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Variations on suicide terrorism date to ancient times (Bloom, 2005; Hoffman, 1998; Pape, 2005). Most analysts trace the evolution of modern suicide terrorism to Sri Lanka and Lebanon in the 1980s (Sprinzak, 2000; Gunaratna, 2000; Winkates, 2006). Among terrorist activities, suicide terrorism is noted for being inexpensive, deadly, and especially effective in accomplishing terrorists' goals (Hoffman, 2003, p. 1; Jalalzai, 2005, p. 110). For many years, acts of suicide terrorism seemed to be confined to a few areas and to be relatively limited in frequency. In recent years, the scope and the frequency of suicide terrorism has expanded dramatically.
While the number of total terrorist attacks of all kinds fell from 660 in 1988 to 250 in 1998, the number of suicide terrorist attacks was climbing rapidly (Clayton, 2003, p. 18). The number of suicide terrorist attacks during the period 2000-2005 "is 2.7 times greater in comparison to the period beginning in the 1980s and lasting until 1999" (Pedahzur & Perlinger, 2006, p. 1987). During the decade 1981-1990, there were an average of 4.7 suicide terrorist attacks per year; from 1991-2000, the average suicide attacks per year increased to 16, and then from 2001-2005, the average number per year jumped to 180 (Atran, 2006, p. 128). The growth of suicide terrorism has been especially dramatic in the past few years. The total number of worldwide suicide terrorist attacks climbed from 81 in 2001 to 91 in 2002 to 99 in 2003 to 163 in 2004 and then to 460 in 2005 (Atran, 2006, p. 129). The number will be even higher when the final count for 2006 is made.
Not only has the frequency of suicide terrorist attacks increased dramatically in recent years, so has its scope. In the 1980s, modern suicide terrorism was found in only a few countries, such as Lebanon and Sri Lanka. By the mid-1990s, suicide terrorism had become a routine feature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Brym & Araj, 2006, p. 1970). During the period 2000-2005 the geographic scope of suicide terrorism expanded dramatically. During this period, there were suicide terrorist attacks in Indonesia (Bali), Sri Lanka, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States (9/11), England (the July 2005 London bombings), Russia, Chechnya, many states of the former Soviet Union, and Bangladesh among other places (Bowers, Derrick, Olimov, 2004; Atran, 2006). Atran (2006) notes that "during 2000-2004, there were 472 suicide attacks in 22 countries, killing more than 7,000 and wounding tends of thousands" (p. 127).
The spread of modern suicide terrorism to the West (the U.S. and U.K.) and the rapid expansion of suicide terrorism into Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq has been especially notable (Bergen, 2003; Eggen & Wilson, 2005; Gall, 266; Hassan, 2004; Gall & Masood, 2006; Karzai & Jones, 2006; Jalalzai, 2005). Suicide terrorism did not occur in Iraq prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion (Murphy, 2005, p. 1). Now suicide terrorist attacks average more than one per day in Iraq (Atran, 2006, p. 127). Eggen & Wilson (2005) note that "for sheer volume, Iraq is now the global center of suicide terrorism" (p. A1). Between the March 2003 U.S. invasion and the end of June 2005, there were about 400 suicide bombings in Iraq (Eggen & Wilson, 2005, p. A1). Iraq's neighbor Saudi Arabia has become so alarmed about the rising suicide terrorism that in April of 2006 the Saudi government announced plans to built a multibillion-dollar electrified fence along its 560 mile border with Iraq (Dreazen & Shiskin, 2006, p. A1). In Afghanistan, suicide terrorism was both rare and fairly ineffective until very recently (Gall, 2006; Dreazen & Shishkin, 2006, p. A1). During the first six months of 2006, there were 32 suicide terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, "more than the total committed in the entire history of the country" (Karzai & Jones, 2006, p. 9). Moreover, the Afghan suicide attacks have become increasingly effective (in terms of the destruction they cause and the number of people they kill) as the suicide terrorists adopt new innovations such as explosive vests (Gall, 2006, p. A15). Even as suicide terrorism was expanding into new areas, there was an upsurge in attacks in areas where suicide terrorism is well established. For example, in October of 2006, a suicide terrorist in Colombo, Sri Lanka drove a truck packed with explosives into a military convoy, killing 94 people and wounding 150 others (Senanayake, 2006, p. A10).
It is not only the geographic scope of modern suicide terrorism which is expanding. The scope of suicide terrorism is also expanding in terms of the range and type of targets (nearly every public gathering place is now a target) and the range and types of weapons and explosives used (e.g., belt bombs, vest bombs, truck bombs, improvised explosive devices [IEDs], etc.) (Merari, 2004; Hoffman, 2003; Pedahzur, 2005). Furthermore, there has been an expansion of the scope of suicide terrorism in terms of the people who carry out the suicide mission. In the 1980s and early 1990s, suicide terrorism was mainly carried out by young men. In the 2000s, women are playing an increasingly important role in suicide terrorism, as are teens, children, and adults in their thirties and forties (Zedalis, 2004; Berko & Erez, 2005; Patkin, 2004).
This paper provides an overview and analysis of suicide terrorism. Following a discussion of the definition of suicide terrorism, the paper traces the history of suicide terrorism from ancient times through the development of modern suicide terrorism in the latter 20th century. The main features and characteristics of suicide terrorism and suicide terrorists (individuals and organizations) are discussed. A final section examines some of the major theories or explanations of suicide terrorism, considering the influence of individual, social, and organizational motives and factors.
Before attempting to define suicide terrorism, it is necessary to first define what is meant by the term "terrorism." This is not that easy. As Dershowitz (2002) observes, the difficulty in arriving at a definition that everyone can agree upon is illustrated by the refrain, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" (p. 4). Dershowitz (2002) breaks down most definitions of terrorism into three main elements: 1) the nature of the targeted victims; 2) the nature of those who commit the violence; and 3) the method by which the terrorist seeks to influence their audiences (pp. 4-5). Atran (2003) observes that "the concept of 'terror' as systematic use of violence to attain political ends was first codified by Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution" (p. 1535). Robespierre saw terror as an "emanation of virtue" that delivered swift justice (Atran, 2003, p. 1535). Another difficulty occurs in separating the concepts of "terror" and "terrorism". The following passage from the Dictionary of Terrorism illustrates the possible areas of confusion between these two terms:
No consensus exists on the relationship between terrorism and terror. Observers often see terror in a historical context such as in France under Robespierre or Russia under Stalin. Some see terrorism as the more organised form of terror, and yet others stress that terror is a state of mind while terrorism refers to organised social activity. The most polarised views are that terror can occur without terrorism, and that terror is the key to terrorism (Thackrah, 2004, p. 264).
Pape (2005) explains that "terrorism involves the use of violence by an organization other than a national government to intimidate or frighten a target audience" (p. 9). Pape (2005) notes further that most terrorist strikes or campaigns have two general purposes: "to gain supporters and to coerce opponents" (p. 9). While Pape's (2005) definition specifically excludes the possibility of state-sponsored terrorism, numerous other definitions are broad enough to include terrorist acts conducted by or on behalf of a state as well as those conducted by private (non-governmental) organizations or individuals (Dershowitz, 2005; Winkates, 2006). Under U.S. statute law, terrorism is defined as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" (cited in Winkates, 2006, p. 88). Winkates (2006) defines terrorism as "the premeditated threat or use of violence against persons or property, designed to intimidate noncombatant victims, the object of which is to change or to stabilize private or public policy" (pp. 88-89).
Definitions of suicide terrorism combine the concepts of terrorism and suicide. As is the case with definitions of "terrorism", the definitions of suicide terrorism found in the literature vary widely. As Hafez (2006) notes, one problem in defining suicidal terrorism concerns the various possible perspectives on the act:
...how one describes acts of self-immolation committed in order to kill others is a task fraught with controversy. Those whose support these acts of violence prefer to call them 'martyrdom operations," and their perpetrators 'heroes' and 'freedom fighters.' Those who oppose them prefer to call them 'homicide bombers,' 'suicide terrorists,' or 'suicidal murderers' (p. 4).
In an effort to avoid this debate, Hafez's (2006) own definition of suicide terrorism relies on the more descriptive term of "suicide bomber" or "human bomb" which is defined as "an individual who willingly uses his or her body to carry or deliver explosives or explosive materials to attack, kill or main others" (p. 4). Like Hafez (2006), Bloom's (2005) definition focuses on suicide bombing which is defined as "a violent, politically motivated attack, carried out in a deliberate state of awareness by a person who blows himself or herself up together with a chosen target. The premeditated certain death of the perpetrator is the precondition for the success of the attack" (p. 76). In terms of the objectives of suicide terrorism, Bloom (2005) notes,
Although a suicide attack aims to physically destroy an initial target, its primary use is typically as a weapon of psychological warfare intended to affect a larger public audience. The primary target is not those actually killed or injured in the attack, but those made to witness it...Through indoctrination and training and under charismatic leaders, self contained suicide cells canalize disparate religious or political sentiments of individuals into an emotionally bonded group (p. 77).
The Dictionary of Terrorism defines suicide terrorists as individuals who "are willing to sacrifice their own lives for the greater good of advancing their ideological aims" (Thackrah, 2004, p. 252). Jane's Intelligence Review defines suicide terrorism as:
...the readiness to sacrifice one's life in the process of destroying or attempting to destroy a target to advance a political goal. The aim of the psychologically and physically war-trained terrorist is to die while destroying the enemy target (Gunaratna, 2000, p. 1).
Pedahzur (2005) states that "suicide terrorism includes a diversity of violent actions perpetrated by people who are aware that the odds they will return alive are close to zero" (p. 8). Pape (2005) agrees that,
What distinguishes a suicide terrorist is that the attacker does not expect to survive the mission and often employees a method of attack (such as a car bomb, suicide vest, or ramming an airplane into a building) that requires his or her death in order to succeed. In essence, suicide terrorists kill others at the same time that they kill themselves (p. 10).
Based on this distinction, Pape (2005) states that a broad definition of suicide terrorism "could include any operation that is designed in such a way that the terrorist does not expect to survive it, even if he or she is actually killed by police or other defenders. We might call such operations suicide missions instead of suicide attacks" (p. 10). Finally, Winkates (2006) argues that "the best litmus test for definitive suicide terrorism is the intentional and successful sacrifice of a human life to achieve a terrorist objective" (p. 89).
Suicide terrors predates modern truck bombs, suicide belts, suicide vests and IEDs. History also provides numerous examples of suicidal terrorism across various religions, societies, and cultures (Sprinzak, 2000; Atran, 2003; Caldararo, 2006).
Samson & the Philistines. Hafez (2006) cites the story of Samson and the Philistines from chapters 13-16 in the book of Judges of the Bible as potentially one of the earliest examples of suicide terrorism. After being captured, tortured, blinded and imprisoned by the Philistines (oppressors of the Israelites), Samson was one day called upon to "entertain" the leaders of the Philistines in their temple. Samson was led to the pillars of the temple where he leaned on the for rest. Samson then summoned all of his strength and brought down the two central pillars holding up the temple, thus killing himself and all of his tormentors, "so that the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life" (cited in Hafez, 2006, p. 3).
Jewish Zealots (and Sicarii). Pape (2005) calls the Zealots and the Sicarii the "world's first suicide terrorists" (p. 11). Although some historians treat the Zealots and Sicari as the same ancient Jewish sect active in the first century AD after the Roman occupation of Palestine, others note that the Zealots and Sicari were actually two factions of the same Jewish sect (Bloom, 2005; Pape, 2005; Winkates, 2006). Bloom (2005) notes that "Rapoport differentiates the Sicarii from the Zealots since the focus of Sicarii anger was Hellenized Jews whereas the Zealots generally targeted the enemy occupiers - Romans and the Greeks" (p. 8). The name sicarrii means "dagger-men", "who would infiltrate Roman-controlled cities and stab Jewish collaborators or Roman legionnaires with a sica, kidnap the staff of the Temple Guard for ransom, or poison their enemies" (Bloom, 2005, p. 8). The sica was a small, sickle-like dagger which the Zealots and the Sicarrii usually concealed under their cloaks (Pape, 2005, p. 12). The Zealots and Sicarii used violence to encourage public uprising, including the Jewish War of AD 66. They were well known for attacking their victims in broad daylight and in highly public places with little apparent regard for their own safety or escape. Pape (2005) notes that many of these attacks "must have been suicide missions, since the killers were often immediately captured and put to death - typically tortured and then crucified or burned alive" (p. 12). The Zealots did not shy from martyrdom and intense self-sacrifice in the name of their cause (and their God). Bloom (2005) reports that during the long siege of Jerusalem, the Zealot leaders burned the food supply of their own forces "as a show of religious dedication and in an attempt to force God's hand to act against the Romans" (p. 10). In AD 73 after the Roman general Silva attacked and surrounded Masada, it was Eleazar, leader of the zealots who persuaded Masada's defenders and refugees to choose mass suicide over capture and submissions to the Romans. Winkates (2006) observes that "at this mountainous fortress on the shore of the Dead Sea, 960 Jewish men, women, and children chose suicide over certain slavery by the victorious Romans" (p. 90).
Karbala and the Cult of Sacrifice Among Shia Muslims. Winkates (2006) observes that "perhaps the most momentous sacrificial act was that of Husayn, direct descendant of the Prophet, when in 680 AD he and his partisans marched to their deaths against 10,000 Sunni military forces near the village of modern-day Karbala, Iraq" (p. 90). This act of mass suicide or martyrdom set the stage for the Sunni-Shia schism within Islam and forms the basis for the "cult of sacrifice" among the Shia. It also explains the underlying ideological beliefs of the Assassins.
The Assassins (Hashashins or hashish users, also called fida's in some sources). The Assasins were an 11th - 12th century Shia Muslim sect from the Nizari state, "two loosely connected clusters of mountain fortresses in Syria and Persia" (modern day Iran) (Andriolo, 2002, p. 737). Their name, the assassins (which is still used to designate political murder today), comes from the Arabic word hashishiyyin (because they supposedly smoked hashish before engaging in acts of violence). According to Pape (2005), "the Assassins created an effective organization for the planned, systematic, and long-term use of political murder that relied on suicide missions for success. For two centuries, the Assassins' daggers terrorized and demoralized the mainly Sunni rulers of the region as well as leaders of Christian Crusader states" (p. 12). The organizational structure and discipline of the Assassins foreshadows elements of some modern suicide terrorist organizations. According to Andriolo (2002), the Assassins were comprised of an "elite corps of young men...taken to a fortress for extensive training in weaponry, languages, and whatever knowledge and skills would allow them to later pass undetected...their mission was to come so close to a highly placed and well-protected target, that they could dispatch him surely with a dagger" (p. 737). The Assassins were not only willing to die to complete their mission, they openly reveled in their martyrdom. Andriolo (2002) notes that the "death-embracing mindset of the assassins...increased their effectiveness on technical and psychological grounds" (p. 738). Pape (2005) reports that the first successful Assassin, "who killed the vizier to the Great Sultan Malik-shah of Persia in 1092, exclaimed before himself being killed: 'The killing of this devil is the beginning of bliss'" (p. 12).
The Thugs. The Thugs (also known as Thuggees, Phansigars or stranglers) of India were a Hindu sect who terrorized and strangled (but did not brutalize) primarily wealthy non-European travelers as sacrifice to the Hindu goddess Kali (goddess of time and universal energy) (Winkates, 2006, p. 90). According to Thug beliefs, the more terror the victims experienced, the more Kali enjoyed their deaths (Bloom, 2005, p. 5). Like the Assassins, the Thugs embraced death. They looked forward to being apprehended and subsequently executed as guarantee of their entry into paradise (Winkates, 2006, p. 90). Winkates (2006) reports that the Thugs were a late Medieval sect, but Bloom (2005) notes that the Thus were linked to the ancient Sargartians who served in the Persian army and that "the organization would thrive for 2500 years, until the advent of the British Raj, making them the longest lasting terror group in history" (p. 5).
Muslim Suicide Terrorism Against Western Colonial Rule. During the 18th and 19th there were other examples of Muslim suicidal terrorist actions against Western colonial interests on the Malabar coast of southwestern India, in Aceh in modern-day Indonesia, and Mindanao in the southern Philippines (Hafez, 2006, p. 3). The Muslim suicidal terrorists in Malabar and the Philippines were called juramentado (meaning "having sworn an oath"). Their targets were the ruling Spanish Christians. In 18th century Malabar, the suicide terrorism "took the form of directed attacks against specific individuals for social, economic, or religious purposes...the Jihadis called juramentados, would rush the enemy, trying to kill as many Spaniards are possible, until they themselves were killed" (Bloom, 2005, p. 12). In the Philippines, the Muslim juramentados practiced two different forms of suicidal attacks on the Christians: 1) fighting the Spanish army, men volunteered for front-line placement so that they could charge the enemy troops until they themselves were killed; and 2) men would enter a Christian settlement armed with a short spear or kris, attacking whoever he encountered before he was himself killed (Andriolo, 2002, p. 738).
Russian anarchists. During the late 19th century, Russian anarchists used crude bombs to launched suicide attacks against the Tsarist regimes (Winkates, 2006, p. 90).
Japanese Kamikazes. Hafez (2006) argues that it was the Japanese kamikaze ("divine wind") pilots of World War II who introduced suicide bombings in the modern world (p. 4). While most analysts include the Japanese kamikazes in their historical accounts of suicide terrorism, Pape (2005) notes that they "are not normally considered terrorists because they targeted solely soldiers and sailors, not civilians, and because their actions were directed and authorized by a recognized national government" (p. 13). Unlike the long history of battlefield sacrifice and martyrdom by individual soldiers, however, the kamikaze program was highly organized and well planned. The program was conceived by Japanese Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi (commander of the Philippines in October 1944). Onishi believed that the only thing that would save Japan from humiliating defeat was a radical new strategy:
The salvation of our country lies in the hands of God's soldiers. The only way to destroy our opponents fleet and thus get back on the road to victory is for our young men to sacrifice their lives by crashing their aircraft on enemy ships (cited in Reuter, 2004, p. 133).
Onishi was correct in his belief that thousands of young Japanese men (some no more than teenage boys) would volunteer to sacrifice themselves for emperor and country. The kamikaze raid were carried out for ten months, from October 25, 1944 to August 15, 1945. A total of 3,843 Japanese kamikazes sacrificed themselves in the attacks (Pape, 2005, p. 13). While the kamikazes did not defeat the Americans, Pape (2005) reports that the attacks "were four to five times more deadly than conventional strike missions...they damaged or sank at least 375 U.S. naval vessels, killed 12,300 American servicemen, and wounded another 36,400" (p. 13). At least initially, the kamikaze terror attacks worked as Onishi intended to weaken U.S. morale by demonstrating the Japanese soldiers' resolve. American troops were initially "thunderstruck" by the attacks (Reuter, 2004, p. 132). One American soldier who witnessed some of the first kamikaze attacks said, "I reckon there's nothing else the Japs could have done that would have shaken the morale of U.S. troops more thoroughly than this did" (Reuter, 2004, p. 132). The connection between the Japanese kamikazes and the subsequent September 11, 2001 suicide terrorist attacks in America is not lost on contemporary analysts.
Contemporary Suicide Terrorism
Pape (2005) reports that "between 1945 and 1980, suicide attacks temporarily disappeared from the world scene" (p. 13). Pape (2005) and others (Laqueur, 2003) note the occurrence of politically- and/or religiously driven hunger strikes and suicides (particularly self-immolations) during this period but Pape (2005) claims "there is not a single recorded instance of a suicide terrorist killing others while killing himself" (p. 13). Reuter (2004) disagrees, citing a pro-Palestinian "Japanese Red Army"-sponsored attack on Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport on May 20, 1972. In what Reuter (2004) calls the "first suicide attacks in the Middle East", on this day three Japanese gunmen with machine guns killed twenty-four people at the airport. They made no effort to escape, and two were shot dead by the airport guard (Reuter, 2004, p. 136).
Most analysts trace the beginning of modern suicide terrorist attacks (in which attackers use modern explosive weapons to kill others and themselves at the same time) Lebanon in the early 1980s and to Iran during the early years of the Iran-Iraq War. Inspired by Iran's use of "human minesweepers" (suicidal volunteers, including children, would rush the Iraqi forces) against Iraq, Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim group, launched a series of attacks against Western and Israeli targets in Lebanon (Winkates, 2006, p. 92). Hizbollah suicide attackers killed 80 and wounded 142 in its April 1983 attack on the American Embassy in Beirut, killed 241 and wounded 81 in its October 1983 attack on the US Marine headquarters near Beirut and its concurrent attack against the French Multinational Force, which killed 58 and wounded 15 (Winkates, 2006, p. 92). In November 1983, Hizbollah suicide terrorists killed 88 and wounded 69 in an attack on the Israeli Defense Force headquarters in Tyre and a month later killed 4 and wounded 15 in an attack on the American Embassy in Kuwait (Winkates, 2006, p. 92). All Hizbollah bombers died in the attacks. Sprinzak (2000) notes that Hizbollah leaders were initially very uneasy about the decision to launch suicide attacks, under the reasoning that Islam does not approve of believers taking their own lives. However, "suicide terrorism became so effect in driving foreigners out of Lebanon that there was no motivation to stop it. The result was theological hair splitting that characterized suicide bombers as exceptional soldiers who risked their lives in a holy war" (Sprinzak, 2000, p. 68).
Hizbollah's spectacular success at achieving its short-term goals of expelling US and French forces from all of Lebanon, as well as confining Israeli forces to a narrow strip in Southern Lebanon inspired other organizations (including Hamas, Tamil Tigers and al-Qaeda) to adopt the suicide terrorist method of attack (Pape, 2005, p. 14). Moreover, other organizations were encouraged to follow Hizbollah's lead in focusing on high-profile targets and high-kill goals. Winkates (2006) notes that prior to Hizbollah's highly successful suicide terrorist attacks in the 1980s, "terrorist groups shied away from killing large number of victims" with one analyst observing that "terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dying" (Winkates, 2006, p. 93). Winkates (2006) notes that "Hizbollah changed that ethic" (p. 94).
Following Hizbollah, the second most important early modern suicide terrorist organization was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE, better known as the Tamil Tigers). The Tamil Tigers were founded in 1972 as a Marxist, ethnic Tamil, Hindu separatist group seeking independence from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka. Their Black Tiger division was formed in 1987 and trained to launch suicide attacks against Sri Lankan political leaders, military targets and civilians (Pape, 2005; Winkates, 2006). Winkates (2006) notes that the LTTE is distinguished as the only terrorist group to have assassinated two heads of government (they murdered former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993) (p. 94). The Tamil Tigers also killed a defense minister in 1991 and a chief of naval staff in 1992. Hafez (2006) observed that outside of the Middle East, the Tamil Tigers "have led the pack in the number and sophistication of suicide missions" (p. 5). It is estimated that the organization completed some 250 successful suicide attacks between 1987 and 2006 (Hafez, 2006, p. 5).
During the 1990s, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad launched numerous suicide attacks (with Palestinian volunteers) against Israeli civilians and officials in support of the Palestinian cause and by the late 1990s/early 2000s, the frequency and lethality of the suicidal terrorist attacks there exceeded those in Sri Lanka (Pape, 2005; Sprinzak, 2000; Winkates, 2006). Suicide attacks in the Palestinian territories and Israeli received direct support from the Iraq government (which promised money to the families of suicide martyrs) during this period.
The 1995-1999 Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fight against the Turkish government brought suicide terrorism to Turkey, as the PKK launched several attacks against Turkish government and military targets (Pape, 2005, p. 12). In the early 2000s, ethnonationalist and Islamist Chechens began launching suicide attacks against Russian targets (Hafez, 2006, p. 5). Al Qaeda began launching attacks against American and Saudi targets in the Middle East in the mid-1990s. Al Qaeda's spectacular entry into the suicide terrorist hall of fame occurred on August 7, 1998 when suicide terrorists used two delivery trucks loaded with explosives to blow up (within minutes of each other), the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing a total of 224 people (including 12 Americans) and injuring more than 4,300 persons (Reuter, 2004, p. 142). A little more than two years latter, in October of 2000, Al Qaeda suicide bombers detonated 225 kg of explosive charges alongside the American destroyer, the USS Cole (which was on a refueling stop in the Yemeni port of Aden), killing 17 American sailors and injuring forty. A year later, Al Qaeda suicide terrorists launched their biggest operation - and the biggest single suicide terrorist action to date - with the 9/11 attacks in the United States, killing about 3,000 (Reuter, 2004, p. 144).
As noted in the introductory overview, the frequency and scope of suicide terrorism has increased dramatically during the period following the 9/11 attacks, with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan areas of especially rapid escalation.
Hoffman (2003) argues that two key characteristics of suicide terrorism explain its growing popularity with terrorists groups around the world: "suicide bombings are inexpensive and effective" (p. 2). While coordinated multi-target attacks such as the 9-11 attacks and the London bombings may require extensive planning and considerable investment, even these types of suicide terrorist attacks are less expensive than many conventional terrorist attacks and definitely less expensive than organizing an army. The vast majority of suicide attacks are carried out by individuals, thus minimizing the amount of investment and administrative overhead. The reliance on "human bombs" provides terrorists with "the ultimate smart bomb" (Hoffman, 2003, p. 2). Such smart bombs can be extremely efficient and effective. One of the key characteristics of suicide terrorism is its deadliness. As of 2003, suicide terrorism accounted for just three percent of all worldwide terrorist acts, but for 50% of all terrorism-related deaths (Clayton, 2003, p. 18). This is another factor contributing to its effectiveness. The high-kill rates of suicide terrorism help to increase the amount of terror such attacks inspire in target populations.
Investigations into the personalities and psychologies of suicide terrorists and would-be suicide terrorists have failed to demonstrate that suicide terrorists are mentally ill or somehow genetically or psychologically driven to suicide (Merari, 2004; Hoffman, 2003; Hafez, 2006; Pastor, 2004). Retrospective studies of suicide bombers have repeatedly demonstrated that suicide terrorists have rates of mental illness and emotional disturbance equivalent to that of the general population (Bond, 2004; Bond, 2005; Pastor, 2004; Atran, 2006; Pape, 2005; Silke, 2004; Begley, 2003; Wintrobe, 2003). Furthermore, there is, as Pastor (2004) notes, "no single, identified 'terrorist personality'" (p. 702).
The common stereotype of suicide terrorists as poor and uneducated is also not borne out by research (Merari, 2004; Pape, 2005; Hoffman, 2003; Smith, 2004; Krueger & Maleckova, 2002; Begley, 2003; Bloom, 2005). Indeed, suicide terrorists are, as a group, better educated and better off economically than their non-suicide terrorist counterparts (Krueger & Maleckova, 2002; Berko & Erez, 2005; Atran, 2006).
In both pre-modern and early modern times, young unmarried males have dominated the ranks of suicide terrorists (Hoffman, 2003, p. 3; Patkin, 2004; Zedalis, 2004). However, as Hoffman (2003) notes of suicide terrorists in Israel and the Palestinian territories, "today...suicide bombers are middle-aged and young, married and unmarried, and some of them have children. Some of them, too, are women, and word has it that even children are being trained for martyrdom" (p. 3). The Tamal Tigers (it was a woman suicide terrorist who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi) and the Chechen suicide terrorists (the women are known as "Black Widows") have long used women and children as suicide bombers (Bowers, Derrick, & Olimov, 2004, p. 267; Zedalis, 2004, p. 2). Patkin (2004) estimates that women have carried out as much as 66% of the suicide bombings completed by the PKK in Turkey (p. 81). Historically, women have been more associated with nationalist/secular suicide terrorism than with religiously motivated suicide terrorist activity (Patkin, 2004). There has historically been considerable resistance among Islamic Middle Eastern terrorist groups to use women as suicide terrorists. Zedalis (2004) reports that one of the first known Middle Eastern suicide attacks involving a female bomber occurred in 1985 when a 16-year old girl, Khyadali Sana, drove a truck into an Israeli Defense Force convoy, killing two Israeli soldiers (p. 2). During the 1990s and 2000s, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other Middle East-based terrorist groups (Al Qaeda was the last hold-out) overcame their resistance to using women suicide bombers, reasoning that it was all right to use women suicide bombers when there was no longer a ready supply of male bombers. Many of these organizations soon found that the motivation to use more female suicide terrorists was very strong (Patkin, 2004). Female suicide bombers carry a number of advantages over male suicide bombers because they provide as Zedalis (2004) notes:
- Tactical advantage: stealthier attack, element of surprise, hesitancy to search women, female stereotype (e.g., nonviolent).
- Increased number of combatants;
- Increased publicity (greater publicity = larger number of recruits
- Psychological effect (p. 7).
All of these advantages can be magnified by using younger women (or very old women) and even pregnant women.
Theories & Explanations
Early explanations of suicide terrorism focused on two main areas. First, it was argued that the suicide terrorist was irrational and/or mentally ill (Brym & Araj, 2006; Pastor, 2004; Wintrobe, 2003). A second early explanation focused on the "deprivation hypothesis" - the theory that suicide terrorists were educationally, economically or otherwise deprived compared to their peers (Brym & Araj, 2006; Krueger & Maleckova, 2002). The Bush Administration has in recent years advanced both of these theories in some of its anti-terrorist rhetoric. President Bush has repeatedly spoken out against the evil and irrational terrorists who commit these actions. In addition, the Bush Administration has argued that poverty reduction programs in terrorism-prone regions will reduce the incidence of suicide terrorism (Pastor, 2004; Pape, 2005).
Numerous studies have found little or no support for these two theories of suicide terrorism. Furthermore, recent studies have provided evidence which directly refutes these theories. Krueger & Maleckova's (2002) study on the economics and education of suicide bombers (studying Palestinian suicide bombers in particular) directly refutes the deprivation hypothesis of suicide terrorism. Krueger & Maleckova (2002) concluded that,
The evidence that we have assembled and reviewed suggests that there is little direct connection between poverty, education, and participation in or support for terrorism. Indeed, the available evidence indicates that compared with the relevant population, participants...were at least as likely to come from economically advantaged families and to have a relatively high level of education as they were to come from impoverished families without educational opportunities (p. 9).
As noted in the previous section, numerous studies have demonstrated that overall, suicide terrorists do not suffer from personality disorders or mental illnesses which would explain their participation in suicide terrorism (Berko & Erez, 2005; Pastor, 2004; Smith, 2004). Furthermore, as Wintrobe (2003) has argued, it is possible to explain suicide terrorist acts "in rational choice terms, and that, while such acts are indeed extreme, they are merely an extreme example of a general class of behavior in which all of us engage" (p. 2). In other words, the suicide terrorist is not necessarily irrational.
A third traditional explanation or theory of suicide terrorism focuses on the influence of culture, especially religious culture, on suicide terrorists (Brym & Araj, 2006). These explanations have often been used to explain suicide terrorism among Shia Muslims, based on the tradition of the "cult of sacrifice" (Hafez, 2006; Bloom, 2005; Smith, 2004). This theory fails to explain the existence of suicide terrorism among cultures and religions with no established "cult of sacrifice" and it cannot adequately explain suicide terrorism among secular, nationalist groups (Pape, 2005; Hoffman, 2003; Smith, 2004). Furthermore, as Brym & Araj (2006) warn,
While such cultural resources likely increase the probability that some groups will engage in suicide attacks, one must be careful not to exaggerate their significance. One difficulty with the 'clash of civilizations' argument is that public opinion polls show that Arabs in the Middle East hold strongly favorable attitudes toward American science and technology, freedom and democracy, education, movies and television, and largely favorable attitudes toward the American people. They hold strongly negative attitudes only toward American Middle East policy. This is less evident of a clash of civilizations than a deep political disagreement (p. 1973).
One more recent widely cited theory of suicide terrorism has been offered by Robert Pape (2003, 2005). Based on his analysis of suicide terrorism from 1980 through 2004, Pape (2005) presented a three-part model describing the causal logic of suicide terrorism. Pape's (2005) theory de-emphasizes the role of religion (including Islamic fundamentalism) and focuses on the role of terrorist organization strategy and secular/nationalist objectives. Pape (2005) argues that suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic aimed at political coercion (p. 21). Suicide terrorism, Pape (2005) argues, is part of an organization's broader campaign to achieve political objectives, usually in response to a foreign occupation. Pape (2005) goes on to argue that suicide terrorism also follows a social logic since terrorist organizations "often command broad social support within the national communities from which they recruit" (p. 22). In terms of the third (and least important) level of motivation - the individual level - Pape (2005) stresses the role of altruistic motives (p. 22).
A number of analysts, including Bruce Hoffman (1998, 2003) have advanced explanations of suicide terrorism which propose rationale-choice models emphasizing the role of organizational (terrorist organization) factors that would support Pape's theory. At the same time, quite a few theorists have charged that Pape's theory is overly simplistic (Atran, 2006; Bloom, 2005; Brym & Araj, 2006). Brym & Araj (2006) argue that "strategic thinking is only one element that may combine with others in the creation of a suicide bomber" (p. 1972). Atran (2006) has recently challenged Pape's (2005) theory on a number of points, including Pape's (2005) sampling methods which completely discount the explosion of suicide terrorism in Iraq (p. 130). Atran (2006) also calls into question Pape's (2005) dismissal of the role of ideology and religious fundamentalism as well as his assessments of the effectiveness of suicide terrorism (Atran, 2006, p. 132). Other recently emerging theories of suicide terrorism include Pedahzur & Perlinger's (2006) social network perspective (which explains suicide terrorism in terms of social motivations) and Bloom's (2005) multi-factor model of suicide terrorism. Overall, there is a trend towards more complex models of suicide terrorism which take into account the role of individual, social, cultural, strategic, ideological, and organizational motivations and factors in suicide terrorism (Smith, 2004).
Conclusion: Slowing the Expansion of Suicide Terrorism
Suicide terrorism has ancient roots and can be found, in various forms, throughout history. In the early 1980s, modern suicide terrorism emerged as an isolated, infrequent problem in some parts of the world. Energized by Hizbollah's success in Lebanon, suicide terrorist organizations expanded their operations significantly during the 1990s. By the 2000s, and especially after 9/11 and later the U.S. invasion of Iraq, suicide terrorism increased dramatically. Countries with no or little previous history of suicide terrorism began seeing regular attacks. Despite progress in researching suicide terrorism and the reasons behind its rapid growth in recent years, there are still many mysteries and unknowns related to this problem. In order to slow the expansion of suicide terrorism and/or halt its progress entirely, it will first be necessary to understand the motives of suicide terrorists and their organizations. Dismissing suicide terrorists as crazy, irrational, and/or evil will not reduce the problem of suicide terrorism. Rather than a "war on terror", some analysts have argued that incidents of suicide terrorism can best be reduced through the use of "soft power" such as the dispensing of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance (Pedahzur, 2005; Bloom; Atran, 2006).