The series of suicide bombings in recent years has led to the widespread notion that this weapon is of Islamist origin. But the history of suicide bombings shows that this is not the case. Joseph Croitoru takes a closer look
The never-ending series of suicide bombings in recent years has led to the widespread notion that this weapon is of Islamist origin. But the history of suicide bombings shows that this is not the case. Joseph Croitoru takes a closer look
Suicide bombings are not of Islamist origin. They were originally not practiced by religious terrorists but rather by secular Marxist-oriented groups. Already in the 1970s, long before the suicide bombings by the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah, the Palestinian Fedayin practiced this form of terror in Israel. It was the Palestinian "People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine" (PFPL) operating from Lebanon that first introduced this weapon.
Its links to North Korea led to a collaboration with the "Japanese Red Army" (JRA), a terror organization that also had contact with North Korea. The cooperation between these two Marxist, anti-imperialist groups resulted in the first improvised suicide attack, an incident in which three members of the JRA committed a massacre against civilians at the Israeli airport in Lod on May 30, 1972.
The attackers made no attempt to flee, apparently because the attack was planned as a suicide mission. One of them was shot down by Israeli soldiers, another blew himself up with a hand-grenade, and the third was arrested before he could kill himself. But their plan cannot only be understood as an internalization of Japanese Kamikaze attacks of the Second World War.
Involvement of Lebanon and North Korea
The three Japanese terrorists had received special instruction in a training camp in Lebanon, in which North Korean military experts were purportedly involved. In the transfer of the suicide attack method from the Far East to the Middle East, it seems that Korea played a central role. During the Second World War, Koreans were forced to take part in Kamikaze attacks for the Japanese, and those who survived these missions passed on their knowledge of the method.
In North Korea, which was and still is communist ruled, there exists to this day a national tradition of honouring suicide soldiers as heroes who are prepared to protect the nation at all times by acting as "human bombs."
The massacre of Lod – in which the suicide attack method directed against military targets mutated into the assassination of civilians – had an unexpected effect on Palestinian terror organizations.
Qaddafi's reproach of Palestinians' inaction
They were confronted with the accusation by the Japanese that they were exploiting the Japanese in the name of an Arab cause. And despite the Arab world's elation at the success of the attacks, the Libyan President Qaddafi reproached the Palestinians for not being able to carry out such attacks for themselves.
It was probably a combination of wounded honor and terrorist strategizing that led, just two years later, to several Palestinian organizations dispatching death squads instructed to carry out the duty of blowing themselves up.
The first of these groups was the "People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command" (PFLP – GC) led by Ahmad Jibril, which had split off from the PFLP a few years earlier and become its rival. Supported by Syria, which had close ties to North Korea at the time, the Marxist-oriented PFPL – GC dispatched its first three suicide assassins on April 11, 1974.
Instructed by their commanders to blow themselves up if the hostage taking did not succeed as planned, the group members made their way into the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona and, equipped with bombs, created a bloodbath. According to Israeli reports, hostages were never taken in this incident.
The perpetrators fired on pedestrians as they made their way toward a residential area where they continued their killing spree and finally barricaded themselves in the top story of a building. When Israeli soldiers stormed the building, an explosion killed the terrorists. To this day the PFPL-GC has maintained that their men blew themselves up intentionally, while the Israelis claim that they themselves had fired the shot that caused the explosion.
The strategic use of the media
Whichever version of the story is correct, what set the trend for the further tradition of suicide bombings was not the fact that the group members blew themselves up, but the way in which their exit was orchestrated for the media. Concerning this aspect, the Palestinians had clearly picked up on the dramatic exit scenes of the Japanese Kamikaze pilots and further developed this tradition.
The last days of the suicide bombers were documented, their photos taken, and their wills recorded on tape in order to be played back during a press conference organized by the group directly following the attack.
The attack on Kiryat Shmona touched off a long series of suicide bombings committed by rival Palestinian organizations, which were characterized by increasing brutality. The declared political goal of these attacks was to signal an unwillingness to compromise and a ruthlessness towards the Israeli opponent, a goal which was inaugurated with a strict refusal to build any ties to Israel – something that Yassar Arafat in particular strived for in the mid-1970s.
It was in fact the suicide bombings that led to an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the incomparable brutality of the attacks brought increasingly tough retaliatory strikes by the Israelis. And Arafat's Palestinian adversaries were eventually able to convince the Fatah to carry out suicide bombings during a period when the Fatah was struggling to assert its authority.
Secular organizations exploiting tradition of Islamic martyrs
Those who carried out the suicide bombings of the 1970s may have been secular officially, but those who gave the commands celebrated the attackers as Shuhada, Islamic martyrs. Secular organizations were thus able to cleverly exploit the religious tradition of the Islamic warrior martyrs, yet without having to represent them as purely religious.
Thus for example the testaments of the suicide attackers did not explicitly address the paradise that is traditionally said to reward Islamic martyrs, but their parting words definitely indicated that they believed in the afterlife. The suicide bombings organized by the Hizbollah in the early 1980s in Lebanon – which were based on the Palestinian suicide bombings of the 1970s and had been further developed to include car bombs – were the first to explicitly incorporate religion into their understanding of suicide bombings.
Islam officially bans suicide
The decisive innovation on the part of the Hizbollah was the creation of the term "amaliya istishhadiya" ("operation martyr's death"), which replaced the secular term "amaliya intihariya" ("suicide operation") used by the Palestinian organizations.
Despite the Hizbollah's ability to instrumentalize the Shiite cult of martyrdom to serve its own purposes yet without having to lend it a theological justification, the Hizbollah was not the group which would formulate a "theology" of suicide terrorism that could find a way to circumvent Islam's official ban on suicide. This was left to the Palestinian Hamas in the mid-1990s.
© Qantara.de 2003
Translation from German: Christina White
Joseph Croitoru (b. 1960) has worked as a freelance journalist in Israel, since 1992 he has also been publishing in the German press. He regularly writes for Germany's daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He specialised in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In 2003 he published "Der Märtyrer als Waffe. Die historischen Wurzeln des Selbstmordattentats" (The Martyr as a Weapon. The Historical Roots of Suicide Bombing) at Hanser Verlag, Germany.