Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

‘Cocktail of Motivations’ Drives Suicide Terrorists, Say Experts

Suicide attacks, driven by a "cocktail of different motivations", have been on the rise in recent years, especially in the Middle East.
A group of men, help a victim of a suicide bomb attack near Ankara’s main train station, Turkey. PhotoTumay Berkin/ZUMA Press/Corbis

The 23-year-old son of a Jordanian parliamentarian blew himself up on 29 September 2015 during a triple car bombing on the northern outskirts of Ramadi, Iraq. The young man was described by his father as “smart” and having “everything, a family, money, and studying medicine”. Yet he chose to use his body as a weapon against Iraqi security forces whom he believed were kaffirs (infidels). This tragic incident is not an isolated case, however. Dozens of young men and women are employing similar tactics in an attempt to draw attention to their cause.

As their number grows, a debate about the validity of suicide bombing or the use of one’s body as a weapon of war has re-emerged among Islamic scholars. Among Western thinkers, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, several psychologists and political scientists have begun studying suicide terrorism in an attempt to create a profile that might explain the psyche of suicide bombers. Hence, in order to understand what really motives suicide bombers, it is necessary – and now possible – to analyse the historical data.

What is a Suicide Attack?

Suicide attacks are attacks that involve the deliberate death of the perpetrator. In other words, where a person voluntarily decides to use his or her own body as a weapon in the knowledge that he/she will die as a result. This emphatically excludes a person who has been coerced or an insane person who has been tricked into carrying out an attack.

Suicide attacks are not new nor are they a phenomenon of modern warfare. According to Dr Robert Pape, a political scientist and founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) which hosts the Suicide Attack Database, a comprehensive database of suicide terrorism around the world since 1982, the first suicide attacks were committed by Jewish zealots in Zakari in the first century AD. “The Jewish zealots sought to foment a rebellion against Roman occupation by often walking up to a Roman soldier in a square and pulling out a knife and killing the soldier, often cutting his throat, knowing that there were other Roman soldiers standing right by that would immediately execute or kill the zealot.”

During World War II, Japanese “kamikaze” flew aerial suicide missions in an effort to prevent the Allies from coordinating an invasion of Japan.  More recently, the systematic use of suicide attacks has been on the rise since the Lebanese Shiite group al-Dawa attacked the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981. Hezbollah, also Shiite, blew up the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983, and in October 1983 drove two trucks filled with explosives into US and French military barracks, killing 241 US marines and 58 French paratroopers. The American response was to withdraw all its troops from Lebanon, thus instilling the idea that suicide attacks pay.

The history of suicide attacks took a new turn in the 1980s thanks to Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers. After carrying out several truck bombings, the group developed a suicide bomb belt that was light and easily concealed under a person’s clothes. It was infamously used in the assassination of India’s prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991, and has since been emulated around the world, most especially in the Middle East.

New Data offers Surprising Insights

Soon after 9/11, the Flinders University in Australia created The Suicide Terrorism Database, which contextualizes the motives of suicide bombers. Professor Riaz Hassan, who analysed the data, later published his findings in Yale Global, describing them as “surprising. The evidence from the database largely discredits the common wisdom that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause,” he said, adding, “Though religion can play a vital role in recruiting and motivating potential future suicide bombers, the driving force is not religion but a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism.”

Thus, the almost complete lack of suicide terrorism in or originating from the world’s poorest countries, and the high percentage (76 per cent) of suicide bombers who come from middle-class backgrounds and have a secondary education or more, explodes the myth that suicide bombers are usually poor young males with nothing to lose; the most recent example being the Jordanian parliamentarian’s son who was pursuing a medical career. They are, according to Dr Pape, “Quite productive members of their communities who you will expect to go on to live very productive lives if they haven’t chosen to do a suicide attack.”

Another myth not supported by the data is the idea that suicide bombers are mentally unstable and driven primarily by their religious ideologies. The evidence showed no psychopathology present and 95 per cent of all the suicide attacks were political in nature. In other words, it is not religion per se that is the driver, as in the case of Islam that has been around for about 1,500 years with no tradition of suicide bombers until recent times, but often the perceived occupation of Muslim countries (Iraq after American invasion of 2003 or the rule of Syria by Bashar al-Assad, who as an Alawi is not considered a Muslim in the eyes of extremist Sunnis like Islamic State).

Female Suicide Bombers

Women’s role in suicide terrorism has been minuscule compared to men’s. According to research data, there are only two known groups where female suicide bombers outnumber males: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with 75 per cent of attackers being women; and the Chechen separatists with 66 per cent of attackers being women. Both groups are secular in nature. In fact, a study by Lindsey A. O’Rourke, a graduate from the University of Chicago, found that nearly 85 per cent of attacks conducted by women were carried out on behalf of secular organizations as opposed to religious organizations. Interestingly, it was observed that many religious organizations have discouraged the use of female suicide terrorism, arguing that women are better at supporting roles because they “lack the psychological and physical prowess of men”.

Despite the low numbers, however, suicide attacks by women have been found to be more lethal than their male counterparts, presumably because “women generate less suspicion, they are better able to conceal explosives, and because they are subjected to more relaxed security measures”. Regarding their motivations, Dr Pape’s research found that female suicide bombers were usually grieving the loss of family members and seeking revenge for it. This in particular has been used as a tool by different groups to recruit females. Two other motivations were their inability to produce children, and/or being dishonoured through sexual indiscretion. In other words, past traumas served as incentives for the attacks.

The Religious Aetiology

Among Islamic scholars, there is a general consensus that suicide is not permitted in Islam under any circumstance. That is why many scholars prefer to use the term ‘martyrdom operations’ to distinguish between an act of war and an act of desperation. And although the vast majority of Islamic scholars believe that martyrdom operations are not part of Islam, there are several others, like Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, who believe that under exceptional circumstances, such as when Muslims do not have weapons to confront a military occupation, martyrdom operations can be used. Even then, strict Islamic rules of engagement must be followed which, proponents argue, are far more ethical than those practiced by many armed forces because they seek to avoid the death of innocent people especially women, children and non-combat males.

In contrast, the late Saudi cleric Shaykh Muhammad ibn Saalih al-’Uthaymeen stated:

“…the purpose behind jihad for the sake of Allah is to protect Islam and the Muslims, but this suicide bomber is destroying himself and by committing suicide is causing the loss of a member of the Muslim community. Moreover, it involves causing harm to others, because the enemy will not kill only one person (in retaliation); rather because of him they will kill as many as possible. Furthermore, this will result in pressure on the Muslims because of this suicide bomber who may kill only ten or twenty or thirty others. So it results in a great deal of harm to the Muslims, as is happening now in the case of the Palestinians with the Jews. The view of those who say that this is permissible has no basis; rather that is based on a wrong perspective, because the negative consequences are many, many times worse than whatever can be achieved by that.”