What motivates suicide terrorism?

Essay, 2016
16 Pages, Grade: First-class Honours



I. The Nature of Suicide Terror

II. The Interaction between Individual and Organizational motivating factors

III. Conclusion


While in recent years suicide terrorism proved itself as one of the fastest growing threats to peace and security and a preferred weapon of choice of terrorists, there is a profound confusion as to why. Although suicide attacks have occurred during the course of history, they were often part of states’ military campaigns rather than the preferred modus operandi of violent non-state groups which during the period between 1982 and 2015 became responsible for 4,814 attacks in over 40 countries.[1] As recently illustrated by the atrocities in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, Morocco’s coastal city of Casablanca, and Cameroon’s far north village of Bodo, the problem of suicide terrorism is gaining momentum and the insufficient knowledge that we have about the root causes of the phenomenon made it extremely difficult for policymakers to design effective counter-terrorist measures and adequately allocate attention and resources. Therefore, this study would try to shed light on this issue by arguing that suicide terrorism is motivated by the interaction between (1) psychologically traumatized individuals who are determined that death is the only salvation and desire to contribute to the fight with the injustice that generated their agony in the first place and (2) terrorist organizations which offer an outlet for these emotions and exploit personal emotional vulnerabilities in order to push through their political and/or religious ideological propaganda and advance their objectives. Nonetheless, what makes suicide terrorism resonant on both levels is arguably an enabling socio-political context which generates profound personal and communal grievances and provide suicide terrorism with a fertile ground to breed and expand. To support its argument, this study will firstly put the topic in its empirical context and briefly emphasize on the nature of suicide terrorism. Consequently, it will critically evaluate what drives individuals and terrorist organizations to engage in suicide terrorism and specifically focus on their ‘explosive’ interaction. Finally, this study will make its conclusions and identify areas for further research.

I. The Nature of Suicide Terror

Modern day suicide terrorism began with the Beirut Barracks Bombings in 1983 and has since been employed as a tactic by a great amount and variety of terrorist organizations throughout the world from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Despite the fact that academic research is plagued by uncertainty surrounding the exact definition of suicide terrorism, some academics believe that it denotes ‘a diversity of violent actions perpetrated by people who are aware that the odds they will return alive are close to zero.’[2] Nonetheless, the wording of such definition appears to be too broad to encompass the idea that an attack is successfully conducted once at least the perpetrator’s own death is ensured and chances to return alive are equal to zero which makes suicide bombing rather different as compared to high risk assault for instance.[3] Furthermore, it also fails to reflect perpetrators’ readiness to die in the name of political and/or religious cause while inflicting the greatest possible damage to the people in close proximity which distinguishes suicide bombing from ordinary suicide. For the purposes of this study, suicide terrorism shall then mean a violent, politically and/or religiously motivated attack, carried out in a deliberate state of awareness by an individual who personally delivers explosives and detonates them and in this way blows himself or herself up together with a chosen target.[4]

II. The Interaction between Individual and Organizational motivating factors

Due to the great variety of perpetrators and the fact that suicide terrorism have employed men and women of different age, education, marital status, and family background, the creation of a universal psychological profile of the suicide bomber continues to be problematic. Nonetheless, while some scholars believe that individuals who turn into self-sacrificial mode are ‘not depressed, impulsive, lonely, or helpless with a continuous history of being in situations of personal difficulty’[5], this study is going to argue that personal psychological traumatization is at the heart of one’s determination to follow such a self-destructive path and resonate to the ideological propaganda of terrorist organizations. Regardless of the fact that some depicted suicide bombers as not necessarily irrational[6], it is must be understood that the lack of underlying psychopathology does not directly imply for the lack of some psychic pain[7] capable of generating suicidal tendencies in behavior.[8]

As a number of empirical studies have demonstrated, the role of personal causes such as psychological hardships, despair, feelings of humiliation, and aspirations for restored identity, familial honor, and revenge could be considered as key stimuli for individual engagement in suicide attacks.[9] In this sense, as opposed to the ideological statements of bombers serving as post hoc justifications, the motivation for suicide terrorists is in its essence frequently neither religious nor political, but rather psychological and personal.[10] For instance, if we think about 9/11 that had an enormous impact on our understandings of the problem of suicide terrorism, we can see that one of the perpetrators, Mohamed Ata, suffered from depression, social isolation, and hopelessness which more than everything determined the course of his behavior.[11] The other attackers may likewise have been motivated by some kind of personal frustration as their radicalization came prior to their religious and political indoctrination.[12] It is, thus, highly possible that the 9/11 perpetrators went to mosques in their desire for companionship which later contributed to the development of collective religious identity and shared political understandings.[13] The global Salafi jihad movement could be, therefore, regarded as a result of ‘loneliness, alienation, marginalization, underemployment, and exclusion from the highest status in the new or original society’[14] rather than as merely brainwashing religious propaganda as commonly misunderstood. Additionally, analyses of Tamil women raped by the Sinhalese military at checkpoints showed that the inescapable psychic pain they suffered made them willing to join the forces of the non-Islamic, Marxist-driven Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist organization as the ‘Birds of Freedom’ unit of female suicide bombers.[15] Therefore, suicide attackers are, prior to everything else, driven by feelings of revenge, humiliation, and, to a certain extent, altruism which can be generated or exacerbated by some deeply traumatizing catalyst event the individual cannot overcome.[16]


[1] Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, 2015, Suicide Attack Database Results filtered by year: 1982-2015, Online available at: http://cpostdata.uchicago.edu/search_results_new.php, [Accessed on February 21th, 2016].

[2] Ami Pedahzur, 2005, Suicide Terrorism, Cambridge: Polity Press, p.8.

[3] Yoram Schweitzer, 2001, Suicide Terrorism: Development and Characteristics, Countering Suicide Terrorism, ICT, The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terror, The Interdisciplinary center, Israel and America: Anti-Defamation League and ICT, p.78; Boaz Ganor, 2001, Countering Suicide Terrorism: An International Conference, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, p.6.

[4] Mia Bloom, 2006, Dying to Kill: Motivations for Suicide Terrorism, in Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism The Globalization of Martyrdom, (ed.) Ami Padahzur, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, p. 25-50; It is also worth noting that the terms suicide attack, suicide bombing, and suicide terrorism are going to be employed interchangeably throughout the whole study.

[5] Margalit, 2003, The suicide bombers, The New York Review of Books, Vol.50, No.1, Online available at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2003/01/16/the-suicide-bombers/, [Accessed on 27th, 2016].

[6] Franco De Masi, 2011, The Enigma of the Suicide Bomber: A Psychoanalytic Essay, London: Karnac Books Ltd., p.7.; Charlotte Sector, 2005, Experts: Suicide Bombers Not Crazy, Online available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/LondonBlasts/story?id=1004809&page=1, [Accessed on 28th March, 2016];

R. Kim Cragin and Sara A. Daly, 2009, Women as Terrorists Mothers Recruiters and Martyrs, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, p. 59.

[7] It is worth noting that the term ‘psychic pain’ was coined by Shneidman to designate overwhelming and inescapable emotional pain that is experienced by the individual and that may be an indicator of one’s propensity to suicide. See Edwin S. Shneidman, 1996, The Suicidal Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[8] Andrew Silke, 2015, Understanding Suicide Terrorism Insights from Psychology, Lessons from History, in Investigating Terrorism: Current Political, Legal and Psychological Issues (ed.) John Pearse, Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., p.169-178; Meytal Grimland, Alan Apter, and Ad Kerkhof, 2006, Research Trends The Phenomenon of Suicide Bombing A Review of Psychological and Nonpsychological Factors, Crisis, Vol. 27, No.3, p. 107-118.

[9] Mia Bloom, 2005, Dying to kill: the allure of suicide terror, New York: Columbia University Press; Arie W. Kruglanski, Xiaoyan Chen, Mark Dechesne, Shira Fishman and Edward Orehek, 2009, Fully Committed: Suicide Bombers’ Motivation and the Quest for Personal Significance, Political Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 3, p.331-357; Stern, J., 2003, Terror in the name of God: Why religious militants kill. New York: Ecco/Harper Collins; Ricolfi, L., 2005, Palestinians, 1981–2003, in Making sense of suicide missions (ed.) D. Gambetta, p. 77–129, New York: Oxford University Press.

[10] Anne Speckhard and Khapta Akhmedova, 2005, Talking to Terrorists, Journal of Psychohistory, Vol.33, No.2, p.25; M. Sageman, 2004, Understanding terror networks, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 108.

[11] Adam Lankford, 2012, A Psychological Autopsy of 9/11 Ringleader Mohamed Atta, Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Vol.27, No.2, p. 150-159; Robert Pape, 2005, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, New York: Random House, p. 220;

[12] Marc Sageman, 2006, Islam and Al Qaeda, in Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism The Globalization of Martyrdom, (ed.) Ami Padahzur, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, p.126; Meloy, J.R., Mohandie, K., Hempel, A., & Shiva, A., 2001, The violent true believer: Homicidal and suicidal states of mind, Journal of Threat Assessment, Vol.1, No.4, p. 1–14; Restak, R., 2001, Dying to kill: The mind of the terrorist, Cerebrum,3., p. 33–38; Stephen Holmes, 2005, Al-Qaeda, September 11, 2001, in Making Sense of Suicide Missions, (ed.) Diego Gambetta, p. 131-172, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[13] Martha Crenshaw, 2007, Explaining Suicide Terrorism: A Review Essay, Security Studies, Vol.16, No.1, p.156, Online available at: https://fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Crenshaw_Explaining_Suicide_Terrorism.pdf, [Accessed 20th February, 2016].

[14] Marc Sageman, 2006, Islam and Al Qaeda, in Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism The Globalization of Martyrdom, (ed.) Ami Padahzur, p.126; Farhad Khosrokhavar, 2005, Suicide Bombers: Allah’s New Martyrs, (transl.) David Macey, London: Pluto Press.

[15] Mia Bloom, 2006, Dying to Kill: Motivations for Suicide Terrorism.

[16] Adam Lankford, 2011, Could Suicide Terrorists Actually Be Suicidal?, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol.34, No.4, p.343; Riaz Hassan, 2009, What motivates the Suicide Bombers?, Yale Global Online A Publication of the MacMillan Center, Online available at: http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/what-motivates-suicide-bombers-0, [Accessed on February 22th, 2016]; Andrew Silke, 2004, Courage in Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology, Social Research, Vol.70, No.1, p.183.

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What motivates suicide terrorism?
Royal Holloway, University of London
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
First-class Honours
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Dr. Michelle Bentley: 'This is an excellent and extremely well-researched essay'
suicide terrorism, counterterrorism, terrorism
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Mariya Grozdanova (Author), 2016, What motivates suicide terrorism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/324117


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