Understanding suicide attacks and what this means for counter-terrorism officials
The year 2016 has been a volatile one for combating terrorism around the globe. In January alone there were at least 24 documented suicide bombings in nine different countries causing more than 404 casualties and at least 630 wounded. February saw a slight downturn with 18 documented suicide bombings, again nine countries, leading to over 169 casualties and some 670 wounded. Many take place in Islamic State (ISIS) held territory and West Africa, though attacks have been a constant threat to countries such as Turkey and Afghanistan.
European counter-terrorism officials must reorient their strategy and tactics to address the rise in suicide terrorism taking place across the globe.
Although modern suicide terrorism first appeared in the 1980s, it has expanded in its use and intensity ever since. The root causes of suicide bombings are embedded in their success at spreading fear and anxiety amongst a population – the strategy favoured by most terrorist organisations – and their ability to coerce political concessions from democratic states.
Perhaps best put by Bruce Hoffman, director of Georetown University’s Center for Security Studies, the strategy of suicide attacks is a “rational conclusion” resulting from a terrorist organisation’s cost benefit analysis – i.e., rational for the following reasons.
Suicide attacks are inexpensive and effective. On average they cost less than EUR 140 to mount, don’t require any escape plan and can kill up to four times as many people as other types of attacks.
They are relatively easy to pull off, requiring only basic supplies such as pipes, batteries, wires, or fertiliser and be redirected at the last minute – the ultimate “smart bomb”. They also pose less risk of “compromising” the organisation since the intelligence goes up in smoke with the perpetrator. Moreover, suicide attacks guarantee valuable media coverage and by targeting places where large civilian populations regularly congregate, they create the impression that people aren’t safe anywhere.
Understanding the tenets of this rationale opens the door to development of deterrent measures against terrorist networks such as pitching counter-arguments to potential suicide attackers. Promoting a religiously founded counter-argument among religious elites and civil society leaders, for example, would undercut the recruitment capabilities of jihadist-driven terrorist networks and disrupt the “tunnel vision” of a suicide attacker in the final stages of an attack.
What needs to be done? There are a number of actions to be launched at national and EU level to strengthen Europe’s counter-terrorism strategy. Counter-terrorism strategy can be divided into two parts: counter-motivation and counter-operational capability.
On the counter-operational side the EU28 should mandate that data is transmitted within 24 hours of recording to a central system and that it is permitted to cover non-EU nationals. They also need to build on the joint investigation teams (JITs) they lead with Europol in that there must be more regular joint training exercises and simulations. These should be expanded to include non-EU member states and rope in emergency response preparedness.
As for counter-motivation strategy, many things need doing here. For example, the member should create, if they haven’t already, independent civil society advisory boards to local and federal authorities in order to promote internal stability and shared values across society.
All EU nations should legally classify ISIS as a terrorist group and criminalise membership in it or financial support to it – punishable in any member state. The EU 28 should create a publically accessible ‘No Visit List” that identifies ideological radicals who pose a threat to the security of a country and who will be prohibited from stepping foot in the EU. Along the same line, a database of those organisations whose charitable status has been removed due to links with terrorism should be publically accessible as well.
Elsewhere, the EU nations should ensure mandatory screening of citizens involved in public outreach, especially those engaged with “at-risk communities”. Specialised teams of lawyers are needed to prosecute terrorism cases, while judges selected to hear terrorism cases should have the background and training to preside over them.
Adopting such recommendations would strengthen the existing counter-terrorism cooperation between EU member states and incentivise reform in EU aspiring states. Most important, they would enhance the operational capabilities of EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust to thwart terrorist recruitment, disrupt terrorist activity and apprehend the terrorist operatives themselves.
This article has been published in the March 2016 edition of Security Europe.