Suicide bombings have been a methodology that defined a whole new era, that of “new terrorism”. Although used also by organizations like PKK and LTTE, they became a standard in terrorism literature regarding the toolkit of Islamist terror organizations. Additionally, despite suicide attacks used as early as during the 80s, the 9/11 attack became the notorious case to kickstart systematic academic interest. The terms suicide bombing and suicide attacks have been used interchangeably, as synonymous, meaning a dual act, an attack to kill and/or destroy a material target using one’s own life. Although the word “suicide” has been capturing the attention of media and scholars, the term clearly describes an aggressive action. Organizations and individual perpetrators have been choosing “suicide bombings” as a tactic and this has been a strategic choice, based on multiple practical benefits.
On December 25, 2020- according to the information that has been published up to now by media quoting U.S. authorities- a suicide bombing case that cannot be classified easily as the standard suicide attack we know about may have occurred. Research has been pointing out to an individual whose remains have been found and most probably was behind the terrible blast. However, if the suicide bombing scenario indeed proves to be right, this is a case where the perpetrator tried to warn people and keep them away from the explosion to avoid or minimize human casualties. The explosion was timed for Christmas morning (thus few people would be out on the streets) and from the RV that caused the explosion a computerized voice was broadcasting repeatedly a warning for people to move away.
The motives behind the explosion remain unclear and the alleged perpetrator has not been linked to a political ideology, or religion in ways that could shed some light to the intention behind the act. Some news gives information about the possibility that the dead suspect believed in 5G and conspiracy theories and if this proves to be true it may be examined also as part of the unrest and reactions against COVID-19 measures taken to respond to the pandemic. An interesting detail is that the van was parked outside an AT&T data center (affiliated to CNN), which is some evidence linking the blast to a reaction against technology and media.
The big question is:
Was this suicide bombing a suicide attack in the way we have been defining it in terrorism literature?
Did the perpetrator want to destroy the AT&T facilities as his main goal and giving up his life was just a way to accomplish it?
Well, given the whole operational plan he seems to have followed, he could have succeeded into creating that explosion without “sacrificing” himself. Is it possible that in this case the word “suicide” is more than the means? Could it be that the scope was a suicide, and the explosion and destruction part were not an attack per se, but just a way to create media impact and draw attention to the suicide? We do know for sure that the suspect tried to avoid the victimization of others (although 3 people did get injured, as there is no foolproof plan to avoid hurting people during a blast occurring in an inhabited area), so attacking others was surely not part of the plan.
As authorities look more into the evidence, we may have to change how we pay attention to suicide bombings from now on as a security threat. If the suspect proves to have carried out an attack, then terrorism literature needs to be updated. Once more suicide attacks prove to be a tactical weapon not exclusive to Islamists. They can be used by any group or individual (lone wolf or entirely self- radicalized and self-recruited to serve his own aggressive mens rea) carrying out extremist/terrorist attacks. Of course, also the will to die during the attack should also be discussed in a new way, since -as mentioned before- the death of the perpetrator in the Nashville blast does not seem to have been a tactical necessity, because it was not linked at all with the practical possibility of such an explosion being successful. This that the circle of future threats becomes wider and such a situation does not make the work of counter terrorism officials easier. It does though remind us that there are no red lines and “exclusivities” in extremism and terrorism.
If, on the other hand, this was a suicide bombing but not a suicide attack, then security experts must learn to disassociate from now on this operation from terrorism. A bombing can be just part of a “plain” suicide plan, that wants to draw with its aftermath publicity. A person ending his/her life could want to create havoc leaving this world for many reasons, some related to the reasons of the suicide in the first place. Sometimes the suicide committed is a way for the person to make a last communication and leave a footprint in this world (even if this is a destructive one). This type of suicide bombings could prove to be even more challenging to prevent/stop. Authorities have enough difficulties tracking down suspects radicalized to violence, ready to kill dying. Yet at least in terrorism and extremism related suicide bombings there can be prior communication off and online in social media, forms of networking with others or guidance by a group that can give away the plan. In cases of suicide such evidence prior to the bombing could be missing, because often the suicide plan remains a total secret up to the very last moment.
There are ongoing challenges in the security sector. Nothing is static, nothing remains the same. Threats, operational tactics, groups, ideologies, technologies can change. This means that also terms and definitions can change, and they need constant updating for authorities and experts to be ready to analyze and respond adequately. The Nashville blast could prove an incident to make us rethink suicide bombings both as a term we use and as an act we must prevent and deal with its consequences.