The Ultimate Sacrifice: Analyzing Suicide Terrorism

By Jason Illiou*

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Although the 9/11 attacks served as a wakeup call for the study and nature of terrorism mainly through a contemporary scope, the origins of the concept and its most violent derivative – suicide terrorism, have references that date back to the biblical era. In fact, the first recorded appearance of terrorism as we identify it today is paralleled with suicidal attacks while several of its elements, such as motivation and targeting are closely associated with methods witnessed in numerous modern cases. From the Zealots’ and Sicarii’s struggle against the Romans in 73 B.C that was terminated with a mass suicide, to the extremist Hashishins and their famous suicide missions, illustrate the first clear cases of small groups practicing terrorist acts against their stronger adversaries, introducing a new phenomenon in warfare tactics that insofar, lacks clear understanding and begs clarification regarding an appropriate definition[1].


Terrorism in Perspective and the Role of Suicide Attacks

Arguably, in order to fathom the use of suicide terrorist attacks, the rationale of the individuals carrying out the attempts, as well as pinpoint the various other constituents that have popularized this tactic among terrorist organizations, it is essential to define the key characteristics, in terms of motives, goals, means, targets and results in the spectrum of suicide attack as an organized group activity, and then move to an individualistic level of examination. In his impressive exploration on terrorism, Pape trichotomizes terrorist activity in three forms that are often used depending the goals of the organization and are measured according to the levels of violence they unleash. ‘Demonstrative’ and ‘Destructive terrorism’ are characterized by analogous motives, as they both aim to draw public attention, recruit new members and create allies, with the latter however becoming a two-edged sword, usually inflicting significant damage on the target, but also jeopardizing the image of the organization at times. ‘Suicide terrorism’ on the other hand, is the most brutal form as its only ambition is to “punish” the target by applying extreme pressure, which often translates as maximizing the possible number of victims. The attacker is destined to take his own life, including those of innocent civilians at the expense of achieving his goal for the good of the organization. The outcome has significant ramifications for the organization as it draws substantial attention and alienates public opinion, yet it becomes evident that coercion is the primary concern of this form[2]. In addition, suicide terrorism has been successful in 50% of the cases where it has been applied from 1980-2001. For instance, the suicide campaign of Hezbollah against the American forces in Lebanon that resulted in their withdrawal from the country in 1984, urged the military organization to employ the same tactic against Israel in 1985 with similar success[3]. This becomes an apparent reason for the contemporary rise of suicide bombings as a powerful agent for coercing government interest. Furthermore, this also raises the issue of the psychological impact of such attacks. This essence of this is conspicuous considering the repercussions on both the state and citizens, as well as in the relationship between them. The horror of suicide terrorism begets distress, which in turn, minimizes societal trust in the government’s ability to safeguard its citizens, with fundamental benefits for the group[4].

 In the Name of God, or in the Name of Country? 

The term terrorism is defined by a disproportionate power-sharing relation between the two actors: The ‘weaker’ terrorist group and the ‘powerful’ state. Nevertheless, the ideological motives behind suicide terrorism are incoherent. The findings from this question can play a significant role in understanding the individualistic nature of suicide terrorism, in terms of recruiting and motivating new members, which will be discussed further on elaborately. An abrupt post 9/11 analysis could lead us to jump into the conclusion that religious fundamentalism and in particular, Islamist extremism is the root cause for contemporary suicide attack. However, Pape argues that suicide terrorism has been falsely attributed to religious doctrine, since it usually targets political goals and is part of broadened terrorist campaigns, which are not associated with religion in their core. In fact, suicide attacks are not irrational actions of religious extremists but their paramount goal is to accomplish “nationalistic goals”[5].  According to the data, the nationalist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka are responsible for the majority of those attacks, along with other secularist organizations. Religious extremism, including Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups is accountable for only a third overall, and even then, Pape stresses that the nature of attacks is anti-colonial, since the main objective is to banish foreign occupation from their territorial claims. Be that as it may, the question we often ask when it comes to such actions may be problematic. Instead of showing interest in investigating why the individual agreed to be recruited, we falsely look for a reason that urged him to carry out the attack and commit a violent act. Then, recruitment is more likely to occur due to religious tendencies than ideological or political reasons, since religiosity is highly interdependent with human emotions, thus manifesting a more rational approach[6].  Moving this syllogism further, adding the spirituality of religion in a secularist groups and vice-versa, can be advantageous for terrorist groups:

“In no area of contemporary terrorism has religion had a greater impact than in propelling the vast increase of suicide attacks that have occurred since 9/11. (…) The dominant force behind all this is religion. (…) Even secular ethno-nationalist movements that later resorted to suicide attacks have either deliberately cultivated religious imagery, or like the Tamil Tigers, evidenced characteristics like the single-minded devotion to, and veneration of, a leader.” [7]

 Hoffman suggests that the incoherent nature of some organizations in terms of motives, goals and structure may indeed be deliberate to legitimize their actions towards others by glorifying the act of suicide as a ‘higher call’, while at the same time proselytizing in the name of ‘martyrdom’[8].

The Nature of Suicide and the Mystery of Terrorist Recruitment 

Evidently, we have examined suicide terrorism as collective act of terrorist groups and understood why they are being preferred as a tactic. This is essential in order to draw a parallel with the motives and psychology of individuals who sacrifice themselves for such a cause and separate the individualistic from the collective logic. Insofar, the findings show a clear confusion among scholars regarding the essence of suicide terrorism and their motives. In similar fashion, the analysis drawn regarding the individuals that carry out these attacks is cursory at best. Cronin suggests that “terrorism is a multi-disciplinary challenge” that requires the thorough knowledge of several academic fields that are not necessarily related to each other to make a clear understanding of what causes terrorism[9]. Early works on the topic suggested that the mentality of terrorists should be segregated from that of non-terrorists. Bearing the emotional ability to perpetuate such violence, resulting in the death of innocent civilians and additionally to take pleasure in claiming responsibility as if the havoc alone was not enough, shows severe lack of empathy that has often been characterized as a mental abnormality attributed to absolutism, egocentrism, narcissism and psychopathy. The obvious problem with such hypotheses is the lack of actual clinical diagnoses on such individuals since most of these are presumptions based on terrorist behavior, statements, biographies and even tattoos[10]. From a socio-psychological perspective, Silke has compiled several hypothetical approaches that can illustrate an individual’s need for resorting to terrorism and other violent acts. The starting point of this analysis does not indicate terrorism as a rational deed in the eyes of the actor but rather tries to emphasize why terrorism is so “attractive”. The use of such violence by individuals with no psychological disorder and who are also not socially alienated, such as wealthy members of a society or even intellectuals, is driven by ideological apparatuses, which are usually associated with “frustrating conditions of conflicting social climates.”[11]

Nevertheless, conventional terrorism should be separated from suicide terrorism in terms of understanding individual motives as well as the various elements that are related to such attacks, since although they belong in the same sphere of action, they are far more violent and they require a much more complex investigation. A typical analysis of a suicide terrorist’s motivation usually takes place in media platforms where journalists approach relatives and family friends in order to discover the life event that led to the irrational action of the perpetrator and attribute it to emotional, psychological reasons. On the contrary, scholars have arrayed several different reasons to justify the motives of the terrorist. Some remarks around the issue connote unwillingness on behalf of the individual to carry out his suicide mission thus, suggesting serious intimidation or threat from the organization as witnessed in several cases of the PKK. However, most reports suggest that in the vast majority of suicide terrorist attacks there is clear evidence of voluntary recruitment, or at least significant willingness to carry out the mission if approached by a group[12]. Pape’s theory suggests that a dichotomization between terrorism and suicide as a separate social acts is necessary. Drawing from Durkheim’s findings, the act of suicide stems from ‘egoistic’, ‘fatalistic’, or ‘altruistic’ reasons, which are characterized by dissimilar behavior from the part of the actor. Egoistic suicide usually occurs due to emotional and psychological reasons where the individual experiences a detachment from the society, while the act of suicide becomes extremely personal. These cases are hardly connected to suicide terrorism for the logical speculation that terrorists are usually highly sociable, integrated and respected members of the society, whose interaction with others is also necessary in order to train and collect data for their mission, since suicide terrorism is usually a collective effort for a group. ‘Fatalistic suicide’ is a phenomenon indicative of the behavior of religious cults. The individual is deprived of his personal beliefs and clear thinking, as he is being ‘brainwashed’ into believing that the only solution for him is suicide, succumbing to acute indoctrination and isolation. As mentioned so far, integration is vital to suicide terrorists, while the act itself is most commonly voluntary and the perpetrator has clear knowledge of his actions. Contrary to the above, ‘altruistic suicide’ is the exact opposite of ‘egoistic’ and most likely related to suicide terrorism as the individual is highly integrated to a society or a community. His goals are equated with those of his group and his life is willingly sacrificed for its benefits[13]. According to this theory social approval is at the core of ‘altruistic suicide’ while “it is impossible to understand the conduct, motivation and self-perception of individual suicide attackers without considering the importance of the intimate ties that generally exist between suicide terrorist organizations”[14]. This syllogism becomes apparent in the majority of cases where suicide terrorism is central to the group’s tactics. Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda and The Tamil Tigers are heavily entrenched in the society in which they operate, not only as terrorist organizations, but also as contributors to social, financial and political factors. In fact, the societies benefiting by the services provided by these groups tend to recognize them as the legitimate “political” entity of the area, or country, instead of the actual government. As a result, this gives a phenomenal opportunity to terrorist groups to promote suicide terrorism as an accepted and appropriate method of defending against adversaries in the name of ‘martyrdom’. Thus, suicide terrorist attacks become a justified tactic that serves not only the organization, but also the society that celebrates the ‘martyr’ as a hero[15]. In these cases, which are most commonly associated with Muslim and secular terrorist organizations, individuals pursue social, cultural, religious and even material goals, which often include afterlife spiritual reward, societal glorification through this notion of ‘heroism’ as well as compensation offered to the terrorist’s family, since the act is regarded as sacred and invaluable to the group’s incentives:

“A longing for religious purity and/or strong commitment to the welfare of the group may drive individuals to engage in suicide terror. Even this explanation contains an element of altruism if by perpetrating an act of martyrdom seventy of your relatives are guaranteed a place in heaven. This partly explains a relatives’ glee when a family member commits a martyrdom operation.”[16]

Arguably, sacrifice is some sort of trade that minimizes the value of the ultimate goal, since it comes at a cost. However, for a suicide terrorist whose action is entirely voluntary, there is no exchange as all personal values and restrictions have been abolished in the name of that goal. Achieving ‘martyrdom’ comes only with benefits in the eyes of the perpetrator.

In spite of religion playing a significant role in terms of individual motivation for contemporary terrorist discourse, nationalism remains the integral component. In Islam, suicide is forbidden and against religious dogma unless its nature is justified by a sensible cause such as preserving Islamic values and protecting the society. Consequently, the act of martyrdom is intertwined with defending territorial rights against foreign oppression and has come to be the only legitimate and blessed reason for permitting suicide. Interestingly, the main common characteristics of Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers are identified as banishing foreign occupation through the use of suicide terrorism due to the asymmetrical power analogies with the adversary and being the most successful in terms of putting political pressure.[17]

Endless Scenarios, One Outcome

So far, suicide terrorism has been mentioned in the context of voluntary and somehow forced actions. Another theory that urges such attacks is developed through the sphere of psychology. This theory questions Pape’s argument suggesting that voluntary recruitment is not enough to make up for dealing with the idea of committing suicide while at the same time taking the lives of innocents. Group pressure is a parameter that should not be excluded from contemporary analysis of suicide terrorism. Making the suicide attacker a ‘prisoner’ of his own decision, which may have been based on wrong or impulsive judgement, is often evident in such missions: 

“In order to make sure that the person does not change his mind, the organization makes points of no return. These are achieved by making the candidate write last letters to his family to his friends. The candidate is being videotaped saying farewell and from that point on (…) the person is referred to as ‘the living martyr’. (…) He is already dead. He is only temporarily here with us.”[18]

The emotional and psychological burden may be too heavy to bear in the process of training for the suicide attacker, but botched suicide missions is a disastrous outcome for various reasons. For instance, the time required for training may take up to a month, which at times of escalated conflict may be priceless for the sake of the desired goal of the organization, thus, resorting to any means in order to reassure the completion of the attack is often necessary. Nevertheless, reasons behind such actions may also be attributed to preserving the prestige of the group. Particularly in cases where outbidding between terrorist groups is in process, losing credibility by such mistakes may be extremely damaging in the long term. Similar psychological pressure may also translate in further motivation for carrying out suicide bombings. Relatives – in many cases widows – of martyrs, or victims of foreign state oppression are also considered prone to committing suicide attacks themselves. The sense of personal injustice witnessed in the emotional and psychological pressure of loss, or humiliation may fuel individual motives with the need to seek revenge:

“You Israelis are Nazis in your souls and in your conduct. (…) You destroyed homes and turned children into orphans. You prevented people from making a living, you stole their property, you trampled on their honour. Given that kind of conduct there is no choice but to strike at you without mercy in every possible way.”[19]


Finally, our findings demonstrate clear evidence that suicide terrorism may be a result of forced initiation, psychologically driven impulses, or in most cases an altruistic voluntary action. The division between the perpetrator and the terrorist group as a collective reveals that although the individual can be motivated into becoming a suicide terrorist by religious doctrine that promises afterlife rewards, or the social recognition and respect of the community and members of the group that commonly follows the act of martyrdom, his motives are being multiplied from the point of the recruitment and on, as a result of being equated with the collective goals of the organization. The altruistic nature of his mission materializes only when a fusion of individualistic and collective goals has been achieved. Moreover, the goals of the group are mainly attributed to nationalistic ideologies, but the act of suicide from an individualistic perspective may also have religious motives. Therefore, moving back to the earlier remarks of Pape, Asad and Hoffman on the apparatuses that constitute suicide terrorism there seems to be an amalgamation of religious and secular beliefs that correlate harmoniously for the benefit of the terrorist organization, ultimately supporting Hoffman’s theory. However, there is still significant lack of actual evidence and clinical analyses that should prevent us from reaching into rushed conclusions regarding possible motives that may lead to such attacks.

* Jason Illiou is doing his MSc in Security Studies at the University College of London (UCL). His interests lie mainly in the field of media, politics, international security, and religion. He is currently focusing on the relationship of Nationalism and the Media in Greece. He also holds a First Class Honours degree in (BA) Journalism from the University of Westminster. You can follow him on twitter at @Jasonilliou


[1] Briggite Lebens Nacos, Terrorism and Counterterrorism, (New York: Pearson Longman, 2011) 35-36.

[2] Robert A. Pape, Dying To Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It, (London: Gibson Square Books Ltd, 2006) 9-10; “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” American Political Science Review 97 (2003) 345.

[3] Ami Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005) 48-50.

[4] W. Enders and Todd Sandler, The Political Economy of Terrorism  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 1-4.

[5] Pape, Dying To Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It, 21.

[6] Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 56.

[7] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) 131-132

[8] Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” 347.

[9] A. K. Cronin and M. James Ludes, Attacking Terrorism: Elements Of A Grand Strategy, (Washington D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2004) 20.

[10] Andrew Silke, ed. Terrorism, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences. (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2003) 6.

[11] Silke, Andrew, Terrorism, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences, 11; Andrew Silke, ed. The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism, (London. New York: Routledge, 2011), 34-45.

[12] Silke, Terrorism, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences, 97.

[13] Pape, Dying To Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It, 171-180.

[14] Pape, A. Dying To Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It, 187; 171-180.

[15]  Pape, Dying To Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It, 188-189; 171-180.

[16]  Pedahzur, Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism: The Globalization of Martyrdom, 38.

[17] Pape, Dying To Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It.

[18] Diego Gambetta,ed., Making Sense of Suicide Missions, (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 240.

[19] Silke, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences, 44.

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