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Mainstreaming Suicide Bombings By Making It State Policy – Analysis

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The Taliban’s decision to form a suicide brigade in the Afghan army could give the latter the character of a terrorist group   

Afghanistan’s current rulers, the Taliban, have decided to mainstream suicide bombings. Its spokesmen have announced a plan to establish a suicide brigade in the Afghan national army. This will taint a national army with the brush of terrorism as suicide bombings are characteristic of terrorist groups.

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Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, made a statement in the first week of January that the Afghanistan army will have a “special forces unit of suicide bombers”. He told Radio Free Europe: “Our Mujahidin (the Taliban’s Islamic warriors) who are martyrdom brigades, will be part of the army. But they will be Special Forces under the control of the Ministry of Defense. They will be used for special operations.”

The Afghan Defense Ministry has announced plans to raise a fresh army of 150,000 men comprising handpicked, ideologically-oriented men.  

According to a Bloomberg report, it is the Taliban’s life and death struggle against the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), which has necessitated the formation of the Suicide Battalion in the Afghanistan army. The ISIS-K, which was responsible for nearly 100 suicide attacks against civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and 250 attacks against the US, Afghan and Pakistani security forces since January 2017, had been attacking the Taliban also. The ISIS-K believes that the Taliban are not Islamic enough and are not interested in upholding Islam outside Afghanistan.

Be that as it may, does the challenge from the ISIS-K necessitate the formation of a suicide regiment in a national, standing army? Does the formation of such a unit not mean giving a national, standing army attributes of a terrorist outfit? Does it not “mainstream” a terrorist tactic like suicide bombing? Suicide bombing is today an essential attribute of terrorism and terrorist outfits.

Perhaps habits are difficult to give up. Before seizing power in 2021 from the US forces and the pro-West Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban had used suicide bombers for 20 years. These bombings were extremely effective because they could not be countered by the technological superiority of the Western forces. Research reveals that between 2003 and 2015, out of a total of 5430 suicide bombings by 104 terrorist groups in the world, the Taliban had accounted for 774 (14.25%). 

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But this was when the Taliban were fighting a guerilla war against large and well-armed armies. Perhaps they had no alternative to suicide bombings. But now they are in power and heading a National/State army. Many wonder if a suicide regiment would be appropriate in a regular Afghan army or any other regular army for that matter.

However, the Taliban will not be the first to introduce a suicide unit in a national/State army. Standing armed forces have had suicide units before, but the practice was short-lived, and has not been in use since the end of World War II.

During World War II (1939-45), the Japanese had “Kamikaze” or suicide units in their Air Force and Navy. A Kamikaze attack had destroyed a giant oil tank in Trincomalee too. In a paper entitled: “Insurgents-cum-rulers are lending recognition and legitimacy to suicide bombers as part of their National Defense Strategy” dated January 15, 2022, Lily Hamourtziadou, senior lecturer in Security Studies at Birmingham City University, says that the Japanese had designed weapons to carry out suicide attacks, such as the Kaiten manned torpedo, the Ki-115 purpose-built Kamikaze plane and the Ohka rocket-powered Kamikaze plane.

Again, during World War II, Hitler’s Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) formed “Rammjager” units to ram targets. These missions were called Selbstopfer (self-sacrifice) missions. The Waffen SS, the combat branch of the Nazi Party’s SS organization, was known for carrying out “suicide missions” throughout the war.

However, generally, personnel of any modern army go into battle prepared to die but not to commit suicide. By forming a “suicide brigade” in its standing army, Afghanistan under the Taliban could set a dangerous new trend or revive a dead World War II practice, one born of desperation in the face of defeat.

Afghan human rights workers were shocked by the Taliban announcement. “Horrific and appalling” exclaimed Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.  Shaharzad Akbar’sshock is due to the fact that suicide missions associated with “martyrdom” are also associated with terrorism.

According to Lily Hamourtziadou, the first suicide bombing took place on March 13, 1881, when Ignaty Grinevitsky, a member of “The People’s Will” terrorist group, dropped a bomb at the feet of Tsar Alexander II outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, killing both. Grinevitsky was yearning for martyrdom for his socio-political cause.

The concept of martyrdom is associated with monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions like Islam and Christianity. But it has been adopted by secular national, regional or communal movements like the Tamil armed separatist movement in Sri Lanka. The word “martyr” came to refer to someone who would willingly allow himself to be put to death rather than deny his faith. Though Islam is against suicide, terror groups like the Taliban have found a justification for it in Islam. If one sacrifices one’s life for Islam and not because of a personal problem, it can be justified. Islamic terror groups use the term “martyrdom” for death in the cause of religion with an expectation of reward after death. The expectation after life is a powerful motivation, Hamourtziadou avers.

Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka excelled in suicide bombing, even having a regular “Black Tiger” unit in its land army and a “Black Sea Tiger” unit in its navy. The Tigers openly paraded their hooded suicide cadres. In their war against successive Sri Lankan governments and their allies, the Liberation Tigers had killed 50 leaders, including a Sri Lankan President (R.Premadasa) and an Indian Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi). Hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in suicide attacks on leaders and other targets in Sri Lanka.

Dr.Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan expert on terrorism, told “Frontline/World” in a May 2002 interview, that there were 12 active groups that staged suicide attacks up to that time. The deadliest attacks were carried out by the Al Qaeda (9/11, USS Cole, US diplomatic targets in East Africa), the Tamil Tigers (Rajiv Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India; R.Premadasa, President of Sri Lanka, among many others); the Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihadd, the Al Aqsar Martyrs Brigade, and the Al Ansar Mujahidin in Chechnya, he said. According to  Gunaratna, the Tamil Tigers had by that time staged two thirds of all suicide bombings in the world.

While the Tigers were driven by ethno-nationalism, the Islamist groups were driven by their “distorted version of Islam fashioned by misinterpreting, misrepresenting and corrupting the religious text,” Gunaratna said. Though motivations and goals varied, all suicide bombers had a “mind of steel” and were moved by “emotion”, he pointed out.  A common thread in what a suicide bomber hoped to gain by dying was to become a “hero, someone special, someone different,” Gunaratna said.

On why women are sent on suicide missions by the Tamil Tigers, the expert said: “Women are best suited to conduct suicide attacks because we do not suspect women in the terrorist context. They can evade traditional counter measures. They are not body-searched usually.” He further said that women suicide bombers were found in the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and Al Aqsar Martyrs Brigade also. According to Hamourtziadou, the Taliban used kids as young as nine. 

Alienation from the established order is the reason for terrorism and the adoption of tactics like suicide bombings, said Gunaratna.

“Most people become terrorists because of injustice, humiliation and ignorance. We must create a way out for them and ensure that they do not go back to terrorism. To fight is difficult, no one likes to fight, as it increases suffering, pain, injury, death, losses. Therefore, we must develop structures and systems to ensure that the just aspirations and grievances of people are addressed,” Gunaratna said.

But the question that is worrying now is whether the suicide bombing culture or tactic will become part of State policy in various countries through the formation of Suicide Battalions in their regular armies due to the example set by the Taliban-led Afghan government.  

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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