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Typologies of Terrorists… Part 3

“The purpose of terrorism lies not just in the violent act itself. It is in producing terror. It sets out to inflame, to divide, to produce consequences which they then use to justify further terror.”Tony Blair 

This (Tokyo nerve gas attack) was done not by people with a political ideal but by a lunatic religious group whose idea of a happy death is mass suicide.” Atsuyuki Sassas

“Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” – Stephen King

I want to wrap up my three-part series on “suicide terrorism.” I was totally intrigued by this study, but there is so much material that I feel like I was hampered by my ability to coalesce it all into a concise narrative that would be meaningful and clear. In part one I addressed three questions:

  1. What are some of the critical advantages to suicide terrorism that explain its appeal across militant groups?
  2. What are the tactical advantages of suicide bombings?
  3. How do suicide attacks heighten expectations of future attacks?

In part two I discussed the “theory of stupidity” as a possible explanation for the use of suicide terrorism as a means to accomplish one’s religious-political goals. We discussed how stupidity theorists define stupidity (causing losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain while incurring losses to himself) and how their definition lines up perfectly with the actions of suicide terrorists.

In this third and last installment on this subject (for now) I want to discuss the why. Why do aspiring young men and women willingly sacrifice their lives for a cause that is highly suspect rationally, theologically, and practically? Why is it that many religions can barely get their adherents to get up off the couch and go to worship their God? Why is it so difficult to get their followers to sacrifice anything such as their time, talents, or money in an act of worship towards their God? This feels like the perplexing question, sort of the elephant in the room, concerning one sacrificing anything for their God. Sacrificing one’s body as an act of stupidity seems awkward to me when I consider there are so many other things worthy of sacrificing your life for.


The frequency of suicide terrorist attacks has increased dramatically since the year 2000, creating a renewed interest in this area of study, as well as an increase in the importance of understanding individual and organizational motivations behind engagement in suicide terrorism. There were more suicide attacks worldwide from 2003 to 2005 than there were in the entire preceding quarter-century.

The systematic analysis of attacks from 2001 to 2014 illuminates the continued increase in the use of suicide attacks throughout the world. The progressive increase emphasizes the importance of understanding the motivations behind suicide tactics. The slight decrease after 2007 could potentially be interpreted as progress in counterterrorism, but it is important to note that even in 2011, the low point in the last ten years, there were 254 attacks in one year, 220+ more attacks than the 20-year stretch from 1982-2001.

Explanations and Justifications of suicide terrorism

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were not the first time a terrorist organization used suicide terrorism to achieve its objectives. Instances of suicide tactics are evident throughout history. As early as 400 B.C.E., Greek sailors set ships on fire and steered them into enemy forces, a tactic that has become so common throughout history that it inspired the coining of the term ‘fireship.’ Another example includes suicide attacks executed by the Islamic Order of Assassins during the early Christian Crusades. Modern history has been no less influenced by the use of suicide tactics, the most well-known example being the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II. Despite the wide variety of tactics each individual suicide attacker employed, one notable similarity can be discerned: suicide tactics tend to be used when a weaker force believes that less drastic measures will be ineffective against a materialistically superior opponent.

The apparent success of suicide tactics, especially against a force of significantly superior numbers, provides the basis for the strategic argument as an explanation of suicide terrorism’s evolution. Terrorist violence is employed to convey a message to whichever target audience has been identified by the organization responsible. The violence and randomness of the act instills fear even in those not directly affected and directs attention to the cause. Often perpetrated against unarmed civilians, suicide terrorism creates a sense of horror and fragility throughout the affected society.

Not Suicidal?

A common question among researchers is whether suicide terrorists can be qualified as suicidal. Pedahzur, Perliger, and Weinberg acknowledge what others have noticed as well, that suicide terrorists do not exhibit common characteristics of individuals bent on suicide. They suggest instead that suicide terrorists fall into a new category of suicide typology, that of fatalistic-altruistic suicides, and define this typology as individuals who fit into both Durkheim’s altruistic and fatalistic typologies of suicidal behavior. In this case, the individual sees their suicide as a duty to the group (altruistic) and has suffered from long-term political and economic oppression, and has no hope for their future (fatalistic).

Kimhi and Even take a slightly different approach, arguing that there is not one single profile, but that suicide bombers can be grouped into four typologies: religious, exploited, retribution for suffering, and social/nationalist, where each is attributed different prerequisite and supporting factors. 

According to Kimhi and Even, there are four primary types of suicide terrorists: (1) conventional suicide terrorists, who become suicidal owing to classic risk factors, (2) coerced suicide terrorists, who become suicidal because they fear the organizational consequences of not carrying out attacks, (3) escapist suicide terrorists, who become suicidal because they fear being captured by the enemy, and (4) indirect suicide terrorists, who become suicidal at an unconscious level and orchestrate their deaths in ways that disguise their desire to die.

This theory suggests that every case of suicide terrorism requires a motivated individual, the technical system to carry out the attack, and a condoning political leader. Beyond these similarities, the different prerequisite factors and supporting factors associated with each typology range from religious interpretations encouraging terror to political awareness and belief that armed struggle and suicide missions are vital to national liberation. Similarly, Orbach refers to terror prerequisite and supporting factors

as ‘facilitators of suicide’ and suggests that these facilitators, combined with a sociological typology of altruistic suicide, are at the root of suicide terrorism.

 I am not going to take this any further. I think you get the idea. There are a host of reasons that suicide terrorists become suicide terrorists. Whether it is plainly an act of sheer stupidity or, as many academic researchers are exploring, a variety of individual or organizational reasons, one thing is clear: There is more than meets the eye and the subject is complex.


I did not want to come off cavalier last week as I proposed that the theory of stupidity could possibly explain why many men and women become suicide terrorists. As I studied it, it just seemed plausible to me that it could certainly be a primary motivating factor to kill others, while killing yourself at the same time.

After looking at Kimhi and Evan’s four typologies of suicide terrorists, they seem to make a lot of sense to me, especially when coupled with Durkheim’s causes and explanations as to why people choose to go down this road. One thing is clear, there are myriad reasons why organizations employ suicide attackers and why those individuals are willing to pay the ultimate price to perform heinous acts against humanity. 


The best thing each of us can do is to practice reasonable situational awareness. Understanding certain behavioral characteristics of a suicide bomber is extremely important. These could be some possibilities

  • A possible suicide bomber could have the appearance of being nervous. They may seem preoccupied or have a blank stare.
  • Focused intent and vigilance. Such an acute focus may result in no response to verbal or other contact.
  • An awkward attempt to blend in. Behavior will seem odd or overtly out of place.
  • Avoidance behaviors toward authority. If security is present, a suicide bomber tries to be inconspicuous.
  • May be praying fervently to him/herself. This gives the appearance of talking or whispering to someone. Keep in mind that many people talk to themselves, thus this behavior by itself has little meaning. Furthermore, either of these behaviors could be confused with speaking on a cell phone headset.
  • Behavior may be consistent with that of a person without any future. For example, giving away things of value, buying a one-way ticket, or being unconcerned about receiving change for a purchase.
  • Profuse sweating that is inconsistent with weather conditions or physical strain.
  • Walking deliberately toward a specific object or target, often pushing their way through a crowd or around barriers. May show a high degree of focus or intent, especially if the target is in sight.
  • Lack of mobility of the lower torso may cause upper body stiffness. This is due to the bomb device that is strapped to the body. The increased use of backpacks may reduce or eliminate this element.
  • In order to disguise the appearance, a beard may have been recently shaved or the hair cut short. There is a noticeable difference in the skin color of the recently shaved area.
  • In a Muslim’s case, to smell better when going to paradise, the suicide bomber may use herbal- or floral-scented water.

General Appearance

As the detonation event draws near, the suicide bomber needs to prepare to deliver the device. There are certain clues in appearance, such as clothing, that could foretell an impending attack. The suspect might be purchasing, wearing, or carrying such items as:

  • Clothing that does not match the weather. For example, wearing a heavy coat on a warm day.
  • Clothing that is excessively loose, giving the appearance that the head is out of proportion with the body. The loose clothing is used to conceal explosives worn close to the body.
  • The suicide bomber may carry a backpack, bag, briefcase or luggage.
  • The detonating switch is often held in a clenched fist. Backup devices might also be used, including a timer, pager, cellular phone, or booby-trap switch. An accomplice or supervisor can remotely detonate the bomb if the attacker is detained or killed, or if the attack is otherwise aborted.
  • The appearance of excessive weight. Many bombs will be packed with shrapnel such as ball bearings, nuts, bolts, screws, nails, or other small metal objects that will be dispersed into the crowd upon detonation. These comprise the bomber’s primary “kill” mechanism.

Please note that none of these signs is an indicator that a person might be a suicide bomber. It is the unusual combination of several or many of these factors which could indicate that the individual could be engaging in some sort of nefarious act. 

If you do see someone exhibiting a concerning combination of these tells, it would be a good idea to notify the local authorities of what you have seen, without causing a stampede in a public place.

The follow-up.

The UN says many lives are lost daily in Africa’s Sahel Crisis…

Why Palestinians Are Fleeing the Gaza Strip…

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


Scott Atran, “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism,” Science 299 (2003): 1534-1435.

Pedahzur, Ami, Arie Perliger and Leonard Weinberg. “Altruism and Fatalism: The Characteristics of Palestinian Suicide Terrorists.” Deviant Behavior 24, no. 4 (2003): 405-423.

Ellen Townsend, “Suicide Terrorists: Are they Suicidal?” Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 37, no. 1 (2007): 35-49.

Lester, David, Bijou Yang and Mark Lindsay. “Suicide Bombers: Are Psychological Profiles Possible?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 27, no. 4 (2004): 283-295.

Kimhi, Shaul and Shemuel Even. “Who are the Palestinian Suicide Bombers?” Terrorism and Political Violence 16, no. 4 (2004): 815-840. 

Orbach, Israel. “Terror Suicide: How is it Possible?” Archives of Suicide Research 8, no. 1 (2004): 115-130.

Azam, Jean-Paul. “Suicide Bombing as Inter-Generational Investment.” Public Choice 122, no. 1-2 (2005): 177-198. 

Speckhard, Anne and Khapta Ahkmedova. “The Making of a Martyr: Chechen Suicide Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29, no. 5 (2006): 429-492 

Berman, Eli and David D. Laitin. “Religion, Terrorism, and Public Goods: Testing the Club Model.” Journal of Public Economics 92 (2008): 1942-1967. 

Scott Atran, “The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism,” The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2006): 127-147.

Kruglanski, Arie, Xiaoyan Chen, Mark Dechesne, Shira Fishman and Edward Orehek. “Fully Committed: Suicide Bombers’ Motivation and the Quest for Personal Significance.” Political Psychology 30, no. 3 (2009): 331-357.

Harmon, Vanessa, Edin Mujkic, Catherine Kaukinen, and Henriikka Weir. “Causes and Explanations of Suicide Terrorism: A Systematic Review.” Homeland Security Affairs 14, Article 9 (December 2018).

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