Viet Mihn and the Tigers, who often used suicide bombers in the course of military operations, the Palestinian militants generally conducted attacks against "soft" targets, such as restaurants and clubs, or "lightly hardened" targets, such as checkpoints, in an attempt to demoralize Israeli society. In addition, most suicide bombing attacks were targeted against civilians, and conducted in crowded places in Israeli cities, such as public transportation hubs or markets. U.S. Air Force intelligence has reported that the use of suicide bombers has spread worldwide since 1990. Between 1980 and 1990, suicide bombings occurred in three countries: Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Kuwait. From 1991 to 2002, however, the tactic had spread to 15 countries, from Algeria and Chechnya to Argentina and Croatia, and to the United States. The Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the ongoing suicide attacks in Iraq and the July 7 bombings in London (if those bombers indeed acted knowingly), highlight the devastation that suicide bombers can cause. Producing dramatic and often effective results for a relatively small economic cost, suicide bombings will continue to increase.

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