Author: Lorenzo Alberini - Edited by: Giacomo Toffanello
The extreme sacrifice of suicide bombers may let us think that they are insane or irrational. However, most scholars argue that they are as sane as everyone and try to explain the rationale behind such lethal choice. Understanding the nature of suicide terrorist is a crucial step in order to know how to counter them. In this article we will analyse the rationality behind this kind of terrorist attacks. The author of this article is Lorenzo Alberini, a master student in International Security and Law at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the editor in chief of the Italian university student newspaper ‘Sconfinare’.
Introduction: terror and martyrdom
Over the last weeks, the terrorist attacks carried out – or at least claimed – by Daesh, or Islamic State, have multiplied. On October 31 a Russian plane crashed over the Sinai peninsula, almost certainly as a consequence of the explosion of a bomb taken on board. The dramatic terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13 occurred just twenty-four hours after another deadly suicide attack in Beirut. Others could be mentioned. Together, all these attacks left hundreds of people dead and even more wounded. They reminded us that terrorists still kill by blowing up themselves and not only cutting the throat of unfortunate journalists in the desert. These attacks occurred almost exactly thirty-two years after the infamous Beirut barracks bombing, dated November 23, 1983, when 241 American and 58 French servicemen died after the explosion of two truck bombs in the Lebanese capital city. That day America and Europe heavily experienced the striking effects of suicide terrorism.
In fact, the origins of suicide terrorism are far more ancient – at least since the time of the medieval sect of the Assassins – but the deliberate extreme sacrifice of the murder was a relatively new tactic within modern-day terrorism. It was somehow practiced by the Russian anarchists since the 1980s, in what has been called the «first wave» of international terrorism, but it should be see more as a necessity than an intentional and planned tactic. The second wave of terror, namely the anti-colonial wave spreading after the 1920s, abandoned this modus operandi and turned to a guerilla tactic (i.e. hit and run). Famous examples are the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Israeli Irgun and, in its early stages, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The following wave, known as the «new left wave» or the «red wave» of international terrorism originated in the 1960s, drawing from the global movement that strongly opposed the American war in Vietnam. It encompassed a number of organizations in Europe, such as the West German RAF, the Italian Red Brigades, the French Action Directe, and around the world, such as the American Weather Underground and the Japanese Red Army. Most importantly, it introduced the wide and systematic airline hijackings as a tactic, in order to gain more and more visibility. Kidnappings were adopted as well. This third wave faded away in the 1980s, roughly the years of the emergence of the latest expression of international terrorism, namely the religious wave. In the past, religion had played an important role for every group, but now it represented the very source of justification for the actions. Among the different forms of religious terrorism, Islamist terror assumed a major role and martyrdom became the primary tactic to fight.
Literally, a suicide attack is a violent act whose execution requires the death of at least one individual (suicide bomber), who does not expect to survive the mission. Nowadays, studies and publications on this topic have multiplied and numerous scholars believe that, despite a wide dissenting public opinion, suicide bombers must be considered rational actors. The world-renowned Israeli professor Ehud Sprinzak, for instance, defines suicide bombers as «rational fanatics» and the American political scientist Robert Pape argues that «suicide terrorism is a rational act because it is purposive». Even a key institution as the Pentagon stated in a 2006 briefing paper: «Suicide in defense of Islam is permitted, and the Islamic suicide bomber is, in the main, a rational actor».
The importance of testing this assumption lies in the consequences for countering terrorism, at both an academic and operative stage. Indeed, rationality is an essential characteristic of human behaviour. If suicide bombers were not rational, scholars should study them as insane individuals, while governments should implement their cooperation with mental healthcare agencies. Differently, if they were sane, the current prevailing approach, based on the application of the rational choice theory to the suicide bombers, would probably be correct and therefore should be applied. I shall argue that suicide bombers do are rational actors.
The evidence: mental health and calculated tactic
Firstly, every sane and adult human being is a rational individual, meaning he or she has reason or understanding, and suicide bombers are as sane as everyone. Which is to say, they are psychologically normal. This statement is supported by many important scholars, such as Max Abrahms and Marc Sageman. The former, who is postdoctoral fellow at Stanford Institute for International Studies, having analysed the main literature on this topic, concludes that «[i]n sum, psychological assessments of terrorists indicate they are cognitively normal»; the latter, a forensic psychiatrist and government counterterrorism consultant, has studied a wide sample of global Salafi jihadists belonging to the Al Qa’ida network and searched for any form of psychological disorders (antisocial personality disorder, thought disorders, extreme narcisism, pathological hatred, trauma). He found very little or no evidence for these symptoms and commented sharply: «So, there is evidence that, as a group, global Islamist terrorists may be in better mental health than the rest of the population». Thus, they should not be considered as individual lacking rationality or reason.
Furthermore, many academics have affirmed that the use of suicide attacks is often a strategic choice of terrorists. It has specific goals and objective advantages. For example, the Italian scholar Domenico Tosini argues that the use of suicide attacks responds to a twofold logic of egoistic interests and altruistic goals. Through their martyrdom, the suicide bombers obtain fame whithin their community (diversely, a common militant may die anonimously) and often redemption and reward after life (egoistic interests). Other facilitating factors include economic support for the martyr’s family members and the achievement of the community’s purposes (altruistic goals). Finally, today most conflicts occur in a context of asimmetric warfare, which is to say a conflict between two or more actors resorting to very different methods of conducing war. Frequently, the weaker actors «seek to generate profound effects – at all level of warfare […], from the tactical to the strategic – by employing their own specific advantages against the vulnerabilities of much stronger opponents». In such a situation – professor Tosini states – committing suicide may be simply the most effective tactic.
In his renowned work ”Rational Fanatics”, Ehud Sprinzak explains that «suicide terrorism has inherent tactical advantages over ”conventional” terrorism». According to the Israeli scholar, «[i]t is a simple and low-cost operation (requiring no escape routes or complicated rescue operations); it guarantees mass casualties and extensive damage (since the suicide bomber can choose the exact time, location, and circumstances of the attack); there is no fear that interrogated terrorists will surrender important information (because their deaths are certain); and it has an immense impact on the public and the media (due to the overwhelming sense of helplessness)». Also the Spanish scholar Luis de la Corte, supporter of a psychosocial approach to the studies on terrorism, reminds that «terrorism must not be seen as a syndrome but as a method of social and political influence». Hence, suicide bombers’ actions should be considered calculated rational choices.
On the other hand…
Very few academics have argued that suicide bombers are not rational actors. Luis de la Corte has affirmed that «the rationality which terrorists apply to their violence is imperfect», but he stated also that this is a characteristic of people in general and of social movements in particular. Another scholar already mentioned is Max Abrahms. In his study ”Why Terrorism Does Not Work”, he admits that «the poor success rate [of terrorist groups] is inherent to the tactic of terrorism itself» and this «challenge[s] the dominant scholarly opinion that terrorism is strategically rational behaviour». Nevertheless, he concludes that terrorists’ behavour is still rational, as the main reason for their failure is that «target countries infer the objectives of terrorist groups not from their stated goals, but from the short-term consequences of terrorist acts» (the killing of their citizens) and, as a consequence, they are reclutant to make concessions. Thus, terrorists’ behaviour is not irrational; at worst, their rationality is «imperfect», as stated by Professor de la Corte, because they failed to communicate properly their reasons.
To sum up, according to most scholars, suicide terrorists are rational and sane. They are psychologically normal; in other words, they do not lack reason or understanding or show symptoms of mental disorders. Their attacks are an intentional strategy, involving tactical advantages and ”personal” rewards. Given certain conditions, they try to obtain the maximum of the utility. Consequently, despite the extreme cost of their action, they must be considered rational actors.
 ”1983 Beirut barracks bombings”, Encyclopædia Britannica. Online at http://www.britannica.com/event/1983-Beirut-barracks-bombings.
 David C. Rapoport, ”The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11”, Anthropoetics, Vol. 8 No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2002).
 A deep analysis of the causes of Islamist terrorism is beyond the scope of this article and would deserve a longer investigation. For a list of books on this topic, see for instance Joshua Sinai, ”Terrorism Bookshelf: Top 150 Books on Terrorism and Counterterrorism”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 6 No. 2 (2012), sections III, VI, VII. Online at http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/sinai-terrorism-bookshelf/html.
 Domenico Tosini, ”Calculated, Passionate, Pious Extremism: Beyond a Rational Choice Theory of Suicide Terrorism”, Asian Journal of Social Science, No. 38 (May 2010). Online at http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Domenico_Tosini/publication/233710539_Calculated_Passionate_Pious_ExtremismBeyond_a_Rational_Choice_Theory_of_Suicide_Terrorism/links/547ece070cf2c1e3d2dc2d51.pdf.
 Ehud Sprinzak, ”Rational Fanatics”, Foreign Policy, September 1, 2000. Online at http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/20/rational-fanatics/.
 ”Are Suicide Terrorists Rational Actors?”, IRIA Reports, undated. Online at http://www.ir-ia.com/Are-Suicide-Terrorists-Rational-Actors.html.
 Briefly, «given certain information, prefereces, and choices, a decision maker will act to maximize her utility». Dan Reiter, Crucible of Beliefs: Learning, Alliances, and World Wars (Cornell University Press, 1996), quoted in Max Abrahms and Karolina Lula, ”Why terrorists Overestimate the Odds of Victory”, Perspectives on Terrorism, volume 6, Issues 4-5 (2012), 49. Online at http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/216/html.
 “Rational”, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Online at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rational.
 Marc Sageman, Leader Jihad : Terror networks in the twenty-first century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 64.
 Tosini, supra note .
 Scholars, journalists and opinion makers often mention different rewards promised to the martyrs, including the opportunity to meet the Prophet, to see the face of Allah and to lie with 72 virgins. See, for example, “Martyrdom and murder”, The Economist, January 8, 2014. Online at http://www.economist.com/node/2329785. However, the source of this belief is not clear. It probably comes from a mixture of Quran passages and (sometimes unreliable) hadiths – that is, says and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad.
 Rod Thornton, Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2007), 1.
 Sprinzak, supra note .
 Luis de la Corte, “Explaining Terrorism: A Psychosocial approach”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 1 No. 2 (2007). Online at http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/8/html. Italics added.
 Max Abrahms, “Why terrorism does not work”, International security, Vol. 31 No. 2 (Fall 2006).