Weighing the Implications of Suicide Attacks in Europe

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Last week's attacks are believed to mark the first suicide bombings in Western Europe. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on the implications of the spread of a tactic that's long been mostly a phenomenon of the Middle East and Iraq.


As the tactic of using suicide bombers spreads from the Middle East to the West, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on the implications.


The arrival of suicide bombers in the West is a prospect that both security officials and ordinary citizens have feared and hoped they'd never have to face. In the first few days after the London attacks, British authorities, including Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, played down reports that suicide bombers might be responsible.

Sir IAN BLAIR (Metropolitan Police Commissioner): We have absolutely nothing to suggest that this was a suicide bombing attack, although nothing at this stage can be ruled out.

KELLY: For days, security officials, both in the US and in the UK, briefed reporters that the attacks were probably not the work of suicide bombers, that the devices had instead been detonated by timers and that the people who set them had gotten away.

Revelations on Tuesday toppled that theory as it emerged that four British Muslim men had likely blown themselves up along with three tube trains and a double-decker bus. For Skip Brandon, a former senior FBI official, that marks a real turning point in the nature of the terrorist threat.

Mr. SKIP BRANDON (Former Senior FBI Official): One of the biggest impacts that I see is on the national psyche of the UK. And, if it happens here in the United States, all of a sudden every time you're in a grocery store, you're in a movie theater or anything else, people are going to be wondering: Is there somebody sitting next to me with a bomb?

KELLY: Brandon helped run the FBI's national security and counterterroism programs. He says suicide attacks are much harder for law enforcement to detect and disrupt, and, thus, potentially, much more dangerous than other forms of terrorism. On the other hand, Raphael Perl, a terrorism analyst at the Congressional Research Service, is less persuaded that suicide tactics significantly change the equation. But he does see one significant difference: the possibly negative impact on civil liberties.

Mr. RAPHAEL PERL (Congressional Research Service): You can't check everybody, so you're going to have to start profiling. There's no question about it. I mean, we'll be more prone to look for a certain type of individual and it won't be the 83-year-old grandmother carrying a bag of apples.

KELLY: In Britain, the revelation that suicide bombers were likely behind the London attacks has been compounded by the revelation that the bombers were homegrown and appear to have long been part of their community. Here in the US, FBI director Robert Mueller recently told Congress he worries about both recent arrivals and sleeper operatives who've been inside the US for years. Mueller said tracking such covert operatives is one of the toughest challenges facing the FBI.

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): The very nature of a covert operative, trained not to raise suspicion and to appear benign, is what makes their detection so difficult.

KELLY: There are downsides, from a terrorist's point of view, to using suicide bombers. Among them, notes Skip Brandon, is that, for obvious reasons, they can't be deployed again.

Mr. BRANDON: A good terrorist group doesn't like to waste people. If they can go someplace and plant a bomb and get away, then the bomber lives to bomb again another day. So it is something that they have to think about, because, I guess, you would say there are finite resources involved.

KELLY: But here again, terrorism expert, Raphael Perl, disagrees. He argues that, in certain countries, say Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, there's a practically bottomless supply of suicide bombers. Perl believes big American cities have so far escaped London's fate only because improved immigration screening is working and keeping potential bombers out. If true, the lesson from London is a sobering one: that the attackers could already be here, waiting for the order to strike. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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