Suicide Bombers

Michelle Maiese

June 2005

"While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

History has revealed that terrorists are capable of carrying out bold and destructive acts that at first glance appear to be unexplainable. What kind of person would sacrifice his or her own life in order to kill innocent people? What could possibly motivate a young person to become a suicide bomber?

In the wake of many tragic events, it can be difficult to analyze objectively the causes and processes leading up to them. For many, understanding the motives behind suicide bombing comes dangerously close to excusing or approving it. It may seem easier just to assume that the people involved are "evildoers" or "callous fanatics delighting in the carnage they have created." [1] Any extreme measures taken against them will be regarded, not simply as appropriate and justified, but as obligatory. However, terrorism is not a simple phenomenon with easy explanations. Although many people cite "evil" as a prime motivator, there seems to be no single, complete theory about what brings about such behavior. Usually a wide variety of motives and causal factors are involved.

Unsurprisingly, many people have attempted to understand suicide bombing in terms of the abnormality of the individuals responsible. However, if only those with some kind of psychopathology could be terrorists, terrorism would not be the large problem that it is. Research shows no indication that terrorists are crazy or psychopathic or that they lack moral feelings. [2] Most terrorists are not psychologically deviant and do not operate outside the normal rules of behavior, but are instead ordinary people from unremarkable backgrounds. In fact, research indicates that terrorists tend to have considerable insight into their own actions and are aware of how others view them. [3] They believe that their violent actions, while somewhat regrettable, are justified and noble. Moreover, their emotional commitment to their cause and comrades is indicative of normal human psychology. Often their actions do not ultimately stem from hatred, but rather from love of their own group and culture that they believe is threatened and requires protection. [4]

It is important to note at the outset that the use of the term 'suicide' to characterize these attacks reflects an outsider's view. Those who commit or advocate such attacks do not regard them as acts of suicide, but rather as acts of martyrdom. [5] While suicide is associated with hopelessness and depression, the actions of the bombers are seen as a matter of heroism and honor.


Many theorists focus on ideology in their attempt to understand what motivates suicide bombers. Randy Borum (2003), for example, focuses on terrorist ideology and the process of how these ideas or doctrines develop. He identifies a four-stage process whereby individuals develop extremist beliefs. A group or individual first identifies some sort of undesirable state of affairs; then frames that event or condition as unjust; then blames the injustice on a target policy, person, or nation; and then vilifies or demonizes the responsible party so that aggression seems justified. [6] Those suffering from adverse conditions do not regard themselves as "bad" or "evil," but only as the victims of injustice. This makes aggression against the "evildoers" who have wronged one's group easier to justify psychologically.

Those who maintain that suicide attacks are motivated by religious ideology suggest that the bombers believe that God has sent them on a mission. They are motivated primarily by the promise of a happy afterlife and heavenly reward and the threat of heavenly retribution Their rationale is that by blowing themselves up in a crowd of people, they are making themselves martyrs and forging their own gateway to heaven. [7] Many of these individuals are indoctrinated at an early age about the spiritual importance of purifying the world and sacrificing their lives to a holy war. In some cases, radical religious groups use the concepts of benevolence, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom to spread the idea that suicide bombing is a noble and Godly act. [8]

Terrorists tend to have an apocalyptic worldview and to see the world as precariously balanced between good and evil. They believe that through their actions, they can uphold their values of family, religion, ethnicity, and nationality and bring about the triumph of the good. Acting on God's behalf to defend these values is viewed as more important than life. For example, Muslim fundamentalists often fear that their religious values and culture are in danger of being overwhelmed by the secularism and military and economic power of the West. [9] Some may view terrorism as a way to defend against these "evils."

Others argue that religious fervor only partly explains the actions of suicide bombers and that religious ideology and political aspirations tend to become intertwined. It is not that suicide bombers simply exhibit an unquestioning obedience to extreme leadership or that they are pressured to carry out such acts. Rather, it is in reaction to perceived political oppression and the belief that one's rights have been trampled. For example, because life under military occupation is experienced as humiliating, many believe they will find a better life in paradise. Many theorists writing about the Palestinian suicide bombers argue that "the suicide bomber, unable to develop and express his individuality under occupation and unable to serve his society in constructive ways, turns to a goal beyond this world." [10] In short, he comes to believe that he has a religious duty to struggle against the group's enemies and achieve its political goals in the name of God. Suicide is viewed as a tax paid to redress the group's grievances and achieve both its religious and political objectives.

Within particular cultures, martyrdom is also viewed as a status symbol. Those who participate are regarded as heroes who are sure to experience a happy after life. The cultural message is that sacrificing one's own life to kill others is not only acceptable, but highly desirable. An entire cultural structure consisting of family, friends, teachers, religious institutions, and political establishment may share this belief. [11] For young people struggling to find some significance to their bleak existence, the meaning of suicide bombing is perfectly clear. They will be heroes, they will help the cause of their group, and they will be awarded in the afterlife.


Other theorists stress the idea that becoming a terrorist or suicide bomber is largely a matter of socialization. In some cases, those personally frustrated by their life circumstances may become angry with those they view as the source of their problems. According to Jessica Stern (2003), terrorists are often individuals who feel deeply humiliated and confused about their future path, or are frustrated about the political climate in which they live. [12] Humiliation, poverty, and hopelessness often gives rise to a sense of outrage and desperation, which can be harnessed by extremist leaders to create support for a terrorist movement. For individuals who feel deeply alienated or desperate, martyrdom provides the ultimate escape from life's dilemmas.

In other cases, individuals become angry about the frustrations and insults experienced by their ethnic, cultural, or religious group, though they do not experience this insult at a personal level. This makes sense of the fact that many terrorists are middle-class individuals who have fairly wide options and some degree of educational background. Their strong group identification and anger over group insult helps to explain their willingness to sacrifice their own lives.

Those who feel frustrated and angry may join terrorist organizations, which provide a variety of emotional, social, and economic benefits. Individuals who have a sense of uncertainty about their future may find that terrorist groups provide the sense of identity, structure, and guidance that they crave. Identification with the cause and other group members may satisfy individuals' needs for meaning and justice and afford them an opportunity to bolster their self-esteem. [13]

Belonging to a militant group may also satisfy desires for adventure, "glamour," and social connections. Once they join the group, individuals may feel strong and powerful and believe they have a clearer purpose in life. Many terrorist organizations also offer economic incentives to persuade individuals that it is rational to sacrifice their lives for the good of the cause. [14] For those who believe they lack options, cannot find a job, and have few social safety nets in place to assist them, suicide bombing may seem like a relatively reasonable option. Families of suicide bombers often receive money and are treated as heroes.

Once individuals join organizations that share their frustrations, they may undergo a process of indoctrination whereby their beliefs and behaviors are made to conform the group's basic principles. [15] Within these tight-knit communities, individuals' fear of letting down their comrades becomes greater than their fear of dying. Many come to believe that by sacrificing their own lives for the sake of the cause, those lives can take on a broader meaning.


Various grievances and social stressors can contribute to the formation of terrorist groups. For example, poverty, unemployment, epidemics, and criminality often lead to social instability, which provides fertile ground for terrorist activity. Over-population, socioeconomic struggle, and a lack of professional opportunities can also produce a sense of rage, powerlessness, and resentment among the populace.

Disaffected individuals and/or groups may perceive the world as treating them harshly and unjustly. In some cases, there are indeed genuine causes for grievance and a sense of group persecution. The move from being a disaffected individual to a violent extremist is usually facilitated by some catalyst event. [16] In most cases it is an act of extreme violence committed against the individual, family or friends by those in authority or by some rival group. Research findings indicate that most suicide bombers have had at least one of their loved ones killed or severely harmed at the hands of their enemies. Many of them join terrorist groups in an angry and vengeful state of mind with the intent to take part in aggressive acts. They are rarely coerced into it.

In fact, many suicide bombers may view themselves as soldiers engaged in a war. Casualties are then seen as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of fighting for one's just cause. It is not that they are bloodthirsty or that they enjoy killing civilians, but rather that they believe these missions are the only way to fight for their cause. Although the realization that terrorists view themselves as soldiers engaged in a just war does not legitimize their cause or methods, it does provide some insight into their psychology and motivation. It suggests that their psychology is similar to that displayed by combatants in other conflicts, and that suicide bombers view themselves as soldiers or warriors reacting to the provocative abuses and injustices of others. [17] According to this line of thinking, suicide bombing is a matter of fighting back against unjust political or economic policies, authoritarian governments, and structural violence.

Some argue that the global economic order contributes to groups' sense that they have been wronged. Michael Stevens (2002), for example, argues that globalization contributes to the creation of sociocultural and psychosocial conditions from which terrorism is more likely to emerge. [18] The West has exported its economic, political, and cultural systems with little regard as to how they might be received. While globalization has no doubt generated wealth, it has also produced economic inequality, threats to language and community, and support for oppressive regimes. Many believe that it has also contributed to the uprooting of traditional values and customs. These unanticipated costs may continue to generate hostility among those harmed, humiliated, or left behind by the new world order.


[1] Andrew Silke, "Courage in Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology," in Social Research, (70:1, 2004), 178.

[2] Clark McCauley, "Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 5.

[3] Silke, 179.

[4] McCauley, 15.

[5] Randy Borum, "Understanding the Terrorist Mindset, p. 7-10 in FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (72:7, 2003), 8.

[6] ibid., 7.

[7] Ellis Shuman, "What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick?" in Israel Insider, June 4, 2001. [available at:; accessed 1/05]

[8] Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God, (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003), 41.

[9] McCauley, 14.

[10] Paul J. Balles, "What Turns Victims into Suicide Bombers?" Redress Information and Analysis, [available at:; accessed 1/05]

[11] Giovanni Caracci, "Cultural and Contextual Aspects of Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 63.

[12] Stern, 69.

[13] Michael J. Stevens, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Globalization: Contextualizing Terrorism," in The Psychology of Terrorism: Theoretical Understandings and Perspectives, ed. Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 36.

[14] Stern, 44.

[15] Caracci, 60.

[16] Silke, 183.

[17] ibid., 194.

[18] Stevens, 31.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Suicide Bombers." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2005 <>.

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