Page last updated at 00:23 GMT, Wednesday, 13 July 2005 01:23 UK

Suicide bombing: Desperate tactic

Rescue workers and police inspect a body at the site of a suicide bomb attack in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya
Palestinians have widely used the suicide bomber during the intifada

Police in the UK are increasingly leaning towards the idea that at least three men behind the country's worst bomb attacks on 7 July 2005 also took their own lives when they killed and maimed scores of commuters.

Almost a week later in the Middle East, after an uneasy truce, the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad sent an 18-year-old on a suicide mission in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya.

In Iraq, more than 1,200 people have died since May - mostly as a direct result of suicide attacks.

The 21st Century appears to have no shortage of men and women who are willing to kill themselves for a cause.

Most are young - late teens to early 20s - and gripped by the belief that "martyrdom" will bring an after-life of divine rewards.

This is a deadly breed of militant which the defences of the mightiest appear almost too flimsy to resist - as the whole world was able to observe on 11 September 2001 in the US.

Old tactic

The use of the suicide bomber is not new - their increased intensity is.

World history is littered with instances of glorification of human sacrifice in the service of a greater principle - even though most cultures are horrified at someone keen to kill himself or herself in order to kill others.

From the Spartans to the Romans and until the Middle Ages people died in assassination attacks.

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
Once we have warplanes and missiles, then we can think of changing our means of legitimate self-defence
Sheikh Yassin
Late Hamas leader

The practice was re-invented when Japanese kamikaze pilots flew their planes into US ships towards the end of World War II, experienced a lull for a few decades to re-emerge in Lebanon in the 1980s with the Hezbollah groups fighting the Israeli army.

It went on to be adopted by Palestinian militants in the Occupied Territories in the late 1980s and, in a sense, came of age with the start of the Palestinian intifada in 2000.

In between, it was used by fundamentalist Kurds against Turkish targets, Chechens against Russians - but flourished when applied by Tamil Tiger rebels fighting against Sri Lankan forces.

The Tamil Tigers, in fact, are believed to be responsible for one of the greatest waves of suicide bombings in world history. Among their victims was former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - killed in 1991 by a woman bomber.

Asymmetric warfare

Ever since 11 September 2001, military and political analysts have mooted the concept of "asymmetric warfare" to explain the rise of suicide bombing.

In classical terms, it means that rebel insurgents unable to fight a conventional war have to resort to guerrilla tactics against powerful states.

These methods range from suicide bombings to weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and cyber warfare.

In sum, the current spate of suicide bombings is an expression of desperation by groups unable to reach their political and military objectives through conventional means, analysts say.

World Trade Center tower burns on 11 Sept 2001
Bombers targets symbols of power
And whilst being a cost-effective means of war - compared to a large-scale military operation - many argue that the tactic has usually not brought the desired results.

To illustrate, they point to the election of the right-wing Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in response to the Palestinian bombs.

But, as the assassinated leader of Hamas once argued, the Palestinian militants would continue using suicide bombers.

"Once we have warplanes and missiles, then we can think of changing our means of legitimate self-defence," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was quoted as saying in the book Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.

Martyrdom hopes

In March 2004, 15-year-old Hussam Abdo took up his own small place in the imagery of the Middle East conflict.

He was arrested by Israeli troops before detonating his charge.

A tiny figure inside an Israeli jail, he told the BBC's James Reynolds why he had decided to become a suicide bomber.

Hussam Abdo
The first reason I became a suicide bomber was because my friend was killed. The second reason I did it is because I didn't want to go to school

"The reason was because my friend was killed," he said.

"The second reason I did it is because I didn't want to go to school."

Hussam Abdo went on to deny it was suicide - "it's martyrdom", he said.

"I would become a martyr and go to my God. It's better than being a singer or a footballer. It's better than everything."

In a similar vein, a Chechen woman told the BBC in 2003 how she had parted company with her 18-month-old daughter to become a "black widow" - one of those whose husbands had been killed in the war with Russia and who had decided to become suicide bombers.

Islam expressly prohibits suicide bombing - but there is a long tradition of venerating the martyr who dies fighting for God's cause.

Video-taped testimonies of Palestinian bombers are replete with references to a blissful paradise awaiting them.

But this is not the only motivation, researchers say.

The bombers expect to be remembered as heroic figures, says Christoph Reuter in his book My Life is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing.

But they usually have no say in how they will die - their superiors decide on the mission, sometimes giving the bombers only a few minutes' notice.

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