What motivates suicide bombing

Recent research by Riaz Hassan is Australian Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, points to the alleviation of injustice and social suffering to reduce the incidence of suicide bombings :

The Suicide Terrorism Database in Flinders University in Australia, the most comprehensive in the world, holds information on suicide bombings in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which together accounted for 90 per cent of all suicide attacks between 1981 and 2006. Analysis of the information contained therein yields some interesting clues: it is politics more than religious fanaticism that has led terrorists to blow themselves up.

The evidence from the database largely discredits the common wisdom that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause. It shows that 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. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.


Revenge is also a response to the continuous suffering of an aggrieved community. At the heart of the whole process are perceptions of personal harm, unfairness and injustice, and the anger, indignation, and hatred associated with such perceptions.

Men attach more value to vengeance than women; and young people are more prepared to act in a vengeful manner than older individuals. It is not surprising, then, to find that most suicide bombers are both young and male.

The meaning and nature of suicide in a suicide bombing are strikingly different from ordinary suicide. Suicide bombing falls into the category of altruistic suicidal actions that involve valuing one’s life as less worthy than that of the group’s honour, religion, or some other collective interest. Religiously and nationalistically coded attitudes towards acceptance of death, stemming from long periods of collective suffering, humiliation and powerlessness enable political organisations to offer suicide bombings as an outlet for their people’s feelings of desperation, deprivation, hostility and injustice.

The causes of suicide bombings lie not in individual psychopathology but in broader social conditions. Understanding and knowledge of these conditions is vital for developing appropriate public policies and responses to protect the public.

Suicide bombings are carried out by motivated individuals associated with community based organisations. Strategies aimed a finding ways to induce communities to abandon such support would curtail support for terrorist organisations. Strategies for eliminating or at least addressing collective grievances in concrete and effective ways would have a significant, and, in many cases, immediate impact on alleviating the conditions that nurture the subcultures of suicide bombings. Support for suicide bombing attacks is unlikely to diminish without tangible progress in achieving at least some of the fundamental goals that suicide bombers and those sponsoring and supporting them share.

They Want Us to Live in Despair

In Lenin’s Tomb, there is a cogent discussion about the phenomenon of suicide bombing:

Luca Ricolfi notes (Gambetta, 2005) that despair of a very particular kind is certainly an animating factor in Palestinian suicide bombings. Citing research by a Palestinian economist, B. Saleh, which shows almost all suicide bombers having been subjected directly to arrest or maltreatment by the IDF, and a good number having had a family member killed, he notes that compounding the desire for revenge is indifference to death. That is, the extreme repression in Palestine produces a “drastic, extreme and tragic contraction of an individual’s set of options”. Material deprivation leaves individuals with “literally nothing to do or imagine”, while specific repression can “generate a progressive dismantling of a person’s emotional world” in which “reality has shrunk to a minimum” and is replaced by a highly mental world of symbols and fantasies. Here, liberal economic theory does not hold: man does not always pursue his own immediate interests in such a situation, and such a society. The moral priority of the community over the individual can lead people thus deprived to be willing to sacrifice themselves. Other research produces similar conclusions, as Jacqueline Rose notes:

According to Eyad El-Sarraj, the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, today’s suicide attackers are, for the most part, children of the first intifada. Studies show that during the first uprising, 55 per cent of children saw their fathers being humiliated or beaten by Israeli soldiers. Martyrdom – sacrificing oneself for God – increases its appeal when the image of the earthly father bites the dust. ‘It’s despair,’ El-Sarraj states baldly, ‘a despair where living becomes no different from dying.’ When life is constant degradation, death is the only source of pride. ‘In 1996, practically all of us were against the martyr operations,’ Kamal Aqeel, the acting mayor of Khan Yunis in Gaza, explains. ‘Not any longer . . . We all feel that we can no longer bear the situation as it is; we feel that we’d simply explode under all this pressure of humiliation.’

Israel creates despair amongst those whom it steals life, liberty and land.

… what we appear to have is injustice generating recruits for unjust actions.

Since the Israeli fascists constructed the fence around Gaza, the level of oppression has been ramped up.

Barak rants and boast about ‘smashing’ and ‘crushing’ whilst Olmert glowers with ‘disproportionate responses’ and rabbis urge militant jihad. Can the golems of Israel threaten and execute collective punishment of the hapless civilians of Gaza with impunity in perpetuity?

At some point, there will be a terrible price to pay.