|"While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him." - Fyodor Dostoevsky|
History has revealed that terrorists are capable of carrying out bold and destructive acts that at first glance appear to be unexplainable. What kind of person would sacrifice his or her own life in order to kill innocent people? What could possibly motivate a young person to become a suicide bomber?
In the wake of many tragic events, it can be difficult to analyze objectively the causes and processes leading up to them. For many, understanding the motives behind suicide bombing comes dangerously close to excusing or approving it. It may seem easier just to assume that the people involved are "evildoers" or "callous fanatics delighting in the carnage they have created."  Any extreme measures taken against them will be regarded, not simply as appropriate and justified, but as obligatory. However, terrorism is not a simple phenomenon with easy explanations. Although many people cite "evil" as a prime motivator, there seems to be no single, complete theory about what brings about such behavior. Usually a wide variety of motives and causal factors are involved.
Unsurprisingly, many people have attempted to understand suicide bombing in terms of the abnormality of the individuals responsible. However, if only those with some kind of psychopathology could be terrorists, terrorism would not be the large problem that it is. Research shows no indication that terrorists are crazy or psychopathic or that they lack moral feelings.  Most terrorists are not psychologically deviant and do not operate outside the normal rules of behavior, but are instead ordinary people from unremarkable backgrounds. In fact, research indicates that terrorists tend to have considerable insight into their own actions and are aware of how others view them.  They believe that their violent actions, while somewhat regrettable, are justified and noble. Moreover, their emotional commitment to their cause and comrades is indicative of normal human psychology. Often their actions do not ultimately stem from hatred, but rather from love of their own group and culture that they believe is threatened and requires protection. 
It is important to note at the outset that the use of the term 'suicide' to characterize these attacks reflects an outsider's view. Those who commit or advocate such attacks do not regard them as acts of suicide, but rather as acts of martyrdom.  While suicide is associated with hopelessness and depression, the actions of the bombers are seen as a matter of heroism and honor.
Many theorists focus on ideology in their attempt to understand what motivates suicide bombers. Randy Borum (2003), for example, focuses on terrorist ideology and the process of how these ideas or doctrines develop. He identifies a four-stage process whereby individuals develop extremist beliefs. A group or individual first identifies some sort of undesirable state of affairs; then frames that event or condition as unjust; then blames the injustice on a target policy, person, or nation; and then vilifies or demonizes the responsible party so that aggression seems justified.  Those suffering from adverse conditions do not regard themselves as "bad" or "evil," but only as the victims of injustice. This makes aggression against the "evildoers" who have wronged one's group easier to justify psychologically.
Those who maintain that suicide attacks are motivated by religious ideology suggest that the bombers believe that God has sent them on a mission. They are motivated primarily by the promise of a happy afterlife and heavenly reward and the threat of heavenly retribution Their rationale is that by blowing themselves up in a crowd of people, they are making themselves martyrs and forging their own gateway to heaven.  Many of these individuals are indoctrinated at an early age about the spiritual importance of purifying the world and sacrificing their lives to a holy war. In some cases, radical religious groups use the concepts of benevolence, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom to spread the idea that suicide bombing is a noble and Godly act. 
Terrorists tend to have an apocalyptic worldview and to see the world as precariously balanced between good and evil. They believe that through their actions, they can uphold their values of family, religion, ethnicity, and nationality and bring about the triumph of the good. Acting on God's behalf to defend these values is viewed as more important than life. For example, Muslim fundamentalists often fear that their religious values and culture are in danger of being overwhelmed by the secularism and military and economic power of the West.  Some may view terrorism as a way to defend against these "evils."
Others argue that religious fervor only partly explains the actions of suicide bombers and that religious ideology and political aspirations tend to become intertwined. It is not that suicide bombers simply exhibit an unquestioning obedience to extreme leadership or that they are pressured to carry out such acts. Rather, it is in reaction to perceived political oppression and the belief that one's rights have been trampled. For example, because life under military occupation is experienced as humiliating, many believe they will find a better life in paradise. Many theorists writing about the Palestinian suicide bombers argue that "the suicide bomber, unable to develop and express his individuality under occupation and unable to serve his society in constructive ways, turns to a goal beyond this world."  In short, he comes to believe that he has a religious duty to struggle against the group's enemies and achieve its political goals in the name of God. Suicide is viewed as a tax paid to redress the group's grievances and achieve both its religious and political objectives.
Within particular cultures, martyrdom is also viewed as a status symbol. Those who participate are regarded as heroes who are sure to experience a happy after life. The cultural message is that sacrificing one's own life to kill others is not only acceptable, but highly desirable. An entire cultural structure consisting of family, friends, teachers, religious institutions, and political establishment may share this belief.  For young people struggling to find some significance to their bleak existence, the meaning of suicide bombing is perfectly clear. They will be heroes, they will help the cause of their group, and they will be awarded in the afterlife.
Other theorists stress the idea that becoming a terrorist or suicide bomber is largely a matter of socialization. In some cases, those personally frustrated by their life circumstances may become angry with those they view as the source of their problems. According to Jessica Stern (2003), terrorists are often individuals who feel deeply humiliated and confused about their future path, or are frustrated about the political climate in which they live.  Humiliation, poverty, and hopelessness often gives rise to a sense of outrage and desperation, which can be harnessed by extremist leaders to create support for a terrorist movement. For individuals who feel deeply alienated or desperate, martyrdom provides the ultimate escape from life's dilemmas.
In other cases, individuals become angry about the frustrations and insults experienced by their ethnic, cultural, or religious group, though they do not experience this insult at a personal level. This makes sense of the fact that many terrorists are middle-class individuals who have fairly wide options and some degree of educational background. Their strong group identification and anger over group insult helps to explain their willingness to sacrifice their own lives.
Those who feel frustrated and angry may join terrorist organizations, which provide a variety of emotional, social, and economic benefits. Individuals who have a sense of uncertainty about their future may find that terrorist groups provide the sense of identity, structure, and guidance that they crave. Identification with the cause and other group members may satisfy individuals' needs for meaning and justice and afford them an opportunity to bolster their self-esteem. 
Belonging to a militant group may also satisfy desires for adventure, "glamour," and social connections. Once they join the group, individuals may feel strong and powerful and believe they have a clearer purpose in life. Many terrorist organizations also offer economic incentives to persuade individuals that it is rational to sacrifice their lives for the good of the cause.  For those who believe they lack options, cannot find a job, and have few social safety nets in place to assist them, suicide bombing may seem like a relatively reasonable option. Families of suicide bombers often receive money and are treated as heroes.
Once individuals join organizations that share their frustrations, they may undergo a process of indoctrination whereby their beliefs and behaviors are made to conform the group's basic principles.  Within these tight-knit communities, individuals' fear of letting down their comrades becomes greater than their fear of dying. Many come to believe that by sacrificing their own lives for the sake of the cause, those lives can take on a broader meaning.
Various grievances and social stressors can contribute to the formation of terrorist groups. For example, poverty, unemployment, epidemics, and criminality often lead to social instability, which provides fertile ground for terrorist activity. Over-population, socioeconomic struggle, and a lack of professional opportunities can also produce a sense of rage, powerlessness, and resentment among the populace.
Disaffected individuals and/or groups may perceive the world as treating them harshly and unjustly. In some cases, there are indeed genuine causes for grievance and a sense of group persecution. The move from being a disaffected individual to a violent extremist is usually facilitated by some catalyst event.  In most cases it is an act of extreme violence committed against the individual, family or friends by those in authority or by some rival group. Research findings indicate that most suicide bombers have had at least one of their loved ones killed or severely harmed at the hands of their enemies. Many of them join terrorist groups in an angry and vengeful state of mind with the intent to take part in aggressive acts. They are rarely coerced into it.
In fact, many suicide bombers may view themselves as soldiers engaged in a war. Casualties are then seen as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of fighting for one's just cause. It is not that they are bloodthirsty or that they enjoy killing civilians, but rather that they believe these missions are the only way to fight for their cause. Although the realization that terrorists view themselves as soldiers engaged in a just war does not legitimize their cause or methods, it does provide some insight into their psychology and motivation. It suggests that their psychology is similar to that displayed by combatants in other conflicts, and that suicide bombers view themselves as soldiers or warriors reacting to the provocative abuses and injustices of others.  According to this line of thinking, suicide bombing is a matter of fighting back against unjust political or economic policies, authoritarian governments, and structural violence.
Some argue that the global economic order contributes to groups' sense that they have been wronged. Michael Stevens (2002), for example, argues that globalization contributes to the creation of sociocultural and psychosocial conditions from which terrorism is more likely to emerge.  The West has exported its economic, political, and cultural systems with little regard as to how they might be received. While globalization has no doubt generated wealth, it has also produced economic inequality, threats to language and community, and support for oppressive regimes. Many believe that it has also contributed to the uprooting of traditional values and customs. These unanticipated costs may continue to generate hostility among those harmed, humiliated, or left behind by the new world order.
 Andrew Silke, "Courage in Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology," in Social Research, (70:1, 2004), 178.
 Clark McCauley, "Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 5.
 Silke, 179.
 McCauley, 15.
 Randy Borum, "Understanding the Terrorist Mindset, p. 7-10 in FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (72:7, 2003), 8.
 ibid., 7.
 Ellis Shuman, "What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick?" in Israel Insider, June 4, 2001. [available at: http://www.israelinsider.com/channels/security/articles/sec-0049.htm; accessed 1/05]
 Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God, (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003), 41.
 McCauley, 14.
 Paul J. Balles, "What Turns Victims into Suicide Bombers?" Redress Information and Analysis, [available at: http://www.redress.btinternet.co.uk/pjballes28.htm; accessed 1/05]
 Giovanni Caracci, "Cultural and Contextual Aspects of Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 63.
 Stern, 69.
 Michael J. Stevens, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Globalization: Contextualizing Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 36.
 Stern, 44.
 Caracci, 60.
 Silke, 183.
 ibid., 194.
 Stevens, 31.
Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Suicide Bombers." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/suicide-bombers>.
Historical Background and Risks for the Future
By Yoram Schweitzer
June 18, 2004
Majdi Amer, a Hamas bomb builder, is led by Israeli prison officals. Photo: Courtesy of Channel 4 (U.K.)
Suicide terrorism is not a new phenomenon. From the 11th-century Assassins — whose brazen and usually public murders of their rivals invited immediate death to the perpetrators — to Vietcong sympathizers who blew up themselves and U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, many people have proven their willingness to perish while carrying out attacks in pursuit of their political goals. Yet, the “modern” expressions of the suicide terror phenomenon surfaced with the appearance of the first suicide terrorists in Lebanon, more than 20 years ago.
Suicide attacks began in Lebanon in 1983 (some say 1981, when a sole suicide attack hit the Iraqi embassy in Beirut), at the instigation of Hizbollah, a Lebanese Shiite terror organization. Six months after an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, simultaneous truck bombings killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French paratroopers; just four months later, U.S. troops left Lebanon. Five other organizations (most of them not religious) in Lebanon carried out about 50 suicide attacks before this modus operandi was exported to other areas of the world. The use of suicide attacks garnered considerable prestige for the perpetrators and their organizations — particularly in light of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, which many attributed to the bombings — and turned the act into a symbol of martyrdom and a source of inspiration for other terror organizations worldwide.
What made these actions unprecedented was their scale: driving cars or trucks filled with explosives, an individual (or individuals) could kill scores, if not hundreds, of people. After 1983, many terror groups adapted the concept, giving bombers explosives to carry on their bodies. The resulting bombings were smaller, though more precise, allowing the bomber to be a “guided human missile.” Therefore, modern suicide terror attacks can be defined as violent, politically motivated actions executed knowingly, actively, and with prior intent by individuals who kill themselves while destroying their chosen civilian or military targets. Terrorist groups often choose this tactic because it is available and inexpensive, and the damage caused to the morale of the rival population is grave. A suicide attack, like all other terror attacks in the modern era, is meant to magnify the “power image” of the perpetrating organization.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka; the Palestinian fundamentalist organizations of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) — and later other non-religious groups such as Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey have adopted and refined suicide attacks as their “strategic weapons” against their adversaries.
Under Osama bin Laden’s leadership, al Qaeda and its affiliated groups and networks have given a global dimension to what usually appeared to be national, religious, or local conflicts. Bin Laden’s fundamentalist Islamic ideology and his grand strategy have spread the suicide terror phenomenon throughout the world. For bin Laden and his like-minded disciples, suicide terrorism has served as a weapon of defiance and as a symbolic tool to prove the supremacy of the purity of Muslims over the decadence of their rivals. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, where for the first time an unprecedented number of suicide bombers were used in four simultaneous suicide missions, al Qaeda and others have been leading a global suicide campaign. Through May 2004, al Qaeda and its affiliates had carried out about 80 suicide attacks by about 150 perpetrators. These numbers do not include almost 70 suicide bombers that have operated in Iraq since March 2003 (at least some, if not most, of them belong to the “Global Jihad” movement) and almost the same number of Chechen separatist suicide bombers, who started to operate in 2000.
About 15 percent of suicide bombers have been women. Most of them belonged to the Tamil LTTE or the Turkish PKK; almost two thirds of the PKK’s suicide bombers were female. In both of these groups, their charismatic leaders assured the female volunteers that by participating in the suicide campaign, they would support the group cause while proving that they were as brave as their male peers. Until recently, female suicide bombers were unique to the LTTE, PKK, and other non-religious terror organizations, but this trend has changed recently; some religious leaders have sanctified women’s participation in such acts under their “loose” interpretation of Islamic tradition. (Ironically, the same men claim “strict” readings of the Koran to justify terrorism.) Thus, the Palestinian Hamas and PIJ as well as Chechen separatists have started utilizing female bombers. Importantly, those organizations have been operating in very conservative and traditional societies where women have not enjoyed equal rights with men.
Terrorist organizations call upon their members to take part in suicide attacks under different banners and slogans. Sometimes it is done on behalf of God and religion, sometimes on behalf of the “nation,” and many times as an act of revenge or deterrence against a more powerful adversary. Islamic fundamentalist organizations such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda, and Hizbollah invoke God and interpret the Koran in a way that fits their political and operational needs. By doing so they justify such a battle against the “infidels” in defense of Islam. Most of these groups also use nationalism in their jargon, usually invoking the redemption of a holy land belonging to the larger Muslim nation from the hands of aggressors.
As all major religions forbid suicide, religiously motivated groups always express the motives of suicide bombers in “altruistic” terms; also, all terror groups, religious or not, wish to project strength. Thus, the personal motives of suicide bombers are often concealed. Research conducted with “failed” suicide bombers throughout the world has shown that such motivations do exist, including personal psychological hardships; despair and uncontrollable eagerness for revenge; and specific goals of personal glory, such as familial honor or even money for the bombers’ families. (Editor’s note: The author will publish the results of this study in a forthcoming book.) In one notable example, widely reported in the Israeli press, the first female Hamas suicide bomber — a young mother of two — was allegedly having an extramarital affair; killing herself and several Israelis was said to be the only way she could redeem her name.
Many of those who were tempted to take part in these kinds of activities were mobilized — or, perhaps, seduced — by experienced recruiters specializing in this craft. Recruitment has almost exclusively involved encouraging an individual to sacrifice for the alleged well-being of the community, and the use of persuasion and manipulation techniques — but not physical coercion. The Kurdish PKK is the only organization reported to have executed a member who refused to carry out a suicide.
Another alarming aspect of the suicide phenomenon is the utilization of young children as suicide bombers. The participation of boys as young as 10 to 14 in recent suicide campaigns has been mainly overseen by Palestinian terror organizations that wish to take advantage of the boys’ unthreatening appearance. This has generated outcry among the children’s families and many others.
The victorious reputation of suicide terrorism as the ultimate strategic weapon of the poor and the deprived may contribute to its further dispersal around the world in coming years, and more groups and networks may adopt it into their own arsenal. The main threat emanating from this unique modus operandi is a possible combination of lethal tactics such as a mixture of suicide bombing and non-conventional materials. Much like the unprecedented September 11 attacks, an event of this kind could have global implications.
Yoram Schweitzer is the co-author (with Shaul Shay) of THE GLOBALIZATION OF TERROR: THE AL QAEDA CHALLENGE AND THE RESPONSE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY (Transaction, July 2003).
|1967||In a six-day war with its Arab neighbors, Israel captures the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan.|
|1979||Egypt becomes the first Arab state to recognize Israel, which returns the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace.|
|1993||The Oslo accord is signed. Palestinians recognize Israeli statehood and Israel cedes Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.|
|1995||A right-wing Israeli extremist assassinates Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.|
|2000||U.S.-backed talks between Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak are inconclusive. The second intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa intifada, begins.|
|2001||Shortly after the start of the second intifada, Ariel Sharon is elected Israeli prime minister.|
|2004||Within a one-month period, the Israeli military kills the Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.|
Tags:al Qaeda, Islam, Israel, Palestine, terrorism