(The National Post, 7 May 2016)
Is it too much to say that suicide bombing is the defining crime of the 21st century? That's an uncomfortable thought, but it's supported by statistics. After the Second World War, when Japan used kamikaze suicide pilots, suicide attacks became a rarity. But today they are commonplace. Between 1981 and last autumn, they killed more than 45,000 people in 4,814 attacks. In the 1980s there were about three a year. In the 1990s they came along about once a month. They reached one a week in 2001-03, and about one a day in 2003-15.
What makes this grotesque form of murder so pervasive? In the repertoire of terrorist organizations, a suicide bombing registers as an accomplishment, a satisfying step up the chain of political recognition. It makes those who send out the bomber look important.
That's why the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other factions routinely claim responsibility for a horrifying crime that kills or maims clusters of random humans. Their announcements may sound like heartless bragging, but they have a practical purpose. From a terrorist standpoint, a successful bombing provides legitimacy by demonstrating the total commitment of the organization's adherents.
There's no shortage of candidates for this deadly assignment. In fact, there's evidence that some foreign recruits join ISIL in the hope of becoming suicide bombers.
As for the terrorist leaders, they make a coldhearted calculation: while a bombing will sacrifice only one soldier, it may well inspire many others to join, a net win. Unlike an improvised explosive device in the road that can wipe out a truckload of soldiers, the suicide attack is not essentially a weapon of war. It's more a publicity stunt, part of the machinery of psychological warfare.
The real target is public opinion, not those who are killed or injured. That's why mosques, football fields, airports and train stations are favourite targets. Spreading fear and dismay among the local people may break their will and crush their hope of fighting ISIL. In a larger population those who are frightened will implore their political leaders to cease fighting the terrorists. That was one result of the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
In recent years suicide bombing has spread across much of the globe. It has also spread to include children as killers. Since last year reports have been circulating of ISIL training child soldiers and suicide bombers. Last year an ISIL video showed a training camp for children, "the next generation."
The Iraqi Independent Commission for Human Rights estimated a year ago that more than 1,000 children have been trained to become martyrs. According to ISIL, this fulfils its duty toward the young by preparing them to face "the crusaders and their allies in defence of Islam."
Mia Bloom, a Canadian author and a professor at Georgia State University, can take us some distance into the minds of the bombers and their supervisors. Her book, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, recounts interviews with would-be bombers and those close to them. While many imagine that bombers are deeply neurotic, Bloom says emphatically, "These are not crazy people." Many have learned in childhood that martyrdom is heroic. She thinks they go forth to serve their community, spending their lives the best way they know. What about killing and maiming strangers? "If God is on your side," Bloom says, "your victims are godless."
The terrorists who select the suicide bombers weed out depressives. They turn down candidates who admit they want to die on the ground that they can't be trusted to follow orders. More than that, the terrorists want their organization represented by educated, skilled people. When they choose women, they favour those who are attractive. Always media-conscious, ISIL wants the public to see an old picture of the dead bomber and think well of her.
The terrorists have developed these patterns through trial and error. Those who oppose terrorism show few signs of knowing how to fight suicide bombing. Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a British independent organization, points out that bombs are often made with material stolen from government stockpiles. Explosives, it argues, should be rigidly controlled and the people controlling them should be carefully vetted.
In Africa, Boko Haram bombers are often women and girls. In May 2015, it was reported that children had been used to commit three-quarters of all suicide attacks in Nigeria. Girls are sent to carry out attacks in crowded areas, where they can pass through security more easily than boys. In all cases involving child suicide bombers in Nigeria, girls were reported to be carrying the explosives. In one such attack, girls aged 13 and 15 were used to bomb a market, killing 13 and injuring 32.
Chad, which had never experienced a suicide bombing before 2015, was attacked twice that year, presumably as punishment for joining Nigeria and Cameroon in fighting Boko Haram. The Chad government took some steps to stymie further attacks. It banned full-face veils for Muslim women, to make them recognizable. Watch, the government said, for men with irregularly tanned faces. That could signal a beard freshly shaven to disguise the owner's background. And watch, added the government, for people wearing heavy clothing in hot weather.
Nothing to argue about there. But turning back the wave of suicide bombers will need something more than a few friendly suggestions.