Dying without killing?


The al-Sarafiyah Bridge in Baghdad - April 2007

Recently a reader of this blog (its good to know I have at least one) emailed pmsmartbomb at gmail dot com and asked some interesting questions about whether suicide attacks had ever been used against infrastructure targets rather than aiming at causing mass casualties.

The short answer was, yes they have.

The first incident I came across was in Iraq in 2003, when three explosive -laden boats attempted to attack an important offshore oil platform near Basra. The attack was beaten off by US naval forces, with two American fatalities. According to reports at the time the terminal was responsible for most of Iraq’s 1.9 million barrels per day of exports. So, strategically a fairly important target.

Oddly enough the next two significant incidents were also against oil targets. In February 2006, two suicide VBIEDs along with armed support tried to attack the Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq. This site apparently handles two-thirds of the country’s oil production. So again, a major target – so much so that the cost of a barrel of oil jumped 3.4 per cent on the news of the failed attack. The attackers tried to ram the gates and were fired upon by security personnel. At least one of the VBIEDs exploded and some reports claim that a long firefight ensued outside the gates. An interesting detail of this incident was that the attackers had gone to the lengths of acquiring Aramco uniforms and insignia for their vehicles, suggesting a good deal of planning and preparation. Further detail is provided by this comment from Neil Partrick of the EIU, which suggests that security at the site was perhaps not as good as it should have been:

Apparently the first of three perimeter fences of the Abqaiq facility was broached by men dressed in ARAMCO uniforms and driving ARAMCO vehicles. Only as they approached the second perimeter fence were they shot at. The fact that insurgents either had inside assistance from members of the formal security operation of the state-owned energy company to the extent that … they gained vehicles and uniforms, or that security was sufficiently [lax] that these items could be obtained and entry to the site obtained, is seriously concerning.

In September of 2006, an almost identical set of attacks was attempted at two oil facilities. The first at the Ash Shihr oil export terminal in Hadramout, the second against an oil refinery in Marib. Both attacks comprised two suicide VBIEDs.

According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, in the first attack

Two small trucks were seen approaching an external wall, each driven by a single occupant. One truck exploded at the wall, killing one gate guard and wounding two others. The second truck rammed through the destroyed area.

The second driver was then shot and wounded by Yemeni military personnel guarding the site and he detonated just inside the perimeter. The second attack appears to have followed an identical approach. Again, from Jane’s:

Two small trucks loaded with explosives were each driven by a single terrorist towards the east fence of the Central Production Unit. The first tried to ram an unguarded locked gate in the chain-link perimeter fence at a point where the road passed under a pipeline bridge. The first vehicle rammed the gate and detonated. The second truck began its run towards the destroyed gate but veered off-road and rammed an undamaged section of chain-link fence. The reason for this switch may have been the presence of three trucks moving on the road inside the destroyed gate, or might have been promoted by the blockage of the gate by debris from the first vehicle. The second car bomb also detonated as it struck the fence, causing minor damage to an adjacent gas compression plant. Apart from the two bombers killed, there were no casualties at the site, where operations were fully restored by mid-afternoon.

In the first attack, at least one of the bombers was dressed in military uniform, while in the second the attackers were dressed in oil company uniform. As the Jane’s article points out, these were pretty unsophisticated attacks -there was no supporting assault team to suppress the security guards and in both cases the second wave attacker failed to get to within striking range of the main target; they also only managed to kill a single guard in the two attacks.

The last significant incidents I am aware of arose in Iraq in Spring 2007, when insurgents began targeting the bridges spanning the Tigris. The general approach was to drive a VBIED onto the bridge, crash past the inevitable checkpoint and detonate in the centre of the span, aiming to bring the bridge down. See here and here for examples of these attacks.

There is another spectacular example of this sort of ‘human demolition charge’, again in Iraq, in October 2005, when three VBIEDs were used in a complex assault on the Palestine hotel in Baghdad. A quote from Time to describe the incident:

The plan was as audacious and complex as it was chilling. Highly coordinated, at approximately 5:30 p.m., the first suicide car bomb approached the outer perimeter of the compound next to Firdos Square, where American forces famously toppled the huge statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003. The vehicle then exploded, breaching the concrete barrier that led into the hotel compound. Just minutes later, a second vehicular bomb, this time in an SUV, exploded next to the 14th Ramadan mosque across the square, just 100 yards from the Agriculture Ministry. Police and other security agents rushed across the roundabout amid a fusillade from insurgents and security forces. That was the opening for the third bomb, a cement truck, which moved through the breach left by the first explosion and approached the hotel.

The driver of the cement truck was subsequently fired upon and detonated his vehicle too early. If you look at the linked video, you can see the cement truck in the bottom right hand side of the screen just prior to the detonation. So again, these attackers were motivated enough to kill themselves in order to remove a barrier for their comrades who would follow them.

It’s not hard to see why groups might seek to target oil and other major industrial facilities. Even a failed attack can raise tensions and prices in the energy markets. However, a more interesting question arises around the motivation of the individual attackers. Clearly in both the Yemeni attacks (and perhaps those in Saudi) part of the plan was to use the first VBIED to act as a breaching charge to clear the way for the second vehicle-bomb. In Yemen, in both cases, this part of the plan appears to have worked, but the second element failed to get through to the main target. But how does a group manage motivate an aspiring martyr to kill himself in order to destroy an inanimate and secondary objective, with little or no prospect of killing infidels/crusaders/apostates (delete as appropriate)?

The only potential explanations I can think of are either a) the perpetrating groups had very effective recruitment and indoctrination programmes, and were able to convince these attackers that this was a justifiable and religiously sanctionable action; b) that the individuals involved had such a desire to achieve martyrdom that they did not really care how they died, just so long as it was in the service of the  ’cause’; c) both of the above.

If anyone has any better/more plausible explanations, I’d love to hear them – just drop a line in the comments section. Also, there are almost certainly numerous other examples of such incidents, so if you known of any please highlight them below also.

My thanks to the original correspondent who provoked some of these thoughts.


Christopher Allbritton, ‘The Baghdad Hotel Attack: The Real Targets’, Time, 26 October 2005

Michael Knights, ‘Yemen oil attacks display intent but little capability’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 November 2006


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