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Suicide Terrorism

National Institute of Justice Journal
Date Published
July 1, 2006

Since September 11, 2001, research on terrorism has increasingly focused on suicide terrorism. Though the number of terrorist attacks has decreased since the mid-1980’s,[1]fatalities have dramatically increased because of a rise in especially lethal suicide attacks by individuals on behalf of terrorist organizations.[2]

NIJ hosted a Suicide Terrorism Research Conference in October 2004 that brought together a distinguished panel focused on this phenomenon. Although the presenters differed in their approach to the study of suicide terrorism, the discussions yielded a rich exchange of ideas that may serve to broaden the scope of future research.

Existing Research on Suicide Terrorism

Allison Smith of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (then a fellow with the Department of Homeland Security) reviewed 34 research projects on suicide terrorism. Most of the projects reviewed were released in 2002 or later. She categorized the different research methods to study suicide terrorism: expert analysis (37 percent), interviews (20 percent), literature reviews (14 percent), analysis of event datasets (14 percent), data from secondary sources, including legal proceedings and articles (9 percent), and surveys (6 percent).

Smith also summarized the recommendations made by the 34 projects. The most common recommendations (and the frequency with which they were recommended) included:

  • “Weaken terrorist groups by targeting leaders.” (6)
  • “Realize that attacking groups may lead them to become more adaptive and/or ruthless.” (6)
  • “Develop informants to infiltrate terrorist groups.” (5)
  • “Strip away the terrorist groups’ supporters by engaging them in dialogue.” (5)

What Is “Suicide Terrorism”?

Clear operational definitions and well-defined variables are a challenge to researchers who study suicide terrorism. Some conference attendees disagreed on which definition of suicide terrorism to use.

Andrew Silke of the University of East London noted that throughout history, acts that some might dismiss as “crazy” or “diabolical” have frequently been employed as rational terrorist tactics. Examples include Cato’s self-inflicted stabbing and Samson’s destruction of the temple where he was held. He noted that groups that have used suicide as a tool include Japanese samurai, English suffragists, IRA hunger-strikers, and Japanese kamikaze pilots. Silke also raised the question of how we should consider last-stand battles, such as the Spartans at Thermopylae or Americans at the Alamo. Silke’s historical framework prompted the panel of experts to debate how best to determine the difference between suicide and “suicidal” (high-risk) acts. Central to the discussion was deciding whether an act that is considered suicidal contributes seminal knowledge to the understanding of suicide terrorism. In other words, should the definition of suicide terrorism be limited to actions that result only in suicide or should suicidal acts be included as well?

Ariel Merari of Tel Aviv University thought some terrorist acts were deviations from the true act of suicide terrorism. Merari distinguished suicide terrorism as “intentionally killing oneself for the purpose of killing others, in the service of a political or ideological goal” and discounted “high-risk missions, fooled couriers, and suicide without homicide for a political cause” from suicide terrorism research. There is a great psychological difference between killing oneself intentionally and undertaking a mission with a high risk of death, according to Merari. A large proportion of terrorist attacks involve some risk of death. However, with the exception of true suicide attacks, researchers cannot assess the objective and subjective chance of death. Thus, expanding the definition of suicide attacks to include high-risk missions would contaminate the sample and make it impossible to construct a generally accepted list of suicide attacks.[3]

Psychological Autopsies

The psyche of the suicide terrorist prompted considerable discussion. Participants generally concurred that people who commit suicide terrorism are mislabeled as “mentally unstable.” They may possess weaker personalities, but they are almost exclusively sane and even logical.[4]These conclusions result in part from a research method known as the “psychological autopsy.” Arjuna Gunawardena of Protecht Risk Management Solutions, Ltd. explained the psychological autopsy, one of the research techniques pioneered by Merari in his study of suicide terrorism in Israel, and used by Gunawardena in his study of the Black Tiger suicide cadres of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. This deductive, investigative research method attempts to reconstruct the psyche of the individual based on interviews, records, communiqués, and other imprints of the individual.

Mohammed Hafez of the University of Missouri-Kansas City stated that suicide attacks are often conducted by secular organizations to advance political objectives against a stronger, technologically superior enemy. He noted that these organizations often invoke religion to appeal to individuals in order to convince them that they are fulfilling a commitment to God.

Hafez also explained how what he called the “reward of martyrdom” might motivate an individual to undertake a suicide attack and cited terrorists in Palestinian society as an example. There, suicide attackers are regarded by some as heroes, with their names given to babies or streets, and their sacrifices promoted by posters and mass funerals. Among the purported rewards for a martyr in the afterlife are the ability to intercede with God on behalf of friends and family and redemption for not only the individual, but for the society as well. Also, organizations that sponsor terrorism often bestow money and status on the families of suicide terrorists.

Merari’s assertion that suicide terrorists are not religious fanatics supported the discussion among other attendees that religion plays a tertiary role to organizational pressure and political goals.

Merari’s research isolated several personality traits typical of suicide attackers. They possess weak personalities; are socially marginalized; are subject to rigid, concrete thinking; and demonstrate low self-esteem. He reported the four motivating factors often cited by suicide attackers: national humiliation, religion (“to do God’s Will”), personal revenge, and admittance to paradise in the afterlife.

Merari and others emphasized the influence of the group over individuals in planning suicide attacks. Following recruitment into a terrorist organization, individuals make a commitment to the group in the form of a contract, which leads to a personal commitment to the mission.

Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania described a typical scenario by which a person becomes a terrorist through the vehicle of religion. A socially aloof individual, perhaps new to the area, joins others at a place of worship. After meeting similar individuals there (a “bunch of guys,” in Sageman’s words), they begin to socialize. Initially, they convene to share a common faith and similar interests, but later, their association assumes an increasingly radical essence. At this point, attachment to the group (“in-group love”) trumps other considerations and affects perceptions (“out-group hate”), and the individual feels obligated to participate in terrorist activity out of loyalty to the group. It is these groups that heed the summons to “kill the infidels” or to join the “global Salafi[5]jihad” by al Qaeda.

Moving Forward

Participants widely agreed with the assertion by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago that researchers must have access to each other’s data in order to gain multiple perspectives on terrorist incidents and to mine those data for future research. He recommended that a central terrorism database be created.

Pape’s desire for a centralized, comprehensive database is a byproduct of his studies. He began his research on suicide terrorism following the attacks of 9-11 and discovered that aggregate data on the subject were not available prior to the year 2000. In response, he gathered data from a variety of sources. He found that 95 percent of the suicide terrorist attacks conducted since 1983 could be categorized into clusters, or “campaigns.” He theorized that the efficacy of these campaigns has led to an increasing reliance on suicide attacks as a tactic to effect a political outcome. Pape observed 16 separate campaigns from 1983 to 2005, 4 of which are ongoing. In most, the target was a democracy with an occupying military presence.

At the conclusion of the conference, participants were asked to offer their insights on suicide terrorism and what measures should be taken in the future. Some of the suggestions included:

  • Research efforts should yield practical results for practitioners combating suicide terrorism and should focus on three areas: 1) the launching of the attack, 2) identifying characteristics of the bombers onsite with the aim of stopping them, and 3) having failed that, minimizing injury and other harm to victims by shielding them and empowering the general population by building up their psychological resilience (Israel L. Barak-Glantz, Ministry of Public Security, Israel).
  • Researchers should analyze information about terrorist groups available on the Internet and in publications, which are often provided by the groups themselves (Peter Probst, Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, United States).
  • Several questions in need of more analysis include: 1) What can we learn from failed attempts by suicide bombers? 2) What are the profiles of the leaders of movements that promote suicide operations? 3) How do we minimize the psychological effects of terrorism in general, and suicide terrorism in particular? 4) What is the impact of the cult of suicide terrorism on the societies that encourage acts of martyrdom? (Joshua Sinai, Program Manager, Terrorism Studies, Logo Technologies, United States, formerly with the Department of Homeland Security).
  • Future research should focus on: 1) situations conducive to suicide bombing, 2) characteristics of groups and their decision-making processes, 3) methods of recruiting and training bombers, 4) personality factors of and social influences on suicide terrorists (a comparative study of universal characteristics), 5) the effect of government responses, and 6) the effects on the target (Ariel Merari, Tel Aviv University, Israel).
  • The phrase “suicide bomber” must not be used interchangeably with the phrase “suicide terrorist.” Other methods of suicide attack are not aptly described by the term suicide bomber (Carole Murti, U.S. Department of Defense, United States).

The panelists accepted two administrative points as critical for productive future research in this field: 1) the need for suicide terrorism researchers to share their data, and 2) the need for researchers to acknowledge differences in the operational definition of suicide terrorism and to explicitly state their working definition as part of any reporting of research findings.

NIJ’s conference was a forum for researchers studying what has become a deadly trend. The meeting offered an opportunity for experts in the field to present their findings, exchange ideas, and return to their respective organizations and institutions with the benefit of the perspectives, successes, and failures of the research conducted by their peers throughout the world. NIJ remains committed to fostering this interaction and to supporting terrorism research that will impact policy and practice—one step toward alleviating the threat to the safety of the world’s people and the rule of law.

About This Article

This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 254, July 2006.

Date Published: July 1, 2006