The suicide bomber de-mystified

History shows that Islamist terror’s great weapon reflects strategic despair and defeat’s approach

Foto Maya-Anaïs Yataghène, CC BY 2.0,
Foto Maya-Anaïs Yataghène, CC BY 2.0,
Lesezeit: 5 Minuten

They massacre, shock, and throw their targets off balance, hoping to convince them they face defeat.


Suicide bombers like those who rattled Paris three years ago this November, were not invented by the Islamists who now deploy them, and precedent shows they ultimately lose.

The simultaneous bombing and shooting attacks at a stadium, theatre, and three restaurants deployed three suicides who blew themselves outside the Stade de France during a soccer match between Germany and France; a fourth who exploded after placing an order in the Comptoir Voltaire café; and two more who set off their suicide vests in the Bataclan Theatre once faced with French special forces.

Having killed 130 and injured 413, the deadliest attack on French civilians since World War II, the killers of 13 November events made it plain that Islamism is waging war on the rest of mankind, and that Europe was at the heart of its aims.

The suicides’ deployment is designed to create the impression that their cause enjoys supreme ideological conviction and a game-changing strategic weapon.

It is a strategy first implemented by Japan during World War II in the Pacific Ocean, and then by the Palestinians against Israel last decade, with results that today’s Europeans should find instructive.

THE KAMIKAZE pilots and sailors who rammed their planes and motorboats into Allied warships and aircraft carriers initially spread fear and also despair among the Americans. The suicides’ tactical success was indeed impressive, having ultimately hit 250 American vessels.

In some important respects, the Japanese suicides were different from their Islamist successors.

Geographically, the kamikazes were part of an effort to conquer only a part of the globe, while the Islamist hope is to conquer the globe’s every inch. Ideologically, the Japanese wanted to conquer other nations, but not to change them, whereas Islamism wants the whole world to adopt its faith.

More deeply, after having been isolated from the rest of the world for some 250 years, the Japanese set out join the developed world and undergo the industrial revolution.

Islamism, by contrast, is yearning for the medieval centuries when Islamist civilization led the developed world. That is why, unlike the Japanese, who were fascinated by Western achievements and set out to imitate them, the Islamists are frustrated by the same achievements, and see in them a historic aberration that must somehow be offset.

That is why, like the jealous kid in the kindergarten who collapses another kid’s laboriously built Lego tower, Islamist suicides target creations of Western civilization like the skyscraper, the stadium, the parliament, the airport and the train station.

Despite these differences, in terms of their strategic aim and its result, the Islamist suicides are headed the way of the kamikazes.

The Japanese reached for the suicide bomber after their military inferiority had become obvious, and their surrender a matter of time. It was as a losers’ weapon, even for a society inspired at the time by the tradition of hara-kiri. That is why the kamikazes failed to undo Japan’s approaching defeat, even after 355 suicides were unleashed in one single battle during the attack on Okinawa, in spring 1945.

Ultimately, only so many Japanese were prepared to die in such a futile way. At the same time, the kamikazes only intensified the Allies’ dedication to their cause, and their resolve to defend it. The Japanese could only recruit 4,615 suicides out of 120 million citizens. Their targets, at the same time, became convinced that Japan’s disparagement of its own people lives demanded its total defeat.

THE SAME thing happened with the suicides that the Palestinians unleashed on Israel last decade. The suicides were the weapon of a lost struggle, and their very deployment was proof that the Palestinians face defeat.

The suicides’ deployment initially caught Israel off guard, and ultimately totaled 150 attacks waged in 1993-2006 on busses, cafés, restaurants, malls, supermarkets, and dance clubs, killing more than 700 people throughout the Jewish state.

However, like the Japanese, the Palestinians increasingly found it difficult to recruit suicides, especially after Israel alerted the Palestinian public that the leaders who incite their children to become walking bombs never sent their own children to die this way.

The Israeli public, at the same time, became motivated to fight, and the army and secret services prepared a plan for a grand offensive.

When Israel’s counterattacks began, with Operation Defensive Shield in spring 2002, reservist soldiers left their jobs and families begging to join the battle, and then fought tooth and nail, because the suicides convinced the Israelis that they are defending their families and homes.

Consequently, the IDF conquered the refugee towns that were the suicides’ hotbeds, while the secret service detected the suicides in advance and the air force killed them from the air.

It took six years, but after peaking in 2002 with 47 suicide attacks and 225 Israeli fatalities, the number of attacks declined annually until Hamas, which had recruited and deployed most of the suicides, found it difficult to recruit new suicides.

The European situation is of course different, but the principle Israel learned applies: suicides are a weapon of desperation that spreads fear, but actually faced defeat, once its targets underwent three phases: first they lost fear; then they entered the suicides’ habitats; and then they attacked.

Über Amotz Asa-El

Amotz Asa-El ist leitender Berichterstatter und ehemaliger Chefredakteur der Jerusalem Post, Berichterstatter Mittlerer Osten für Dow Jones Marketwatch, politischer Kommentator bei Israel's TV-Sender Channel 1 und leitender Redakteur des Nachrichtenmagazins Jerusalem Report.

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