Dr. Maria Alvanou

(RIEAS Research Associate, Research PhD in Criminology-University of Trento, LLM History, Philosophy & Sociology of Law- Aristoteles University of Thessaloniki)


“There is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession”
                            Daniel Webster

According to the point of view chosen, there are many ways to name and describe this type of operation that seems to terrify so much. “Genocide bombings” and “homicide attacks” are phrases frequently used by those who identify with the unwilling victims of attacks and these terms emphasize the criminal nature of the violence and de-emphasize the self-inflicted death of the perpetrator. On the other hand, “martyrdom operations” place the emphasis upon the cause of the perpetrators, implying a connection to the notions of “holy war” and/or self defence, even in the killing of civilians. Finally “suicide operations” or “missions” places the emphasis on the self-immolation of the perpetrator and the organization’s role in staging the episodes. Of course, none of the above used terms is perfect or exclusive, exhaustive on itself, because the self-explosion of people to kill others is not a simple phenomenon and it entails many or all of the above characteristics. Each of the terms highlights a specific parameter and can be used accordingly.

An adequate definition of a suicide attack could be one of an “operational method in which the very act of the attack is dependent upon the death of the perpetrator. The terrorist is fully aware that if she/he does not kill her/himself, the planned attack will not be implemented” .” The death of the perpetrator is the key to the success of the attack; and he/she knows in advance that success depends entirely on this death.

The aim of the psychologically and physically war-trained terrorist is to die while destroying the enemy target. The “Samson model” as it is often called,  refers to an act of suicide which is at the same time both pre-emptive and retaliatory (and moreover the retaliatory part entails inflicting greater punishment on others than  sustained by the person committing the suicide). This is why they do not include self inflicted deaths that occur without any violence directed outwards, like hunger strikes or cult suicides, even if they do act as a form of protest.  Also excluded are the cases when the terrorist killed him or herself, but the suicide was not part of an act of killing others  or when the death of the perpetrator was not planed or wished in advance, but resulted out of necessity in unexpected circumstances.

Unlike what happens in a “normal” suicide, the suicide terrorist’s plan is typically prepared by others, not by the individual himself  and the suicide terrorist is “on call” prior to the attack, often over a period of several weeks.  Defining a terror attack as a “suicide bombing” depends as stressed above primarily on whether the perpetrator is killed. In the event that his mission is incomplete, it is not a suicide bombing.  Another crucial element in this definition is that the weight lies upon the certainty of the agent’s death and not the means used to carry out the attack.
To define a suicide mission we have to signify that it is not simply an attack against the enemy target in which the agent has no chance of escaping or saving himself or herself.  There is a distinct difference between the readiness and the desire to die.  This excludes the extreme risk missions,  but can include various forms of attacks differing from self-explosion, in particular, to all and any other kind of actions that do not contemplate whatsoever an escape plan.  Any successful attack will necessarily result in the death of the suicide bomber during the detonation of the bombing device at or near the target. It should be also noted that from a tactical point of view, the group that planned a suicide mission will consider a premature explosion (i.e. before the suicide bomber has reached the preselected target) a success  and the suicide bomber will generally be awarded the “Shaheed” (martyr) title, regardless of whether the device was detonated prematurely or not, or whether the Israeli forces prevented a more severe damage.

Suicide operations entail very low cost and are cost-effective,  with the total price of an operation averaging about one hundred and fifty dollars.  Cynically- but realistically-  put, “apart from a willing young man, all that is needed is such items as nails, gunpowder, a battery, a light switch and a short cable, mercury (readily obtainable from thermometers), acetone, and the cost of tailoring a belt wide enough to hold six or eight pockets of explosives.”
Suicide attacks increase the likelihood of mass casualties and extensive damage  that time bombs or remotely controlled explosives can produce, since the bomber can choose the exact circumstances in order to inflict more harm. The suicide bomber- carrying the explosives on the body or driving a vehicle loaded with explosives- approaches a previously selected target and is the one, in accordance with the prevailing circumstances, who chooses self-aware the time and place to detonate, so that the explosion  will cause the maximum damage to the target. In this regard the suicide bomber is no more than “a sophisticated bomb-a carrier that brings the explosive device to the right location and detonates it at the right time”,  or –as a number of commentators have noted- a low tech “smart bomb with a human guidance system”.

The suicide attacker who sets out on a mission is virtually guaranteed to be successful, as it is difficult for security personnel  to prevent the bomber from detonating the device and exploding, even if they identify in advance the deadly purposes. There have been of course cases in which suicide bombers were intercepted before setting out on their mission, or other cases when their explosive devices failed to detonate. For example, Israeli Security Forces are relatively successful in intercepting Palestinian suicide bombers, by snatching them before they set out on their missions, or by targeting them on their way to the attack areas using remotely controlled devices or helicopter gun ships.  Suicide bombers additionally offer to the organizations that send them a simpler alternative to other kinds of missions, since there is absolutely no need for any planning of an escape route or rescue mission, which is a highly problematic element in most ordinary terrorist attacks. Similarly, there is less fear that suicide bombers will be caught, interrogated and coerced into surrendering important information about the sponsoring organization, because if all goes well their deaths are certain.   

There is little doubt that the “echo effect” of suicide bombings is generally greater than that of most conventional terrorist attacks , especially due to the tactic itself, which is newsworthy on its own right. The suicide attacks have an immense impact on the public and the media, because they precipitate an overwhelming sense of helplessness and the suicide bombers with their deadly act simply draw many viewers to the television sets, as a “suicide attack attracts wide media coverage and is seen as a newsworthy event”.  The terrorists put together an operational “package that is so spectacular, so violent, so compelling, that the [media] acting as executives, supplying the cameras and the audience, cannot refuse the offer”.  This type of violence is simply impossible to ignore. As a result, the organizers of the attack meet an additional goal in reaching a large audience, and in increasing the element of fear they hope to instil on the target population.  The phrase that “terrorism is theatre,”  seems to be particularly true and fitting in the case of suicide terrorism. The Palestinian militant groups are acutely media-conscious and the timing and positioning of attacks are carefully considered, in order to achieve the maximum public impact.  It is indeed a manifestation of “propaganda by deed”, securing the attention of the populous and providing a message through violence.

Suicide attacks have an additional value, that of making the suicide bomber the ultimate victim of the act, claiming moral high ground . As people around the world try to comprehend the motivations of such an act, there is the underlying message that the present environment the perpetrators lived in is so humiliating that death is preferable to life under such conditions. The fact that the attacker was willing to trade his or her own life for those of the victims permits a sympathetic audience to balance out the crime.  The key is desperation and the assumption that suicide bombers have been driven to desperation by a brutal and humiliating treatment. This position does indeed earn the sympathy of people: 

 “When healthy, beautiful, and intelligent young men and women set out to kill and be killed, something is basically wrong in a world that has not heard their anguish cry for justice. These young people deserve to live along with all those whom they have caused to die.” 

All of a sudden the media finds superficial similarities between perpetrator and victim implying some sort of commonality.  Women especially are seen as such desperate figures and the case in point is the competing frames concerned to describe those who use self-immolation as method of asymmetrical warfare, sway public opinion and generate sympathy. Is the self-exploding person a “suicide martyr” or a “homicide bomber”?

Leaders of terrorist organizations often justify the use of suicide bombings as a tactic used by a weaker side against the stronger side. In asymmetric warfare, the respective sides use those tactics that are in their comparative advantage, in order to exploit their enemy’s relative weaknesses and real or perceived vulnerabilities. With one side either incapable (usually this is the weaker side) or unwilling (usually the stronger side) to use tactics similar to its opponent,  finally the stronger side will usually try to focus on the enemy’s inability to fight, while the weaker side will attempt to break the enemy’s will to fight  by relying on at least some of the following methods: using tactics and weapons in ways that are difficult to prevent or defend against, employing the element of surprise, altering the battle space, attempting to employ all segments of its society and targeting large segments of the enemy’s population.  

Part of the success of the suicide bombings strategy is the fact that is more likely to be employed against states with democratic political systems.  In these cases the public has low cost tolerance and a high ability to affect state policies. Despite the reality or not of this assumption that democracies are easier to coerce than other regime types,  the important is that this is how terrorist view it.

It should be noted that the tactic of suicide bombings can have also negative effects on the goals of the organizations that use it. If the scope of the organization is to gain sympathy in the global arena, then the Western culture that cannot understand neither adopt the “martyrdom culture” could lead to the group viewed as a bunch of mere irrational fanatics. “The tremendous anxiety and the intense media reaction evoked by attacks against civilian targets”,  the extreme violence and slaughter of innocents can cause to the public even the rejection of the desire and claims of legitimization by the group.

Further a prolonged suicide terror campaign instead of breaking the adversary morale could likely make the target population more radicalized, unified, less willing to compromise and more willing to retaliate with extreme measures.  Nevertheless, since as described before there are many benefits gained, the organizations use suicide bombings, despite of possible setbacks.


1) Boaz Ganor, “The First Iraqi Suicide Bombing. A Hint of Things to Come?” March 30, 2003 online (September 5 2003).
2) Schweitzer, “Suicide Bombings. The Ultimate Weapon?”, August 7 2002, online (September 2005); Haim Malka; Scott Atran, “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism,” 1534.
3)Historically the first person committing suicide while taking the lives of many others was Samson. According to the Bible, he was been held prisoner by the Philistines, tortured, with his eyes gouged out and soon to die anyway. Being held in a palace full of his enemies, he asked to be guided to an exact spot where with a single act and the help of God he brought his life to an end as well as the lives of his enemies. For an intriguing analysis of suicide terrorism with the “Samson Mode”, read Shadia Drury, “Terrorism from Samson to Atta”, Arab Studies Quarterly 25, no1&2 (Winter/Spring 2003):1-12.
4)Politically motivated suicide behaviour is by no means a new phenomenon; acts of self killing have been used as a methodical demonstration of commitment and unyielding form of protest. For example Stefan Lux shot himself on the floor of the League of Nations in 1936 to protest against England’s failure to act against Germany; Buddhist monks set themselves on fire during the Vietnam war to protest against the regime of South Vietnam; The same tactic used Jan Palach and Jan Zajic in 1968 to protest against the Warsaw Pact troops invasion,  Jaber, 76; Arad, 25; Mansdorf. For differences between suicide protest and suicide terrorism, B. Raman, “Suicide and Suicidal Terrorism”, Paper no.947, March 12 2004, South Asia Analysis Group, online  (October 22 2004).
5)Merari, “Readiness to Kill and Die: Suicide Terrorism in the Middle East”, 194. For example cases in which the attacker has shot the hostages and after killed himself do not fallunder the category of suicide operations.
6)See, for example, Ariel Merari, Statement Submitted in Testimony before the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, July 13, 2000. Additional information about the nature of the planning of the September 11, 2001 attacks will be necessary in order to establish whether the suicide terrorists of those attacks may have posed an exception to this rule. 
7)One of the most extreme cases is that of September 11 “suicide pilot” Muhammad Atta, who seems to have known about the attack on the World Trade Center months, if not years, in advance—an attack that involved his own death. Psychologists and terrorism experts are likely to focus on Atta’s considerable mental capabilities for many years to come, and may find it necessary to adjust the traditional profile of the suicide bomber.  
8)For example the explosive device mechanism can be hidden in a bodysuit, a vehicle, aeroplane etc. Suicide attacks can occur with other types of weapons, including jetliners!
9)Sometimes the agent’s death can be the unavoidable yet indirect consequence of his action. The psychological standpoint of the suicide mission is quite different, so it is imperative to distinguish amongst those who choose their action to end up with their death (martyrs) and those who do not seek their own death though they are willing to accept it for the cause (heroes). One must not forget that generally terrorism throughout history carried a high risk of death for the terrorists themselves. For example, makeshift bombs used by 19th century anarchists and Russian revolutionaries were so unstable that they had to be thrown from a short distance (that is, if they did not explode first in the hands of the attacker). Those who went on an attack of this kind were fully aware of the risk and many of them wrote fare-well letters to their friends and families, see “Suicide Terror: Was 9/11 Something New?”, online (September 25 2003).   
10)Some authors have claimed that all terrorist operations that pose grave risks for their perpetrators are suicide operations; for example if though the attack itself is not dangerous, but the country’s penalty is the capital punishment, Walter Laquer, “The New Terrorism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 141. Although this can be an interesting perspective, it is not at all helpful in studying suicide operations as it does not distinguish between suicide terrorism and ordinary terrorism.
11)“Terrorists and Suicide Attacks”, CRS Report for Congress, August 28, 2003, 2.
12)Of course there have been also cases that terrorists have committed suicide rather than being apprehended or tried. Such is said to have been the case with members of the “Baader-Meinhof” gang in West Germany in the 1970s, although the death through hunger strike by Bobby Sands and other members of the IRA in the 1980s was also a reflection of what their supporters perceived as martyrdom, Laquer, “The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction”; George Sweeney, “Irish Hunger Strike and the Cult of Self-Sacrifice”, Journal of Contemporary History 28 (1993): 421-437.
13)For other definitions of suicide terrorists, compare definitions by Boaz Ganor, “Suicide Attacks in Israel,” in Countering Suicide Terrorism: An International Conference (Herzliya: ICT, 2001), 134,  Schweitzer, “Suicide Terrorism: Development and Main Characteristics”, 76.
14)Suicide Terrorism represents value for money, is efficient, cheap and, until recently, has been easy to organize, Pape.
15)Nasra Hassan, “An Arsenal of Believers: Talking to the ‘Human Bombs”, New Yorker, November 19, 2001, 39.
16)According to the words of Palestinian security official, quoted in Hassan.
17)For example, looking just at Palestinian attacks between 2000 and 2002, suicide attacks represented only 1%of the total number of attacks but they caused about 44% of the Israeli casualties, see Assaf Moghadam, “Palestinian Suicide Terrorism in the Second “Intifada”: Motivations and Organizational Aspects,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 26, no. 2 (March-April 2003), 65. And as put from an Islamic point of view by Dr. Mustafa Al-Shka', a member of the Al-Azhar Islamic (Egypt) Studies Center: “...He who fights with a sword, kills one heretic; on the other hand, he who bombs himself and kills many of the enemies of Allah...”, in “Debating the Religious, Political, and Moral Legitimacy of Suicide Bombings: Part III”.
18)Ganor, “Suicide Attacks in Israel”, 137.
19)For example Suzanne Goldberg, “The Men Behind the Suicide Bombers”, The Guardian, June 12, 2002.
20)In Israel at the entrance of nearly any kind of shop, from a shopping mall, a supermarket to a café and expensive clubs and restaurants there is security personnel checking the people weather they carry explosives or not.
21)See, for example, Tim Johnson, “Living on a Hair-trigger Alert: Quick Action by Tense Israeli Civilians Helps to Foil Palestinian Suicide Bombers,” Montreal Gazette, February 23, 2002, A17.
22)Ganor, “Suicide Attacks in Israel”, 137.
23)Walter Laquer, The Age of Terrorism (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987), 56.
24)Ganor, “The First Iraqi Suicide Bombing. A Hint of Things to Come?”.
25)J. Bowler Bell, quoted in Brigitte Nacos, Terrorism and the Media (New York: Columbia University press, 1994), 51.
26) This is an interesting difference between “common criminals” and terrorists. Usually the first try to avoid publicity, unless they are emotionally disturbed individuals who seek notoriety or give a social protest dimension to their actions, G. Wardlaw, Political Terrorism: Theory, Tactics and Counter-Measures, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 148-150.
27)Brian Michael Jenkins, “International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict,” in International Terrorism and World Security, eds. David Carlton and Carlo Schaerf (London: Croom Helm, 1975), 16. Actually, many terrorist activities are on purpose directed toward media attention, since the media can help a terrorist group to be placed in the centre of the public arena, and influence the opposing government, by weakening its supporter's morale, E. Ben-Rafael and M. Lisak, Social Aspects of Guerrilla Warfare (Jerusalem, IL: Hebrew University Press, 1979).
28)Kate Milner, “Who are the Suicide Bombers?”, BBC News on line, December 2 2001, on line, (November 5 2004). Actually the exploitation of the media is not a strange strategy to the Palestinian cause. Even as early as the 1960s and 1970s the leftist-at the time- Palestinian groups attended to catch the eye of the global media, Gabriel Weinmann, “Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Labelling Terrorism in the Israeli Press,” Political Communication and Persuasion 2, no.4 (1985): 433-445. Abu Iyad, Fatah leader referring to the 1972 Munich Olympics events stated cynically: “..The governing body of “Black September” decided to take matters into its own hands and designed a plan that was meant to achieve three results: to confirm the existence of the Palestinian people in the defiance of the whole world; to take advantage of the extraordinary gathering of mass media in Munich to give our fight global publicity-for good or bad, it doesn’t mater…”quoted in With no Homeland, Talks with Eric Rouleau, 1978, 158. The eventful hour-by-hour drama and the shout out at the Munich airport were followed by an estimated global television audience of more than 500 million people! See Neil Livingstone, The War against Terrorism (Lexington MA: Lexington, 1982), 144.
29)The idea of “Propaganda by Deed” was conceived originally by three Italian anarchists Errico Malatesta, Carlo Cafiero and Emilio Covelli, and adopted formally as a strategy by the Italian Federation of Anarchist International in 1876. Paul Brousse, Carlo Piscane, Johann Most and others have elaborated and written on this idea that became inspiration to terrorists worldwide of all times, places and causes, see U. Linse, “Propaganda by Deed and Direct Action: Two concepts of anarchist violence”, in Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Europe, eds. W. Mommsen and G. Hirschfiel (London: Berg Publishers, 1982), 201-229.
30)Avishai Margalit, “The suicide bombers”, The New York Review of Books 50, no.1, January 16, 2003, on line (September 23 2004).
31)As Camus noted: “A life is paid for another life, and from these two sacrifices springs the promise of a value” in Albert Camus, The Rebel: an Essay on Man in Revolt, (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), 169.
32)Cherie Blair’s words are: “as long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow them selves up you are never going to make progress”, quoted in George Jones and Anton La Guardia, “Anger at Cherie ‘Sympathy for Suicide Bombers’”, Telegraph, June 19, 2002.
33)Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, “Suicide Bombers: What is theologically and morally wrong with suicide bombings? A Palestinian Christian Perspective”, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Documents No.1(2003)
34)Very indicative and enlightening on this argument is the article by  Celean Jacobson “ Mirror Images: Two Teenage Girls, Bomber and Victim”, Associated Press, April 6 2002, where 17 years old Ayat Akras was compared to her equally young Israeli victim.
35)Kevin O’Brien and Joseph Nusbaum, “Intelligence Gathering Asymmetric Threats – Part One,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 12, 2000 online (September 12 2002).
36)See, for example, Avigdor Haselkorn, “Martyrdom: The Most Powerful Weapon”, Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2000, 5.
37)Michal Horowitz and Dan Reiter, “When Does Aerial Bombing Work? Quantitative Empirical Tests 1917-1999”, Journal of Conflict Resolutions, no. 45 (April 2001): 147-173.
38)“.. .I have to inflict the same [pain] on them until Israeli mothers scream at their government and plead with the world to end the conflict...” Younis, a young Palestinian preparing for a suicide mission quoted in Hala Jaber, “Inside the World of the Palestinian Suicide Bomber”, London Times, March 24, 2002.
39)Ganor, “Defining Suicide Terrorism,” ICT Brief, June 25, 2001.
40)For example no one can doubt seriously that most of Israel’s military over action has been the result of grave attacks inside the state. The checkpoints, the curfews, even the wall, have all been attempts of Israel to protect its civilians from been, usually strengthens after recent attacks.

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