Suicide Bombers Research Paper

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Michelle Maiese

June 2005

"While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

History has revealed that terrorists are capable of carrying out bold and destructive acts that at first glance appear to be unexplainable. What kind of person would sacrifice his or her own life in order to kill innocent people? What could possibly motivate a young person to become a suicide bomber?

In the wake of many tragic events, it can be difficult to analyze objectively the causes and processes leading up to them. For many, understanding the motives behind suicide bombing comes dangerously close to excusing or approving it. It may seem easier just to assume that the people involved are "evildoers" or "callous fanatics delighting in the carnage they have created." [1] Any extreme measures taken against them will be regarded, not simply as appropriate and justified, but as obligatory. However, terrorism is not a simple phenomenon with easy explanations. Although many people cite "evil" as a prime motivator, there seems to be no single, complete theory about what brings about such behavior. Usually a wide variety of motives and causal factors are involved.

Unsurprisingly, many people have attempted to understand suicide bombing in terms of the abnormality of the individuals responsible. However, if only those with some kind of psychopathology could be terrorists, terrorism would not be the large problem that it is. Research shows no indication that terrorists are crazy or psychopathic or that they lack moral feelings. [2] Most terrorists are not psychologically deviant and do not operate outside the normal rules of behavior, but are instead ordinary people from unremarkable backgrounds. In fact, research indicates that terrorists tend to have considerable insight into their own actions and are aware of how others view them. [3] They believe that their violent actions, while somewhat regrettable, are justified and noble. Moreover, their emotional commitment to their cause and comrades is indicative of normal human psychology. Often their actions do not ultimately stem from hatred, but rather from love of their own group and culture that they believe is threatened and requires protection. [4]

It is important to note at the outset that the use of the term 'suicide' to characterize these attacks reflects an outsider's view. Those who commit or advocate such attacks do not regard them as acts of suicide, but rather as acts of martyrdom. [5] While suicide is associated with hopelessness and depression, the actions of the bombers are seen as a matter of heroism and honor.


Many theorists focus on ideology in their attempt to understand what motivates suicide bombers. Randy Borum (2003), for example, focuses on terrorist ideology and the process of how these ideas or doctrines develop. He identifies a four-stage process whereby individuals develop extremist beliefs. A group or individual first identifies some sort of undesirable state of affairs; then frames that event or condition as unjust; then blames the injustice on a target policy, person, or nation; and then vilifies or demonizes the responsible party so that aggression seems justified. [6] Those suffering from adverse conditions do not regard themselves as "bad" or "evil," but only as the victims of injustice. This makes aggression against the "evildoers" who have wronged one's group easier to justify psychologically.

Those who maintain that suicide attacks are motivated by religious ideology suggest that the bombers believe that God has sent them on a mission. They are motivated primarily by the promise of a happy afterlife and heavenly reward and the threat of heavenly retribution Their rationale is that by blowing themselves up in a crowd of people, they are making themselves martyrs and forging their own gateway to heaven. [7] Many of these individuals are indoctrinated at an early age about the spiritual importance of purifying the world and sacrificing their lives to a holy war. In some cases, radical religious groups use the concepts of benevolence, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom to spread the idea that suicide bombing is a noble and Godly act. [8]

Terrorists tend to have an apocalyptic worldview and to see the world as precariously balanced between good and evil. They believe that through their actions, they can uphold their values of family, religion, ethnicity, and nationality and bring about the triumph of the good. Acting on God's behalf to defend these values is viewed as more important than life. For example, Muslim fundamentalists often fear that their religious values and culture are in danger of being overwhelmed by the secularism and military and economic power of the West. [9] Some may view terrorism as a way to defend against these "evils."

Others argue that religious fervor only partly explains the actions of suicide bombers and that religious ideology and political aspirations tend to become intertwined. It is not that suicide bombers simply exhibit an unquestioning obedience to extreme leadership or that they are pressured to carry out such acts. Rather, it is in reaction to perceived political oppression and the belief that one's rights have been trampled. For example, because life under military occupation is experienced as humiliating, many believe they will find a better life in paradise. Many theorists writing about the Palestinian suicide bombers argue that "the suicide bomber, unable to develop and express his individuality under occupation and unable to serve his society in constructive ways, turns to a goal beyond this world." [10] In short, he comes to believe that he has a religious duty to struggle against the group's enemies and achieve its political goals in the name of God. Suicide is viewed as a tax paid to redress the group's grievances and achieve both its religious and political objectives.

Within particular cultures, martyrdom is also viewed as a status symbol. Those who participate are regarded as heroes who are sure to experience a happy after life. The cultural message is that sacrificing one's own life to kill others is not only acceptable, but highly desirable. An entire cultural structure consisting of family, friends, teachers, religious institutions, and political establishment may share this belief. [11] For young people struggling to find some significance to their bleak existence, the meaning of suicide bombing is perfectly clear. They will be heroes, they will help the cause of their group, and they will be awarded in the afterlife.


Other theorists stress the idea that becoming a terrorist or suicide bomber is largely a matter of socialization. In some cases, those personally frustrated by their life circumstances may become angry with those they view as the source of their problems. According to Jessica Stern (2003), terrorists are often individuals who feel deeply humiliated and confused about their future path, or are frustrated about the political climate in which they live. [12] Humiliation, poverty, and hopelessness often gives rise to a sense of outrage and desperation, which can be harnessed by extremist leaders to create support for a terrorist movement. For individuals who feel deeply alienated or desperate, martyrdom provides the ultimate escape from life's dilemmas.

In other cases, individuals become angry about the frustrations and insults experienced by their ethnic, cultural, or religious group, though they do not experience this insult at a personal level. This makes sense of the fact that many terrorists are middle-class individuals who have fairly wide options and some degree of educational background. Their strong group identification and anger over group insult helps to explain their willingness to sacrifice their own lives.

Those who feel frustrated and angry may join terrorist organizations, which provide a variety of emotional, social, and economic benefits. Individuals who have a sense of uncertainty about their future may find that terrorist groups provide the sense of identity, structure, and guidance that they crave. Identification with the cause and other group members may satisfy individuals' needs for meaning and justice and afford them an opportunity to bolster their self-esteem. [13]

Belonging to a militant group may also satisfy desires for adventure, "glamour," and social connections. Once they join the group, individuals may feel strong and powerful and believe they have a clearer purpose in life. Many terrorist organizations also offer economic incentives to persuade individuals that it is rational to sacrifice their lives for the good of the cause. [14] For those who believe they lack options, cannot find a job, and have few social safety nets in place to assist them, suicide bombing may seem like a relatively reasonable option. Families of suicide bombers often receive money and are treated as heroes.

Once individuals join organizations that share their frustrations, they may undergo a process of indoctrination whereby their beliefs and behaviors are made to conform the group's basic principles. [15] Within these tight-knit communities, individuals' fear of letting down their comrades becomes greater than their fear of dying. Many come to believe that by sacrificing their own lives for the sake of the cause, those lives can take on a broader meaning.


Various grievances and social stressors can contribute to the formation of terrorist groups. For example, poverty, unemployment, epidemics, and criminality often lead to social instability, which provides fertile ground for terrorist activity. Over-population, socioeconomic struggle, and a lack of professional opportunities can also produce a sense of rage, powerlessness, and resentment among the populace.

Disaffected individuals and/or groups may perceive the world as treating them harshly and unjustly. In some cases, there are indeed genuine causes for grievance and a sense of group persecution. The move from being a disaffected individual to a violent extremist is usually facilitated by some catalyst event. [16] In most cases it is an act of extreme violence committed against the individual, family or friends by those in authority or by some rival group. Research findings indicate that most suicide bombers have had at least one of their loved ones killed or severely harmed at the hands of their enemies. Many of them join terrorist groups in an angry and vengeful state of mind with the intent to take part in aggressive acts. They are rarely coerced into it.

In fact, many suicide bombers may view themselves as soldiers engaged in a war. Casualties are then seen as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of fighting for one's just cause. It is not that they are bloodthirsty or that they enjoy killing civilians, but rather that they believe these missions are the only way to fight for their cause. Although the realization that terrorists view themselves as soldiers engaged in a just war does not legitimize their cause or methods, it does provide some insight into their psychology and motivation. It suggests that their psychology is similar to that displayed by combatants in other conflicts, and that suicide bombers view themselves as soldiers or warriors reacting to the provocative abuses and injustices of others. [17] According to this line of thinking, suicide bombing is a matter of fighting back against unjust political or economic policies, authoritarian governments, and structural violence.

Some argue that the global economic order contributes to groups' sense that they have been wronged. Michael Stevens (2002), for example, argues that globalization contributes to the creation of sociocultural and psychosocial conditions from which terrorism is more likely to emerge. [18] The West has exported its economic, political, and cultural systems with little regard as to how they might be received. While globalization has no doubt generated wealth, it has also produced economic inequality, threats to language and community, and support for oppressive regimes. Many believe that it has also contributed to the uprooting of traditional values and customs. These unanticipated costs may continue to generate hostility among those harmed, humiliated, or left behind by the new world order.


[1] Andrew Silke, "Courage in Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology," in Social Research, (70:1, 2004), 178.

[2] Clark McCauley, "Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 5.

[3] Silke, 179.

[4] McCauley, 15.

[5] Randy Borum, "Understanding the Terrorist Mindset, p. 7-10 in FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (72:7, 2003), 8.

[6] ibid., 7.

[7] Ellis Shuman, "What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick?" in Israel Insider, June 4, 2001. [available at:; accessed 1/05]

[8] Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God, (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003), 41.

[9] McCauley, 14.

[10] Paul J. Balles, "What Turns Victims into Suicide Bombers?" Redress Information and Analysis, [available at:; accessed 1/05]

[11] Giovanni Caracci, "Cultural and Contextual Aspects of Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 63.

[12] Stern, 69.

[13] Michael J. Stevens, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Globalization: Contextualizing Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 36.

[14] Stern, 44.

[15] Caracci, 60.

[16] Silke, 183.

[17] ibid., 194.

[18] Stevens, 31.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Suicide Bombers." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2005 <>.

Additional Resources

Qari Sami did something strange the day he killed himself. The university student from Kabul had long since grown a bushy, Taliban-style beard and favored the baggy tunics and trousers of the terrorists he idolized. He had even talked of waging jihad. But on the day in 2005 that he strapped the bomb to his chest and walked into the crowded Kabul Internet cafe, Sami kept walking — between the rows of tables, beyond the crowd, along the back wall, until he was in the bathroom, with the door closed.

And that is where, alone, he set off his bomb.

The blast killed a customer and a United Nations worker, and injured five more. But the carnage could have been far worse. Brian Williams, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was in Afghanistan at the time. One day after the attack, he stood before the cafe’s hollowed-out wreckage and wondered why any suicide bomber would do what Sami had done: deliberately walk away from the target before setting off the explosives. “[Sami] was the one that got me thinking about the state of mind of these guys,” Williams said.

Eventually a fuller portrait emerged. Sami was a young man who kept to himself, a brooder. He was upset by the US forces’ ouster of the Taliban in the months following 9/11 — but mostly Sami was just upset. He took antidepressants daily. One of Sami’s few friends told the media he was “depressed.”

Today Williams thinks that Sami never really cared for martyrdom; more likely, he was suicidal. “That’s why he went to the bathroom,” Williams said.

The traditional view of suicide bombers is well established, and backed by the scholars who study them. The bombers are, in the post-9/11 age, often young, ideologically driven men and women who hate the laissez-faire norms of the West — or at least the occupations and wars of the United States — because they contradict the fundamentalist interpretations that animate the bombers’ worldview. Their deaths are a statement, then, as much as they are the final act of one’s faith; and as a statement they have been quite effective. They propagate future deaths, as terrorist organizers use a bomber’s martyrdom as propaganda for still more suicide terrorism.

But Williams is among a small cadre of scholars from across the world pushing the rather contentious idea that some suicide bombers may in fact be suicidal. At the forefront is the University of Alabama’s Adam Lankford, who recently published an analysis of suicide terrorism in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. Lankford cites Israeli scholars who interviewed would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. These scholars found that 40 percent of the terrorists showed suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had made previous suicide attempts, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford finds Palestinian and Chechen terrorists who are financially insolvent, recently divorced, or in debilitating health in the months prior to their attacks. A 9/11 hijacker, in his final note to his wife, describing how ashamed he is to have never lived up to her expectations. Terrorist recruiters admitting they look for the “sad guys” for martyrdom.

For Lankford and like-minded thinkers, changing the perception of the suicide bomber changes the focus of any mission that roots out terrorism. If the suicide bomber can be viewed as something more than a brainwashed, religiously fervent automaton, anticipating a paradise of virgins in the clouds, then that suicide bomber can be seen as a nuanced person, encouraging a greater curiosity about the terrorist, Lankford thinks. The more the terrorist is understood, the less damage the terrorist can cause.

“Changing perceptions can save lives,” Lankford said.

Islam forbids suicide. Of the world’s three Abrahamic faiths, “The Koran has the only scriptural prohibition against it,” said Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in the causes of suicide terrorism. The phrase suicide bomber itself is a Western conception, and a pretty foul one at that: an egregious misnomer in the eyes of Muslims, especially from the Middle East. For the Koran distinguishes between suicide and, as the book says, “the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah.” The latter is a courageous Fedayeen — a martyr. Suicide is a problem, but martyrdom is not.

For roughly 1,400 years, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, scholars have accepted not only the ubiquity of martyrdom in the Muslim world but the strict adherence to its principles by those who participate in it: A lot of people have died, and keep dying, for a cause. Only recently, and sometimes only reluctantly, has the why of martyrdom been challenged.

Ariel Merari is a retired professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University. After the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983 — in which a terrorist, Ismalal Ascari, drove a truck bomb into a United States Marine barracks, killing 241 American servicemen — Merari began investigating the motives of Ascari, and the terrorist group with which the attack was aligned, Hezbollah. Though the bombing came during the Lebanese Civil War, Merari wondered whether it was less a battle within the conflict so much as a means chosen by one man, Ascari, to end his life. By 1990, Merari had published a paper asking the rest of academia to consider if suicide bombers were actually suicidal. “But this was pretty much speculative, this paper,” Merari said.

In 2002, he approached a group of 15 would-be suicide bombers — Palestinians arrested and detained moments before their attacks — and asked if he could interview them. Remarkably, they agreed. “Nobody” — no scholar — “had ever been able to do something like this,” Merari said. He also approached 14 detained terrorist organizers. Some of the organizers had university degrees and were intrigued by the fact that Merari wanted to understand them. They, too, agreed to be interviewed. Merari was ecstatic.

Fifty-three percent of the would-be bombers showed “depressive tendencies” — melancholy, low energy, tearfulness, the study found — whereas 21 percent of the organizers exhibited the same. Furthermore, 40 percent of the would-be suicide bombers expressed suicidal tendencies; one talked openly of slitting his wrists after his father died. But the study found that none of the terrorist organizers were suicidal.

The paper was published last year in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Adam Lankford read it in his office at the University of Alabama. The results confirmed what he’d been thinking. The criminal justice professor had published a book, “Human Killing Machines,” about the indoctrination of ordinary people as agents for terrorism or genocide. Merari’s paper touched on themes he’d explored in his book, but the paper also gave weight to the airy speculation Lankford had heard a few years earlier in Washington, D.C., while he was earning his PhD from American University. There, Lankford had helped coordinate antiterrorism forums with the State Department for high-ranking military and security personnel. And it was at these forums, from Third World-country delegates, that Lankford first began to hear accounts of suicide bombers who may have had more than martyrdom on their minds. “That’s what sparked my interest,” he said.

He began an analysis of the burgeoning, post-9/11 literature on suicide terrorism, poring over the studies that inform the thinking on the topic. Lankford’s paper was published this July. In it, he found stories similar to Merari’s: bombers who unwittingly revealed suicidal tendencies in, say, their martyrdom videos, recorded moments before the attack; and organizers who valued their lives too much to end it, so they recruited others, often from the poorest, bleakest villages.

But despite the accounts from their own published papers, scholar after scholar had dismissed the idea of suicidality among bombers. Lankford remains incredulous. “This close-mindedness has become a major barrier to scholarly progress,” Lankford said.

Not everyone is swayed by his argument. Mia Bloom is a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State University and the author of the book, “Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.” “I would be hesitant to agree with Mr. Lankford,” she said. “You don’t want to conflate the Western ideas of suicide with something that is, in the Middle East, a religious ceremony.” For her, “being a little bit wistful” during a martyrdom video is not an otherwise hidden window into a bomber’s mind. Besides, most suicide bombers “are almost euphoric” in their videos, she said. “Because they know that before the first drop of blood hits the ground, they’re going to be with Allah.” (Lankford counters that euphoria, moments before one’s death, can also be a symptom of the suicidal person.)

One study in the academic literature directly refutes Lankford’s claim, and that’s the University of Nottingham’s Ellen Townsend’s “Suicide Terrorists: Are They Suicidal?” published in the journal Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior in 2007. (The answer is a resounding “no.”)

Townsend’s paper was an analysis of empirical research on suicide terrorism — the scholars who’d talked with the people who knew the attackers. In Lankford’s own paper a few years after Townsend’s, he attacked her methodology: relying as she did on the accounts of a martyr’s family members and friends, who, Lankford wrote, “may lie to protect the ‘heroic’ reputations of their loved ones.”

When reached by phone, Townsend had a wry chuckle for Lankford’s “strident” criticism of her work. Yes, in the hierarchy of empirical research, the sort of interviews on which her paper is based have weaknesses: A scholar can’t observe everything, can’t control for all biases. “But that’s still stronger evidence than the anecdotes in Lankford’s paper,” Townsend said.

Robert Pape, at the University of Chicago, agrees. “The reason Merari’s view” — and by extension, Lankford’s — “is so widely discredited is that we have a handful of incidents of what looks like suicide and we have over 2,500 suicide attackers. We have literally hundreds and hundreds of stories where religion is a factor — and revenge, too....To put his idea forward, [Lankford] would need to have a 100 or more stories or anecdotes to even get in the game.”

He’s working on that. Lankford’s forthcoming study, to be published early next year, is “far more robust” than his first: a list of more than 75 suicide terrorists and why they were likely suicidal. He cites a Palestinian woman who, five months after lighting herself on fire in her parents’ kitchen, attempted a return to the hospital that saved her life. But this time she approached with a pack of bombs wrapped around her body, working as an “ideologue” in the service of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Lankford writes of al Qaeda-backed terrorists in Iraq who would target and rape local women, and then see to it that the victims were sent to Samira Ahmed Jassim. Jassim would convince these traumatized women that the only way to escape public scorn was martyrdom. She was so successful she became known as the Mother of Believers. “If you just needed true believers, you wouldn’t need them to be raped first,” Lankford said in an interview.

Lankford is also intrigued by the man who in some sense launched the current study of suicide terrorism: Mohammed Atta, the ringleader behind the 9/11 hijacking. “It’s overwhelming, his traits of suicidality,” Lankford said. An isolated, neglected childhood, pathologically ashamed of any sexual expression. “According to the National Institute of Mental Health there are 11 signs, 11 traits and symptoms for a man being depressed,” Lankford said. “Atta exhibited eight of them.”

If Atta were seen as something more than a martyr, or rather something other than one, the next Atta would not have the same effect on the world. That’s Lankford’s hope anyway. But transporting a line of thought from the halls of academia to the chambers of Congress or onto field agents’ dossiers is no easy task. Lankford said he has not heard from anyone in the government regarding his work. And even if the idea does reach a broader audience in the West, there is still the problem of convincing those in the Middle East of its import. Pape, at the University of Chicago, said people in the Muslim world commit suicide at half the rate they do in the Jewish or Christian world. The act is scorned, which makes it all the more difficult to accept any behaviors or recurring thoughts that might lead to it.

Still, there is reason for Lankford to remain hopeful. The Israeli government, for one, has worked closely with Merari and his work on suicidal tendencies among Palestinian terrorists. Then there is Iraq. Iraq is on the verge of autonomy for many reasons, but one of them is the United States’ decision to work with Iraqis instead of against them — and, more fundamentally, to understand them. Lankford thinks that if the same inquisitiveness were applied to suicide bombers and their motives, “the violence should decrease.”

Paul Kix is a senior editor at Boston magazine and a contributing writer for ESPN the Magazine.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.


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