Experts Fear Mideast-Style Belt-Bombers in U.S. : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Terror Taken Up a Notch Experts Fear Mideast-Style Belt-Bombers in U.S.

By David Von Drehle Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, May 13, 2002; Page A01

The sheer number of suicide belt-bombers attacking Israel this spring, and the diversity of their backgrounds, has increased fear among terrorism experts that the tactic will be exported to the United States.

But the belt bomb is a maddeningly difficult weapon to counter. Concrete barriers might deter truck bombers. Heightened airport security can challenge hijackers. By comparison, however, stopping human bombs is "an incredibly difficult business," said Christopher Langton, an analyst of terrorist threats at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"It's cheap," Langton said. "It has the most accurate guidance system available to mankind. It is easily concealed. . . . The likelihood of it increasing rather than decreasing must be taken seriously."

Tuesday's suicide bomb blast in a pool hall near Tel Aviv, seemingly timed to interrupt Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Washington, demonstrated the resilience of this macabre weapon. Although the Israeli army had reoccupied six major West Bank towns in an effort to destroy what Sharon has called the Palestinians' "terrorist infrastructure," the suicide bombers have continued to find their way into Israel to attack civilian targets.

Analysts said the traditional profile of a suicide bomber has been shattered. Potential bombers are not as hard to find as some experts once believed. Under the right circumstances, bombers require little or no persuasion -- in fact, they volunteer. They don't necessarily need constant supervision.

The attacks of Sept. 11 illustrated the ability of terrorist groups to plant agents around the United States in cells needing scant support to keep them on track toward their fatal missions over months, even years. "Look at Mohamed Atta: his commitment did not degrade over time," Langton said. "Somebody set his fuse, and that was all it took -- he carried out his operation."

Seen in this light, what once was considered a rare, costly gesture -- involving the intensive recruitment and indoctrination of a human bomb, along with the careful selection of a target worthy of such a scarce resource -- now looks more like an easily replenished weapon.

" 'Successful' terror tactics normally spread when the tools are cheap and not complicated," said David C. Rapoport, editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Political Violence. Suicide bombers have used cars, trucks, ships and airplanes on missions against U.S. targets. "But the human missile is even simpler," Rapoport said. The United States "ought to be deeply concerned." Tom Ridge, the U.S. director of homeland security, has said more than once that he believes belt-bombers pose a threat on American soil, although experts doubt that the same Palestinian terrorist groups behind the bombings in Israel would attack the United States. More likely, homegrown terrorists, or bombers guided by al Qaeda, could find inspiration in the effectiveness of the Palestinian tactics.

Last week, while visiting Washington, the Israeli police commissioner, Shlomo Aharonishki, put shopping malls high on his list of likely American targets: "pizzerias, discotheques, restaurants and malls." U.S. government officials have warned vaguely of possible terrorist attacks on shopping malls.

Aharonishki believes the belt bomb is a response to Israel's improved defenses against hijacking, car bombs and other terror tactics. "They moved over to suicide bombing, which is a very difficult problem for law enforcement agencies to deal with," he said. "This is like a missile that's been launched. Once it's been launched, it's nearly impossible to stop."

The flood of willing bombers has completely undermined efforts to create a useful profile of potential bombers, according to experts. Initially, belt-bombers in Israel were young, single men with few ties and fewer prospects, "basically dummies," said police commissioner Aharonishki. But recent belt-bomb attacks have been carried out by young women, by well-educated men, by parents.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, "suicide terrorism has become a mass movement," said Bruce Hoffman, director of the RAND Corporation's Washington office and the author of "Inside Terrorism." This fact has grave implications for the United States -- "it is a watershed in the history of terrorism," he said -- because it shows that it is not as hard to make a suicide bomber as many people have wanted to believe.

This lesson was first demonstrated thousands of miles from Israel, on the island of Sri Lanka, off the coast of India. There, beginning in the late 1980s, Tamil nationalists adopted suicide bombing on a large scale, though they did not generally use it indiscriminately against civilians. From a Tamil population of roughly 2.5 million, the guerrillas mounted about 250 suicide missions, and some of their most audacious attacks were carried out by women, including the belt-bomb assassination of India's prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991.

What this means, according to Hoffman and others, is that the conventional way of approaching the subject of human bombs is wrong. Too much attention is being focused on the psychology of individual belt-bombers, he said, when it would be more useful to study them as a major new style of weaponry -- a category alongside missiles and grenades and land mines.

Langton, a retired British military officer, agreed. "If you look at this as a weapons system, and see who has used it and when, its advantages and disadvantages, you can perhaps think about some countermeasures," he said.

A suicide bomber can make decisions that an unmanned weapon cannot. Not even the sharpest smart bomb in the Pentagon's catalogue can pretend to be a pregnant woman or pause at the target as more potential victims congregate, or choose a better target at the very last minute.

"It allows you to put a fairly low-signature weapon on a high-profile target," said Javed Ali, a private consultant to a U.S. defense strategists. The executive director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, Boaz Ganor, has also noted that suicide attacks tend to be highly lethal, "attract wide media coverage, require no escape plan," and prevent the capture of operatives who might reveal information about the terrorist group.

Indeed, the belt bomb may be the most difficult in a long line of suicide weapons to defend against.

American sailors faced kamikaze pilots in the last days of World War II. Anarchist bomb-throwers of a century ago frequently risked almost certain death in their attacks. But most experts date modern suicide tactics to Lebanon in 1982-83. Two terror groups backed by Iran, Al Dawa ("The Call") and Hezbollah ("Party of God"), attacked American, French and Iraqi targets using truck bombs steered by doomed drivers. After the bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks near Beirut in 1983, in which 241 Americans died, the United States withdrew from Lebanon.

In later years, suicide bombing spread around the world, from Chechnya to Tanzania to Manhattan. H The belt bomb has one other advantage: Because it can be guided so precisely, and detonated at a carefully chosen moment, it is a weapon with a message. In Israel, that message has been: No one is safe, anywhere.

From targeting buses and large markets, the belt-bombers "shifted to discos and restaurants -- places where attendance is optional," Hoffman said. "People began to think they could keep themselves safe by avoiding these optional places -- but then they hit a Passover seder, an Arab-owned restaurant, a corner grocery store, and so on. People became afraid even to go out and buy food."

Teenagers have been the targets of some attacks and grandparents the targets of others. "It is the terrorist equivalent of strategic bombing," Hoffman said.

Because the United States is 40 times the size of Israel, it might be impossible to achieve the same effect of "total terror everywhere," as the Israeli police commissioner describes it. But as the jet-bombs and anthrax spores of September and October showed, attacks on scattered but symbolically charged targets can be very powerful.

"The practitioners of suicide bombing realize they are onto something," Hoffman said. "Why should we think we would be immune?"

He thought a moment.

"In reality, the problem has already arrived here," he said. "We are just waking up to it." In 1997, Hoffman recalled, two men in Brooklyn -- one Palestinian and one Lebanese -- were arrested as they finalized a belt-bomb plot against the New York City subway system. In other words, if may be a less important question now than when and where.

Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 13, 2002

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