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What Motivates A Suicide Bomber?

Suicide terrorism is a peculiar business. As a means of killing civilians it is hugely efficient. Steven Pinker explains that, “it combines the ultimate in surgical weapon delivery – the precision manipulators and locomotors called hands and feet, controlled by the human eyes and brain – with the ultimate in stealth – a person who looks just like millions of other people.” The most sophisticated drone doesn’t come close.

Relative to the past few decades it is trending. During the 1980s the world saw an average of about five suicide attacks per year. Between 2000 and 2005 that number skyrocketed to 180. The targets have been diverse. Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan get all the media attention, but Somalia and Sri Lanka experienced their share of self-destruction over the past five years.

What’s peculiar about suicide terrorism is that it is especially difficult to understand from a psychological point of view. Most people find it impossible to empathize with someone who walks into a crowded Jerusalem market wearing an overcoat filled with nails, ball bearings and rat poison with the intention of detonating the bomb strapped to his (99 percent of suicide terrorists are male) waist. How do we make sense of this?

Secular westerners tend to understand suicide terrorists as unfortunate products of undeveloped, undereducated and economically devastated environments. This isn’t true. All the 9/11 hijackers were college educated and suffered “no discernible experience of political oppression.” As Sam Harris explains:

Economic advantages and education, in and of themselves, are insufficient remedies for the cause of religious violence. There is no doubt that many well-educated, middle-class fundamentalists are ready to kill and die for God…. Religious fundamentalism in the developing world is not, principally, a movement of the poor and uneducated.

What is a sufficient explanation? In the case of Islam, why are so many of its followers eager to turn themselves into bombs? Harris believes that it is “because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity… Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible.” However you interpret the Koran, Harris’ position is that faith motivates Muslim suicide terrorists and that beliefs are the key to understanding the psychology of suicide terrorism. When nineteen Muslim terrorists woke up on the morning of September 11th they believed that 72 virgins awaited them in Heaven; they believed they would be remembered as heroes; they believed that self-destruction in the name of their God was glorious. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to correctly guess what they were saying (I should say, praying) moments before their doom.

Epistemology isn’t the whole story. Action requires belief but belief is not created in a vacuum. Understanding the motives of suicide bombers demands knowledge of the community they grew up in. You need context.

This is precisely what anthropologist Scott Atran attempted to dissect. After interviewing failed and prospective suicide terrorists he published several articles outlining the psychological profile of suicide terrorists and concluded that a call to martyrdom is appealing because it offers an opportunity to join a cohesive and supportive community of like-minded persons. Here’s Atran’s testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee:

When you look at whom [suicide terrorists] idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.

The work of anthropologist Richard Sosis suggests that Atran is correct. Sosis studied the history of communes in the United States in the nineteenth century. He found that twenty years after their founding 6 percent of the secular communes still existed compared to 39 percent of the religious communes. He also discovered that the more costly sacrifices the religious commune demanded the better it functioned. By requiring members to withstand from things like alcohol and conform to dress codes the religious communes quickly and effectively bound its members together. This is why if the West wants to minimize suicide terrorism, Atran recommends, it should “[learn] how to minimize the receptivity of mostly ordinary people to recruiting organizations.”

Thankfully, the number of suicide bombers has declined in the last few years. In Iraq Vehicle and suicide attacks dropped from 21 a day in 2007 to about 8 a day in 2010. Along with a surge of American soldiers, the decline can be attributed to an attitude shift within the Islamic community. In Pinker’s latest book he explains that, “in the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, support for Al Qaeda plummeted from 70 percent to 4 percent in just five months in late 2007… In a 2007 ABC/BBC poll in Afghanistan, support for jihadist militants nosedived to one percent.” If Atran is correct in suggesting that suicide terrorism is fueled by an appeal to community and an opportunity to gain esteem then this is good news.

Individual belief and the communities they arise from help us understand the psyche of suicide bombers. But even a sufficient explanation would leave me wondering. Our DNA has one goal: replication. That natural selection has given us the means to stop this process might be one of Nature’s great ironies.


Sosis, R., & Bressler, E. (2003). Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion Cross-Cultural Research, 37 (2), 211-239 DOI: 10.1177/1069397103037002003
Atran, S. (2003). Genesis of Suicide Terrorism Science, 299 (5612), 1534-1539 DOI: 10.1126/science.1078854

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. HowBow #

    “Though this be madness, yet there’s method in it.”
    Excellent commentary on the method in the suicide madness.

    I’m reminded of Charles Mackay’s
    “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” 1841
    “Most men…think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds,
    while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

    February 4, 2012
  2. maybe there’s very few suicide bombers

    maybe they are all just dupes carrying things they think they are to deliver somewhere

    if you think that we don’t have the technology to remotely detonate a package that has coms and GPS that someone working as a delivery agent for $10 a day (a fortune) is carrying then you don’t understand modern warfare

    i’d not be surprised if anyone who thinks along these lines and tries to investigate these bombs is also a target for assassination (recall recent assassination of police investigator in Afghanistan)

    recall what happened in Iraq when a failed “terrorist” job went bad and the perpetrators were discovered to be British special forces – the jail/gaol where they were held was attacked by armed forces and they were rescued

    i have no doubt there are indeed some “terrorists” planning operations but i wonder how many of those are like “the four lions”

    pop – on a conspiracy bent for the day

    February 4, 2012
    • Sam McNerney #

      I guess I don’t understand modern warfare then.

      February 6, 2012
  3. What is missing here: basic demographics and epidemiologic technique. Does this population differ in age and social class from other suicides? Sadly, it seems there are sufficient data to make the comparison.

    February 4, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Sorry, I don’t have that much time.

      February 6, 2012
    • In order to subvert the Constitution and form a slisaocit country, the people had to be scared enough to agree. Global warming was a convenient tool to do this. Interesting though that with ten years of global cooling, they are still trying. Correction: it was real (although only in the northern hemisphere). The Earth has been generally warming since the Little Ice Age of the 1700s but the cycle has now ended. Terrorism is see by them as a reaction to the capitalist USA so they believe it will go away once the USA becomes slisaocit (despite all the terrorist attacks in Europe).

      August 28, 2013
  4. You actually think that Republicans are asinagt this bill because they don’t understand what is in it? LOL . Another Liberal who thinks that they are smarter than the average person. I pray that you are a college student forced to get your loans from the Dept of Ed, and then have to pay back double what it would have cost you through the private sector.

    August 1, 2013
  5. The United States and the European Union have become heavily involved with military operations and the political system in Turkey. Turkey is becoming decreasingly secular, and recent constitutional referenda strengthen the Turkish executive branch at the expense of the judicial and the legislative ones; these were supported by the Obama administration and, ostensibly, were a response to the EU’s suggestions for reforming Turkey’s government. With so much foreign involvement, both on the ground and within the infrastructure of Turkey’s political system (to say nothing of increasingly divisive rhetoric within it), and although there have been a few attacks within the past ten years, why hasn’t there been the dramatic “explosion” of suicide attacks in Turkey other countries in the region have experienced?

    August 30, 2013
  6. a failure or rfseual to comprehend revolutionary Islamism or the bureaucratic fear of taking on the enemy. While the examples provided are a bit dated, the HRC-types of apparatchiks imposing fear upon us of being politically incorrect continues to be at the root of needless mistakes. The Fort Hood murderer is a more recent example of that. We cannot win a war if we won t name the enemy. Furthermore, political correctness is a problem for our society far beyond the issue of Islamist extremism. We the people have to become more outraged by repetitive acts against us by our own bureaucracies. Moreover, the root of this problem isn t going to be fixed by the same politicians who got elected on the tide of multiculturalism and its weapon of political correctness to shut down any dissent about failed cultures that we are expected to keep propping up with our success. We have to fix this problem ourselves. The Islamists would have collapsed by now but the West props it up by the toxic combination of our oil purchases funding despots who in turn fund terrorism. But those aren t the only areas we prop up. Closer to home we prop up HRCs which shut down dissent. We prop up the CBC which broadcasts twaddle about the West being the source of all that is wrong with the world. We do the same by propping up Separatist parties with the hard earned funds of Canadian patriots. We need to refuse to fund these entities whose primary aim is to destroy our way of life. In short, the weapon of political correctness isn t only used to prevent us from tackling the Islamofascists; it is used against us on a daily basis by elitists who want to rule us. We need to change our behaviour and speak our minds, which is the strength of the Tea Parties because it assembles like minded people to counter decades of bureaucratic rot.

    August 31, 2013
  7. It’s much easier to understand when you put it that way!

    October 17, 2013
  8. Your posting really sttrhgiaened me out. Thanks!

    October 27, 2013

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