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INTERSEC March 2007

Terrorist groups adopted the suicide bombing method because it inflicts a large number of casualties, causes public panic and receives media attention. Such attacks are relatively easy to carry out and are cheap, as the materials for constructing bombs are widely available, and the suicide bomber receives minimal training, mostly explanation regarding the target. More than 95 percent of all suicide bombing attacks conducted worldwide are carried out by Muslim extremists. While suicide is not allowed in Islam for personal reasons, as there is no ultimate Islamist body whose rulings are considered to be binding on each and every Muslim, radical groups tend to use religious incentives such as a place in heaven near Allah for the bombers and their families, in addition to 72 virgins for male bombers. Other incentives such as financial rewards to the family of the shahid/shahida (martyr) and enhanced social status for the families of the martyrs are also used to maintain a steady stream of volunteers and recruits.    

Following the signing of the Oslo Agreement in the spring of 1993, resulting from the first Palestinian uprising (known as the intifada), a wave of suicide bombings washed through Israel. As all of the attackers during this period of time were male, Israeli security forces focused their prevention efforts on males between the ages of 18 to 45. In order to subvert these security measures and the limitations that were put on Palestinian males, terrorist groups have adopted new tactics that were demonstrated during the second uprising known as the al-Aqsa intifada, which broke out in 2000.

On 27 January 2001, Wafa Idris, a 28-year-old divorcee from the Am’ari Refugee Camp in Ramallah, detonated herself in Jerusalem, becaming the first female suicide bomber and opened  the door for other female bombers to follow. The use of elderly men, women and children, who are perceived as innocent, and are therefore less likely to raise the suspicions of security forces, has grown tremendously ever since.

Though suicide bombers do not receive lengthy training for their one-way missions, their recruiters do try to blend them in with their intended victims. For example, Abdel-Basset Odeh, the suicide bomber who detonated himself during a Passover dinner at the Park Hotel in Natanya, Israel, on 27 March 2002, was dressed as a woman in order to not attract the attention of Israeli security forces who were on high alert due to the holiday. The 16-year-old suicide bomber Issa Bdeir, who detonated himself in Rishon Lezion, Israel, on 22 May 2002, dyed his hair blond in order to blend in with the Russian immigrants targeted in the attack. On 30 March 2006, 24-year-old suicide bomber Mahmoud Masharka, disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, blew himself up at the entrance to the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kedoumim. ‘

The trend of disguising suicide bombers is not limited to Palestinian terrorists. On 2 February 2002, a Taliban suicide bomber dressed as a woman detonated himself at a checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province. The attacker was sitting in the backseat of the vehicle and detonated explosives hidden under the woman's burka he was wearing when soldiers asked to see his ID. According to the regional police chief, the bomber was trying to enter Khost city to carry out an attack there. A similar attack took place on 8 April 2006 in Iraq, when three suicide bombers, one of whom was dressed as a woman, detonated themselves in a Shiite Mosque in the holy city of Najaf.  

In the only recorded incident of a female suicide bomber being disguised as a man, a young Iraqi woman became the first known al-Qaeda female suicide bomber in Iraq, after detonating herself in a military recruit center in Tall Afar in September 2005. In order to not attract attention and approach the young Iraqi men, the woman was dressed in traditional Arab male clothing. The long white robe (galabia) helped conceal the explosives belt, while the checkered headscarf (Kafia) helped cover her face, giving her enough time to approach the unsuspecting recruits.

The success of using disguised bombers has led terrorist masterminds to look for other ways to thwart security agencies and the military’s attempts to stop them. On 16 March 2004, an Israeli soldier manning a checkpoint near the city of Nablus discovered a 6.5 kg/13 lb explosive device in the bag of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, the youngest ever would-be suicide bomber. The alert soldier discovered the bomb after hearing a cell phone ring tone coming from the boy’s bag. Many lives were saved in this incident, but only because a cell phone connected to the bomb failed to detonate the explosive. Following investigations, it was revealed that a Palestinian group affiliated with the Fatah movement, the ruling party at the time, tricked the boy, Abdullah Quran, into carrying the device in his schoolbag. The child was released when it became clear that he believed he was carrying car parts to a woman “waiting” on the other side of the checkpoint.

The incident, which gained worldwide publicity, drew some criticism from the Palestinian public toward the terrorist organizations for using young children to carry out attacks. Regardless, it was only eight days later that Hussam Abdo, a mentally handicapped 16-year-old whose mental development, according to his brother, is equivalent to that of a 12-year-old, was captured wearing an explosives-laden vest.   

The first reported attack to involve mixed gender would-be Islamist suicide bombers took place on 23 October 2003 when members of the Special Purpous Islamic Brigade (SPIR), a Chechen rebel group, took over the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow.

A further escalation of this trend was registered with the 9 November 2005 suicide bombing attacks in the Jordanian capital. The attacks carried out by Jama'at Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad members -- also known as the al-Qaeda in Iraq, were not unique in their modus operandi of sending in several bombers or in their target selection. Yet, these attacks were unique, as they marked the first known usage of a suicide bomber team comprised of a married couple. While the explosive vest of the female bomber, identified as Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, failed to detonate, the mission was successful, as the couple did arrive at the target. The incident shows that the suicide bomber is becoming increasingly difficult to profile, which complicates the task of thwarting such attacks.

A prior attempt to use a couple in a suicide mission has been recorded, but it was thwarted before it could be executed. On 15 November 2004, Israeli security forces arrested an engaged-to-be-married couple in the Abu Tor neighborhood in Jerusalem as they were planning a suicide bombing. Hamas cell members in Hebron, who are responsible for the double suicide bombing attack on buses in Beersheva on 31 August 2004, recruited Ahmed Ghazawi as a potential suicide bomber. Ghazawi told his 16-year-old fiancée about his plans and asked her to join him in the attack. She agreed to join him, and they decided to carry out the mission after their marriage ceremony, but were arrested by Israeli security forces before they could carry out the act. 

Another escalation was registered on 25 April 2006 when a female suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist group blew herself up inside the Sri Lankan military headquarters in Colombo. While this is not the first time such attacks have been carried out by female suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, it is the first reported incident in which the bomber appeared to be pregnant. Investigation into the incident showed that the guards at the Sri Lankan military headquarters did not suspect the “pregnant” woman who took advantage and gained entry to the military complex on the maternity day of the army hospital located in the barracks. Eight people were killed in the attack and 11 more were wounded, including the Sri Lankan chief of staff, who was the intended target in the attack. Forensic tests conducted on the remains of the bomber proved that the woman was not pregnant. Bone tests showed she was 35-40 years old and not 21 as was initially reported, shedding light on terrorist sophistication. 

The latest incident to further demonstrate the “creativity” that terrorists use to recruit suicide bombers who do not fit any profile in order to avoid detection, took place on 23 November 2006, when 57-year-old Fatma Najar, a mother of nine and grandmother to 26, from the Jebalia refugee camp in the Gaza strip, was killed by Israeli solders as she attempted to detonate an explosive vest strapped to her body. Najar was the oldest female suicide bomber ever reported, and may be only the first of elderly female recruits.

As discussed above, bombers come from both genders and are of all ages. Past attacks have included people from all walks of life, making it hard to come up with a precise profile. Unfortunately, the incidents mentioned above prove that extremist Islamic organizations will go to any length to achieve their goals. The use of families to perpetrate attacks is a conceivable next step in the process, although at present no such instances have been recorded, and there is no specific intelligence indicating that militants are considering using this technique.

Security teams need to be vigilant and aware of the fact that suicide bombers -- and any type of terrorist in general -- may not fit into preconceived profiles of how attackers should appear. Security personnel should consider individuals who are not familiar to them as a potential threat to the property or organization and should never let anyone pass through security solely based on their appearance or perceived innocence. Consult experts on the subject, who can advise your organization on behavior and appearance indicators, which will help the security team to thwart and deter such attacks.