The Detection and Prevention of Suicide Bombings

Al Qaeda, which views women from a sixth-century perspective and regards them, at best, as second- citizens, is suddenly championing women as equals in one critical role: as suicide bombers. The terrorist organization has launched a new women’s magazine, al-Khansa, which instructs women on how to be suicide bombers, or Mujaheda. The magazine also includes information such as dietary tips and advice on how to “dominate the passions” with special breathing exercises as one prepares for martyrdom.

The existence of such a magazine is not only a sad commentary on extremism in the Muslim world, it also is indicative of the expanding threat posed by suicide bombers – especially in Iraq and Israel, but also, potentially, in the United States and other Western countries. Although it was not acknowledged publicly (so as not to offend the politically correct), the primary focus of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence after 9/11 was on young Arab males between 15 and 35 years of age. All nineteen of the hijackers on 9/11 were clearly encompassed in this profile. But during the past several years a number of women – although still a minority, as compared to men, in terms of their use as suicide bombers – have increasingly strapped on bomb belts and entered clubs and restaurants or carried bags of explosives aboard buses to kill and maim innocent civilians.

This author recently returned from Israel where, less than twenty-four hours after the incident, he was a hundred meters from the site of a major suicide bombing that occurred outside a nightclub in Tel Aviv, killing four Israelis and injuring dozens more. As tragic and horrific as that incident was, such bombings are less frequent than they used to be. Most observers attribute the reduction in bombings to the fact that the so-called “Exclusion Wall” or “Separation Fence” is working.

The building of the wall – which is not a cement barrier throughout its entire length but, rather, a fence studded with sensors in many locations – was a matter of heated debate in Israel and around the world when it was first proposed. Critics, recalling the Warsaw Ghetto, complained that it would relegate Jews to ghetto status once again. Others said it unnecessarily divided Palestinian neighborhoods and walled the Palestinians off from Israel, where many of them work and/or sell their products. The United Nations, not surprisingly, condemned Israel for the security barrier. Today, the only debate in Israel is about why the wall is not yet finished. There is little hand wringing anymore over its efficacy.

Trainee Tics and Other Telltale Signs 

The building and monitoring of the Separation Wall is only one of the ways that Israel is seeking to enhance its security and reduce the threat posed by suicide bombers. Israeli authorities have also spent a good deal of time developing profiles of suicide bombers and their behavioral characteristics.

It is known that terrorist organizations carefully select and prepare those who carry out suicide attacks. The people selected are given extensive training, including advice on how to blend into the target population, as well as psychological conditioning. Arrangements are also made to compensate their families with cash payments after they carry out their destructive deeds. To this end, the Saudi government issued a royal decree in September 2000 mandating that various banks in the kingdom establish special accounts to channel funds to the Palestinians. The money gathered, known as Account 98 funds, was ostensibly to be used for charitable purposes, but soon was diverted to subsidize the families of suicide bombers and, therefore to provide an additional incentive for those willing to become martyrs. The accounts became known as “The Martyrs’ Accounts” and there has been speculation that some of the account funds have actually been used to underwrite some of the costs associated with the attacks – i.e., for training, intelligence collection, cover operations, and explosives.

Israeli authorities and psychologists have also carefully developed behavioral profiles that might help security personnel identify a potential suicide bomber. Among the more obvious signs are people who exhibit the following telltale behavior:

  • The wearing of heavy clothing, no matter what the season. Long coats or skirts may be used to conceal explosive belts and devices.
  • An unusual gait, especially a robotic walk. This could indicate someone forcing or willing himself or herself to go through with a mission.
  • Tunnel vision. The bomber often will be fixated on the target and for that reason will look straight ahead. He or she also may show signs of irritability, sweating, tics, and other nervous behavior. (The Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam, who was captured at a border crossing in Washington state while driving a car filled with bomb-making materials, caught the attention of authorities because of his excessive sweating, furtive eyes, and other nervous movements.)
  • The appearance of being drugged. The suicide truck bomber who attacked the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983 had been drugged before the attack and was tied to the seat of his vehicle.
  • Signs of drug use – including, for example, enlarged pupils, a fixed stare, and erratic behavior.
  • Bags or backpacks (used to carry explosives, nails, and other shrapnel). The bomber generally holds his/her bag or backpack tightly, sometimes gingerly, and may refuse to be separated from it.
  • A fresh shave – a male with a fresh shave and lighter skin on his lower face may be a religious Muslim zealot who has just shaved his beard so as not to attract attention, and to blend in better with other people in the vicinity.
  • A hand in the pocket and/or tightly gripping something – this could be someone clutching a detonator or a trigger for an explosive device. Such triggers, which may be designed in the form of a button, usually are rather stiff so that they will not be set off accidentally. (One Israeli acquaintance described how he and several guards shot a would-be bomber numerous times, but found his twitching finger still on the button – and still posing a danger, therefore.)
  • Evasive movements. It seems obvious that anyone who tries to avoid eye contact, or to evade security cameras and guards, or who appears to be surreptitiously conducting surveillance of a possible target location, may be a bomber.

Sagging Attendance at U.S. Sporting Events 

Obviously, these and other indicators are more useful in identifying a potential suicide bomber who is on foot, rather than someone driving a vehicle. That is why vehicle barriers, chicanes, and checkpoints also are so critical to maintaining infrastructure and area security. The behavior of drivers can be observed and assessed by personnel manning the checkpoints and/or monitoring roads where vehicles have been forced to drastically reduce their speed. Another sign of a possible threat is a vehicle that is sagging on its springs and low to the ground – conditions that could be caused by the weight of hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds of explosives.

The security wall and the various methodologies that have been developed for profiling possible suicide bombers offer some protection against terrorists, particularly when combined with metal detectors, guards, and other barriers.

Interestingly, though, although U.S. forces in Iraq have regularly been the victims of suicide bombers, the phenomenon has not yet reached the United States – much to the surprise of many in law enforcement. It is remarkable, in fact, that a terrorist wearing a bomb belt – taped to his chest with ball bearings, perhaps – has not taken a seat in the stands at a college football game or other major sporting event and blown himself/herself up, along with dozens of other people sitting in the same area. Should such an incident occur it would surely traumatize the American public and make it likely that people would stay away in droves from other public events not only in the following days and weeks but for many months thereafter.

In future columns Dr. Livingstone will discuss a number of other ways of detecting, deterring, and preventing suicide bombers from carrying out their deadly missions.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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