Dead men walking: why terrorists embraced suicide bombing

With roots in older assassin movements, the suicide bomber took terror to a new extreme.

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As Tsar Alexander II’s iron-clad carriage came around the corner of a snowy St Petersburg street, the first bomber hurled his device under the horses’ hooves. The bomb weighed only 5lbs and had a blast range of one metre but it nevertheless shattered the carriage, killing a young boy in the crowd and one of the Tsar’s Cossack escorts, the force of the explosion hurling the bomber backwards into a fence. The Tsar emerged from his stricken carriage unscathed, to the entreaties of his surviving entourage, who urged him to leave the area at once, fearful that a second assassin may be at hand.

Yet Tsar Alexander II – the Emperor of Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland, a man who had now survived eight assassination attempts – chose instead to remain at the scene. It was a fatal mistake. Jostling forward through the melee to where the Tsar stood, the second bomber, Ignaty Grinevitsky, hurled his bomb from as close as he could. Knowing the limited range of the device, he was aware that the explosion would likely kill him too.

“Alexander II must die,” he had written less than 24 hours earlier. “He will die, and with him, we, his enemies, his executioners, shall die too… I shall not see out victory, I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumph.”

As the smoke cleared, the Tsar could be seen lying on the ground, his shattered legs pouring blood, his stomach ripped open and face cut apart. He was dead within minutes of receiving the last rites. His killer, also terribly wounded, died later that day too. It was 1 March 1881. The age of the suicide bomber – whose kin killed more than 250 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday – had begun.

In his outstanding study of the phenomenon, The Price of Paradise, the investigative journalist and author Iain Overton explores the evolution of suicide bombing from the day Grinevitsky, the 25-year-old member of the revolutionary political organisation Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), blew away his own life together with that of the most powerful man in Russia. Thousands of bombings and 138 years later the suicide bomber has become central to our contemporary era of terror, described by Overton as a figure that not only dominates the fears of Western societies but also influences the way we fight our wars, protect our nations, pass security legislation and even define ourselves.

Before the November 2015 suicide attacks in Paris, for example, the British public’s reaction to asylum seekers reaching Europe had been largely positive. Yet weeks after the Bataclan slaughter, 44 per cent of Britons surveyed said the UK should close its borders entirely to refugees.

With roots in older assassin movements whose operatives were prepared to die in the course of their mission, the suicide bomber took matters to a new extreme. Previous knife-wielding or pistol-packing assassins may have expected to die but hoped to live. But for the suicide bomber, enabled by Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite, death was an essential part of their act: the vital propaganda of the deed.

The devastating effects of terror were felt most keenly on 11 September 2001 when 19 suicide attackers hit targets in the US using planes as bombs, in an operation that penetrated the global psyche. The destruction of the Twin Towers was the most-witnessed mass death event ever. The attacks that day resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 individuals, initiating an unfinished 18-year war on terror that arguably has shaped Western foreign policy more than any other event since Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

Yet though no terror attack has so far surpassed the deadliness of 9/11, the frequency of suicide bombings has exponentially increased since, as terror groups have woken up to the enormous power posed by attackers who are unafraid to die and therefore able to challenge the monopoly of the state security apparatus. As Overton notes, in 1976 there were no suicide attacks. In 2016, 469 attacks occurred in 28 countries.

The author takes confident control over this huge, dense and dark subject, following the passage of the bombers’ meme with a Darwinian eye, from St Petersburg in 1881 to the Second Sino-Japanese War, when, in the 1938 battle of Taierzhuang, Chinese troops from the “Dare to Die” corps rushed Japanese units with swords and “suicide vests stuffed with grenades”.

The meme manifested next in the Kamikaze culture of Japan during the Second World War, moved on to the Lod Airport massacre in Israel in 1972, then to the Iran-Iraq War and into Lebanon where – now in the hands of Sunni as well as secular groups – it was used against Israeli units, and US and French troops. It sidestepped into Sri Lanka, returning there a fortnight ago, and finally graduated to become a mainstay of Hamas, Taliban and al-Qaeda operations, Islamic State and a myriad of affiliates. These organisations killed in cities across the world including Madrid, London, Manchester, Moscow, Paris and Brussels, as well as Mogadishu, Baghdad, Mosul, Tel Aviv and Kabul.

Engrossing and enthusiastic, Overton achieves more than charting the metastasising history of a terror tactic. The Price of Paradise describes with clarity the precarious position of democracies caught between the wish to preserve civil liberties and the need to secure their people against attack, and navigates too the calamitous series of over-reactions by security forces that since 9/11 have fuelled rather than dampened the cycles of violence.

Shunning the clichéd media tropes that paint suicide bombers merely as flawed “losers” – the counterbalancing narrative to the terrorists’ myth of sacrifice – the author examines recurring themes in the motivations of bombers, noting that most see their suicide-killing as an altruistic event, a necessary stage on the road to utopia. This self-perception was as true of Grinevitsky in 1881 as it was of Salman Abedi, the 22-year-old Manchester bomber who murdered 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in 2017.

Though both men would have been triggered by external factors that catalysed internal demons, Abedi’s suicidal drive would likely have been more complex due to the link placed by Sunni terror groups between jihadi self-sacrifice and the keys to paradise. In essence, Grinevitsky died believing he would leave the world a better place. Abedi detonated thinking he would not only leave the world a better place, but would go to heaven too.

The sexual frustration of certain young conservative Muslim men has also played a role in the creation of bombers, as many bombers have believed that a jihadi suicide entitles them to the sexual adoration of 72 celestial virgins. Some proponents of jihadism advertise even greater bounty. The Maidens of Janaat, published originally in Pakistan but sold in the UK from a shop in Leicester, suggests that those who qualify will actually get 500 wives, 4,000 virgins and 8,000 previously married women. Their adoration starts on the instant of the suicide bomber’s death, whence each woman shall rush towards him “as if they are a breastfeeding camel who has found her lost child in an empty and barren land”.

Overton injects his study with his own first-hand accounts of travels in the wake of bombers. Detailed anecdotes weave through the pages. Among these, we learn that the man who constructed Grinevitsky’s device, Nikolai Kibalchich, later designed a primitive solid-fuel rocket engine while awaiting execution. For this he is commemorated in the heavens with a crater named after him on the far side of the moon.

Never in this intelligent book does Overton ignore the murderous nature of the suicide bomber, nor the delusional selfishness their act involves. Indeed, one of the most powerful chapters, “The Mountain of Victims”, is dedicated entirely to the aftermath of bombing experienced by survivors and the bereaved, who grieve for victims whose names and fate are little known – in contrast to those of the killers.

“It was an extraordinary death,” Figen Murray, a mother whose son Martyn Hett was killed in the Manchester Arena attack, tells Overton. Far from the pomp of any “bright season of our triumph”, her words are shorn of adjective and heavy with a mother’s sorrow.

“Had Martyn died of a terminal illness, it would have been different. But this… this makes me feel I am in a different universe. My son. My son was murdered.” 

Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times and author of “My War Gone By, I Miss It So” (September Publishing)

The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age
Iain Overton
Quercus, 544pp, £25

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal