ATbar The Rationality of the Islamic Radical Suicide attack phenomenon
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The Rationality of the Islamic Radical Suicide attack phenomenon

21/03/2007 | by Ganor, Boaz (Prof.)  
Suicide attacks are not a new phenomenon[1] and they have exponentially increased over the past two decades. Many countries all over the world have been forced to contend with the phenomenon of suicide attacks. Radical Islamic activists chose this method for attacking civilian and military targets in various countries, such as Turkey, Chechnya, Iraq, Britain, USA, Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, India, etc’. In addition, many more plots in other countries were exposed and thwarted before the attackers were able to carry out their plans.

Suicide attacks have clearly become the most dangerous modus operandi of modern terrorism. In a sense, the suicide attack is the terrorists’ “smart bomb”. The suicide attacker is no more then a platform that carries the explosive charge to its target. However, this platform can think and, therefore, see to it that the explosive charge is detonated at the optimal location and timing so as to create maximum carnage and destruction.[2] For precisely this reason, more than fifty percent of terrorism casualties in Israel between 2000-2005 (Al-Aqsa Intifadah) were caused by suicide attacks, while suicide attacks in Israel during this period amounted to less than one percent of all terrorist attacks. The suicide attack phenomenon, therefore, has been growing into a threat that endangers the safety of the world. Many states find themselves in urgent need to explore new methods for thwarting these attacks, limiting their effects and finding new technologies and regulations that will help narrow down the scope of this phenomenon. One of the possible future threats that has to be considered is the combination of a suicide attack with the use of non conventional materials (CBRN).

There are many debates amongst scholars regarding the reason for the increase in the phenomenon of suicide attacks in the past decade and many answers can be given. Some would say the answer lays in the realm of the grievances and motivations of the perpetrators, others would argue that this is an outcome of the radical religious nature of international terrorism, but the simple answer to this question is – because it works. It is effective and very beneficial from the point of view of the terrorist organizations that initiate, plan, prepare and execute these attacks. This is the reason why almost all suicide attacks are “organized attacks” and not an outcome of a “personal initiative” - (A person who decided to commit a terrorist attack out of protest or revenge. A perpetrator that was not sent on his mission by any organization). The phenomenon of suicide attacks is an organized phenomenon. It therefore can be said that without the organization’s initiation, planning, training and preparations we would not have witnessed the rise of the phenomenon of suicide attacks, or at least not in the scale that the world experienced in the last decade.

The suicide attack is the newest stage in the development of bombing attacks, which have been used by terrorists for many years. The typical type of bombing attacks carried out in the 1970’s and 1980’s were time bombs. This modus operandi often failed due to early or late detonation without many people concentrated in the immediate vicinity of the explosion or as an outcome of early detection by law enforcement or civilians prior to detonation. Then, during the 1990’s, terrorist organizations started to use remote controls in order to detonate their explosives. The remote control provided the bomber with the ability to detonate the bomb with optimal timing in order to cause the maximum number of casualties and damage. The perpetrators would smuggle the explosives into the target location, camouflage or conceal them and then wait outside the target location until a lot of people gathered near the bomb. Only then would they detonate the bomb from a safe distance and kill as many people as they could. However, once they planted the bomb in the target location they could not move it to another location or target and there still was the threat of early detection. The suicide attack, like the smart bomb, is the most sophisticated tactic used by terrorist organizations since it provides the perpetrator with control of both the timing and location of the attack and, therefore, produces the maximum number of casualties and damage. Many Palestinian suicide attackers were sent to carry out attacks against specific targets and decided to change their mission target at the last moment and attack a different target in the same area or even travel to another neighborhood or city and detonate themselves in a target that was much more worthy in their eyes, and much more crowded. They did not want to waste their lives in killing few people at the original target.

What is a Suicide Attack?

The phenomenon of suicide attacks has attracted the attention of many scholars and many articles and books have recently been written on this subject. In many cases, these scholars’ quantitative research and conclusions differ since they are using different definitions for the phenomenon of suicide attacks.

The definition should help in identifying this specific phenomenon and separating it from all other types of terrorism. This is exactly the purpose of the suggested definition in this article – “A suicide attack is an operational method in which the very act of the attack is dependent upon the death of the perpetrator”. This is a unique situation in which the terrorist is fully aware that if he does not kill himself, the planned attack will not be carried out. He cannot fulfill his mission and stay alive at the same time. It is important to correctly define a suicide attack since there are different types of attacks that might be mistakenly considered as belonging to this special category:

On many occasions, the perpetrator of an attack sets out with the knowledge that there is a good chance he will be killed in the course of an attack (for example in trying to force a bus over a cliff). In spite of the imminent danger to the terrorist’s life, as long as there is a possibility of the attack being successful without him being forced to kill himself during the course of it, this should not be considered a “suicide attack”. Sometimes the terrorist even makes concrete preparations for the possibility of death as a result of the attack (preparing a will, carrying out purification ceremonies, etc’), however, these preparations in themselves do not turn the attack into a suicide attack.

In some attacks, terrorists are equipped with “suicide belts” - explosives for blowing themselves up should anything go wrong, such as if the attack fails or security forces break into a building where terrorists are holding hostages. The existence of such explosives, and even the decision to use them, does not constitute adequate grounds for defining the attack as a suicide attack, since the terrorist attack would occur even without the death of the perpetrator.

As mentioned above, in a suicide attack, the terrorist knows full well that the attack will not be executed if he is not killed in the process. This is important to emphasize since only in this type of attack the terrorist finds himself in a very special psychological mood that can be defined as “tunnel vision”. In this mood, he enters the one end of the tunnel and if he decides to march to the other end of the tunnel and fulfill his mission his death is essential. The terrorist knows he has no other option - either he presses the button and kills himself and others or he refrains from pressing the button and he is not killed and nothing happens. He cannot partially fulfill his mission and he cannot cling to the hope of staying alive after carrying it out.

In Israel, many “killing spree” attacks are mistakenly considered and counted as suicide attacks. In these attacks, the perpetrator goes to a crowded place and uses any weapon that he posses in order kill and injure as many people as possible knowing that he will probably die during the course of the attack or after he runs out of ammunition. Yet, there still is a possibility of fulfilling his mission without killing himself and therefore this shouldn’t be considered a suicide attack.[3] This is similar to a soldier fighting in a very difficult battle who is outnumbered by enemy forces - he knows that death could be near, but he still clings to the possibility that he will remain alive at the end of the battle. The suicide attacker does not have this privilege and without understanding this and the special psychological mood the suicide attacker is in at the target scene, it will be very difficult to find the right tactics and methods to identify and neutralize him in the last moments before he detonates himself.

What are the benefits of the suicide attack for the terrorist organization?

As mentioned above, the suicide attack is an organized phenomenon. Therefore, understanding the calculations of the terrorist organization perpetrating this type of attack is crucial in order to find ways to counter this phenomenon. Suicide attacks are attractive to terrorist organizations, as they offer them a variety of advantages:

  • The perpetrator’s ability to control the time and location of the attack results in many casualties and causes extensive damage.
  • Suicide attacks attract wide media coverage as an outcome of the extensive number of casualties. A suicide attack is a newsworthy event for the media, as it indicates a display of great determination and inclination for self-sacrifice on the part of the terrorists.[4]
  • Modern terrorism is a psychological warfare[5] and suicide attacks intensify this psychological effect. The number of casualties, the perpetrator’s determination and the media coverage of the attacks emphasizes the feeling of fear and anxiety within the targeted population. The random nature of the attack and the inability to identify and stop the attacker spreads a feeling of helplessness, which characterizes this special type of attack in comparison to other terrorists’ modus operandi.
  • The terrorist organizations enjoy another benefit as a result of the media coverage of the suicide attack. More than any other type of attack, the suicide attack draws the attention of the international public - the neutral spectators - and gives some legitimacy to the grievances of the perpetrators and the terrorist organizations. Knowing that there is a person ready to kill himself in a suicide attack spreads an immediate belief and feeling that this event is an outcome of suffering, despair and atrocities the perpetrator witnessed or was exposed to.[6]
  • The suicide attack is usually technologically very primitive. It is cheap and easy to purchase the explosives or prepare the IED (Improvised explosive device) needed for the attack. The explosive device is very simple and basic knowledge of preparing an electrical circuit with a battery and an ‘on and off’ button is all that is needed. Therefore, the technical side is hardly a limiting factor of this phenomenon. (The 9/11 attack even proved that one can execute a massive suicide attack without any explosives)
  • In a suicide attack, as soon as the terrorist has set off on his mission his success is virtually guaranteed. It is extremely difficult to foil suicide attacks once the terrorist is on his way to the target. Even if the security forces do succeed in stopping him before he reaches his intended target, he can still detonate the charge and cause damage. (Thus, more than in any other type of terrorist attack, there is a crucial need for a proactive counter-terrorism policy. Since once the perpetrator is sent on his mission his success is almost guaranteed, there is a need to foil the attack before the perpetrator is sent out on his mission by apprehending or killing the perpetrator or other terrorists involved in the preparation of the attack).
  • Planning and executing the escape route after a terror attack has occurred is usually one of the most complicated and problematic aspects of any terrorist attack. Suicide attacks require no escape plan.[7]
  • Since the perpetrator is killed during the course of the suicide attack, there is no fear of his being caught afterwards, being interrogated by the security forces, and passing on information liable to endanger other activists.

The cumulative benefits mentioned above explain why the suicide attack has become so popular these days and why terrorist organizations choose to adopt this modus operandi as their main tactic.

What are the benefits for the perpetrator of the suicide attack?

Although suicide attacks are an organized phenomenon, and the terrorist organization is a crucial factor in the explanation of the rationality of this phenomenon, the question still stands why a person, in many cases a youth, decides to carry out a suicide attack and kill himself in the process? Some people wrongly find the answer and explanation to this question in the perceived mental illness of the perpetrators, since they commit suicide, but they are not mentally ill.[8]

The term “Suicide attack” is misleading. In the eyes of the attacker and his community this phenomenon has nothing to do with committing suicide. The perpetrator of the suicide attack is not considered either by himself, by other activists or by his own community at large to have committed suicide. Indeed, committing suicide is forbidden in Islam.[9] Instead, he is seen as a “shahid” - a martyr who fell in the process of fulfilling the religious commandment of “Jihad” (holy war).[10] (Thus his act is called in Arabic Istishhad).

Therefore, suicide attacks may provide the “shahid” and his family with many substantial rewards:

  • The radical Islamic activists who decide to become “shahids” see themselves as martyrs who are fulfilling a divine command of protecting their religion from the attack by the infidels.[11] In many cases, the perpetrator was exposed to ongoing incitement (by his commanders and religious clerics directly or indirectly by video and audio cassettes, the media and through the internet) that urges him to fulfill his religious obligation give his life in defense of his religion.[12] In that respect, committing a suicide attack is considered by the perpetrator and his entire community as an altruistic step for the religion and for Allah.
  • In some cases (Palestinian, Chechen, Kashmiri, Iraqi and others), the “shahid” is also seen as committing a patriotically altruistic act for his nation by carrying out a suicide attack. The suicide attacker and his supportive community believe that by carrying out the attack he will cause great damage to the enemy and instill fear and anxiety within the enemy population and army, which will result in fulfilling their political/nationalistic/separatist goals. (Even Al-Qaeda’s goal of creating a Caliphate state for the Muslim nation - The “Umma” - can be regarded as a political-nationalistic goal, in addition to the basic religious goals).
  • In some cases, “shahids” come from a low social status background and by carrying out the suicide attack they improve their family’s socioeconomic status after their death.[13] The shahid’s family is showered with honor and praise and receives financial rewards for the attack from Islamic charities or the terrorist organization.[14] In this respect, carrying out a suicide attack is in many cases regarded by the perpetrator as an altruistic act benefiting his family.
  • In addition to the religious mission and the family rewards, the “shahid” also receives some personal benefits (according to his belief). By carrying out the suicide attack, he earns eternal life in paradise, he is spared from suffering the horrific purification period in the grave before reaching heaven and he earns the loving kindness of 72 young virgins who will serve him in heaven. The “shahid” also earns the privilege of promising a life in heaven to 70 of his relatives and friends (hence, again, this is an altruistic act benefiting his friends and relatives).

Considering all these factors that constitute a substantial incentive for the radical Islamic activist, as weird as it might sound to western ears, it is evident that committing a suicide attack is an outcome of a rational decision. Calculating the costs and benefits of the suicide attack, there are clearly much more benefits than costs in the eye of the beholder – the perpetrator.

In summary, both the terrorist organizations leaders and the “shahids” themselves believe that the suicide attack is a very beneficial method. When the entire community is showered for many years with ongoing educational, inciting and propaganda activity[15] that praises “shahids”[16] and calls for the fulfillment of a religious/national/social/personal commitment, carrying out a suicide attack becomes a very rational decision. Countering this phenomenon requires, therefore, understanding these considerations and finding ways to change the cost - benefit calculation of both the “shahids” themselves and the terrorist organizations that initiate this type of attack.


[1] Silke A., “The role of suicide”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Routledge, Vol. 18, Spring 2006, Num.1, p. 44.

[2] Hoffman Bruce, “The logic of suicide terrorism”, Terrorism and Counter Terrorism – Understanding the New Security Environment, (Ed. Hoeard & Sawyer), p. 262.

[3] In an early article on the subject, Ariel Merari defined the suicide attack as “The readiness to die in the process of committing a terrorist act” (Merari A. “The readiness to kill and die: suicidal terrorism in the middle east”, Origins of Terrorism,{Ed. Reich Walter}, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998, p.192). However, as explained, readiness or seeking to die is not a sufficient factor to distinguish suicide terrorism from other terrorist modus operandi.

[4] Hoffman Bruce, Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006, p. 133.

[5] Horgan John, The Psychology of Terrorism, Routledge, 2005, p.3.

[6] Hoffman Bruce, “The logic of suicide terrorism”, op. cit, p. 263.

[7] Hoffman Bruce, Inside Terrorism, op. cit, p. 135.

[8] Sageman Marc, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p. 83.

[9] Hoffman Bruce, Inside Terrorism, op. cit, pp. 159-160.

[10] Sageman Marc, op. cit, p. 83.

[11] Vidino Lorenzo, Al Qaeda in Europe, Prometheus Books, 2006, p. 55.

[12] Sayed Qutab, “Jihad in the cause of god”, Voices of Terror (Ed. Laquaeur Walter), p. 394.

[13] Kushner Harvey, “Suicide Bombers: Business as Usual”, Political Terrorism: Analyses of problems and Prospects for the 21st century, Gordian Knot Books, 2002, p. 40.

[14] Vidino Lorenzo, op. cit, p. 111.

[15] Merari A., op. cit, p.199.

[16] Hoffman Bruce, Inside Terrorism, op. cit, pp. 157-158.