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Terrorists and Suicide Attacks

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Publication Date: August 2003

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Topic: Social conditions (Social movements)


Suicide attacks by terrorist organizations have become more prevalent globally, and assessing the threat of suicide attacks against the United States and its interests at home and abroad has therefore gained in strategic importance.

This report focuses on the following questions: What are suicide attacks? What have been the patterns and motivations for terrorist organizations using suicide attacks in the past? What terrorist groups and other organizations are most likely to launch such attacks? How great a threat are terrorist suicide attacks to the United States, at home and abroad? How can the United States counter such a threat? It analyzes the key lessons of the international experience with suicide attacks and examines their relevance to the United States.

Important conclusions include evidence that suicide attackers generally make choices and are not impulsive or "crazy." They are usually carefully recruited, indoctrinated and then targeted by organizations. It is important, therefore, to concentrate on analyzing the culture and structure of the organization when fashioning a response. Historically, suicide attackers have been used by both secular and religious groups. The Tamil Tigers, a secular group, carried out the most ruthless campaign of suicide attacks in the 20th century; but there has been an increasing number of casualties internationally, notably as a result of attacks by Palestinian groups against Israelis and by organizations in various countries believed associated with or incited by Al Qaeda. The use of women as suicide attackers is not historically unprecedented, but its frequency among groups such as the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers (or LTTE), the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and now the Palestinian Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the Chechens, may indicate a social broadening of the phenomenon. While the organization is predominant in the execution of the attack, over time it cannot recruit and sustain itself without the acquiescence of the larger society.

The greatest threat to U.S. citizens comes from the possibility of further attacks orchestrated or inspired by Al Qaeda, either in the U.S. or abroad. Furthermore, suicide attacks on U.S. citizens and civilians in Iraq are a mounting concern. To counter the threat, the United States may use both offensive and defensive measures. Offensive measures include counterterrorism efforts such as preemptive strikes against terrorist organizations, vigorous intelligence collection, and longer term efforts to reduce the ability of terrorist organizations to recruit suicide candidates. Defensive measures include physical protection of U.S. assets, psychological preparation of the population, and the full range of anti-terrorism efforts required for a robust homeland defense.

The report concludes with a discussion of the implications for Congress of the increase in suicide attacks, and a range of options for meeting the threat. It will not be updated.


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