The mind of the suicide bomber
Fort Station suicide blast
James Joll published his book The Anarchists almost half a century
before the first suicide bombing in the Middle East. But his description
of the indiscriminate violence of some of the anarchists of the 19th
century fits the calibrated callousness of suicide bombers, especially
of the Iraqi kind.
Joll called the throwing of a bomb into a crowd of ordinary citizens,
as happened in Spain in 1892, ‘an act of frightening impersonality.’ The
suicide bomber seeks vulnerable victims. He detonates his bomb on a
crowded bus or in a busy market. He usually targets civilians and not
combatants. The suicide bomber may not be as courageous as his act of
shattering self-dissolution suggests.
The assassins and some anarchists of the past were different. They
attacked the king and not his subjects. Some of the assassins, like the
Middle East suicide bombers, were religious fanatics. Jacques Clement, a
crusader for the Catholic faith, stabbed Henry III of France to death on
August 1, 1589. He had been told he would be warmly welcomed by Saint
Peter at the portals of paradise.
Henry IV, his successor, was also stabbed to death. The man who
killed the king on May 14, 1610 was named Francois Ravaillac, another
fervent, furious fundamentalist.
Karl Eduard Nobiling, a doctor of philosophy, tried to kill Wilhelm I
of Prussia on June 2, 1878. His means and method of attack anticipated
Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting of President John Kennedy at Dallas on
November 22, 1963. Nobiling fired at the king, who was being driven in
an open carriage, from an upstairs window. The king was hit but not
Nobiling shot himself as the police and some ordinary citizens rushed
in to arrest him. He was still conscious and made a defiant speech, not
unlike the testamentary videos of Palestinian suicide bombers. He became
unconscious after making his speech and denied the elderly king the
satisfaction of having him hanged.
Those who tried to kill Napoleon Bonaparte on December 24, 1800 used
a bomb. The bomb was concealed in a cart, but the cart was not used to
ram Napoleon’s carriage, as Hezbollah suicide bombers did with their
bomb-laden trucks at the American and French barracks in Beirut in 1983.
The Beirut bombings killed almost 250 American soldiers and 58 French
troops. Napoleon, who was going to the opera, escaped without a scratch,
but many people were killed.
Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was, like his late uncle,
going to see a performance when his carriage was attacked on the evening
of January 14, 1858. He was luckier than President Abraham Lincoln of
the United States, who was shot in his box at Ford’s Theatre on April
14, 1865 while watching a play ‘Our American Cousin.’
The leader of the bombers was Felice Orsini, an Italian nationalist.
He and many Italians chafed under Austrian rule. Orsini believed
Napoleon III was indifferent to the political strangulation of Italians
by Austria. Orsini himself had been jailed by the Austrians and
published a book about it, Austrian Dungeons in Italy.
Orsini and his two companions threw bombs at the emperor’s carriage,
but the emperor and the empress were not among the eight people killed.
About 160 people were injured. France went to war against Austria over
Italy a year after Orsini was beheaded on March 13, 1858. Napoleon III
was at the head of his army and the French and Italian forces defeated
Ignatei Grinevitski belonged to a group like Hamas. It was called
Narodnaya Volya or People’s Will and the group wanted more freedom for
the Russian people. One of the group’s leaders was a person of privilege
like Orsini. Her name was Sophia Perovskaya, a daughter of the governor
of Saint Petersburg.
People’s Will narrowly missed killing Tsar Alexander II on a few
occasions. The secret police cracked down on its members, but did not
employ the cruel tactics of the Spanish police. The Spanish police
planted bombs, which killed and maimed many people, and blamed it on the
anarchists. The agents of General Sani Abacha did the same thing in
They got the tsar on March 1, 1881. He would have been safe if he had
not come down from his carriage to see the seriousness of the injuries
suffered by some of the soldiers accompanying him on horseback.
Grinevitski threw a bomb at the tsar, who was not a cruel ruler, and he
was mortally wounded. The blast also killed Grinevitaski, making him an
accidental suicide bomber.
The first suicide bombing in the Middle East, according to Professor
Avishai Margalit, an Israeli, in an article in The New York Review of
Books, was in November 1982 in Tyre, Lebanon. Alexander the Great had
destroyed Tyre to conquer it, but the Hezbollah suicide bomber believed
he was saving Tyre by blowing himself up in a building. But the building
was not empty; it was teeming with Israeli soldiers and 76 of them were
The LTTE of Sri Lanka got in on suicide bombing before the
Palestinians did. Thenmuli Rajaratnam killed Rajiv Gandhi, former prime
minister of India, on May 2, 1991. The first Palestinian to explode his
bomb of self-immolation and massacre did so in April 1993, according to
Nasra Hassan, a Pakistani, in an article in The New Yorker. The attack
was in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Hassan, a senior United Nations official who had worked in the Gaza
Strip, interviewed some suicide bombers in training, people willing to
sacrifice their lives to cause sorrow in many homes. But it appears from
her article that it is not every ‘volunteer’ that boldly seeks
martyrdom. Some of them have to be recruited and cajoled.
There is brainwashing, though many suicide bombers, according to
Hassan, were well educated. Like Orsini and Perovskaya, the 19th century
bomb throwers, some of the Palestinian suicide bombers came from
Volunteers are not allowed to change their minds, are prevented from
choosing life over self-liquidation. Writes Hassan: ‘During the week
before the operation, two “assistants” are delegated to stay with the
potential martyr at all times. They report any signs of doubt, and if
the young man seems to waver, a senior trainer will arrive to bolster
‘Why do some people volunteer for suicide bombing? It is hard to say
in the case of Iraqi suicide bombers. Arabs are killing Arabs.
Sectarianism seems an inadequate explanation for the casual and constant
slaughter in Iraq.
Shiites and Sunnis are killed when a suicide bomber detonates his
bomb in a crowded market. Are some suicide bombers like serial killers,
twisted people who love killing? Some serial killers deliberately leave
clues that lead to their arrest, something akin to the suicide bomber
detonating his bomb belt.
Revenge plays a part in the suicide bombings by Palestinian groups,
especially inside Israel, according to Hassan in The New Yorker article.
Joll writes about revenge as a trigger for violence in The Anarchists:
‘Very often anarchist acts of violence were acts of symbolic revenge
against the state for the execution of a comrade. Thus, for example, in
Spain in 1892 a young anarchist, Pallas, threw a bomb at General
Martinez Campos, in revenge for the execution of four anarchists.’
Hassan was given the reason for some Palestinians’ wild enthusiasm
for martyrdom: ‘In April, 1999, I met with an Imam affiliated with Hamas.
He explained that the first drop of blood shed by a martyr during jihad
washes away his sins instantaneously. On the Day of Judgment, the martyr
will take no reckoning. On the Day or Resurrection, he can intercede for
70 of his nearest and dearest to enter Heaven; and he will have at his
disposal 72 houris, the virgins of paradise.’
But one Gazan youth does not believe in the existence of voluptuous
virgins in heaven, suggesting that suicide bombers are dupes. He told an
interviewer: ‘If it were true, why is that experts and the leaders of
the these movements are not all running out to be killed themselves and
are not sending their own children on these missions?’