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Suicide Terrorism and the September 11 Attacks

20/10/2002 | by Schweitzer, Yoram  
Reprinted from the book An Expected Surprise — The September 11th Attacks in the USA and their Ramifications Yoram Schweitzer & Shaul Shay, Mifalot, IDC & ICT Publications, August 2002.

The terror attack in the United States was first and foremost an operation performed by suicide terrorists. As such, it was based on the willingness of the participants to take part in a collective act of suicide. Although the Al-Qaida organization and other Islamic terror organizations that identify with the World Jihad had already perpetrated suicide attacks beforehand, the September 11 attacks constituted a precedent from the point of view of the scope of participants and the method of operation. This capability is a clear product of Bin-Laden’s terror industry in Afghanistan, which invested considerable efforts in the development of a “reservoir” of fighters willing to carry out suicide attacks in the name of Islam. Admittedly according to Bin-Laden most of the participants in the operation were informed of the details of the operation just a short time before its execution,[1] but it is evident that this was based on their early preparation and willingness to take part in a suicide mission of whatever nature.

This fact is confirmed by the videotape featuring Haznawi about six months prior to the suicide attacks, in which he expressed his fierce aspiration to participate in a suicide operation and die the death of a holy martyr.[2]

Despite the unprecedented and remarkable scope of the number of suicide terrorists who took part in this operation, and in spite of the unique characteristics of the attack against the United States, this must also be examined against the background of the general spreading of the suicide terror phenomenon all over the world, and the phenomenon of Moslem suicide terrorists in particular.

Historical background

Suicide terrorists do not constitute a new phenomenon in the history of mankind.[3] Many have proven their willingness to perish when carrying out attacks on behalf of their political goals while evincing the ultimate sacrifice culminating in death of their own free will.

However, the “modern” expressions of the suicide terror phenomenon surfaced with the appearance of the first suicide terrorists in Lebanon about twenty years ago. Modern suicide terror has certain unique characteristics that distinguish it from those of suicide terror in earlier periods. From the early eighties of the twentieth century, terror organizations began to carry out suicide attacks while using one or more individuals who constituted a “guided human missile.” The suicide bomber carries explosives on his body or on a platform that he is driving, and out of his own conscious choice moves towards a predetermined target and executes an act of self-killing. The suicide bomber determines the site and timing of the attack, and he can navigate himself and decide on the spot, in keeping with the circumstances and surrounding environment, about the execution of the attack so that it will cause maximum damage to the chosen target.

Therefore, a “modern suicide terror attack” can be defined as “a violent, politically motivated action executed knowingly, actively and with prior intent by a single individual (or several individuals) who kills himself in the course of the operation together with his chosen target. The certain and preplanned death of the perpetrator is a prerequisite for the operation’s success.”[4]

The choice of the suicide weapon as an instrument in the hands of the terrorists derives from the fact that it is available and “cheap,” 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 “a powerful self-image.”

Suicide attacks in the modern era began in Lebanon in 1983, at the instigation of the Lebanese-Shiite terror organization, Hizballah. During the eighties, Lebanon served as a central arena for the “development” of the suicide attack method. These attacks continued into the nineties, but with less frequency. Today suicide attacks in Lebanon are rare. A total of about fifty terror attacks were carried out in Lebanon by six organizations. About half of the suicide attacks were perpetrated by Hizballah and Amal (a Lebanese Shiite organization) and the rest were executed by secular organizations, some communist and others nationalist, including the Lebanese Communist Party, the Socialist Nazarist Organization, the Syrian Ba’ath, and the PPS-The National Syrian Party (also called “The Nationalist Socialist Syrian Party”).[5]

The use of suicide attackers stimulated considerable prestige for the Hizbollah and turned it into a symbol of sacrifice and a source of inspiration for terror organizations worldwide such as the movements in Sri Lanka, Turkey, Egypt, Chechnya and more, that adopted and even “refined” the suicide attacks.

Among the organizations in the world that adopted this method, the most prominent is the isolationist Tamil organization, “The Tamil Tigers” (LTTE), that is involved in a struggle for independence of the Tamil minority against the Sinhalese majority.

This organization began perpetrating terror attacks in 1987 and since then has initiated terror attacks through over two hundred suicide attackers; as a rule, several suicide terrorists participated in each attack. These attacks were particularly vicious and caused many hundreds of deaths. This organization, which focused its suicide attacks on senior leaders in Sri Lanka’s political and military establishment, is the only one in the world to succeed in assassinating two leaders of state. The first, Sri Lanka President Primadasa, was assassinated in an attack in which twenty-two other victims found their deaths (May 1993); and the second, former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, who at that time was involved in a reelection campaign in Madras. This attack claimed the lives of a total of eighteen people (May 21, 1991). On December 17, 1999 the organization made an assassination attempt against Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Kumaratunga, via a female suicide terrorist who detonated herself at the President’s front door. The President lost one eye in the attack, but survived.

The organization also acted against politicians affiliated with the Singhalese majority as well as pragmatic politicians from the Tamil minority, senior military personnel, boats, command headquarters and economic facilities such as oil centers. In the attacks, the LTTE demonstrated indifference to the killing of innocent bystanders and had no compassion for anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of their target. The main motivating factors behind the Tamil suicide attackers are the aspiration for national independence, blind obedience to the charismatic leadership of the organization’s leader Prabhakaran, and strong peer and social pressures.

The Palestinian terror organizations, the Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, adopted the suicide attacks at the inspiration and active support of the Hizballah as well as Iran. Palestinian terrorists began perpetrating terror attacks in 1993. Between 1993 and March 2000 they executed about forty attacks. Since the incitement of violence in September 2000 by the Palestinian Authority, dubbed the “Al-Aksa Intifada,” over eighty suicide terror attacks have been perpetrated. The number of suicide terrorists is higher than the actual count of the attacks because more than once suicide terrorist participated in some of the attacks. (This number does not take into account another thirty attacks of “self sacrifice” through shootings and lobbing grenades, which are not included in our definition of suicide attacks although the perpetrators published their wills and planned to die during the attack.)[6]

For the main part, these activities were carried out by the “religious” Palestinian terror organizations such as the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. During the past year, “secular” terror organizations like the Fatah / Tanzim have begun to take part in this type of activity under the cover name of “The Martyrs of Al-Aksa Brigades” and the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.” Worthy of mention is the fact thin the last year ffemale Palestinians participated in terror attacks, and several more women were apprehended while planning an attack or on their way to one. All of these women were affiliated with the Fatah’s Tanzim / Al-Aksa Brigades.

Another “secular” organization that perpetrated suicide attacks in Turkey is the Marxist, Isolationist Kurd PKK, though its members are Moslems. The organization was active mainly during the years 1996-99 and carried out sixteen suicide attacks, which caused about twenty casualties and scores of wounded victims.[7] The PKK’s suicide campaign did not induce the Turkish government to allow a Kurdish autonomy. The PKK suicide operations of male and female terrorists were carried out under the command and inspiration of the charismatic and central leader Ocalan who was perceived by the members of his organization as a “light unto the nations.” Following his arrest and the death sentence passed in 1999, the suicide attacks of his members ceased. A member of a left-wing Turkish terror organization carried out a suicide attack in 2002 in protest against the treatment of her friends in prison.

Egyptian organizations, the “Jama’a Islamiya” and the “Egyptian Jihad,” who were affiliated with Bin-Laden’s “Islamic Front,” carried out two suicide attacks, in Croatia (October 1995) and at the Egyptian Embassy in Karachi, Pakistan (November, 1995).

Under Bin-Laden’s direct command, Al-Qaida has carried out three suicide attacks to date and it has been involved in the perpetration of four additional attacks. The first attack was carried out by suicide drivers, who detonated car bombs in Kenya and Tanzania (September 7, 1998), killing 214 and wounding about 5,000. The second attack was against the USS Cole at the Aden port (October 12, 2000) in which seventeen American sailors were killed and thirty- five were wounded. The terror attacks perpetrated in the United States on September 11, 2001 obviously constituted the apex of suicide attack operations in the annals of terror in general, and suicide terrorism in particular.

The four additional suicide operations carried out by terror cells supported by Al-Qaida were:[8]

* The assassination of Massoud Sh’ah, leader of the “Northern Alliance” in Afghanistan, which presented the main opposition to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Sh’ah was terminated two days before the terror attack in the United States by a team which was apparently affiliated with the Algerian GSPC (the Salafi Group for Propaganda and Combat), acting according to the instructions of the Al-Qaida headquarters. The attack was meant to neutralize the Taliban’s main adversary prior to the perpetration of the terror attack in the United States. It was carried out by two terrorists masquerading as press photographers who asked to interview Sh’ah. One of the two detonated himself, killing Sh’ah in the process, and the second was terminated by his bodyguards.

* The attempt by Richard Colin Reed to cause an explosion on the American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001. Reed had placed explosive in his shoes (see elaboration in the chapter about the activity of Bin-Laden’s terror networks).

* The detonation of a fuel truck near the synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia by a suicide driver, causing nineteen deaths, including thirteen German terrorists, two French nationalists and four Tunisians who were inside or near the synagogue.

* A suicide driver detonated a carbomb near a bus carrying foreign workers to the Karachi shipyards. The death toll was fourteen, including eleven French workers.

In recent years, the circle of suicide attackers has been expanded by Chechen and Indian terrorists. The Chechen organizations executed over twelve suicide attacks starting from the year 2000, while the Indian organizations carried out three suicide attacks in car bombs driven by suicide bombers, and at least one more attack as part of the joint assault of the “Jaish Muhammad” and “Lashkar e-Toiba” organizations on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.

The phenomenon of suicide attacks is inspired by a wide range of motives, both on the organizational and individual levels. As a rule, it is possible to state that the Islamic Fundamentalist terror organizations such as the Shiite Hizballah or the Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Jama’a Islamiya, the Sunni Egyptian Jihad and Al-Qaida motivate their people to carry out these attacks mainly “in the name of God” and in a religious-cultural context, which includes the promise of eternal life in heaven for the perpetrators. The members of the “secular” organizations, such as the Tamil Tigers, the Turkish PKK and the Lebanese PPC were motivated to commit suicide mainly due to the autocratic and centralized leadership and personality of the organization’s leader who is perceived by the members as a sort of “secular deity.” A strong component in these groups is the nationalist motive and the sensation of group pressure and unity, which often surfaces among members of the religious organizations.

General Characteristics of Suicide Attacks Worldwide:

1. Aimed at terrifying a far larger group than the target audience.
2. A central part of the terror organizations’ psychological warfare.
3. Preparation for a suicide attack always involves more than one person.
4. A wide geographical dispersal of the suicide terror activity.
5. Suicide terror of both “religious” and “secular” individuals.
6. Involvement of both men and women.
7. A wide range of motives for suicide attacks (in the name of “God,” “nationality,” the “leader,” the “group,” and “peer pressure,” and also in the name of “revenge” and “deterrence.”
8. There is no single profile of a suicide terrorist.

The Suicide Teams in the United States

Firstly, it is important to note that the suicide group that perpetrated the terror attack in the United States was made up of several teams that acted independently of each other and apparently underwent separate integration processes without any contact between them, under the supervision of the Afghanistan headquarters.[9] Also noteworthy is the fact that we have far greater information about the “Hamburg Group” suicide members, which acted as a separate unit and bonded around the dominant personality of Muhammad Atta, the Egyptian who was the oldest member of the group and was chosen by Al-Qaida to command the entire mission.

Most of the details that we have about the preparations of the group are based on written or filmed wills of several of the participants, the testimony of the acquaintances of the suicide attackers, and information revealed in the media as a result of journalistic investigation. Also worthy of mention is the fact that there is limited information regarding the biographical details of most of the hijackers, particularly those who were affiliated with the “Saudi Group.”

The age range of the suicide attackers in the United States was between 20 and 33. The suicide attackers from the “Hamburg Group” were students, educated individuals from prosperous families, who had lived in the West for several years and appeared to have a promising future. It is clear that the participants in the attack were people who differed from each other from the personal aspect as well as from the point of view of background. The Saudi Group was made up of fifteen young men, some of them in their early twenties, and it too was not a homogeneous group.

The suicide attackers in the “Hamburg Group” shared an apartment and a residential building for a long period of time and acted jointly as a separate, cohesive group, that trained itself for the attack from the operational aspect, and apparently focused on mental preparations including the embracing of a religious Islamic lifestyle; joint prayers at the local mosque, in their apartment and at the university, and mutual support. This characteristic of mutual influence among suicide attackers is also evident among suicide attackers in Israel; for example, when three Hamas members sharing an apartment carried out suicide attacks one after the other.

It is reasonable to assume that the significant difference in ages betwethe Egyptian Muhammad Atta, head of the “Hamburg Group” on the one hand, and the twenty-three-year old Marwan A-Sheikhi and twenty-six-year old Ziad Jarah on the other, aided Atta in leading his team members along the route he had navigated, thanks to his dominant personality and the support he received from the Al-Qaida headquarters in Afghanistan.

Pre-Attack mental preparation

Part of the solution to the riddle of how the hijackers were persuaded to take part in the suicide attack is to be found, at least at this stage, in letters found in the bags of three of the nineteen suicide attackers (two from the “German Group” and one from the “Saudi group”) on three different airplanes and on a videocassette, in which Saudi Arabian Al-Haznawi read out his will on film six months prior to the attack. One of the letters was found in the luggage of Muhammad Atta, which was not loaded on the airplane. Similar letters were found at the crash site of United Airlines flight number 93 in Pennsylvania and in the luggage of Nawaf Al-Hamzi who participated in the hijacking of American Airlines flight 77 that rammed the Pentagon. The letters clearly indicate that the hijackers, and certainly the cell leaders and apparently others, were issued detailed guidelines in writing and perhaps orally as well, regarding how to prepare for a suicide operation and how to behave during the attack. In these letters, the suicide attackers asked God to forgive them their transgressions and requested permission to glorify His name in any possible way. The letters specified the exact behavior expected of them the night before their deaths. The hijackers were commanded to engage themselves in prayer, fasting and seeking God’s direction, and to continue reading the Koran and purifying themselves in anticipation of their ascent to heaven and meeting their maker.

The suicide attackers were instructed to remain calm, to refrain from showing tension and to internalize the fact that they were going to a better and happier place, and that the life awaiting them after their physical death is eternal life in the Garden of Eden. They were told to draw inspiration from their situations, because if they knew the reward awaiting them after death they would request to die on their own, because the Garden of Eden, which has become even more beautiful in anticipation of their arrival, awaits them.[10]

In addition to the mental preparation, the letters included practical instructions regarding the preparations for the attack from the operational point of view. For example, they were instructed to prepare the necessary equipment for the mission, to verify that they were not under surveillance, that their box cutters were sharp and that they had their passports on them. The letters included instructions regarding their behavior when boarding the plane, namely reciting a prayer to the Prophet Muhammad and to Allah so that they might illuminate their way.[11]

From the videocassette aired on “Al-Jazeera” in April 2002, in which Haznawi (who as already noted participated in the hijacking of the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania) is taped, it is possible to glean his perception of the act of suicide as an expression of God‘s will and his envisioning of his role and duty to die in order to promote the world Islamic system and realize God’s commandments. [12]

Stages in the Preparation of a Suicide Attacker:

1. Identification
2. Recruitment
3. Persuasion to commit suicide
4. Mental preparation and “maintenance”
5. Training regarding the operation of the explosive charge
6. Final preparations (prayer, purification, repaying debts, preparation of a written or videotaped will (in secular organizations: sometimes a photograph with the “leader” or a “final meal”)
7. Arrival at the attack site, usually under escort
8. Claiming responsibility by the organization accompanied by propaganda activity

Is there a profile for suicide attackers?

As a rule, suicide terror is a dynamic, broad and growing phenomenon in which various nationalities are involved, and it occurs on various continents and in a wide range of contexts; cultural, social and religious. It is particularly difficult to assess if there is a common denominator among those individuals who chose to respond to the “movement’s commandment” and sacrifice their lives for an idea, regardless of whether a religious, nationalist or social principle is involved, because the majority of them did not survive to tell of their motivation, while the wills that they left behind with the sponsoring organization’s assistance must be suspected of deliberate disinformation.

The large gap in the ages of the suicide attackers, which ranges from 16-17 to over 40, may possibly indicate a marked difference in the personal maturity of the various attackers. Among the attackers are uneducated individuals alongside individuals with high school education, and students with a broad education and apparent social skills. Both sexes participate in suicide acts, men (in the Islamic organizations), and both men and women (in secular organizations).

The activity of the female suicide attackers can be explained by a wide range of motives; religion, nationality, for the group or idea’s sake, and sometimes to exact revenge and deter the enemy. The male suicide attackers are often influenced by peer pressure or by the supportive public spirit of a society or group involved in a national struggle.

The religious groups often have the support of clerics with leadership or senior religious standing, who issue “fatwas” justifying the suicide attacks in order to realize God’s will among his followers. In the secular groups, the leader, who is often conceived as a “secular deity,” fills this role. The religious-cultural-traditional component of a pleasing and pure life as ascribed to the Garden of Eden in the world to come has a significant impact on all of the suicide attackers in all of the Moslem terror organizations. Among the Afghanistan “alumni,” the loyalty oath (the “baiya”) to the leader Bin-Laden is also significant in determining the willingness for self-sacrifice.

To summarize, it is likely that the concept of “a profile of a suicide terrorist” is too broad and varied for definition. It is possible to state that there is a row of profiles or joint characteristics shared by some of the suicide attackers in some of the groups.

Even among the Al-Qaida attackers who participated in the attacks in the United States and belonged to the Moslem Fundamentalist stream of the World Jihad, it is possible to discern several different personality profiles that were channeled within the group’s melting pot, into a joint extremist mode of behavior, which led them to the act of collective suicide.

How to Contend with Suicide Terror:

1. Detection through the identification of typical suspicious signs (stands out in the surroundings due to his behavior, clothing, movements and expression).
2. Distancing him from activity in a closed place.
3. Specialized training of manpower to deal with the suicide phenomenon.
4. Development of a combat theory to neutralize the suicide bomber.
5. Development of a specific combat theory for various regions and facilities, according to the type of facility.
6. Teaching the public greater awareness vis-à-vis suicide attackers.
7. Defining behavioral procedures for the general public in the event of an incident.
8. Appropriate communications and information activity following an incident.
9. Comprehensive and systematic international activity against the phenomenon while placing the emphasis on preventing incitement and punishing supporters, in the name of religion, for these terror attacks and those who condone them.


El-Jazeera TV, “Under the Microscope” program, April 18, 2002.

Yoram Schweitzer, “Suicide Terrorism: Development and Characteristics”, Countering Suicide Terrorism, ICT, The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzlia in cooperation with the A.D.L., 2001, 77.

Ibid, p. 78.

Eitan Azani, “Suicide Attacks – the Phenomeno, its Roots, Characteristics, and the Iranian-Lebanese Connection,” submittedas an MA thesis, Tel Aviv University, October 1997.

The data are taken from a database based on the Israeli press owned by Yoram Schweitzer.

Prof. Dogul Ergil’s lecture at the ICT Conference on Countering Suicide Terrorism, February 2000, in Schweitzer’s article, pp. 83-84.

Walter Picuz, “Mueller Outline Origin, Funding of September 11 Plot,” Washington Post, Internet, June 6, 2002.

Natan Guttman, Ha’aretz, September 30, 2001 a6, Natan Guttman “The Connection between the Airplane Hijackers has Been Found: Letters of guidance and Support in Arabic.”


El-Jazeera TV, April 17, 2002.

12 El-Jazeera” in April 2002