Foreign Policy Blogs

Why Is Suicide Terrorism So Popular?

In order to understand current events related to terrorism as well as possible, it is essential to explore all aspects of the topic, such as influential Islamist philosophers, the history, background, and structure of a variety of terrorist organizations, and terrorist tactics and strategies. Let’s start with an overview of suicide terrorism, arguably the most successful tactic used by modern-day terrorists.

On average, suicide operations worldwide kill about four times as many people as other types of terrorist attacks. In Israel the average is even higher, inflicting six times the number of deaths and roughly twenty-six times more casualties than other acts of terrorism.

There are apparently two conditions under which terrorist groups tend to use suicide bombing: when other terrorist or military tactics fail, and when they are in competition with other terrorist groups for popular or financial support. Suicide bombing is generally found in the second stage of conflicts. To Hamas, and possibly other groups as well, suicide attacks are seen as the next step in a logical progression. Hamas’s Khaled Meshal once said, “Like the intifada in 1987, the current intifada had taught us that we should move forward normally from popular confrontation to the rifle to suicide operations. This is the normal development.”

Suicide bombings are a much more successful tactic than others used by militant Islamists for many political and psychological reasons. It is more difficult for a government to respond to suicide terrorism than to other tactics, and to even find an effective short-term response is very challenging. Additionally, suicide terrorism is much more likely to gain media coverage than most other forms of terrorist attack. This propaganda in effect helps the terrorist organization by disseminating their ideology, thereby increasing their number of sympathizers and members. As the name suggests, terrorism is based on inciting terror, and excluding possibly the use of weapons of mass destruction, there is no better way to strike fear and panic in the target audience. As a result, suicide bombing is often a much more powerful psychological weapon than other forms of terrorist attack.

Besides political and psychological justifications to turn to suicide bombing, there are also many reasons that are purely logistical. Suicide terrorism requires very few means and little preparation to be even remotely effective when compared to other kinds of terrorism. When carefully planned, a suicide attack can be extremely effective, such as in the case of the well-organized July 7th, 2005 attacks in London. Suicide terrorism is usually less expensive than other tactics. According to one estimate, the total cost of a typical Palestinian suicide operation, for example, is about one hundred and fifty dollars. Although cheap, this does not mean they are ineffective. Planning a suicide attack is often much simpler as well because an escape plan is not necessary. They are also less compromising as, providing the attack is successful, there will be no terrorist that could be captured and interrogated. Yet another reason suicide bombing is so efficient is that the suicide terrorist has the ability to change his or her plan at the last minute according to variables such as density of people in or around the target, whether or not security personnel are present, or level of difficulty of approach.

Suicide bombing has another valuable asset: the bomber is the victim of his or her own act, which in theory puts the enemy to moral shame. When the suicide bomber performs the act, he or she is claiming the moral high ground in the name of the organization’s cause.

Although sometimes portrayed as desperate, suicide terrorism is in fact often a rational and calculated choice of warfare.

Asad, Talal. On Suicide Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Bloom, Mia. Dying to Kill. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Pape, Robert A. Dying to Win. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005.
Pedahzur, Ami. Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.
Reuter, Christoph. My Life is a Weapon. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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An excellent overview of suicide terrorism by Robert Pape, the author of Dying to Win