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Sunday 18 August 2019

How suicide bombers radically changed the world

From the Russian Revolution to the bombing of Hiroshima and the trillions spent avenging 9/11, this 'weapon of the weak' has been responsible for seismic shifts in modern history, but how can we close this Pandora's Box of suicidal terror, asks Iain Overton

End of restraint: The 9/11 attacks led to the loss of 288,000 lives in Iraq alone
End of restraint: The 9/11 attacks led to the loss of 288,000 lives in Iraq alone

We live in the age of the suicide bomber. From Brussels to Baghdad, London to Lahore, the suicide bomber has become a defining feature of the modern age. They are the real weapons of mass destruction. In total, since their first use to murder the tsar of Russia in 1881, there have been almost 14,000 suicide attacks, killing and injuring at least 220,000. And 40pc of those ever killed by a bomber's blast have been in the last five years.

To put it another way, in 1976 the world saw no suicide bombs. Forty years later, 28 countries witnessed 469 strikes. In total, 60 countries have suffered from a bombing, with Iraq by far the worst impacted. This is followed by Afghanistan, Pakistan, Japan and Syria.

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And while, of course, there is the suicide vest, there have been many ways suicide bombers have delivered their death. There have been underpants stuffed with explosive materials, shoes designed to be set alight on flights, motorbikes, planes, submarines and even donkeys that have borne bombers to their believed nirvana

Some bombers have been 'lone wolves', others have gone to their deaths as whole families. Some have been disabled, lifted into the driving seat of a car for their final mission. Some were high on drugs. Others were depressives who used their final deadly act to end their own suffering. They have been Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Shintoists and Hindus (and one Jewish bomber whose bomb didn't detonate), and they have come from everywhere. Leaked recruitment files for Isis volunteers showed at least two dozen different nationalities agreeing to join the terror group's 'martyrdom' battalion.

But, in recent years, almost all bombings have been perpetrated by Salafist jihadists; those heralding a warped vision of Islam - with Isis, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram the most persistent proponents.

Overall, this "weapon of the weak" has invoked terror like no other - helping level the field of battle and challenging militaries to their core. Terror that has led to changes that have fundamentally shaped the modern world.

When the first suicide bomber murdered Tsar Alexander II in 1881, in an attack by the Russian dissident group 'The People's Will', the retaliation was brutal. His son, Alexander III, ordered the execution of those who plotted the attack, and then rolled back many of the reforms his father had sought to implement. He tore up ambitions for an elected parliament and, under his direction, the Okhrana, the secret police, became an iron fist - one that pioneered the use of fingerprinting, bugging and phone-tapping.

These heavy-handed reprisals had consequences. In 1887, after an unsuccessful attempt on Alexander III's life, a batch of reactionaries were rounded up and executed. When the report of the hangings reached family members, one brother cried out: "I'll make them pay for this! I swear it." His name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin.

It is not hard to see how this cycle of attack and counter-attack, revolt and repression, led all the way to the Russian Revolution itself - the suicide bomber there from the start.

Other monumental changes have been fuelled by the suicide bomber. Between October 1944 and August 1945, over 3,000 Japanese airmen died in their attempts to sink the Allied fleet. These Kamikaze strikes were born from a desperation at Japan's lack of skilled pilots and advanced weaponry, but they were also driven by an extreme devotion to Emperor and a notion of honour that shocked the Allies.

So disturbing were these waves of suicide bombers that the spectre of the kamikaze was undoubtedly in the room when the Americans decided to drop nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US military believed it would stop a Japanese population martyring themselves in defence of a land invasion.

First, Communist revolution. Then, nuclear war.

The next seismic shift in modern history fuelled by the suicide attacker was 9/11. This terrible atrocity created a modern ground zero. And in that devastation, restraint was lost.

Invasion plans of Iraq were there from the beginning. Richard Clarke, the former US National Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, remembered American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stating: "You know, we've got to do Iraq... There just aren't enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we're, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around."

But this is what suicide attacks do - they obliterate perspective, and so much harm flows from that. What harm, indeed.

Financially, the consequences of 9/11 have been eye-watering. It is estimated the US alone has spent over $5.9 trillion since 9/11.

Politically, terrorism and counter-terrorism have helped fuel the creation of fortresses Europe, destabilised entire nations, and justified the passing of laws that endanger our civil liberties. Militarily, suicide bombers have changed the face of modern war. Boots on the ground have been replaced by drone strikes; heart-and-mind campaigns have been lost in the defensive 'bunkering down' that suicidal terror necessitates. Few would argue the 9/11 wars have been successful: in Afghanistan, violence has increased massively and opium crops soared.

In terms of humanitarian harm, the mountain of the dead looms large. Almost 3,000 people died in 9/11, but the wars since have taken far more lives. 288,000 are listed dead in Iraq. Over 30,000 civilians estimated killed in Afghanistan. Suicide bombs invariably engender responses far deadlier than the original violation.

Such violence has led to a global surge of refugees that, in turn, has fuelled populist fear. One survey found 59pc of Europeans believe refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism.

The trauma of suicidal violence has spread beyond its casement and evoked sentiments that have, in turn, had seismic political effects.

It will not end with the conquering of Isis in Iraq and Syria, either. Since 9/11, there have been 22 suicide bombers in Europe - all either born or resident there, and all but one Islamist extremists. Youth and a lack of employment seemed to have been a risk factor - their average age was 26, and 17 of them were unemployed. Intelligence chiefs across Europe regularly stress that the defeat of Isis in the field of battle does not mean the future threat is over.

But what can be done to stop more attacks?

It might sound naïve, but a global UN ban of the suicide bomb could be a start. After all, when the Germans used poison gas in 1915, they did so in the belief it was a weapon of virtue, one that would hasten the war's end. Today, poison gas is seen with worldwide opprobrium, beyond the pale even of many who would resort to suicide bombs.

Religious leaders need to be part of this condemnation - medieval tracts that promise bombers virgins in paradise should be condemned; Salafist leaders should be exhorted to disavow the targeting of civilians. We know that Shia leaders renounced such attacks, every influential Sunni leader should, too.

Ultimately, Britain could take a stronger lead. A recent attempt to host a global counter-IED conference in London was prevented on security grounds: an intolerable sort of bureaucratic sluggishness. If the UK government once voted to go to war to stop so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, then it can invest considerably more in stopping the real Weapons of Mass Destruction that are the suicide bomber.

This does not mean sending more planes to bomb Syria: a recent review of suicide attacks in Pakistan by the charity I run - Action on Armed Violence - has shown that US attacks were followed within a month, on average, by one more suicide bomb.

It is clear that the Pandora Box of suicidal terror has been opened wide - and that violence will not close it. A coherent and imaginative response, though, might - one that seeks to address all the complex drivers of suicidal terror in moral and intelligent ways.

The urgency is never greater. Because if we fail to address the rise of this terrible weapon, then we will see another 7/7, another Paris, another Manchester. This much is assured. But what follows after such horrors is not.

Iain Overton is a journalist and author of 'The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age', published by Quercus

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