Suicide Bombings in Operation Iraqi Freedom

By Bunker, Robert J.; Sullivan, John P. | Military Review, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Suicide Bombings in Operation Iraqi Freedom

Bunker, Robert J., Sullivan, John P., Military Review

This article, reprinted with permission of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), is adapted from the original copyrighted article published in September 2004 by the Institute of Land Warfare (ILW) as Land Warfare Paper No. 46W. A USA and ILW publications are available on the A USA web page at .

The ILW's purpose is to extend AUSA's educational work by sponsoring scholarly publications, including books, monographs, and essays on key defense issues, as well as workshops and symposia. A work selected for publication as an ILW paper represents research by the authors that, in the opinion of the editorial board, will contribute to a better understanding of defense or national security issues.


SUICIDE BOMBING is the act of blowing oneself up while trying to kill (destroy) or injure (damage) a target. The target might be military or civilian or both. Typically, the killing or physical destruction of the target is less important than the terror generated by the act. Suicide bombing is a disruptive firepower capability (based on bond-relationship targeting) used by opposing forces (OPFORs) that lack traditional destructive firepower. (1)

Suicide bombing is a criminal warfighting technique because it almost always falls within the not crime/not war overlap of nonstate OPFOR operations. When state forces, such as the Iraqi military, use the technique, they violate the rules of war by taking off their uniforms to appear as noncombatants (thus mimicking nonstate OPFORs) for stealth-masking purposes. The Japanese use of Kamikaze aircraft during World War II is considered a legitimate use of military force against military force, but that early prototype form of suicide bombing has not been used for almost 60 years.

Persistent suicide bombings during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) (in pre-, trans-, and postmajor combat operations) suggest this "criminal-warfighting" technique will be used with increasing frequency against U.S. Army and allied forces deployed for combat and humanitarian missions in and around Islamic lands. (2) Therefore, U.S. Army, Marine, and constabulary personnel must develop appropriate intelligence, countermeasure, and force-protection capabilities to interdict, mitigate, and respond to what has become a threat against U.S. forces in the global war against radical Islamic terrorism and insurgency.

Suicide Operations and Military Traditions

Suicide operations (bombings and attacks) fall within three dominant philosophical military traditions: Western, Oriental, and Islamic, each of which holds varying views on this offensive technique at individual and unit levels of doctrinal employment.

Western tradition. At the individual level, the Western tradition does not advocate suicide operations. Soldiers or pilots might, on their own initiative and typically when mortally wounded, take as many opposing soldiers with them as possible. In this instance, the combatant has nothing to lose, as in the case of a dying U.S. torpedo-bomber pilot ramming his aircraft into a Japanese warship during World War II. In rare instances, uninjured individuals heroically sacrifice their lives against hopeless odds in defense of their comrades, as did two Delta snipers in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, who chose to help a downed Black Hawk crew. (3)

At the unit level, desperation in war can result in suicidal or near-suicidal operations. The holding action of King Leonidas and his Spartan bodyguards at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. forms the basis of what might be considered a "heroic" activity. More than a millennium and a half later, the battles of Verdun and The Somme during World War I were clearly suicidal operations as opposing forces repeatedly attempted to break the trench stalemate with massed human-wave attacks. In the early days of the Korean War, Task Force Smith's hasty blocking action was almost suicidal but required by dire circumstances. …

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