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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Psychological Framework of Suicide Terrorism

Filed under: Palestinians, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 496   April 2003

  • Since 1993, attempts have been made to portray Palestinian-Arab perpetrators of suicide bombings as desperate individuals understandably coping with a difficult situation, in effect, transforming the attackers into victims, and thus diminishing the impact of one’s revulsion at such attacks.

  • The use of the “bomber as victim” model has led others to similarly view, and incorrectly justify, the motivations behind Palestinian-Arab suicide bombers. Yet, in fact, individual psychopathology or personal feelings do not appear to play any significant role.

  • Unlike other groups that have used suicide as a political or military tool, only in the case of Palestinian-Arab terror has there been an attempt to personalize the perpetrator as a victim of uncontrollable psychological and motivational forces that forced such extreme behavior.

  • It is actually group dynamics that reinforces behavior within a Palestinian-Arab culture where suicide bombers are viewed as heroes whose faces are prominently displayed on public posters and where families of bombers are showered with both respect and financial reward.

A Personal or a Political Act?

Throughout the recent history of violence in the Palestinian Arab-Israeli conflict, suicide bombings have come to be one of the more notorious ways for terrorist groups to strike at Israel. Since 1993, when the current wave of suicide bombings began, attempts have been made to portray the perpetrators of these attacks as desperate individuals, driven by hopelessness created by a brutal occupation. In other words, the individual attacker, faced with unbearable psychological conditions, is personally coping with the situation in a desperate, yet understandable, manner. The suicide bomber, like others driven by emotional distress, is purported to exhibit a predictable clinical response to an intolerable situation.

Palestinian Arab spokespersons have often used the approach that these individuals, most often young, single men (although others have also conducted such attacks), represent the desperation of the occupation. As such, they have attempted to promote the notion of personal psychological suffering as the force behind the group political act of confrontation through suicide attacks. The attack is thus transformed from one of political violence intentionally perpetrated on others, to one where the attacker is also a victim, driven by a combination of psychological variables such as humiliation, depression, and hopelessness. What results is an attempt to present a popularized message that many people can relate to, namely, extreme measures taken in response to extreme provocation.

Typical of the attempts to de-politicize the acts of suicide bombers are statements that ascribe the motivation for such attacks to a deep sense of desperation: “suicide bombers have been driven to desperation by a brutal and humiliating occupation which has deprived them of their humanity and any hope for a brighter future.”1

In reality, such an approach is not a de-politicization, but in fact represents an attempt to actually politicize the act by erroneously ascribing it to personal and clinical aspects of the behavior. Witness the statements of Palestinian Authority spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi. In March 2001 she stated, “if you push the Palestinians into a corner, if you drive them to desperation, there will be desperate acts.”2 A year later, she expanded somewhat by saying, “the people who do it are people who are individuals or small groups who are driven to desperation and anger by the Israeli activities.”3 Thus, the suicide bomber is individually “driven” through a series of emotions similar to clinical symptoms of other suicide victims, rather than acting as a member of a group with a clearly defined political purpose and goal. To Western ears, such an interpretation makes inherent sense, since suicide for political or religious reasons is difficult to fathom, while ending one’s life as a result of other “desperate” reasons is far more common and understandable.

When a Palestinian Arab psychiatrist picks up on this theme, it again seems to provide vindication for those that cast suicide bombers in the role of victims as a result of psychological pressure rather than perpetrators of politically motivated murder. “Suicide bombings and all these forms of violence – I’m talking as a doctor here – are only the symptoms, the reaction to this chronic and systematic process of humiliating people in an effort to destroy their hope and dignity. That is the illness, and unless it is resolved and treated, there will be more and more symptoms of the pathology.”4

Portraying the perpetrator as a victim suffering from a clinical pathology not only diminishes the impact of one’s revulsion at such attacks; it also serves to refocus the reason for the attack from a group desire to violently confront one’s enemy to a personal desire to escape from unbearable individual suffering. By defining suicide bombing as an “illness,” the bomber is effectively relieved of any personal responsibility for the behavior. In this case, responsibility for the “illness” is suggested to be with the environment breeding the “symptoms,” namely Israeli policy.

Despite these pronouncements, attempts to represent the suicide bomber as primarily motivated by psychological or sociological (as opposed to political or nationalistic) variables are simply not supported by the evidence. While suicide in the traditional clinical sense is indeed related to an individual’s psychological state at the time of the act, the acts of Palestinian terror organizations, as the acts of other politically motivated groups in recent history, in no way relate to individual clinical psychopathology or conventional suicide. 

The Use of Political Suicide in Recent History

The use of suicide as a political or military tool did not originate with Palestinian Arab terror groups. Since World War II, there have been several prominent examples of the use of suicide in a political or military context.

The Kamikaze Pilot

In World War II, Japanese “Kamikaze” pilots participated in suicide attacks against American ships in the Pacific. Researchers of the Kamikaze point out that these individuals were not suicidal, but rather viewed self-sacrifice as the ultimate weapon against the enemy. The pilots were driven by a desire to sacrifice for their country, and did not display any signs of typical clinically abnormal behavior.

In a study of the letters of Kamikaze pilots, researchers describe the extraordinary calm and peaceful spirit they showed prior to their missions. They explain that the Kamikaze pilot expected something beyond death itself from a mission that unavoidably culminated in death.5 Motivation for Kamikaze missions came not from any negativism or a personal desire to end one’s life, but rather from a motivation and group identity related to giving all for the Emperor and one’s country. As described by Taylor and Ryan, “the individual pilots who undertook such missions were far from defeatist.”6

The Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tigers, a secular group devoted to establishing an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka, have been responsible for more suicide attacks (over 200) than any other terrorist group in history.7 Their fighters are described as fierce, well trained, and totally dedicated to their cause. Before a mission, they are given cyanide pills in order to avoid being captured alive and divulging military secrets.8 The Tigers select volunteers from tough combat units according to their combat record. They are known as a highly nationalistic force who select both males and females to serve as “human bombs” to attack selected targets. Nowhere are Tamil fighters described as suffering from any psychological issues that lead to their choice to volunteer for these missions. On the contrary, the suicide bomber is described by a Tamil leader as having “a mind like steel but a heart like the petals of a flower.”9

Buddhist Monks and Self-Immolation

Another example of politically motivated suicide is the self-immolation of Buddhist monks as practiced in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. While these acts never involved any attacks on others, they nevertheless carried a political message. The earliest of these acts took place in 1963 when Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, set himself on fire in South Vietnam. This act, and similar acts that followed, served to raise political consciousness against what were described as the repressive policies of the Catholic regime in South Vietnam against Buddhists. In describing the motivation of the monks, it again is clear that clinical symptoms that motivate conventional suicide were not at play here. “This is not suicide….The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others.”10

The Common Political Message

In none of the above examples was the political or military purpose of the suicide ever clouded by a message that what was at work was a desperate, hopeless, or clinically driven individual. In all cases, the perpetrators were first and foremost focused on the attack, motivated by nationalism and group identity and not by any personal emotional variables that may have led them to this extreme behavior. In the political or military aftermath of these suicides, no attempt was ever made to frame the behavior in the language of psychopathology or sociological opportunism.

Islamic and Palestinian Suicide Terrorism

Despite the contention of some observers, there is actually no evidence to separate the general motivational framework of Islamic terrorists in general, and Palestinian terrorists specifically, from that which has been observed in other politically and nationalistically motivated suicides. As with other such acts, what is primary is a strong identification with the group and a motivation to sacrifice oneself for the cause. Individual psychopathology or personal feelings of desperation or hopelessness do not appear to play any significant role.

In fact, Palestinian terrorists themselves have denied any link between clinical psychological symptoms and their attacks. As stated by one such terrorist, “This is not suicide. Suicide is selfish, reflects mental weakness. This is istishad (martyrdom or self-sacrifice in the service of Allah).”11

A Consequence of Group Dynamics

In a series of interviews with would-be suicide bombers, Dr. Jerold Post of George Washington University describes how group pressure and identity motivates terrorists to action: “The group members psychologically manipulated the new recruits, persuading them, psychologically manipulating them, “brainwashing” them to believe that by carrying out a suicide bombing, they would find an honored place in the corridor of martyrs, and their lives would be meaningful; moreover, their families would be financially rewarded. From the time they were recruited, the group members never left their sides, leaving them no opportunity of backing down from their fatal choice.” As stated by Post, “Terrorism is not a consequence of individual psychological abnormality. Rather it is a consequence of group or organizational pathology that provides a sense-making explanation to the youth drawn to these groups.”12

Thus, while clinical psychological symptoms may not be a factor in the motivation of the suicide bomber, general psychological techniques do play a role in creating the group psychology that fosters this behavior. With respect to Palestinian groups, these factors include a culture where suicide bombers are viewed as heroes and where families of bombers are showered with both respect and financial reward. Unlike the shame of traditional suicide victims, the faces of suicide attackers are prominently displayed throughout Palestinian areas on public posters heralding their behavior.

The Political Function of Popular Explanations

What can be said, therefore, of popular explanations that describe suicide bombers as desperate, hopeless individuals? First, it appears that these explanations are not corroborated by actual experience and findings in the field. Suicide bombers appear to be well motivated to carry out their acts and strongly dedicated to the political message of their cause, whatever that may be. While they may feel oppressed, the stimulus for the act is nationalistic and political, not psychopathological and clinical. In the case of Islamic terror, the additional variable of becoming a shahid (martyr), with all its attendant religious rewards, exists.

When pronouncements are made focusing on individual clinical symptoms and emotional distress as motivations of the bomber, a political message is being created. As with the act of suicide bombing itself, this message is aimed at rallying support against the governmental or institutional target of the attack and fostering sympathy for the political purposes of the suicide bombing. In effect, the focus of attention is moved from the victim to the perpetrator, mitigating the negative effects and terror aspect of the act itself. Despite the distaste that suicide attacks create, the use of the “bomber as victim” model by Palestinian spokespersons has led others to similarly view, and partially although incorrectly justify, the motivations behind Palestinian suicide bombers. As opposed to other groups that have used suicide as a political or military tool, only in the case of Palestinian terror has there been an attempt to personalize the perpetrator as a victim of uncontrollable psychological and motivational forces that forced such extreme behavior.

What results is a cadre of amateur pseudo-psychologists who parrot the approach that the extremism of these acts must mean that some underlying psychological phenomenon is at work. Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seemed to endorse this approach when, at a London charity event, she stated: “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up you are never going to make progress.”13 Former CNN head Ted Turner stated, “The Palestinians are fighting with human suicide bombers, that’s all they have….I would make a case that both sides are involved in terrorism.”14 British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also gave his amateur psychological analysis when he told the London Times: “When young people go to their deaths, we can all feel a degree of compassion for those youngsters….They must be so depressed and misguided to do this.”15

The attempt to focus the reasons behind suicide attacks on psychological rather than political, nationalistic, or religious factors has also been promoted by individuals considered Middle East scholars. Shibley Telhami thus writes: “The most pervasive psychology in the Arab world today is collective rage and feelings of helplessness and the focus of this psychology is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”16 Telhami, who is not a psychologist and has no formal training in psychology, goes on to write, “To pretend that this issue is simply one of a choice between good and evil is to know nothing of human psychology.”17

An Attempt at Redefinition

The politicization and popularization of psychological factors has led some to rename these attacks as “homicide attacks.” The term was first used when President George Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, stated, “Israel, of course, had been attacked in a series of suicide bombings which are really homicide bombings.”18

The terminology used is not insignificant, as “suicide” raises images of individual distress while “homicide” creates an image of a more insidious, criminal motivation that indeed reflects on basic issues of right and wrong and good versus evil. In the media, some have turned to using the term to describe terror activities that result in the death of the perpetrator as well as the intended targets. For the most part, however, media outlets, including Israeli media sources, continue to use the term “suicide” attack.

A corollary of the use of the term “suicide” attack is the tendency for some media to include the death of the bomber in casualty counts following a bombing. The subtle effect of this type of reporting is to associate the death of the perpetrator with that of the others, making them all “victims” in the eye of the reader or observer. Particularly egregious are media accounts that seek to exploit the superficial similarities between perpetrator and victim, again implying some sort of commonality. In one such account, the Associated Press declared, “Mirror Images: Two Teen-Age Girls, Bomber and Victim.”19 While this may make for some appealing headlines, these reports tend to obfuscate the actual intended political purpose of the attack with irrelevant pop psychology-like personalization.

As a descriptive term, “suicide” simply indicates that the attacker intended to die in the attack. While the use of the term itself bears no political significance, the “spin” provided often does. Any attempt to imply or infer individual emotional distress as a primary factor in these acts, however, is without any evidentiary support.

Whether or not any individual or media source uses the term “suicide” or “homicide” in describing Palestinian terror attacks, explanations for these attacks that personalize the attacker’s motivation or assumed psychological state deviate from historical and research-based experience that shows these acts to be driven by nationalism and political need. While alternative explanations may have a political purpose, they fail to have any empirically based foundation in reality.

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1. Samia Khoury, April 15, 2002,
4. Eyad Sarraj, “Suicide Bombers: Dignity, Despair, and the Need for Hope,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 124 (Summer 2002).
5. Rikihei Inoguchi and Tadashi Nakajima, Taiheiyou Senki: Kamikaze Tokubetsu Kougekitai (Tokyo: Kawade Shobou, 1967), pp. 228-29.
6. Taylor Maxwell and Helen Ryan, “Fanaticism, Political Suicide and Terrorism,” Terrorism, vol. 11, n. 2 (1988): 108.
7. “Tamil Tigers: A Fearsome Force,” BBC News, May 2, 2000,
8. “In the Spotlight: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),” CDI Project, International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, April 19, 2002,
9. Joe Morgan, “Fanatical, But Not Insane,” Baltimore Sun, September 19, 2001.
10. Thich Hnat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967).
11. Jerrold M. Post, “The Mind of the Terrorist: Individual and Group Psychology of Terrorist Behavior,” testimony prepared for Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Senate Armed Services Committee, November 15, 2001,
12. Ibid.
13. George Jones and Anton La Guardia, “Anger at Cherie ‘Sympathy’ for Suicide Bombers,” Telegraph, June 19, 2002.
14. Oliver Burkeman, “Ted’s Tears,” Guardian, June 18, 2002.
15. David Charter and Michael Gove, “Straw’s Sorrow for the Human Bombs,” London Times, June 19, 2002.
16. Shibley Telhami, “Why Suicide Terrorism Takes Root,” New York Times, April 4, 2002.
17. Ibid.
18. Ari Fleischer, Press Briefing, Office of the Press Secretary, April 11, 2002,
19. Celean Jacobson, “Mirror Images: Two Teen-age Girls, Bomber and Victim,” Associated Press, April 6, 2002.