Who Carries Out Suicide Bombings?



In 2007, U.S. forces investigated the backgrounds, nationalities, professions and ages of more than 600 foreign fighters who entered Iraq with the intention of taking on suicide missions. Experts discuss the underlying psychology behind the men and women who carry out these attacks.


Karen DeYoung, senior diplomatic correspondent and an associate editor for The Washington Post; author of the article "Papers Paint New Portrait of Iraq's Foreign Insurgents"

Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism; professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago

Mia Bloom, author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror; professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia

Disabled Often Carry Out Afghan Suicide Missions

Municipal workers clean up after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month. i

Municipal workers clean up after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month. An Afghan physician estimates that up to 80 percent of suicide bombers are disabled. Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images
Municipal workers clean up after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month.

Municipal workers clean up after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month. An Afghan physician estimates that up to 80 percent of suicide bombers are disabled.

Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

There have been at least 110 suicide attacks in Afghanistan this year, more than in any other country except Iraq.

Most of the Afghan bombings are linked to the Taliban, but the identity of the recruits is often a mystery.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his security officials claim the attackers are foreigners, often from Pakistan. But a recent United Nations report says that bombers who were caught before they could carry out their attacks were overwhelmingly Afghan.

Whatever their nationality, many of the bombers have one major thing in common. A senior Afghan doctor who examines their remains finds that most of them were disabled or sick.

In his classroom at Kabul Medical University, Dr. Yusef Yadgari keeps the eyeball of a suicide bomber in a glass jar. Attached to the eye is a tumor that, Yadgari says, left the attacker partially blind.

It is one of many ailments the Afghan pathologist says he has found while autopsying the remains of bombers who carried out attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the past three years. Some were missing limbs before the blasts. Others suffered from cancer. One had leprosy.

80 Percent Have Physical, Mental Disabilities

Based on such autopsies, Yadgari estimates that at least three of every five bombers suffer from a physical ailment or disability. Adding those who suffer from mental illnesses, the number of sick and disabled bombers climbs to more than 80 percent, he says.

"They are probably resentful because in Afghan society they are outcasts," Yadgari says. "They hold a grudge because many of them can't get a job. So, to make money for their families, they agree to become suicide bombers."

Yadgari says guessing the bombers' motivation is easy, but identifying who they are is a lot tougher.

Police say the bombers never carry identification, and their remains are rarely claimed.

Christine Fair, who co-authored a United Nations report released in September on Afghanistan's suicide attacks, says there are other factors that make it difficult to figure out who the bombers are.

She says Afghan investigations into suicide bombings leave a lot to be desired.

Afghan Gen. Nik Mohammed Nikzad, who heads crime scene investigations here, agrees. He complains that by the time his team is permitted to enter the scene, evidence has often been compromised or removed — sometimes by Western soldiers.

Afghan Bombers Not Celebrated

Fair says another obstacle is that Afghan suicide bombers are not celebrated like their counterparts in other Arab nations. Afghan bombers are not featured on posters or in videos as martyrs, and their remains are not carried through town in raucous funeral parades.

"Many parents don't even seem to know that their child or their relative blew themselves up in this act," Fair says.

She says there is another difference between bombers in Afghanistan and other countries. A bomber in Afghanistan kills an average of three victims, compared with an average of 12 elsewhere. Also, United Nations interviews with would-be bombers in Afghanistan have found that most are young and poorly educated.

"So, the good news is that they are not as lethal as they are in other theaters. The bad news is it's not really clear what it would take to get the campaign of suicide attacks to abate," Fair says.

University student Qais Barakzai believes there is nothing that could have stopped his friend from blowing himself up two years ago in Kabul.

Barakzai says Qari Sami was a brooding loner who was upset about the Taliban's ouster.

Barakzai says his friend grew a Taliban-style beard and wore traditional baggy tunics and trousers, shunning the Western jeans and shirts preferred by other university students.

"He was depressed. He would fight with people. He was emotional, especially when it came to religious issues," Barakzai recalls.

He says his friend took antidepressants daily, but they failed to lift his mood.

Sami talked of joining the Taliban in waging holy war, or jihad, after graduation, but never said he had been recruited as a suicide bomber, Barakzai says.

In May 2005, the young man walked into the Park Internet café and blew himself up. He killed a U.N. worker from Myanmar and an Afghan customer and wounded five others.

Books Featured In This Story

Dying To Win

The Strategic Logic Of Suicide Terrorism

by Robert A. Pape

Hardcover, 335 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Dying To Win
The Strategic Logic Of Suicide Terrorism
Robert A. Pape

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Dying to Kill

The Allure of Suicide Terror

by Mia Bloom

Paperback, 251 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Dying to Kill
The Allure of Suicide Terror
Mia Bloom

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.