Analyzing Terror: Researchers Study the Perpetrators and
the Effects of Suicide Terrorism
by Michael S. Hronick
Since September 11, 2001, research on terrorism has increasingly
focused on suicide terrorism. Though the number of terrorist
attacks has decreased since the mid-1980’s,
fatalities have dramatically increased because of a rise
in especially lethal suicide attacks by individuals on behalf
of terrorist organizations.
- Dr. Andrew Silke, University of East London.
- Dr. Allison Smith, American Association for the Advancement
of Science (then a fellow with the U.S. Department of
- Mr. Arjuna Gunawardena, Protecht Risk Management Solutions,
Ltd., Sri Lanka.
- Dr. Mohammed Hafez, University of Missouri-Kansas City.
- Dr. Ariel Merari, Tel Aviv University.
- Ms. Nasra Hassan, United Nations Office on Drugs and
- Dr. Marc Sageman, University of Pennsylvania.
- Dr. Robert Pape, University of Chicago.
Also present at the conference were staff from:
- White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- Israeli Ministry of Public Security.
- U.S. Department of Defense.
- National Institutes of Health.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Representatives of other government and national security
NIJ hosted a Suicide Terrorism Research Conference in October
2004 that brought together a distinguished panel focused
on this phenomenon. Although the presenters differed
in their approach to the study of suicide terrorism, the
discussions yielded a rich exchange of ideas that may serve
to broaden the scope of future research.
Existing Research on Suicide Terrorism
Allison Smith of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (then a fellow with the Department of Homeland
Security) reviewed 34 research projects on suicide terrorism.
Most of the projects reviewed were released in 2002 or later.
She categorized the different research methods to study
suicide terrorism: expert analysis (37 percent), interviews
(20 percent), literature reviews (14 percent), analysis
of event datasets (14 percent), data from secondary sources,
including legal proceedings and articles (9 percent), and
surveys (6 percent).
Smith also summarized the recommendations made by the 34
projects. The most common recommendations (and the frequency
with which they were recommended) included:
- “Weaken terrorist groups by targeting leaders.”
- “Realize that attacking groups may lead them to
become more adaptive and/or ruthless.” (6)
- “Develop informants to infiltrate terrorist groups.”
- “Strip away the terrorist groups’ supporters
by engaging them in dialogue.” (5)
What Is “Suicide Terrorism”?
Clear operational definitions and well-defined variables
are a challenge to researchers who study suicide terrorism.
Some conference attendees disagreed on which definition
of suicide terrorism to use.
Andrew Silke of the University of East London noted that
throughout history, acts that some might dismiss as “crazy”
or “diabolical” have frequently been employed
as rational terrorist tactics. Examples include Cato’s
self-inflicted stabbing and Samson’s destruction of
the temple where he was held. He noted that groups that
have used suicide as a tool include Japanese samurai, English
suffragists, IRA hunger-strikers, and Japanese kamikaze
pilots. Silke also raised the question of how we should
consider last-stand battles, such as the Spartans at Thermopylae
or Americans at the Alamo. Silke’s historical framework
prompted the panel of experts to debate how best to determine
the difference between suicide and “suicidal”
(high-risk) acts. Central to the discussion was deciding
whether an act that is considered suicidal contributes seminal
knowledge to the understanding of suicide terrorism. In
other words, should the definition of suicide terrorism
be limited to actions that result only in suicide or should
suicidal acts be included as well?
Ariel Merari of Tel Aviv University thought some terrorist
acts were deviations from the true act of suicide terrorism.
Merari distinguished suicide terrorism as “intentionally
killing oneself for the purpose of killing others, in the
service of a political or ideological goal” and discounted
“high-risk missions, fooled couriers, and suicide
without homicide for a political cause” from suicide
terrorism research. There is a great psychological difference
between killing oneself intentionally and undertaking a
mission with a high risk of death, according to Merari.
A large proportion of terrorist attacks involve some risk
of death for the perpetrators. However, with the exception
of true suicide attacks, researchers cannot assess the objective
and subjective chance of death. Thus, expanding the definition
of suicide attacks to include high-risk missions would contaminate
the sample and make it impossible to construct a generally
accepted list of suicide attacks.
The psyche of the suicide terrorist prompted considerable
discussion. Participants generally concurred that perpetrators
are mislabeled as “mentally unstable.” They
may possess weaker personalities, but they are almost exclusively
sane and even logical.
These conclusions result in part from a research method
known as the “psychological autopsy.” Arjuna
Gunawardena of Protecht Risk Management Solutions, Ltd.
explained the psychological autopsy, one of the research
techniques pioneered by Merari in his study of suicide terrorism
in Israel, and used by Gunawardena in his study of the Black
Tiger suicide cadres of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. This deductive,
investigative research method attempts to reconstruct the
psyche of the perpetrator based on interviews, records,
communiqués, and other imprints of the individual.
Mohammed Hafez of the University of Missouri-Kansas City
stated that suicide attacks are often conducted by secular
organizations to advance political objectives against a
stronger, technologically superior enemy. He noted that
these organizations often invoke religion to appeal to individuals
in order to convince them that they are fulfilling a commitment
Hafez also explained how what he called the “reward
of martyrdom” might motivate an individual to undertake
a suicide attack and cited terrorists in Palestinian society
as an example. There, suicide attackers are regarded by
some as heroes, with their names given to babies or streets,
and their sacrifices promoted by posters and mass funerals.
Among the purported rewards for a martyr in the afterlife
are the ability to intercede with God on behalf of friends
and family and redemption for not only the individual, but
for the society as well. Also, organizations that sponsor
terrorism often bestow money and status on the families
of suicide terrorists.
Merari’s assertion that suicide terrorists are not
religious fanatics supported the discussion among other
attendees that religion plays a tertiary role to organizational
pressure and political goals.
Merari’s research isolated several personality traits
typical of suicide attackers. They possess weak personalities;
are socially marginalized; are subject to rigid, concrete
thinking; and demonstrate low self-esteem. He reported the
four motivating factors often cited by suicide attackers:
national humiliation, religion (“to do God’s
Will”), personal revenge, and admittance to paradise
in the afterlife.
Merari and others emphasized the influence of the group
over individuals in planning suicide attacks. Following
recruitment into a terrorist organization, individuals make
a commitment to the group in the form of a contract, which
leads to a personal commitment to the mission.
Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania described
a typical scenario by which a person becomes a terrorist
through the vehicle of religion. A socially aloof individual,
perhaps new to the area, joins others at a place of worship.
After meeting similar individuals there (a “bunch
of guys,” in Sageman’s words), they begin to
socialize. Initially, they convene to share a common faith
and similar interests, but later, their association assumes
an increasingly radical essence. At this point, attachment
to the group (“in-group love”) trumps other
considerations and affects perceptions (“out-group
hate”), and the individual feels obligated to participate
in terrorist activity out of loyalty to the group. It is
these groups that heed the summons to “kill the infidels”
or to join the “global Salafi
jihad” by al Qaeda.
Participants widely agreed with the assertion by Robert
Pape of the University of Chicago that researchers must
have access to each other’s data in order to gain
multiple perspectives on terrorist incidents and to mine
those data for future research. He recommended that a central
terrorism database be created.
Pape’s desire for a centralized, comprehensive database
is a byproduct of his studies. He began his research on
suicide terrorism following the attacks of 9-11 and discovered
that aggregate data on the subject were not available prior
to the year 2000. In response, he gathered data from a variety
of sources. He found that 95 percent of the suicide terrorist
attacks conducted since 1983 could be categorized into clusters,
or “campaigns.” He theorized that the efficacy
of these campaigns has led to an increasing reliance on
suicide attacks as a tactic to effect a political outcome.
Pape observed 16 separate campaigns from 1983 to 2005, 4
of which are ongoing. In most, the target was a democracy
with an occupying military presence.
At the conclusion of the conference, participants were
asked to offer their insights on suicide terrorism and what
measures should be taken in the future. Some of the suggestions
- Research efforts should yield practical results for
practitioners combating suicide terrorism and should focus
on three areas: 1) the launching of the attack, 2) identifying
characteristics of the bombers onsite with the aim of
stopping them, and 3) having failed that, minimizing injury
and other harm to victims by shielding them and empowering
the general population by building up their psychological
resilience (Israel L. Barak-Glantz, Ministry of Public
- Researchers should analyze information about terrorist
groups available on the Internet and in publications,
which are often provided by the groups themselves (Peter
Probst, Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political
Violence, United States).
- Several questions in need of more analysis include:
1) What can we learn from failed attempts by suicide bombers?
2) What are the profiles of the leaders of movements that
promote suicide operations? 3) How do we minimize the
psychological effects of terrorism in general, and suicide
terrorism in particular? 4) What is the impact of the
cult of suicide terrorism on the societies that encourage
acts of martyrdom? (Joshua Sinai, Program Manager, Terrorism
Studies, Logo Technologies, United States, formerly with
the Department of Homeland Security).
- Future research should focus on: 1) situations conducive
to suicide bombing, 2) characteristics of groups and their
decision-making processes, 3) methods of recruiting and
training bombers, 4) personality factors of and social
influences on suicide terrorists (a comparative study
of universal characteristics), 5) the effect of government
responses, and 6) the effects on the target (Ariel Merari,
Tel Aviv University, Israel).
- The phrase “suicide bomber” must not be
used interchangeably with the phrase “suicide terrorist.”
Other methods of suicide attack are not aptly described
by the term suicide bomber (Carole Murti, U.S. Department
of Defense, United States).
The panelists accepted two administrative points as critical
for productive future research in this field: 1) the need
for suicide terrorism researchers to share their data, and
2) the need for researchers to acknowledge differences in
the operational definition of suicide terrorism and to explicitly
state their working definition as part of any reporting
of research findings.
NIJ’s conference was a forum for researchers studying
what has become a deadly trend. The meeting offered an opportunity
for experts in the field to present their findings, exchange
ideas, and return to their respective organizations and
institutions with the benefit of the perspectives, successes,
and failures of the research conducted by their peers throughout
the world. NIJ remains committed to fostering this interaction
and to supporting terrorism research that will impact policy
and practice—one step toward alleviating the threat
to the safety of the world’s people and the rule of
 Terrorist acts peaked in 1987 with 666 incidents. A
low of 274 attacks was recorded in 1998. There were 348
attacks reported in 2001 (presentation by Pape, Robert,
NIJ, October 2004), 175 attacks reported in 2003, and
651 attacks recorded in 2004. However, 2004 data were
collected using a different method. The National Counterterrorism
Center cautions against comparing the 2004 figures with
previous data due to this new method (“Global Terrorism
Statistics Released,” The Washington Post,
April 28, 2005, A07).
 Suicide attacks have increased from 31 in the 1980’s
to 104 in the 1990’s to 53 in 2001 alone. The number
of victims has increased as well, from approximately 700
fatalities in the 1980’s to more than 3,000 in 2001.
To view statistical charts, see Pape, Robert, “The
Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American
Political Science Review, 97(3) (August 2003): 1–19.
 The delegation from the Israeli Ministry of Security
was very firm on this point. Members felt that a very
specific mindset is needed to carry out a suicide bombing.
To analyze anyone other than one who, with the exception
of a mechanical failure or thwarted attempt, has a successful
mission is detrimental to understanding the causes and
realities of this tactic.
 Silke, Merari, and Sageman each made a point of dispelling
any concept of suicide attackers as mentally unstable.
 The term salafi is a derivative of the word salaf, which
is a reference to the Prophet Mohammed and his companions.
Modern, radical Muslims (Salafists) advocate a return
to the glory years of Islam (c. 622 A.D. to 662 A.D.),
often resulting in calls for jihad. They feel that, in
order to transform Muslim states that have fallen astray
(by becoming more Westernized or more corrupted), they
must be more like the Muslim states of that golden age.
Leaders such as Osama bin Laden call for destruction of
the “far-enemies,” such as the United States,
prior to battling the “near-enemies,” such
as the leaders of modern Muslim states. This demand is
answered on an international scale by al Qaeda adherents.