The Taliban Fedayeen: The World’s Worst Suicide Bombers?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 14

Suicide bombing statistics from Afghanistan alarmingly demonstrate that, if the current trend continues, 2007 will surpass last year in the number of overall attacks. While there were 47 bombings by mid-June 2006, there have been approximately 57 during the same period this year. Compounding fears of worse carnage to come, Afghanistan’s most lethal single suicide bombing attack to date recently took the lives of 35 Afghan police trainers near Kabul. When considering the expanding use of IEDs and the discovery of the first Iraqi-style Explosively Formed Projectile (EFP) in Afghanistan in May (i.e. a more deadly form of IED that has killed high numbers of soldiers in Iraq), it is understandable that critics of the war in Afghanistan discuss it in alarmist tones. Approximately 80% of U.S. casualties in Iraq come from IEDs, and members of the U.S. and Afghan military who were interviewed for this study believed that the absence of mass casualty suicide bombings and EFPs were the two factors that made Afghanistan less dangerous than Iraq. A deeper investigation of the wave of suicide bombings that have swept the country in 2006 and 2007 paints a less bleak picture.

Missing the Target

An analysis of the attacks carried out in the last two years reveals a curious fact. In 43% of the bombings conducted last year and in 26 of the 57 bombings traced in this study up to June 15, the only death caused by the bombing was that of the bomber himself. Astoundingly, approximately 90 suicide bombers in this two year period succeeded in killing only themselves. This number exceeds 100 when you factor in those who succeeded in killing only one person in addition to themselves. There was one period in the spring of 2006 (February 20 to June 21) when a stunning 26 of the 36 suicide bombers in Afghanistan (72%) only killed themselves. This puts the kill average for Afghan suicide bombers far below that of suicide bombers in other theaters of action in the area (Israel, Chechnya, Iraq and the Kurdish areas of Turkey). Such unusual bomber-to-victim death statistics are, of course, heartening for both coalition troops—who have described the Afghan suicide bombers as “amateurs”—and the Afghan people—who are usually the victims of the clumsy bombings.

These statistics also represent a uniquely Afghan phenomenon that warrants investigation. In the first portion of this study, it was demonstrated that a part of the reason for this low kill ratio lies in the Taliban’s unique targeting sets (Terrorism Monitor, March 1). As Pashtuns with a strong code (Pashtunwali) that glorifies acts of martial valor and badal (revenge), the Afghan suicide bombers are more prone to hit “hard” military targets than callously obliterate innocent civilians in the Iraqi fashion. On the rare occasions where there have been high casualty bombings of Afghan civilians, they tend to have been carried out by Arab al-Qaeda bombers [1].

The Taliban’s selective targeting is a calculated decision on the part of the Taliban shuras (councils) to avoid inciting the sort of anti-Taliban protests that led thousands in the Pashtun town of Spin Boldak to chant “Death to Pakistan, Death to al-Qaeda, Death to the Taliban” following a particularly bloody suicide bombing in that frontier city (BBC News, January 18, 2006). Taliban spokesman Zabiyullah Mujahed recently claimed, “We do our best in our suicide attacks to avoid civilian casualties. These are our Muslim countrymen, and we are sacrificing our blood to gain their freedom. Their lives are important to us, of course. But fighting with explosives is out of the control of human beings.” Then he made an interesting admission that speaks to other factors that might explain the Afghan suicide bombers’ failure rate. He stated, “We have a problem with making sure they attack the right targets, avoiding killing civilians” (BBC News, June 21).

Clearly, there is more to the Taliban bombers’ stunning failure rate than simply “hard” targeting difficulties and an obvious reluctance to slaughter the Afghan constituency that the Taliban is trying to win over. Members of the Afghan police, government and National Directorate of Security (NDS) who were interviewed about this trend during the months of April and May 2007 offered a surprisingly unanimous explanation for the Taliban bombers’ poor showing [2]. The cause for the Afghan suicide bombers’ underwhelming performance, they claimed, lay in the ineptitude of the people the Taliban were recruiting as fedayeen (suicide) bombers. Afghan officials continually told stories of lower class people who had been seduced, bribed, tricked, manipulated or coerced into blowing themselves up as “weapons of God” or “Mullah Omar’s missiles.” Afghan NDS officials also spoke of apprehended bombers who were deranged, retarded, mentally unstable or on drugs.

Such claims should, of course, be accepted with caution for two reasons. First, the targets of suicide bombings are prone to speak in disparaging tones regarding the mental state and motives of those who carry out bombing attacks against them. They tend to describe them as mindless, insane, fanatical, drugged or brain-washed. Second, in his ground-breaking work Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman has refuted the long-held notion that suicide bombers are impoverished, voiceless dupes tricked into killing themselves. Rather, he has shown them to be politically and religiously motivated. They are conscious actors who, like the multilingual and educated September 11 attack team, do not need to be brainwashed. Certainly, in the Afghan context there are bombers who fit the Sageman profile. Several Taliban leaders have carried out bombings, and the al-Qaeda team that scrambled on short notice to launch the symbolically important mass-casualty bombing at Bagram Air Base during Vice President Dick Cheney’s February 2007 visit was clearly comprised of professionals [3].

Nevertheless, interviews and field work conducted in Afghanistan for this study revealed considerable evidence that the “duped, bribed, brainwashed” paradigm applies to a growing percentage of the bombers being deployed in the Afghan theater [4]. Afghan police told of numerous incidents where citizens in Kabul reported finding abandoned suicide vests in the city. They seemed to signify a last minute change of heart in several would-be-bombers. In one case, they told of a mentally deranged man who threw his vest at an Afghan patrol, assuming it would explode on its own [5]. Several of the bombers apprehended by the NDS were carrying mind altering hallucinogens or sedatives, which they had been told to take in order to calm their fears during their last moments of life. Others, including a Taliban bomber who was arrested while pushing his explosives-laden car toward its target after it ran out of gas, appear to be inept beyond belief [6]. Recent media and think-tank reports have also mentioned the utilization as suicide bombers of an Afghan war invalid who was blind, another who was an amputee and one who was a disabled man whose only motive was to make money for his family (Terrorism Monitor, November 18, 2004; New York Times, October 21, 2005). Coalition troops who have spoken of seeing bombers blow themselves up far from their convoys have characterized it as the act of drugged or mentally unstable bombers.

While this might explain some of the Afghan suicide bombers’ failures, there also appears to be a financial motive behind several of the bombings that offers further explanation. UN representatives spoke of a bomber who entered a Kabul internet cafe in 2005. Instead of setting off his bomb in the middle of the cafe where it would do the most damage, he went into a bathroom to set it off, killing only two people [7]. There are many such examples of Afghan suicide bombers seemingly with a conscience or reluctance to inflict mass casualties. The fact that a number of them are doing it simply for payments for their families might explain this [8].

Research in the Pashtun areas to the southeast of Kabul reveals an even more disturbing trend than the employment of suicide bombers who are mentally unsound, using drugs or working solely for money payments: the use of child bombers.

Afghanistan’s Child Bombers

Local villagers interviewed for this study—living in front-line provinces such as Khost, Paktika and Paktia—have reported that Taliban recruiters were active in their areas. Many parents have lost their young impressionable sons to those who prey upon them [9]. Parents often learn of their tragic fates only when the Taliban arrive at their homes to hand out their sons’ “martyrdom payments.” Villagers are, of course, outraged by such tactics, but there is often little recourse in light of the Taliban’s dominance in the countryside. In one case, a powerful tribal chieftain in Khost province who discovered that his son had been recruited by Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani for a “martyrdom operation” managed to get him back (after threatening to attack the Taliban with his tribe); unfortunately, this is an exception, as is the recent case of a captured 14 year-old suicide bomber who was personally pardoned by President Hamid Karzai, who announced, “Today we are facing a hard fact, that is a Muslim child was sent to madrassa to learn Islamic subjects, but the enemies of Afghanistan misled him toward suicide and prepared him to die and kill” [10].

Such recruitment for madrassa training of young bombers is even more widespread on the Pakistani side of the border. There have been several widely reported instances of the Taliban recruiting school children to be suicide bombers in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). In one notorious instance, Taliban soldiers arrived at the Oxford High English medium school in Tank and began to recruit young boys by asking them to fulfill their “jihad duty” and engage in an “adventure.” According to eyewitnesses, “The militants came to town with a mission, and wanted to convert us to their cause. ‘They said that jihad was obligatory and those who heed the call are rewarded,’ the principal said. ‘As many as 30 students from each of the four government schools in Tank enlisted.’ A similar number have also joined from private schools. The ages of those taken are between 11 to 15 years.” According to one of the teachers involved, the students who were recruited without their parents’ permission were subsequently trained as suicide bombers (BBC News, June 12). The age of these bombers would explain why one of the courses in Taliban suicide camps teaches students how to drive a car.

In a similar case, two Pakistani teenagers who left school to train as suicide bombers without their parents’ permission claimed, “We were told to fight against Israel, America and non-Muslims,” said Muhammed Bakhtiar, 17, explaining why he wanted to become a suicide bomber. “We are so unhappy with our lives here. We have nothing. We read about jihad in books and wanted to join…We wanted to go to the Muridke madrassa so we would have a better life in the hereafter” (MSNBC, March 28).

While Mullah Nazir, a powerful Taliban leader in Pakistan’s Waziristan provinces recently made an unprecedented request for the Taliban to stop recruiting children, a recent video of a suicide bomber ceremony in the region would seem to indicate that his appeal has been honored in the breach (Daily Times, June 19). In the video that was obtained by ABC, boys as young as 12 are shown “graduating” from a suicide bombing camp run by Mullah Dadullah Mansour, the successor to his brother, the recently slain Mullah Dadullah (ABC News, June 22).

As disturbing as this video is, it pales in comparison to the discovery Afghan security officials recently made in eastern Afghanistan. In an incident that caused tears of fury among local villagers, a six year-old street urchin approached an Afghan security checkpoint and claimed that he had been cornered by the Taliban and fitted with a suicide bomber vest. They had told him to walk up to a U.S. patrol and press a button on the vest that would “spray flowers” (Daily Mail, June 26). Fortunately, the quick thinking boy instead asked for help, and the suicide bomb vest was subsequently removed.

While this case is obviously an extreme example, it fits the trend and certainly goes a long way in helping to explain why almost half of Taliban suicide bombers succeed in killing only themselves. Many Taliban bombers come from small backwater villages and have to be taught how to drive on strange roads, travel beyond their locale or country and then hit fast moving, armored coalition convoys with improvised explosives. Even at the best of times, suicide bombing is a task that involves considerable resolve, determination, focus and a degree of intelligence. Clearly, such vital ingredients are often missing in the Afghan context, where many of the bombers appear to be as much victims as perpetrators.

Commenting on the bombers’ failure rate, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick explained the lack of ambiguity that U.S. military personnel have about the bombers who commit suicide instead of suicide bombings. “Certainly there are a fair number of failed attempts, and that’s OK. I hope they don’t get better” (St. Petersburg Times, November 23, 2006). While some have engaged in relativism in efforts to compare the coalition’s “collateral damage” losses from close air support to the Taliban’s “collateral damage” from suicide bombing, the coalition clearly has the moral high ground when the enemy has resorted to deploying children as “living weapons.”


1. The bomber who killed 20 people in a mosque in Kandahar in 2005 was an Arab. The bomber in the Spin Boldak bombing of 2006 which killed 26 civilians was also said to be an Arab and the Taliban later denied responsibility for the unusually bloody bombing. Similarly, al-Qaeda leader Abu Laith al-Libi has been accused of being the mastermind behind the February 2007 large suicide bombing at Bagram Air Field during Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit that killed 22 civilians. Most recently, NDS officials in July arrested an Arab member of al-Qaeda who was planning to use suicide bombers to assassinate Afghan officials.

2. Author Interviews, Kabul, April 2007.

3. In one case a mullah drove a vehicle-borne improvised device into a bus. Most recently, the Kunduz bombing of May 2007 was carried out by a mullah named Jawad from Baghlan province.

4. Marc Sageman’s excellent work has more applications for elite, transnational al-Qaeda-style bombers than the impoverished, illiterate Afghans who seem to make up the majority of the bombers in recent years.

5. Author Interview in National Directorate of Security Headquarters, Kabul, April 2007.

6. Story relayed to author by Craig Harrison, Director of UN Security in Afghanistan, UNAMA Compound, Kabul, April 2007.

7. The media erroneously reported that the bomber had set the bomb off in the middle of the cafe.

8. As in other “zones of jihad,” including Chechnya and Iraq, it appears that Arab financiers are offering payments ranging from $11,000 to $23,000 for those who carry out bombings.

9. Author’s findings while carrying out research in the region in April 2007.

10. This story was conveyed to the author in Gardez, Paktia province by Tom Gregg of the UNAMA, on the morning after a suicide bomber hit the town. Local Pashtuns interviewed after the bombing called the attack “obscene” and “un-Islamic.”