Questioning Rationality Behind Suicide Bombing

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Suicide bombing, probably the most shocking tactic employed by terrorists, is becoming increasingly common around the world. The first suicide bombings having gained significant media attention were carried out by Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist organization in 1983. This led to the misconception that suicide attacks are intertwined with religious fundamentalism (Merari, 1998).

In fact, these attacks have occurred within secular and non-Islamist contexts alike (Pape, 2006). If it is not religious fundamentalism fuelling these attacks, what would account for the sharp rise in the occurrence of cases of suicide bombing? For decades, the studies on suicide terrorism focused on the irrationality and the individual motives of the perpetrators and disregarded the broader context in which these acts are committed, thus failed to sufficiently explain the phenomenon (Pape, 2003; Sageman, 2017).

Understanding suicide terrorism is not purely a matter of academic interest, but also a tool for creating more effective policies of counter-terrorism (Merari, 1998). In this essay, I will draw upon studies suggesting that suicide bombing is a rational strategy and discuss evidence supporting this claim by examining the question from the viewpoint of terrorist organizations and individual members of organizations.

Suicide bombing is a form of terrorism now, but historically it has been a form of warfare. Terrorism has no universally agreed definition, but, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, it is “the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”. Modern suicide terrorism is different from historical suicide missions in that the death of the perpetrators is certain (Schweitzer, 2001).

Self-evident benefits of using ‘human bombs’ for terrorist organizations are that this type of attack is hard to prevent but easy to plan. Suicide bombers usually cause more fatalities than ordinary terrorists do, because they are more able to penetrate crowded spaces and avoid suspicion. This tactic is more effective than other methods in targeting military subjects or assassinating prominent people who are otherwise less vulnerable (Bloom, 2005). Moreover, employing people that are not meant to survive their missions is also cheaper. These factors explain why this type of attack is ‘cost-effective’ and thus rational to terrorist organizations aiming for the biggest possible destruction with minimal costs. However, this does not shed light on why some terrorist groups engage in suicide terrorism while others do not, nor the patterns in the number of suicide attacks.

The main purposes of terrorism are gaining support for and raising awareness of a cause and forcing the opponent into capitulation (Pape, 2006). It is not always evident how the support of the public can be gained through horrific acts of suicide bombing. Bloom argues that suicide terrorism can be received positively by certain ‘audiences’, because it enables terrorists to portray themselves as victims of the state or system against which they are fighting, thus morally shaming them (Bloom, 2005). The counter-terrorism measures undertaken by targeted states, such as the heightened suspicion around all members of the population -children, pregnant women and the elderly included (Warner and Matfess, 2017) – represented by the terrorists might benefit the organization too; it alienates these people from the targeted state (Said, 2004).

To enhance this effect, terrorist groups recruit people from all ages and genders. Heavy policing of the whole population can make people feel harassed by the targeted state and consequently make them sympathise with the terrorist group. However, this tactic does not always gain the approval of the terrorist organization’s community, and in such cases, the organization will usually stop employing it (Bloom, 2005) –whether suicide bombing is used by terrorists is a matter of rational calculation.

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Looking at suicide attacks during the first two decades since this tactic is on the rise, the common features are that almost all attacks were part of a larger campaign, had nationalistic, territorial goals, were aimed at a foreign state that was stronger than the terrorist organization and occupied territory that the terrorists perceived as their own land. Another feature that most of these campaigns shared was that they succeeded in gaining concessions from the states they targeted, which confirmed that the terrorists’ calculation was right and suicide attacks proved to be an effective method of coercion (Pape, 2006).

In recent years, the emerging Islamic State (IS) terrorist group has also employed the tactic of suicide bombing, beginning in 2015. Their strategy for using suicide bombing is different in nature and frequency from those that Pape had analysed. A report examining the 923 attacks between December 2015 and November 2016 claims that two-thirds of them were carried out in Iraq and 24% in Syria, most of them aimed at military targets and there were patterns in the number of attacks that correlated with the territorial losses and gains of IS. Based on these findings the report suggests that there was a central authority that determined the location and timing of the attacks, which were part of IS’s broader military strategy (Winter, 2017).

Furthermore, after an IS spokesperson, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani urged IS supporters to commit acts of suicide terrorism, single-actor terrorism has increased. These attacks were carried out by individuals all over the world that had little or no connections with IS – in some cases, they were advised or helped by the group, while in others, the perpetrators were only ‘inspired’ by IS (Ellis, 2016). IS benefited from these attacks in gaining an international reputation and spreading terror beyond the Middle-East.

It has been established how terrorist organizations benefit from suicide bombings, but why is it rational for the individual? The first thing to note is that some suicide bombers are forced to carry out attacks and some of them are led to believe that they are going to survive their missions – so, in these cases, it is not a matter of rational choice (Merari, 1998; Warner and Matfess, 2017). With that said, it is also important to assess that self-death is viewed differently across cultures and sub-cultures. Groups that employ suicide attacks do not consider self-death in this context as suicide; instead, they see it as a meaningful sacrifice of one’s own life for a cause, an act of political defiance (Aggarwal, 2015). In religious terrorist groups, it is important to make a distinction between suicide, which is punished by eternal damnation; and martyrdom, which is an automatic entry to paradise. For this end, terrorist groups’ religious leaders often reinterpret holy texts to permit suicide for the cause (Post, 2007).

However, data shows that not all suicide terrorists are deeply religious, indeed there is no universal demographic profile for them (Warner and Matfess, 2017). Several authors link suicide attacks to psychopathology, but researchers that had first-hand contact with terrorists did not find evidence to verify this theory (Silke, 1998). The people that carry out suicide attacks are not all poor, hopeless or mentally ill – so their willingness to die seems irrational. It is fundamental to understand that these people embrace a cause (religious, nationalistic or other) that is so important to them that they give up their lives for it – which they view as a heroic act of martyrdom. One study suggests that suicide bombing is psychologically more similar to killing in war than committing suicide (Grimland, Apter and Kerkhof, 2006).

The cause is often present in people’s lives from a very young age, such as in the case of Palestinian children that attend schools run by Hamas and learn from their custom-made textbooks (Akram and Rudoren, 2013; Post, 2007). This long phase of being socialised into believing in a cause is often referred to as indoctrination, and the influencers can be parents, friends or teachers alike (Merari, 1998). In a series of interviews with incarcerated terrorists, when asked about the reason why he joined a terrorist organization, one terrorist simply answered „everyone was joining” (Post, Sprinzak and Denny, 2003). In some societies, joining a terrorist organization is normalised to the point where it seems only rational to do so.

Suicide terrorist attacks may be based on rational calculation both in the case of terrorist organisations and of the perpetrators of the acts. It was widely observed in academic literature that suicide attacks are resorted to when non-suicidal attacks were unsuccessful or against well defended targets which cannot be reached without the loss of the perpetrator (Bloom, 2005). In the case of the terror-groups employing suicide bombers is rational if its potential benefits outweigh its costs. The benefits are the effects on the public i.e. terror and the effects on the state i.e. increased repression of the public.

The costs are negative effects of collateral damage and public revulsion. Loss of the perpetrator itself is not taken into consideration on the downside in most cases but caring for supporting the surviving members of the perpetrator’s family is a material cost element. In the case of the perpetrators several factors may render this behaviour appear rational. The individual may be led to commit the suicide attack by personal motives (in revenge for an act of repression in the past against family or the individual), personal situation (poverty, discrimination), hopes and beliefs (reward in the afterlife), or merely as a consequence a product of of indoctrination, or by a promise of money to or threats against the surviving members of the family.

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