[Dr. Aaron Lerner - An interesting study but there are a number of
methodological questions and also curiously missing considerations.
1. Is there a "sample bias" problem? The study is based on ten people who
failed to blow up - "either because they were arrested before being able to
set the bomb off or did not go through with it, or because of a technical
fault in the explosion mechanism." Is this group representative of those
who succeeded in blowing up?
2. The article does not give any particular emphasis to the concept that
suicide bombers are rewarded with virgins in paradise. Is all the talk
about virgins in paradise empty words for the media or do the bombers
actually believe it? (There was one report a number of years ago of a
suicide bomber who wrapped his groin tightly so that he would be equipped to
avail himself of the virgins in paradise).
3. The article also does not address the administration of drugs to suicide
bombers as they are dispatched on their missions.
4. From an policy standpoint, the study also unfortunately does not examine
the extent to which suicide bombers take into account the consequences for
their families. On the one hand, there were periods in which Israel
punished the families of suicide bombers by sealing off the room that the
suicide bomber had lived in - or more, and the relatives of suicide bombers
employed in Israel could be expected to lose their work permits . On the
other hand, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas both provide lucrative
financial rewards to the families of suicide bombers. ]
Do "suicide bombers" really commit suicide?
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center
November 1, 2012
October 29, 2012
Do "suicide bombers" really commit suicide?1
Israel Oron (Ostre), Ph.D. (Psychology)2
This article applies a psychological approach to explore and to explain the
behavior of Palestinian terrorists who blow themselves up in the light of
their own words. It is shown that terrorists have no suicidal intent; hence
their behavior is not an act of suicide. Psychological analysis point to a
behavioral reaction to stress situations that are perceived as threatening
to survival, which could account for the lethal activity of the Palestinian
terrorists. These findings suggest that such terrorists could be deterred if
an appropriate alternative for their lives was available to them.
The violent confrontations in Israel brought about by the Palestinians from
1992 to 2005 were epitomized by "suicide bombings" - the term given to
terrorists who blow themselves up along with their intended victims 3. This
method was also employed during the 1980s against the IDF in Lebanon, as
well as against American soldiers in the Marine Headquarters in Beirut.
Of course, the outstanding example of these terrorist attacks was the
attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
This method is employed today against American soldiers in Afghanistan and
This kind of terrorist attack primarily constitutes an operational problem
for the armed forces and the intelligence services, and has also elicited
academic interest. Without exception, researchers from different schools
consider that this is a case of a suicide (To name only a few: Atran, 2003.
Bloom, 2005. Kimhi & Even, 2004. Merari, 1990,
2006. Moghadam, 2003. Pape, 2003, 2005).
My point of view regarding this kind of terrorism is that of a psychologist
who has dealt for many years with the subject of suicidal behavior (Oron,
2008, 2011, 2012). Based on knowledge gathered in the field of the
psychology of suicide, this article analyzes verbal material produced by
Palestinian terrorists. The aim is to inquire, first and foremost, whether
these self-exploding Palestinian terrorists are suicidal, and in any case to
pinpoint the typical circumstances in which the act is devised and carried
The main findings are discussed below.
The psychology of suicide
For readers who are not familiar with suicidal behavior, I will discuss in
brief what does it mean to commit suicide.
A straightforward and conventional meaning is: when a person kills himself.
Certainly, this is a necessary factor in defining suicide but not a
sufficient one, because the overt act tells us nothing about what lies
behind it. In other words, we have to probe the person’s motivational
sequence to determine whether the ultimate act was directed at annihilating
himself. Only then will we be able, for instance, to differentiate a person
who shoots himself because he intended to kill himself from another whose
death was caused by a bullet discharged while cleaning his gun.
Several features of suicide have been defined in the field of suicidal
behavior, the fundamental one of which is suicidal intent. Intent refers to
the individual’s desire to die and it is the most basic constituent of this
behavior (Leenaars et al, 1997, Maris et al, 2000, Jacobs et al, 2006).
Another facet of intention is outcome. A person who wants to commit suicide
understands the lethal outcome of his act. This kind of understanding is a
vital cognitive condition that must be fulfilled before we can conclude that
a person has put an end to his own life. However, the fact alone that a
person knows that his act, or lack of action, will lead to his death, does
not necessarily tell us that he committed suicide. For example, consider the
kamikaze pilots. An analysis of a sample of their farewell letters and
diaries shows that none of them expressed a desire to die or planned to
fulfill a death wish (Oron, 2003). These pilots did not volunteer to serve
in the squadron in order to die but were chosen to do so in spite of
themselves. Analysis shows that they simply complied with a military command
4. Furthermore, the pilots yearned to go on living, and some of them
visualized unfulfilled aspirations of a future in which they would get
married and have offspring. Such pictures reflect a life image which is
absent from the future-world picture of a person who is about to commit
Suicide materializes jointly the death wish, the death intent, and the
mental ability to execute it. A suicidal act is executed by a person who
is consciously motivated to abandon life and to desire his death, and to
fulfill his wish he kills himself intentionally, or acts in a premeditative
fashion to indirectly achieve his intention to carry out that wish. It is an
act committed by the individual and to the individual directly (for example,
shooting oneself), or through a partial/indirect act (such as waiting on the
train tracks for a train which will cause death).
Moreover, suicides do not happen solely as the product of intolerable
stressors or in a biographical vacuum. Suicidal decisions develop over a
long period of time and are never completely explained by situational
factors (Maris et al, 2000).
It is important to clarify that suicide should not be confused with
voluntary death and the two different concepts should not be used
interchangeably. From a psychological point of view, it is valid to conclude
that suicide is a voluntary act, but not every act of voluntary self-killing
is suicidal. True, various motives lead to voluntary death, among them
sacrifice (see below: p. 4, a. Total Threat), but the one which is termed
“suicide” is motivated in all situations and societies around the world by
one, and only one, sequence of behavior, namely, a craving for death (Maris
et al, 2000).
Hence, in order to know what motivates terrorists to kill themselves, a
psychological research, which focuses individually on each terrorist’s
psychological makeup, is needed to be able to draw the appropriate
Clearly one should not underestimate such an inquiry; the intention to die
or to live makes all the difference when considering psychological counter
measures against self-exploding terrorists 5.
Do "suicide bombers" really commit suicide?
The motive of the Palestinian terrorists who blow themselves up was examined
by analyzing what was said by ten terrorists whose assignment did not
materialize, either because they were arrested before being able to set the
bomb off or did not go through with it, or because of a technical fault in
the explosion mechanism 6.
The analysis of their own words points to an absence of suicidal intention
since their behavior lacked the wish to die and the intention to execute
this wish 7. Furthermore, most of these terrorists did not volunteer to
carry out a terrorist mission but were selected by the commanders of the
organization to which they belonged and complied with their commands.
Hence, the appropriate term to describe their behavior is not ”suicide
bombing” but a “self-exploding attack”.
Behavioral components of self-exploding attackers
The analysis rules out suicidal intent, but rather shows a behavioral
reaction to stress situations that the terrorists perceived as threatening
to their survival. The combined components of this reaction are as follows.
a. Total Threat; Analysis of the terrorists’ statements suggests that they
perceived the superior military power of Israel as a total threat to them.
What is the psychological meaning of this perception?
When a person feels that he is trapped in a situation in which he is on the
verge of destruction, he must immediately find a suitable solution to
reverse this state of affairs instantly. He needs to come up with an
absolute, once-and-for-all, vital step to completely avert the
impending catastrophe (Oron, 2002). The perception of the
terrorists was that the Palestinians in the difficult
circumstances in which they were at the time would be doomed
without extreme combat on their part. In other words, the certain
alternative to accomplishing the death assignment would be the annihilation
of Palestinian society and with it their own annihilation. This prompted the
terrorists to completely reverse the Palestinian role from victim to pursuer
of Israelis wherever they might be.
Analysis shows that the imminent religious threat from Israel, in their
opinion, was incidental to this existential threat but the combination of
military and religious threat was heightened by the leaders of the terror
organizations, and found its expression in the absolute formulations of
their ideologies (Hatina, 1994). These leaders believe that the ideologies
of their organizations stem directly from the Moslem religion, Islam, along
with the imperative that all Muslims must participate in a Jihad to liberate
Palestine by force. Thus, certain of self-explosive attacks might have been
initiated solely as the outcome of the terrorists’ theological perception
that they, and the whole Palestinian society, were facing an imminent
religious threat. For a true believer it is God’s will to foil such a
threat, and literally unthinkable not to carry it out at all costs.
One thinker belonging to the Muslim Brothers Movement in Egypt sees
contemporary Jews as the descendants of the murderers of the Muslim
prophets, and has suggested there is a murderous potential in each of the
citizens of Israel. Hence, the struggle will come to an end only with the
annihilation of the Jewish State (Mishal & Sela, 1999). In this life and
death struggle, according to Hamas, every Jew in Israel is an occupier and
an invader against whom a total war for survival must be waged in order to
uproot the “Zionist cancer” (Kurz, 1993. Mishal & Sela, 1999).
Reference to cancer as a disease implies death and everyone who wants to
live must eliminate it. This constitutes a total, lethal solution to a total
life threat. The use of this dehumanizing image by the Palestinian
terrorists stresses their sense of total threat and the resulting need for a
totalistic program which provides a once-and-for-all solution.Hence it is
clear why terrorist organizations have no political solution since the very
existence of Israel constitutes a total threat to every Muslim.
Note that even though terrorists were ready to sacrifice themselves,
sacrifice is still not synonymous with suicide. Sacrifice is committed by a
person who has no alternative and out of a desperate attempt to protect his
own or another’s life, whereas suicide derives from the suicidal wishes to
die and to end one’s life. Furthermore, the alternative to suicide is the
continuation of life, whereas a sacrifice made when death is looming
occurs in circumstances in which the alternative spells destruction in any
case (at times in objective circumstances, but at times only subjectively as
in a baseless assessment of the enemy’s intentions). In other words, the
degree of sacrifice increases with the degree of the expected loss without
it, and therefore, so long as the likelihood of loss of life is on the rise,
as in war, the risk involved in a life-saving sacrifice rises as well.
b. The Experience of Personal Threat; When the threat is coupled
with a personal experience of utmost danger, the motivation to attack
increases. Analysis of the terrorists’ statements shows that a perception of
religious threat gained strength after Ariel Sharon entered the Temple Mount
in September 2000, which was interpreted as his intention to take over a
holy site of Islam. However, the bulk of the threat derives from the daily
risks experienced by the terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza, which are
interpreted as an impending threat on the part of Israel. In other words,
even when the religious and national sources of hostility feed the
motivation of the terrorist to attack, these sources still must be combined
with an individual experience which is interpreted by the terrorist as a
threat to himself or to his family and friends. For instance, a terrorist
who tried to detonate an explosive belt at one of the intersections in the
north of the country (that only resulted in his own injury) considered
carrying out such an attack only after the occupation of the Jenin refugee
camp, his place of residence. When two others described the IDF’s entry into
the refugee camp in Jenin which motivated them to go out on a self-explosion
terror attack, they implied that their death could take place in any case,
either randomly during crossfire or as a deliberate policy of the army to
wreak its wrath on the refugee camp.
c. Semi-Military Training; The core feature of training is to obey orders.
The terrorist obeys his commanders to fulfill his duty the way he has done
many times before, however risky the assignment, and his compliance with the
order to perform his last mission also derives from the semi-military
training he received.
The role of training programs is to develop skills to reduce the destructive
effects of fear reaction in combat (Holmes, 1986). Therefore, trainees are
taught how to perform defined acts that will be adaptive in the face of a
specific threat. In this way the terrorists’ minds are brimming with
self-confidence in their own strength, and as a result their anxiety
subsides when they skillfully perform these operational programs. Further,
this activity distracts their attention from the threat since they are
focusing on the assignment.
The lion’s share of the terrorists who operated against Israel had
already acquired military skills and experience in the terrorist
organization that sent them on their lethal missions. For example, one
terrorist was a member of the Hamas movement and took part in several
terrorist attacks, including the murder of a soldier which he admitted to
when captured. His previous military training for earlier terrorist attacks
and the risk he experienced while carrying them out equipped him with both
fear-alleviating skills and the ability to focus on the planned sequence
of operational events leading up to the goal.
d. Mental Defense; Even when the terrorists draw on sources of religious
resentment against Israel from their culture and share the perception of
total threat reinforced by personal experience (physically as well as
religiously or by identification with a victim), they still need to
undergo a process of mental disengagement; in psychological terms –
dissociation (Cameron, 1969. Hilgard, 1977. Spiegel, 1986). This is a
process of mental defense, enabling a person to ignore to some extent
especially difficult aspects of his environment and continue to function
without being totally overwhelmed by anxiety. This is the case when we see
a road accident – we close our eyes or look elsewhere. Some passers-by did
just this during the collapse of the Twin Towers.
For example, consider the videos made of the “Sha’hid” (martyr) before he
sets out on his last route. The terrorist appears with a green headband
inscribed with verses from the Koran, holding a gun in one hand and the
Koran in the other. His appearance is devoid of self identity and reflects
his estrangement from his death as a personal death, because here, the
person who is about to set out to perform the terror attack is simply the
representative of an ideology and not himself as an individual. The
background of the picture - the Al-Aksa mosque and the map of Palestine from
the Jordan river up to the Mediterranean, enhances the process of
dissociation by a sense of symbolic immortality which dims the fact of his
demise, because of his role as a contributor to the continued existence of
Palestinian society and its religion.
Sometimes the dissociation process begins earlier, for example, when the
recruited terrorists undergo training to decrease their fear by
staying in a cemetery at night. In these drills they symbolically strip
away their life and accept their lethal role as devoid of personal
existence. In this way, death in the terror attack will come to an anonymous
representative of the organization. A “victory dance” over death performed
by terrorists wearing shrouds and already considered dead, adds to this
e. Culture and Socialization; The terrorist organizations’ refusal to
accept a political solution stems from the socio-political development of
the Palestinian Arabs. At its inception is their geographical isolation and
their perception of the Zionist waves of immigration from 1904 onward as a
foreign body, gradually invading a monolithic Muslim space. In addition,
contrary to religious Jews who only made pilgrimages to the Holy Land in
previous generations, the new immigrants had a clearly defined national
goal. Furthermore, the Zionist immigrants created a stir from the start
because of their non-religious (virtually atheist) way of life which was so
foreign to the one that had existed for centuries, and which, according to
the local perception, threatened to undermine the foundations of
social-religious existence. The current Palestinian perception of their
total annihilation by Israel has its roots in this ancient socio-existential
apprehension which grew with the increase of immigration and land purchase,
along with the accompanying various armed conflicts (Porath, 1971, 1978).
Their existential anxiety did not decrease in the aftermath of the War of
Independence (1948) or the Six-Day War (1967), because the occupation of
Arab territories fueled their perception of the Israeli wish to spread
outward in the Middle East. After the Six-Day War the Palestinian fear that
the status of the Islam in the area would be undermined augmented as a
result of the occupation of Temple Mount and the increasing influence of
religious, even fundamentalist, elements in Israel (Shaby & Shaked, 1994).
Thus, prolonged objections and enmity have found their way into the
ideologies of the various terrorist organizations, along with the total
military-operational actions decreed by their commanders who believe that
Israel and its army have lethal intentions against the Palestinians.
The overall analysis of the material concerning the self-exploding
terrorists shows that they are not a monolithic group, but rather can be
divided into five sub-groups. The first is made up of those who are members
of a terror organization, and the second is composed of those who have
volunteered to blow themselves up with no previous connection to some
organization and did so because they were enraged over a single incident
they experienced. The motivation of the first sub-group is deeper and more
laden with the ideology of totalism than the second. The third sub-group
includes terrorists who comply with the organizations’ representatives and
are intuitively chosen by the recruiters according to their
personality traits, which make them more susceptible to a type
of coercive persuasion (including children, borderline
personalities, and character disorders).The fourth sub-group is composed of
female terrorists. They differ by their absence of previous membership in an
organization, but their specific characteristics requires further research.
The fifth sub-group consists of men and women who changed their minds and
did not carry out the planned attack. These terrorists may shed light on the
psychology of self- exploding terrorists and on the possibilities of foiling
Analysis indicates that these were mainly the volunteers who were not
previously members of any terror organization (but nevertheless had to obey
the orders of the commanders of the group and to follow their instructions).
Take, for example, a woman terrorist who, in revenge for the shooting of
her boy friend by the IDF, volunteered to set out with a sixteen year old
boy to carry out a terror attack in a town in the center of the country. As
planned, the boy was supposed to blow himself up in the middle of a game
club, whereas she was told to wait on the street opposite for panic-stricken
people to run in her direction and blow herself up among them. The analysis
of her own description of the event shows that her ability to focus on the
planned sequence of operational steps leading up to the goal was
disrupted when she looked at the passersby and suddenly saw real human
beings and not an abstract and amorphous Zionist enemy. Her animosity toward
an enemy that had been an anonymous mass gradually melted away. No less
significant is the fact that she saw her terrorist friend exploding in front
of her eyes. The sight materialized the actual outcome of the sequence of
events she was about to bring on herself and also on the people around her.
In addition, because she was not a member of a terror group and had not
participated in military training and fighting, her mind was not prepared
properly for the attack. The key feature, however, is that this female
terrorist perceived herself as an autonomic individual and not as an
anonymous messenger of a terror organization. Therefore, she was protected
from being swept away by her hatred of Israel and the ideology of totalism.
This study was conducted to help grasp the motives of self-exploding
terrorists, revealing aspects of the phenomenon that have not been
sufficiently studied. It also calls for the replication of the research in
Israel as well as under different unique conditions and samples around the
The pivotal factor that accounts for the fundamentals behind the Palestinian
terrorists is the perception of the military threat of Israel as total, and
the total solution resulting from it, associated with a total-religious
perception. The analysis here shows that the religious perception is
secondary to the sense of danger deriving from the immediate military threat
to physical existence, although it exacerbates it to the extreme.
Thus, the self-exploding terrorists do not wish to die, and they act out of
a perception that they have no alternative alive. This dual finding points
to the fact that presenting such a living alternative (including a political
one) could prevent them from carrying out their deeds, and emphasizes the
importance of psychological research which does not rely solely on overt
behavior but rather concentrates on each individual as a case-study to
determine his/her innermost motives and mode of perception.
In proposing an alternative that can lead to the prevention of
self-exploding attacks, it should be borne in mind that this cluster of
terrorists (and presumably the entire population of terrorists) falls into
sub-groups according to their motives, including those who abandon their
Applying ideas for foiling terror attacks around the world in real life is
complex, but a pre-requisite is to conduct psychological research on those
1 To cite this article: I. Oron (Ostre), Ph.D., Do "suicide bombers" really
commit suicide? International Bulletin of Political Psychology, Vol 18(5),
7/24/2012 Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
2 The Department for Psychology, Law and Ethics/ University of Haifa,
Israel. National Program for Suicide Prevention, Ministry of Health,
Israel. Formerly, Psychologist, Behavior Section/ The Department of
Criminal Investigations &Intelligence, Israel Police HQ
3 The author’s definition of any act of political terror is the use, or
threat of use, of violence by non-state individual actors or groups, acting
in opposition to established authority in order to bring about desired
political outcomes. (The definition draws partially on Wardlaw, 1982). This
activity is not considered political-terror if it takes place as part of
hostile activities between countries.
The definition deliberately avoids a moral judgment and has no negative or
pejorative connotations as regards the actors, because this would limit and
even contradict the essence of any scientific research, especially involving
social issues. Science by definition is a conceptual and technical framework
for solving questions through an understanding of the factual data. A
scientific definition does not deal with good and bad. It is only useful or
not useful and these qualities are defined primarily in terms of how
efficiently it can generate predictions concerning relevant events which
turn out to be verified. (The scientist’s personal stance on social issues
is another issue entirely).
4 From a psychological point of view, the pilots’ obedience to the command
derived from socialization in a kind of feudal social structure, and from
the fact that Japan had a long standing policy of refusal to surrender (not
to be explained here). This long-range policy was behind the idea of beating
the enemy at the cost of certain death. During the war in China (1894)
soldiers tied explosives to their bodies and threw themselves on enemy
positions, and in the war of Japan against Russia (1904-5) there were
soldiers who acted as “human bullets” (Sakurai, 1907/1999).
5 Several studies on the subject of terrorism base their line of research
and reasoning on Durkheim’s well known typology of suicide. However,
Durkheim’s typology was sociological in nature, and he defined his research
goal as follows (Durkheim, 1897/1966, p. 151) : “We shall try to determine
the productive causes of suicide directly without concerning ourselves with
the forms they can assume in particular individuals. Disregarding the
individual as such, his motives and his ideas, we shall seek directly the
states of the various social environments…in terms of which the variations
of suicide occur”. [italics mine]. From a psychological point of view
Durkheim’s typology (and his definition of suicide, p. 44) necessarily leads
to an inferential fallacy because it disregards the intention of the
individual’s observed act.
6 The sample includes six men, one of whom was a fourteen year old, and
four women. Three of the men were active in the mid- 90s and the remainder
took part in the 2000 Intifada. Some of the participants were detained by
the Palestinian Authority and others by Israel.
7 The research method used was content-analysis which can be applied to
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