Suicide attacks have been around for decades, but the string of blasts that paralyzed London on July 7 marked the first time the tactic has been used in Western Europe. Experts say the bombings are a wake-up call to all European countries and the United States -- states geographically removed from conflict areas where suicide bombings are common.
Opinions differ as to whether suicide recruits would be homegrown or imported.
Bruce Newsome, a terrorism researcher at the think tank RAND, said the plot carried out by four men in London is a "likely model for future U.S. attacks." The bombers, all British citizens, had no criminal records, weren't on any watch lists and had no extremist pasts. (A fifth man, believed to be the mastermind of the plot, has been arrested in Egypt.) Tracking such potential perpetrators is nearly impossible because there are no warning signs, Newsome said.
For a long time, Brits reassured themselves that because the United Kingdom was liberal and a safe haven to fundamentalist Muslims, it would never become a target, Newsome explained. Although intelligence forces have been good at thwarting past attempts of attack on Britons, Brits still remain No. 3 on the al Qaeda hit list (after Americans and Jews), he said. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been President Bush's closest ally in fighting the war on terror and in Iraq.
Regardless of reasons, people were shocked to learn that homegrown recruits carried out the bombings.
Like anarchists, many jihadis are college-educated, middle class and often they seek a guru rather than a formal structure, said Scott Atran, terrorism expert and professor at the University of Michigan, describing exactly what police detectives discovered about the London bombers. Their hard-to-penetrate social networks consist of about 70 percent friends and 20 percent family, he said. They don't necessarily have a fanatical or violent past before they become "born-again" radical Islamists, and many are married. Most would-be suicide bombers Atran has interviewed said they're committed idealists on a mission to "save humanity" and restore dignity to their community.
Using humans as bombs has gained in popularity over the last couple of years. From 2000 to 2003, more than 300 suicide attacks killed more than 5,300 people in 17 countries and wounded thousands, according to Atran, adding that more and more are religiously motivated. The numbers have drastically increased with the Iraqi insurgency opting for suicide bombing as the weapon of choice.
The first major contemporary suicide attack was the December 1981 bombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut. The next spate of attacks came in 1983 with Lebanon's Hezbollah party going on a rampage to kick the French and U.S. armies out of the country. Following in its footsteps, the Palestinian Hamas terrorist group has continued using suicide bombers in Israel. In Southeast Asia, the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka perfected suicide attacks by indoctrinating youths at an early age. Once the Tamil secured a measure of autonomy, the suicides stopped. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks also stand out as a massive suicide operation in the United States.