The rationality of suicide terrorists

French flag at half mast at UNIFIL's French headquarters in Lebanon, Saturday, November 14, 2015 (Photo: The Daily Star/Mohammad Zaatari)
French flag at half mast at UNIFIL’s French headquarters in Lebanon, Saturday, November 14, 2015 (Photo: The Daily Star/Mohammad Zaatari)

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.[1]

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,[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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»[5] and the American political scientist Robert Pape argues that «suicide terrorism is a rational act because it is purposive».[6] 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».[7]

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[8] 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,[9] 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».[10] 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.[11] 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[12] (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».[13] 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)».[14] 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».[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.

Conclusions

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.


[1] ”1983 Beirut barracks bombings”, Encyclopædia Britannica. Online at http://www.britannica.com/event/1983-Beirut-barracks-bombings.

[2] David C. Rapoport, ”The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11”, Anthropoetics, Vol. 8 No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2002).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] Ehud Sprinzak, ”Rational Fanatics”, Foreign Policy, September 1, 2000. Online at http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/20/rational-fanatics/.

[6] ”Are Suicide Terrorists Rational Actors?”, IRIA Reports, undated. Online at http://www.ir-ia.com/Are-Suicide-Terrorists-Rational-Actors.html.

[7] ”Suicide bombers follow Quran, concludes Pentagon briefing”, WND, September 27, 2006. Online at http://www.wnd.com/2006/09/38120/.

[8] 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.

[9] “Rational”, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Online at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rational.

[10] Marc Sageman, Leader Jihad : Terror networks in the twenty-first century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 64.

[11] Tosini, supra note [4].

[12] 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.

[13] Rod Thornton, Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2007), 1.

[14] Sprinzak, supra note [5].

[15] 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.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Max Abrahms, “Why terrorism does not work”, International security, Vol. 31 No. 2 (Fall 2006).

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3 thoughts on “The rationality of suicide terrorists

  1. Neli

    Hmm, I am not sure I would put all suicide bombers in the same category…
    On the one hand, we have those individuals who has been involved in a certain terrorist ideology and organization for quite some time. They not only believe in the “values” of the terrorist group (feelings/irrational element) but they also understand the political aims and game behind their acts (rational elements). That kind of suicide bombers usually plan their attack for months, and in cooperation with other members of the group and under senior leadership. Usually they don’t even chose neither the time nor the place of the attack. Sometimes, it even happens that a certain person who was supposed to be the bomber is not available, so he is quickly replaced by another member of the group. Because, at the end, it is not the bomber that matters, but the act since it has political aim. This was the case with the 9/11 bombers.
    On the other hand, we have those emotionally instable individuals, driven by hate, fear, false sense of belonging to something greater (usually result of antisocial personality disorder, narcissism, pathological hatred or other above mentioned). Even if they embrace and identify themselves with a certain terrorist ideology, it doesn’t mean they fully understand their actions. I wouldn’t call sane someone who watch 2-3 ISIS videos, wakes up on the next morning and kills 10 people.
    There is this ironical image circling facebook showing something like this: “Kills many people + Islam religion = Terrorist; Kills many people + Christian or other religion = Mass murderer”. So, I would call terrorist everyone who uses terror/fear as instrument to a political aim, no matter his religion. And I would call mass murderer everyone who acts driven by emotional instability, no matter in what ideology he wraps up his actions.
    What do you think?

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    1. Hi Neli
      Thank you for your comment! I see your point and I think we can all agree when you say that there are different degrees of involvement and different terrorist ‘personalities’. By the way, this is what makes profiling almost impossible in this field. And I (almost) agree with you on the difference between a terrorist and a mass murder. Yes, I would call terrorist ‘everyone who uses terror/fear as instrument to a political aim, no matter his religion’ too, but I would add ‘and no matter his/her sanity’. As I argued in the article, most terrorists are rational, but even if some of them were not, I would still call them terrorists, if they use fear for political aims. At worst, they would be (a rare case of) insane terrorists. Similarly, I would call mass murder everyone who acts without a political aim, no matter his/her religion, ideology or sanity. In sum, sanity (in my opinion) should not affect how we label the murder, but only how we take care of him/her (prison vs mental health care) should we manage to arrest him/her.
      As regards the main topic – that is, most suicide bombers are sane and rational – do you really believe that people throw their lives away for a couple of videos on the net? Radicalization is a longer and more complex phenomenon; scholars don’t fully agree on it, but many of them have sought to explain how one can reject his/her society and join a jihadi ideology. I agree with you when you say that they are ‘driven by hate, fear, false [?] sense of belonging to something greater’ but those are not symptoms of mental illness. To be sure, I am not a psychiatrist and we may disagree on what mental illness is. That’s why I rely on literature. For instance, consider one of the studies that I cited, ‘Leaderless Jihad’. The author, Marc Sageman, is a forensic psychiatrist and worked on a sample of 172 terrorists. His conclusions are clearly stated above in my article (note [10]). Another relevant empirical study is ‘Jihadi terrorists in Europe’, by Edwin Bakker. Based on a sample of more than 200 people, he found that: “The biographies of the persons within our sample indicate that eleven of them suffer from mental illness. This figure represents almost five percent of the total sample.” And that: “It should be mentioned that four of the terrorists have become ill after their arrest, with three of them undergoing a serious depression.” (p. 40) So, the numbers are quite small.
      Nevertheles, this does not mean that terrorist, as well as foreign fighters, don’t require some kind of help if we want to reintegrate them in our society, but we should focus more on social and political conditions rather than on individual psychological ones. Do you agree?

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      1. I think we both agree that terrorism and radicalisation are complex processes that indeed are related to the social and political conditions. However, I can argue that identifying someone as sane or insane is not only relevant after we capture them, but rather it is very important to understand what terrorists are driven by in order to prevent their actions. To be honest, I dont feel comfortable with this labeling, and I have to admit that I dont know enough of psychology to have a fruitful discussion with you. Anyway, it is an interesting topic and I will check the readings you are recommending.

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