Suicide terrorism: between hoaxes and myths

It is not true that suicide bombers have a similar life history, as their motivations may be different and they come from very different socio-economic backgrounds
El terrorismo suicida: entre los bulos y los mitos


In recent decades, the terrorist phenomenon has been the inspiration for a multitude of films, television series and novels, especially since the 9/11 attacks in the United States. As a result, a series of ideas and stereotypes about terrorism have been created in the collective imagination that are sometimes not entirely accurate. The aim of this article is to debunk these myths.

Suicide terrorism is a violent attack on a specific group of people with the aim of obtaining a political and/or social benefit, with the particularity that the terrorist must sacrifice his or her life in the attempt. This type of attack has increased in recent years, since the 1990s.Moreover, it has great media potential, as it attracts a larger audience due to its characteristics, and this is specifically used by terrorist groups as a method of propaganda and dissemination of their ideals.

For this reason, we will now try to debunk the main myths about suicide terrorism:

Suicide bombers suffer from some kind of mental disorder

First of all, it should be made clear that it does not seem possible to explain the behaviour of terrorists in terms of clinical disorders or personality variables, since "there is no evidence of a personality particularly prone to terrorism".

Moreover, it is also not certain that suicide bombers have a similar life history, as motivations may be different and come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. It does seem more evident that suicide bombers may be characterised by being unstable and, on occasion, have been documented to have suffered some kind of negative life experience, such as health problems or social isolation.

AFP/ISABEL INFANTES - Los oficiales forenses de la Policía trabajan en Streatham High Road, en el sur de Londres, el 2 de febrero de 2020, después de que un hombre es asesinado a tiros por la Policía tras los informes de personas apuñaladas en la calle
AAFP/ISABEL INFANTES  -   British police said on Sunday that they had shot a man in south London after at least two people were stabbed to death.

On the other hand, the belief that all suicide bombers have suicidal ideation at a clinical or subclinical level, i.e. that they have detectable symptomatology, is also unrealistic. However, this variable cannot be dismissed lightly either, as it may interact with other socio-political variables at different levels. Even affecting a minority of people who commit attacks, suicide prevention campaigns are very positive in reducing the likelihood of being influenced by terrorist groups, reducing the personal vulnerability that is often used by these groups.

Suicide bombers are exclusively male

As Juan Carlos Fernández and Juan José Delgado explain, in Spain there have been no women convicted of involvement in jihadist terrorist activities until 2012. However, this does not prevent us from believing that women have never participated as a logistical, operational and/or executing tool. In 2014 alone, 52 women were arrested across the EU for jihadist terrorism-related offences, compared to just six in 2013, which coincided with the mobilisations to Syria and Iraq in that period.

Thus, the proportion of women committing attacks has increased in recent years, and female suicide terrorism has also increased. As the authors explain, the belief that women only serve as support for men in terrorist organisations may be a gender stereotype and a widespread belief about Islam, according to which women's duty is to take care of men. Thus, the mere existence of women terrorists would go against what we consider "feminine". Moreover, the mere existence of women terrorists demolishes the idea that women lack political ideologies. Although for many years the recruitment of women in jihadist terrorist organisations was not allowed, since 2003, a fatwa - a legal decree issued by a specialist in Islamic law - has approved the right of women to reach paradise through the perpetration of such acts.

AFP/ISABEL INFANTES - Los oficiales forenses de la Policía trabajan en Streatham High Road, en el sur de Londres, el 2 de febrero de 2020, después de que un hombre es asesinado a tiros por la Policía tras los informes de personas apuñaladas en la calle
AFP/ISABEL INFANTES - Police forensic officers work on Streatham High Road in south London on February 2, 2020, after a man is shot dead by police following reports of people being stabbed in the street.

Understanding the reasons for these actions is complicated and cannot be reduced to a logical motivation, as we will see later. Much less can we generalise and extrapolate results from studies of male populations. Terrorist behaviour in general, and that of the suicide bomber in particular, is always multi-causal.

Suicide bombings are more common than non-suicide bombings

In short, no. According to Pinar's data, from 1970 to 2015, only 3% (i.e. 4,771) of the 156,772 terrorist attacks worldwide were suicide attacks.

However, as mentioned above, suicide attacks tend to have a greater media impact, generating more negative and intense emotional reactions and a greater memory imprint. Thus, when we think of terrorism, we imagine those acts whose attackers sacrificed their lives in the attempt, such as the attack of 11 September 2001 in which the hijackers themselves died on impact. This is what we call in psychology "availability bias" (assessing the probability of an event based on the first information that comes to mind and/or that we remember about it). Nor is it true that Europe or the United States are the places with the highest number of attacks, as the number of terrorist attacks is much higher in the Middle East and Africa.

AFP/THOMAS LOHNES  -   La policía forense llega al lugar del atentado en el centro de Hanau. Allí, nueve personas fueron asesinadas en dos bares
AFP/THOMAS LOHNES  -   Forensic police arrive at the scene of the attack in the centre of Hanau. Nine people were killed in two bars there.
Suicide bombers follow a logical-rational motivation

The behaviour of terrorists has sometimes been explained in rational terms, with the understanding that it is people who logically choose the best means to achieve their ends, acting through an optimal process of searching for and analysing information. Attackers would thus be acting on their own decision following a logical method. However, this approach ignores the multiple social, economic and political variables that influence terrorist groups and individuals at different levels. Other motivations, such as the desire for revenge or the feeling of humiliation, have also been shown to be crucial in the execution of an attack.6 Thus, sacred values and what we consider morally acceptable or unacceptable can alter our cost/benefit analyses and assessments.

Moreover, the rational approach itself has been shown to have many limitations, as many as those of the human brain. It is difficult to think and make decisions based constantly on logic. So much so that humans tend to take mental shortcuts, quick paths that make decision-making easier. The availability bias discussed above is a good example of this. 

Suicide martyrs" are unique to jihadist terrorism

If a rapid response is desired, the solution would be "in general, yes". As the International Observatory for the Study of Terrorism has pointed out, right-wing extremist attackers do not usually resort to suicide as part of their modus operandi, as they do not usually have ideological motivations to carry it out and because they believe they will be more relevant in public trials.

Therefore, it does seem true that suicide attacks are more common in jihadism than in other types of terrorism, such as extreme right-wing terrorism. However, Europol, in its Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2020, explains that both jihadists and extreme right-wing terrorists incite in their propaganda to commit acts of violence in order to become martyrs or saints of the cause. In the case of the latter, the attacks serve to instigate their race war and motivate others to follow suit.

Daniel González Jiménez, Psychologist and Intelligence Analyst

Contributor to Sec2Crime's Armed Conflict Areaículos-de-conflictos-armados

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