A New Report on Suicide Bombing Against Public Transportation in Israel

The Mineta Transportation Institute just released a study – Security Awareness for Public Bus Transportation: Case Studies of Attacks Against the Israeli Public Bus System – of a number of bus bombing attacks on the Israeli transportation system during the Second Intifadah (roughly 2001-2005). The study provides some useful data on the modus operandi of suicide bombers. I have also had the opportunity to interview a range of bystanders, bus drivers, and police and security personnel with respect to suicide bombing attacks (some of whom were also interviewed by the authors of this study).

The Palestinian suicide bombing campaign during the Second Intifadah was an example of the “industrialization” of suicide bombings. Organizations such as Fatah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and others produced strings of attacks, the majority of which were suicide bombing attacks against transportation and public venues. This was not a case of a “boutique” operation with highly capable and motivated terrorists residing for long periods deep inside “enemy” territory, as in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, but rather of “production line” attacks with suicide bombing attacks, or attempted attacks, being carried out frequently and only limited by the rate at which IEDs were being manufactured.

As in any sort of industrial production, the end product (which is seen by the consumer, or, in this case, by the unfortunate people who happen to be close to the suicide bomber when he or she detonates) is only a small part of the overall effort. These terrorist organizations included highly-skilled and specialized personnel that carried out the following types of activities: 1) recruitment, 2) intelligence, 3) IED manufacture, 4) logistics, 5) public relations, 6) funding.

Recruitment: The recruiter’s main role was to search for candidates for suicide bombing attacks. During the 1990s, the recruiters had to sometimes spend weeks to months to convince individuals to become suicide bombers, and they would engage in various types of exercises including role-playing (having candidates for “martyrdom” lie in open graves contemplating the afterlife, etc.). After the start of the Second Intifadah and, in part, due to harsh Israeli countermeasures, there was a flood of volunteers and hence there was no longer any need to spend too much time on recruitment (though potential suicide bombers still needed to be assessed for the likelihood that they would follow through with the attack as well as to prevent penetration by Israeli intelligence).

Intelligence: Intelligence operatives in these organizations would, among other things, determine where the best locations and times were for attacks in terms of maximizing the number of casualties as well as ingress and egress routes to the site of the attack (the latter for the handler or handlers that typically accompanied suicide bombers to the site of the attack).

IED Manufacture: The core of the suicide bombing operation is, of course, the IED, and consequently, the bomb makers were probably the most critical link in the organizational chain. Naturally, a suicide bombing attack is only as impactful as the bomb being used, and a poorly constructed IED that did not have the intended impact was a waste of the organization’s precious resources and an embarrassment to it.

Logistics: The role of the logistics personnel was largely to procure the means of transport (as well as, in many cases, the driver of the vehicle) as well as to accompany the bomber to the site of the attack to ensure that he or she did not decide to change their mind or get lost and fail to hit the primary target. Sometimes, intelligence personnel also played the logistics role.

Public Relations: The Palestinian organizations were highly cognizant of the power of the media, internationally vis-a-vis the Israeli public and for domestic consumption. During the Second Intifadah, they successfully created a “culture of martyrdom” in which suicide bombers were viewed as figures to be emulated and as heroes of the nation. Public relations specialists in the suicide bombing context focused on studio portraiture of suicide bombers (for the posters that were produced and handed out after the attack to be pasted on store fronts, school walls, etc.), the production of a “martyrdom” video, the production of, sometimes elaborate, funerals for the remains of the bombers, and various commemorative activities.

Funding: The production of a suicide bombing attack naturally required funding, not only for the procurement of bomb making materials, safe houses, etc., but also for providing financial support for the families of suicide bombers. Consequently, the Palestinian organizations had highly adept fundraisers with a network of contacts in the Arab World and elsewhere (including in the West).

Much more can be said about how this process worked as well as how things transpired minutes and seconds before detonation, but a good place to start to get some insight would be the report mentioned above.

Nadav Morag blogs on intelligence, counterterrorism and Middle Eastern affairs. Read More