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Some Causes Of Suicide Terrorism Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3672 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Terrorism has become a political nightmare in some countries with scholars and security professional struggling to implement adequate counter measures to negate what is viewed as an exotic act. With the advent of suicide terrorism as a potent weapon in the arsenal of the terrorist, there has been a plethora of literature purporting to be authoritative source identifying causes and possible solutions.

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The task of the author is not to authenticate any of the available literature but to generate further debate and highlight possible variables that are viewed as the core of the scourge of suicide terrorism. More importantly, the paper will attempt to focus on, ‘why has this tactic emerged as such an effective tool and why is it that some terrorist organizations use this tactic while other doesn’t?’

The paper will use eventually use as the foundation for its discourse a multi causal framework that conducts analysis of the three (3) levels with a view to creating understanding of the phenomena of suicide terrorism while contributing to more scholarly work on the topic


The trend of suicide terrorism continues unabated without any reasonable explanation or understanding. This trend has in fact been made more prominent by the events of September 11 2001, in which almost 3,000 persons were killed by suicide attackers.

Suicide terrorism gained its prominence almost three decades ago in the 1980’s when a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, the Party of God, attacked and killed American troops in Beirut and achieved untold success. These events of 1983 were sufficient to force the American and French peacekeeping military forces out of Lebanon.

Based on the successes by Hezbollah, other terrorist organizations have adopted suicide terrorism as their principal tactic. Hence “No contemporary terrorist method is more important to understand”. [1] 

What is Suicide Terrorism?

Terrorism research is beset by the lack of a common interpretation or definition of the concept. This lack of clarity is further mystified by some researcher’s avoidance of the dilemma of a definition all together and the acceptance of the lack of universality as part of the underpinning for research. Naturally, any attempts to define suicide terrorism (a sub-category of terrorism) will be plagued by the same definitional issues. In order to ensure there is a basis for discussion, the author will examine the following views and posit a definitional launching pad for the essay.

Professor Andrew Silke, a noted terrorism scholar and psychologist, in Pape (2005) noted that throughout history, acts that some might dismiss as “crazy” or “diabolical” have frequently been employed as rational terrorist tactics. Silke cited some examples to include Cato’s (a politician and noted orator from Rome) self-inflicted stabbing and Samson’s (a biblical figure) destruction of the temple where he was held. Silke further noted that groups that have used suicide as a tool include Japanese samurai, English suffragists, IRA hunger-strikers, and Japanese kamikaze pilots. Silke also raised the question of how we should consider last-stand battles, such as the Spartans at Thermopylae or Americans at the Alamo. Silke’s historical framework prompted a panel of terrorism experts to debate how best to determine the difference between suicide and “suicidal” (high-risk) acts. Central to the discussion was deciding whether an act that is considered suicidal contributes seminal knowledge to the understanding of suicide terrorism. In other words, should the definition of suicide terrorism be limited to actions that result only in suicide or should suicidal acts be included as well? [2] 

“Ariel Merari an academic of Tel Aviv University thought some terrorist acts were deviations from the true act of suicide terrorism. Merari distinguished suicide terrorism as “intentionally killing oneself for the purpose of killing others, in the service of a political or ideological goal” and discounted “high-risk missions, fooled couriers, and suicide without homicide for a political cause” from suicide terrorism research. There is a great psychological difference between killing oneself intentionally and undertaking a mission with a high risk of death, according to Merari. A large proportion of terrorist attacks involve some risk of death for the perpetrators. However, with the exception of true suicide attacks, researchers cannot assess the objective and subjective chance of death. Thus, expanding the definition of suicide attacks to include high-risk missions would contaminate the sample and make it impossible to construct a generally accepted list of suicide attacks”. [3] 

Diego Gambetta (a social scientist) and contributors stick largely to the terms suicide missions (SM) as opposed to suicide terrorism. However, other social scientists (for example, Mia Bloom, Hafez, Robert Pape, and Ami Pedahzur) refer explicitly to suicide terrorism [4] . Shaul Shay, a historian who heads the Israeli Defense Forces Department of History, uses the terms suicide attack and suicide terrorism interchangeably [5] . Historian Raphael Israeli is adamant in insisting that the term terrorism be used to describe violence associated with Islam; he implies that relatively neutral terms such as suicide bomber are too weak and insufficiently condemnatory. [6] 

Based on the views of the social scientists, scholars, academics and researchers above, the author crafts a definition that will best characterize the views in essay, that is one where ‘suicide terrorism is viewed as a violent, ideologically, motivated and coercive attack, carried out in a conscious state of mind by a person who kills themselves together with a chosen target. The prerequisite for the success of the attack is where the death of the attacker is necessary’. This view is reinforced by (Pape 2003 and Schweitzer 2001, as quoted by Bloom 2005)

Causes of Suicide Terrorism

The intent or inspiration of a suicide terrorist is not a clear cut matter that allows for easy interpretation. In fact, suicide is generally engaged in without the benefit of cause or conscience and is usually overshadowed by a range of emotions to include pride, fulfillment, happiness, anger, rage, frustration, humiliation, shame, hopelessness and despair [7] . These driving emotions are usually the impetus for personal glory and honour. Suicide attacks can demonstrate power and overcome helplessness. The message that is conveyed with the demonstration of deadly power against both civilian and Law Enforcement/Military targets is ‘we may be materially weak but we are more powerful because we do not fear death’. [8] 

In order to be able to effectively respond to the theme of this essay, the author will adopt the multi causal framework for analysis of suicide terrorism as highlighted by Mossaf Moghadam in the “Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism: The Globalization of Martyrdom”. The author will then use examples as highlighted in Moghadam to demonstrate the framework’s value and to propel discussion into sufficient depth so as to expand the knowledgebase, command and understanding of readers of the essay.

The Multi Causal Approach to Suicide Terrorism

The multi causal framework is an analytic approach that has it foundation in three levels of analyses: the individual, the organizational and the environmental level. Kenneth Waltz was instrumental in the establishment of the three levels of analysis in his examination of the causes of war over fifty years ago (Waltz 1954). “Waltz’s three images as he referred to them, consisted of human behaviour, the internal structure of states and the nature of the internal system”. [9] 

“The multi causal framework for the analysis of the causes of suicide terrorism adopts Waltz’ broad distinction into three images. Rather than using Waltz’s second image – the analysis of the state – the present framework naturally focuses on the terrorist or insurgent organization as the unit responsible for the planning and execution of suicide operations. Waltz’ third level of analysis that of the international system, was also replaced in the framework with an environmental level that emphasizes socio-cultural aspects”. [10] 

The first level of the multi causal framework to the study of suicide terrorism is the individual level of analysis which is designed to identify individual motivations of all the possible actors involved in suicide attacks. Moghadam (2005) postulated that this individual level of assessment is important to contemplate primarily because unwanted sentiments that may lead to terrorism commonly leads to the use of terrorist violence. Additionally, he opined that the reasons that lead some individuals to resort to the use of political violence will lead others to react through nonviolent means. “Hence, there must be an element of individual decision involved in the genesis of terrorism (Friedland 1992: 88 as quoted in Moghadam 2005)”. [11] 

Moghadam’s view is that it is highly improbable that singular motives are going to be the driving force for individuals, who formulate, design and implement suicide attacks. This theory is supported by David Long (1990: 15) [12] who suggests that “there are probably as many reasons for committing terrorist’s acts as there are terrorists”. Moghadam (2005) reinforces his earlier work of (2003: 87) with the example of a Palestinian case, where it is apparent that the suicide bomber is driven by a menu of possible motivations to include the expectations of personal posthumous benefits, material or immaterial rewards for family members, religious motives, the seeking of revenge, the struggle for national liberation, or the influence of a widespread culture of martyrdom on the individual. The earlier work of Moghadam reinforces the point that no two suicide bombers will be driven by the same factors or combination of factors.

In the case of Chechen women, Moghadam (2005) highlights the fact that personal problems, be it financial distress or personal loss, appears to be a common feature of suicide bombers. Moghadam (2005) was specific in that it presented the case of Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, a surviving suicide bomber, jailed in Russia after her bomb failed to explode. “Reports about her life prior to arrest indicate an existence filled with personal hardship. Her home region, Achkoi-Martan, was largely destroyed in the first Chechen war; she left school, pregnant, at age fifteen, and married her boyfriend only to see him killed fighting against Russian troops. Following her husband’s death, his family kept her much like a slave. She escaped later borrowing money from a group of men that demanded from her to pay back with her life. Were she to become a suicide bomber, the group promised, her debts would be repaid and her family would receive some money”. [13] 

Another case to consider in support of individual analysis is the motive for young Tamils in Sri Lanka to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE’s) Black Tigers; the strongest motive appears to be one of revenge. “One young Tamil who lost three brothers in the service of the Tigers, a 22-year old named Mahendran, described his feelings about joining the LTTE’s suicide squads thus: “I am thinking of joining [the LTTE]. The harassment that I and my parents have suffered at the hands of the army makes me want to take revenge” [14] .

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Moghadam (2005) suggests that Muzhakhoyeva’s dissonance as put forward earlier may be similar to an ordinary suicide victim; however this view was not supported by other terrorism analysts. In fact personal interviews conducted by Anne Speckhard [15] lend support to deep personal trauma and bereavement as the foundation for part explanation of the Chechens and Palestinians suicide attackers rather than any alignment with an ordinary suicide victim. This position leans towards support for the individual motives having a basis built on revenge and humiliation rather than any psychological or psychiatric problems. Though these sentiments are not the only factors it appears to be the main ones that will probably be supported by factors from other levels.

The second level of the multi causal framework for the analysis of suicide terrorism is the organizational level approach that seeks understanding for the causes that propel a terrorist organization to adopt suicide missions as its way of conducting business. This second level of analysis is critical and supports the initial level because though terrorist acts are carried out by individuals, rarely are they acting on their own. Research support the theory that individuals are usually party to a larger entity; be it a cell, a group, an organization or a larger network that provides the appeal for suicide terrorism.

Second level assessments must occur primarily because individualistic goals and motivations are dissimilar to those driving organizations or other group level entities. Organizational level motivations are mired in its bid to prevail alongside its bid for political power as highlighted by (Hoffman 1998: 14 – 15). Additionally, according to Pedahzur (2005) and Bloom (2005) groups vie for stakeholder support; be it from local population or from the diaspora. This competition for stakeholder interest can be the motivation for new tactics, predominantly those that signal a status quo of brutal, horrendous or loathsome doing.

This violent, ideologically motivated and coercive approach was first noted in the Palestinian case [16] . The perfection of this approach was accomplished in the Sri Lankan context of the LTTE [17] . This approach sought to allow the LTTE to distinguish themselves from any other group nationally or internationally. Another case of group vying for stakeholders’ interest is where two (2) Shiite groups in Lebanon, Hezbollah and Amal attempted to compete in the execution of suicide attacks (Kramer 1991 as quoted in Maghadam 2005).

In support of the organizational level analysis Bloom (2005) further added that groups motivation to adopt suicide tactics are indicators of the following: (a) to signal that the group is completely dedicated; (b) to bolster recruitment and to inspire others; (c) to claim moral high ground by portraying themselves as the ultimate victims; (d) to mobilize and maintain support, be it financial or otherwise; (e) to manipulate stakeholders reaction for maximum publicity; for leverage; and (f) to outdo the competition.

The second level of analysis demonstrated that individual level motivations are significantly different from the organization level. Whereas individual causes for suicide terrorism were personal in nature; the organizational motivations appear more strategic and tactical.

The discussions as highlighted above are by no means complete but allows for future discussions on this area. Additionally, the discussions prepare the way for the final level analysis that is the environmental factors and how it impact on the individual and the group.

The third level of the multi causal framework for analysis of the cause of suicide terrorism is the environment level which gives considerations for the socio-cultural factors and conditions that shape the genesis of suicide terrorism. Some of the socio-cultural factors include political, economical, social, historical, cultural ideological and religious context.

Naturally, some of the aforementioned factors will have a greater impact on the individual and groups than others. “The religious context, for example, is seen as a more important factor to take into account in explaining why some Islamist groups employ suicide attacks than it is in the case of the LTTE, a predominantly nationalist organization” [18] . Additionally, the political context of a country or region whether a long term conflict exists or perhaps a nation’s or groups struggle for national independence, will impact on the use of suicide attacks. Note not all countries where national conflict or struggles for independence exists have produced suicide terrorism. Noteworthy, is the fact that research supports the theory that regime’s repression rather than internal conflict or struggles gives rise to suicide terrorism.

The context of poverty as an environmental factor that directly causes suicide terrorism has never been proven, however the economic conditions of a country have been proven time and time again to facilitate indirect stimuli on the rise of terrorism. For example, some poor countries create fertile territories as havens that can be exploited by terrorist. Also, poor countries are at an increase disadvantage to undergo ethnic and religious strife thereby creating fodder for terrorism. Poverty in most instances is aligned to poor education. Poor education can create circumstances which can also cause terrorist groups to attempt to exploit the disadvantaged in favour of suicide terrorism.

Another factor to take into context is culture. The culture of a society enhances the opportunity for suicide terrorism. For example, in the Chechen case, the traditional code of honour permits or even prescribes retribution for the sake of honour. It is clear that this code binds the people to secrecy and silence and forms the basis for terrorism when the opportunity arises. [19] 

The above discussion points clearly elucidate the fact that environmental factors alone do not have a direct influence on the development of suicide terrorism. In most instances environmental factors appear to need reinforcement by additional injects or variables to be consider a viable cause for suicide terrorism.


The above multi-causal framework was introduced as a means to generate discussion points to support the genesis of causes of suicide terrorism and to increase awareness of its existence. The framework recognized an approach that allowed analysis on three different levels (individual, organizational and environmental). The framework did not facilitate discussion on all possible causes of suicide terrorism, however it did allow for the main thematic areas to be expounded.

On the individual level the main points of ‘revenge and humiliation’ appeared consistent across most examples as a thread that bounded the analysis of causes of suicide terrorism. In the organizational level goals and motives featured prominently. The main difference between these two areas was that causal factors for suicide terrorism on the individual level were all personal while the contributing factors on the organizational level were tactical and strategic level motivation.

The third level, the environmental approach appeared to only have indirect influence on causal factor of suicide terrorism but when viewed together with the other two (2) levels defined a connection that could only be interpreted as significantly contributing to suicide terrorism.

In the end, the framework highlighted one set of lenses through which causes of suicide terrorism could be regarded while lending itself for future examination and modification to support other areas of study.


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