God’s Terrorist? The Logic of Suicide Terrorism

Suicide terrorism has been rising around the world for decades.  Because of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, September 11, and other conflicts involving predominantly Muslim populations, Islam has been seen as a motivator, if the not the sole motivator, for these attacks.  This belief, held even by prominent academics, has fueled the notion that Islam is unique in creating these seemingly illogical acts and only a fundamental transformation of Muslim societies can future 9/11’s be avoided.  As I will show, suicide attacks are logical, strategic, and predominantly part of a broader political agenda.


The most in-depth analysis of suicide terrorism I have found is Robert Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. In his book Pape compiles every suicide bombing around the globe from 1980 throuh 2003; 315 attacks in all.  It includes every attack in which at least one terrorist killed himself or herself while attempting to kill others; it excludes attacks authorized by a national government- North Korea against the South, for example.  Most of the information, statistics, and examples in this post will be taken from this book.

As media reports of suicide attacks shower the evening news, it is quite common to assume that some radical Muslim is responsible; indeed, a common conception is that only Muslims commit suicide attacks.  However, according to Pape’s data, the leading instigator of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.  This group, Marxist-Leninist in its ideology, has committed 76 of the 315 incidents studied by Pape; more than Hamas or al-Qaida.

Suicide terrorism has received a great deal of attention for a variety of reasons.  Suicide attacks are generally more destructive than other terrorist attacks.  While suicide attacks amount to only 3 percent of all terrorist attacks, they account for over 48 percent of total deaths due to terrorism-excluding the unusual case of September 11.  No doubt, the seeming craziness of killing yourself and innocent people around you has brought confusion to why individuals partake in such an activity.

Overall, Islamic fundamentalism is associated with about half of the suicide attacks that have occurred from 1980 to 2003. However, suicide attacks among Muslims are not always religious in nature. Secular groups account for over a third of suicide attacks.  Examples would be the Kurdish PKK, which is a Marxist-Leninist group, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine which is quite secular also.  Just in Lebanon, secular groups account for twenty-seven of the thirty-six suicide attacks. Groups like the Lebanese National Resistance Front, The Lebanese Communist Party, and the Syrian National Socialist Party are the main culprits of suicide attacks and have little, if any, connection to Islam.

Hamas and al-Qaida are crucial cases.  Both groups espouse Islamic fundamentalist ideologies and charge Christians and Jews with crimes against Muslims.  Both seek to overturn what they view as foreign military occupations–Hamas, to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land since 1967; al-Qaida to drive out what it sees as the American occupation of the Arabian Peninsula since 1990 as well as of Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003.

Comparison of target selection for Hamas and al-Qaida shows that combating foreign military occupation is more central than religious motives for both groups.  For example, if religious motives were so central it would be expected that both groups to attack Christian and Jews.  Similarly, if revenge for perceived attacks were a central motive why has al-Qaida never attacked Israel and rarely attacked Jewish targets.  Why does Hamas restrict its attacks to Israel and not America or citizens outside of Israel/Palestine. In reality, both groups concentrate their efforts against the opponent that actually has troops stationed on what it sees as its homeland territory.

Furthermore, Hamas (and Hizbollah) have virtually renounced the use of suicide bombings.  Hamas has official declared, since the Second Intifada, that it will no longer use the tactic; and it hasn’t.  Both groups have shifted away from these tactics and sought to portray themselves as a legitimate resistance groups; this recent change is a tactical change but one that is extremely important. As my colleague Al Lisaan has noted,

“studying the history of Hamas suicide bombings without remarking on the evolution of group away from extremism both emphasizes their past rather than demonstrating the importance of the moderation the group began to undertake in 2005…Furthermore, there is a widespread non-violent movement in Palestine (including Gaza) that includes BDS and non-violent protests”

So if religion is not the primary motive for suicide terrorism, what is?

Pape outlines three general trends that his data supports: 1) nearly all suicide attacks occur as part of organized campaigns, not as isolated or random incidents.  Of the 315 separate attacks in the period studied, 301 could have their roots traced to large, coherent political or military campaigns; 2) democratic states are uniquely vulnerable to suicide terrorism.  The US, France, India, Israel, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey have been the targets of almost every suicide attack of the past two decades; 3) suicide terrorist campaigns are directed toward a strategic objective.  From Lebanon to Israel to Sri Lanka to Kashmir, to Chechnya, the sponsors  of every campaign have been terrorist groups trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democratic power to withdraw from the territories they claim.

Hizbollah: From 1982-1986 this group grew from a handful of members to over 7,000.  Far from being an isolated cult, Hizbollah devotes considerable effort to social services for the community as a whole.  For example, in 1982 Hizbollah started a Financial Assistance Committee that granted 130,000 scholarships and aided 135,000 needy families with interest-free loans over the net several years. These social services substantially enhance the legitimacy of Hizbollah as a movement; indeed, second in importance only to resistance against the occupation.

No doubt, religion plays a role in the encouragement of martyrdom operations in Lebanon.  However, real-world circumstances of foreign occupation define how religious norms should be interpreted-not an individual desire for personal salvation independent of this context. Islamic societies have strong norms that strictly prohibit suicide, so Lebanese leaders must work hard to create support.  This is done by arguing that martyrdom is justified as an instrument in protecting the local community from foreign occupation or attack.  Two examples are Hizbollah’s famous “Open Letter” which declared

“America and its allies and the Zionist entity… have attacked our country, destroyed our villages, massacred our children, violated our sanctities, and installed over our heads criminal henchmen…We have risen to liberate our country, to drive the imperialists and the invaders out of it, and to determine our fate by our own hands.”

The central theme of martyrdom operations- and the principal reason for the armed resistance generally– is to end the occupation of the Shia homeland by American, Israeli, and other Western Military forces.  Religious language may be used to gain popularity or reach a particular subset of the population.  However, in Lebanon, of the 41 suicide attacks from 1982-86 only 21 percent were Islamist; 8 percent Christian and a mere 71 percent communist/socialist. In short, Lebanon’s suicide attackers do not share ideology or organizational indoctrination; rather, they share a commitment to resist a foreign occupation.

In conclusion, if Pape’s assertion is correct (that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation and not ideology) spreading democracy, Western values, Christianity, or free markets will have little to no effect in combating this kind of violence.  Neo-conservative commentators like Richard Perle and David Frum suggest that:

The terrorists kill and will accept death for a cause with which no accommodation is possible.  That cause is militant Islam…And though it is comforting to deny it, all the available evidence indicates that militant Islam commands wide support, and even wider syapthy, among Muslims worldwide… the roots of of Muslim rage are to be found in Islam itself…the Islamic world has lagged further behind the Christian West”.

The failure of these two policy makers to recognize the differences between groups like Hamas, Hizbollah, and al-Qaida have lead to a disastrous assumption that terror in the Arab and Muslim world is a monolithic threat founded on religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this view remains common in policy making circles and in the West generally.  Policies by Israel in Palestine and Lebanon, the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russia in Chechnya are only increasing the likelihood of suicide attacks and resistance generally.


7 thoughts on “God’s Terrorist? The Logic of Suicide Terrorism

  1. Hey nice article. For commentators such as Perle and Frum, placing responsibility for terrorism solely on some inherent aspect of Islam seems to be simply a way to rally the public around their agenda. People react more strongly when you say they hate us because their religion is fundamentally opposed to us then when you actually give facts and details.

    I also want to reiterate what I said the other day. It is good to analyze the past acts of suicide terrorism against Israel, but it must be noted that suicide bombing has largely been eliminated as a tactic by Hezbollah and Hamas. Hamas has officially declared that it has renounced suicide bombings and there has not been one since the immediately aftermath of the Second Intifada. I am not entirely sure about Hezbollah – so correct me if I am wrong – but since 2000 Hezbollah has been lining itself up as more than just a rogue resistance group (something they accomplished in the last Lebanese elections). Furthermore, they have styled themselves, far more than Hamas, as a proper militia who is willing to take on Israel face to face, rather than through terror tactics. While Hezbollah remains a threat to Israelis (50,000 rockets?), I simply cannot recall the last time they sponsored a suicide bomber.

    I make the point for two reasons. For Hamas, and as I said earlier, studying the history of Hamas suicide bombings without remarking on the evolution of group away from extremism both emphasizes their past rather than demonstrating the importance of the moderation the group began to undertake in 2005. If people continue to see Hamas as a group that routinely sponsors terror, there will never be enough public pressure to lift the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Furthermore, there is a widespread non-violent movement in Palestine (including Gaza) that includes BDS and non-violent protests. Focusing on past terrorism without any mention of current circumstances undermines this effort.

    With regard to Hezbollah and the statistics you used for 82-86. These seem like terribly biased numbers as Lebanon was in the middle of its civil war. Every attack in that war was politically motivated. Of course, this only backs your point, but it seems to me that the suicide bombings in Lebanon during the war should belong in a separate category.

    Great post though and I think it is incredibly important for people to look at why these attacks happen, instead of simply branding the attackers as a symptom of Islam. Good to have you back!

  2. Papes work is based on solid research rather than myth-based assumptions. His data is now available to the public in an interactive database —-I think at the University of Chicago (?) —They are also expanding the database.

    As Pape says in one of his lectures (on Utube), there are better ways for the U.S. to secure its national interests that are less “in your face”……

    @Al Lisaan —-interesting info—-thanks.

  3. Al Lisaan:

    You are absolutely correct about the evolution of both Hamas and Hizbollah. I will add some thoughts to it today.

    In regards to your point about Hizbollah and attacks during the period of 1982-86. This actually makes your point that Hizbollah has largely given up its suicide tendencies. The majority of attacks have happened in the past and during the Civil War. Hizbollah was just an example; we could look at Hamas, al-Qaida, Tamil Tigers, etc. My point was to show that suicide bombing occurs as part of a strategic, logical, and political movement; rather than as lone wolfs that are lonely, uneducated, poor, or psychotic. But your point is well taken.

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