Whether it was the prolific activities of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland and Great Britain throughout the 1970's, 80's and 90's, communist inspired groups like the Red Army Faction in West Germany or the Air India Bombers amongst others, IED's have been a brutally effective weapon for terrorist organizations.
Originally made from household or industrial chemicals, such as agricultural fertilizer with rudimentary timing devices, sometimes as simple as a fuse, the use of IED's involved considerable risk on the part of the terrorist. Along with the possibility of accidental detonation during the preparation of the IED itself terrorists were limited in the time that they could plant their bomb and make an effective escape before the device exploded and the time that could elapse between preparing and planting the bomb as the basic explosives involved would deteriorate over time. In other cases the bombers would need to stay in the vicinity of the IED to detonate it via a command wire, significantly increasing the risk that they would be captured in the security operation mounted in response to the explosion
And as time has progressed, IED's have become more and more sophisticated incorporating advanced technology. Commercial and even military grade explosives have become available through nefarious sources and high tech timing devices have allowed bombs to be planted days, weeks or even months in advance and even to be triggered at a precise moment remotely over considerable distances through the use of cell phones. In several cases terrorists have evaded airport security and detonated bombs on planes without even being on the aircraft. These advances have dramatically improved the efficacy of terrorist bombers, not just in their ability to mount precision attacks, but also in their ability to make their escape and avoid detection.
But as the terrorists become more effective, so did the police and security forces tasked with fighting them. Also using advances in technology they are able to monitor communications enabling them to disrupt terrorist groups financing and supply chains and to disrupt many planned attacks before they happen, often unbeknown to us. In an ongoing game of cat and mouse both terrorist groups and security organizations are constantly evolving and developing as they each try to outwit each other.
And as a result of frequently being shut down or disrupted, or as a result of lacking the sophistication and technology to mount complex terrorist attacks some groups have turned to a devastating yet simple method of attack. The suicide bomb! By strapping an IED to a willing volunteer, terrorists are able to deliver a bomb to a precise location and detonate it at their moment of choice. Leaving the detonation either to the bomber themselves or controlling it remotely via a cell phone or radio control the terrorists maintain a brutally simple method of attacking who they want when they want without the need for such complex technology causing, fear and panic in the process.
Whilst many of us struggle to understand the motivation of suicide bombers, there are ample willing volunteers ready to take up the mantle. Through the use of powerful rhetoric and other means of manipulation terrorists are able to somehow convince some, that through paying the ultimate price as a suicide bomber, that better times are ahead. And although some back out, likely as a result of the human instinct to survive, many do not, and willingly go to their certain death to further their political aim, leading others to glorify their actions.
In an attempt to de-glorify the actions of suicide bombers, some commentators and security pundits refuse to refer to suicide bombers as suicide bombers. Instead they choose to use the term 'homicide bomber', effectively labeling them as murderers, not the glorious fighters that they hoped to be remembered as. Unfortunately though, the term homicide bomber doesn't tell the whole story.
Whilst many suicide bombers are murders, the fact that they commit acts of murder does not separate them from other terrorist bombers. The vast majority of terrorist bombers are murderers. Although on occasion, some terrorist groups will attack purely economic targets or provide warnings before an attack allowing the target area to be evacuated, most do not. Terrorists choose to use IED's as a result of their indiscriminate nature and their ability to kill, injure and maim large numbers of people in a single incident. This, coupled to the fact that even unsuccessful terrorist bombers can be guilty of attempted murder further demonstrates that nearly all terrorist bombers are homicide bombers.
The truly defining characteristic that separates suicide bombers from other terrorist bombers is their desire and their willingness to almost certainly die during the commission of their attack. Whilst all terrorists take risks, whether they are planting an IED or mounting a drive by shooting or other attack, all of them other than suicide bombers have at least a remote chance of surviving the attack and it is likely that they expect to do so. And it is for this reason that we need to label and treat suicide bombers differently.
In any fight, military or otherwise, it is essential to understand the motivation of your enemy along with their tactics and doctrine. To successfully address a terrorist threat it is necessary to not only fight them but also to disrupt them and to reach as far back as possible in the chain to remove their motivation to become a terrorist. And whether the motivation is removed by either addressing the root cause of the issue or by mounting successful security operations that remove their ability to mount terrorist attacks, terrorists can be beaten by attacking their motivation. But with suicide bombers, the motivation has reached a level that many struggle to comprehend.
As we fight suicide bombers we have to understand that their motivation has far surpassed the level that we can understand. While other terrorists will expect that they may at least hope to be able to fight another day suicide bombers have no such thoughts. In fact in many cases they relish the expectation that they will die, truly believing that they will move on to a higher level as a result of their murderous act. So as we try to understand them in order to fight them, we have to start by labeling them correctly. And while they are murderers, they are also much more complicated than that. They are suicide bombers.