Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

The Impatient Sceptic’s Guide to Suicide Bombing

‘A cult of military martyrdom’

Suicide bombing is one of those things that gets discussed amongst the ‘New Atheists’ et al regularly, and such discussions usually revolve around whether Islamic doctrine and practice is somehow particularly conducive to producing people who will go blow themselves and others up. Sam Harris is notorious for holding this view. If you’ve got a few minutes, you can watch this superb video of Scott Atran demolishing Harris on the issue while offering an excellent discussion of terrorism and suicide bombing; otherwise, just keep reading.

I’ve decided to write a short  ‘guide’ to suicide bombing, primarily so that I or anyone else can have an at-hand resource to throw into online debates but also because it may interest some people in and of itself. In it I will answer the following questions:

  1. What is suicide bombing?
  2. When and how is it tactically effective?
  3. What sort of belief system, ideology, and organisational infrastructure is necessary to use suicide bombing regularly?
  4. Where does Islam come into the picture?

There’s also a short bullet-point summary at the end, for one hell of a tl;dr. And I’ve hyperlinked a lot of terms, but I haven’t been entirely exhaustive so don’t be lazy.

Without further ado:

1. Suicide bombing is where a person physically conveys a bomb into a target zone and either denotes it themself in such a way that they are certain to perish in the process, or has the bomb detonated remotely while they’re still carrying it (has happened a few times but fairly uncommon). It is a kind of suicide attack, but unlike, say, throwing yourself into a horde of scimitar-waving Musselmen like a good Crusader martyr, a suicide bombing typically requires the bomber to die by their own hand rather than that of another. Whether this is a significant qualitative difference is up for debate, but for the sake of simplicity, we should understand them both as having the same essential characteristics.

2. As you can imagine, suicide bombing offers a kind of ‘smart bomb’ on the cheap. A person carrying a bomb, especially if covertly, can convey it into an optimal target zone. By denotating it while still carrying it, the bomber can ensure both that it isn’t left around to potentially be detected, and can time things just right for maximising casualties. So tactically speaking, for an organisation targeting either civilian centres which can be easily infiltrated – a bus or a mall, say – or targeting the sort of military positions in which one could potentially walk or drive into very close vicinity – such as a checkpoint or a barracks – suicide bombing can be very effective.

The type of conflict situations in which suicide bombing is most likely to be useful for some parties can be inferred simply by considering the various examples of the phenomenon. The Tamil Tigers, the organisation responsible for the most suicide bombings, was a secessionist movement battling what it perceived to be an occupation. Hizbullah and the various Palestinian nationalist groups which have made use of suicide bombing have also done so in a situation of occupation. However, lest you assume that occupation is the dependent variable, as Robert Pape has done (though it must be said, he certainly doesn’t ‘blame’ Islam), we should also bear in mind examples such as Iraq, in which suicide bombings have been used in inter-group civil war. Furthermore, we can also think of many examples in which an insurgent organisation confronting an occupation has not used suicide bombing systematically, such as, say, MK in its fight against Apartheid South Africa or the Irgun in its fight against the British in Mandatory Palestine.

I suggest the following model for explaining the necessary conditions for mounting a campaign of systematic suicide bombing:

  • Motive: the organisation considering the use of suicide bombing must have a set of targets which can be most effectively struck by a person carrying and denoting a bomb on-site…
  • Opportunity:…and must have both a supply of recruits and the materiel necessary to equip them with bombs. This may require skilled bomb-makers, a steady supply of explosives, and the right set of cultural traditions and symbols which can drawn upon to legitimate altruistic suicide.

3. It’s not hard to imagine what sort of culture you need to have in place in order to glorify altruistic, military suicide. You’d want to find ways to extoll the heroism of your bombers, to portray them as having a level of commitment and integrity worthy of praise and great respect. You’d want to reassure recruits of an afterlife, be it metaphysical or simply one of cultural legacy. During the Second Intifada, for example, suicide bombers had their faces depicted on ornate posters, and their actions were extolled by popular music groups. Their bereaved families gained great social prestige for having produced a ‘shahid‘ – not to mention financial compensation. A surprisingly large proportion of suicide bombers are not naive and nihilistic youths but fairly well-off and educated men and women, capable of appreciating the strategic relevance of ‘martydom operations’ and ready to die for their cause. And lest anyone think that cause to be solely religious, it is vital to remember that there is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that suicide bombers consider the conflicts in which they fight to be about all sorts of secular things like freedom from occupation, political representation, or group self-determination.

This also brings us to Fathali Moghaddam’s noteworthy finding that suicide bombing involves to a great degree the displacement of aggression; civil wars in which noncombatants are often harmed and which often rise out of resentment and oppression are surely conducive to generating the right set of feelings necessary for radical and even suicidal acts of violence.

To quote Moghaddam:

These individuals believe they have no effective voice in society, are encouraged by leaders to displace aggression onto out-groups, and become socialized to see terrorist organizations as legitimate and out-group members as evil.

In short, there is no essential reason why it should be necessary to invoke the divine to recruit suicide bombers. All one needs is to frame suicide bombing as a noble and desirable thing. And this is hardly, to quote Sam Harris, a ‘death cult’. It is a cult of military martyrdom.

Why, then, are most suicide bombers Muslim, and most places where suicide bombing takes place Muslim majority countries?

4. With the exception of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were a nominally secular separatist group fighting on behalf of the – primarily Hindu- Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, I cannot think of any organision which has used suicide bombing systematically that was not primarily composed of Muslims. There have been Christian suicide bombers in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but not many, and their presence is an anomaly. Even nominally secular organisations such as the PLO frame the suicide bombings carried out by their activists in Islamic terms.

Does this mean that there is something particular about Islamic belief and practice that makes Muslims more likely to become suicide bombers? I don’t think so.

The key to understanding why suicide bombing seems so bound up with Islam lies in considering the history of the phenomenon itself, which is quite new as far as modern military tactics go. Hizbullah is widely pegged as the first militant group to use suicide bombing systematically, the first time being in 1981 and then more frequently during the Israeli invasion and subsequent occupation of Lebanon by international peacekeeping forces in 1982-3 (see for example the 1983 Barracks Bombing, which was until 9/11 the highest casualty suicide bombing on record). It would appear as though the – highly innovative and, from the perspective of orthodoxy, highly heretical – brand of Shi’ism advocated by the revolutionary regime of Iran and the particular conflict environment of Lebanon came together to provide both the grounds for recruiting and using suicide bombers. The tactical successes of Hizbullah, and the portability of the theological and cultural innovations that framed suicide bombing in positive terms, were copied by the Palestinian jihadi group Palestinian Islamic Jihad and not long after by Hamas, as a means of ‘spoiling’ the post-Oslo peace process in mid-1990s Israel/Palestine. By the time the Second Intifada had shifted into high gear, the conflict environment had become to resemble that of 1980s Lebanon in precisely the ways conducive to systematic and widespread use of suicide bombing. Along with all manner of other tactics. Not long after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the environment there too began to look similar: occupation, checkpoints and vulnerable civilian centres, and a strategic advantage to terrorism.

And of course, the story of the rise of Political Islam is closely connected to the reasons why the groups best equipped, militarily and culturally, to deploy waves of suicide bombers were Muslim.

This isn’t by any means a complete account, nor one wholly free of problematic statements, but it should convey a general sense of where Islam comes into play, and to diminish any claims that there is something essential to the religion that has played a causal role. It is a matter of cognitive availability and path dependence.


  • Suicide bombing is tactically effective in certain kinds of conflict environments, particularly those characterised by urban, intercommunal, insurgent, and guerrilla warfare
  • Suicide bombing requires both a certain baseline level of military expertise and technology and a rich enough set of cultural traditions and symbols with which it can be framed in altruistic and praiseworthy terms
  • That these two requirements have been present primarily though not exclusively (note that the LTTE used suicide bombing A LOT – more than everyone else combined from 1983 to 200) by Islamist groups in primarily Muslim countries has mostly to do with the history and structure of the relevant conflicts; it’s not surprising that Islam is involved because Islamic traditions and symbols fit the requirements, but it is nevertheless incidental

3 responses to “The Impatient Sceptic’s Guide to Suicide Bombing

  1. Pingback: Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A dialogue with Rob Tarzwell « The Loyal Opposition to Modernity:

  2. Pingback: Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A dialogue with Rob Tarzwell | Symptomatic Commentary

  3. NN December 31, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    I know this post is 3 years old, but I can’t help myself.

    “With the exception of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were a nominally secular separatist group fighting on behalf of the – primarily Hindu- Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, I cannot think of any organision which has used suicide bombing systematically that was not primarily composed of Muslims.”

    If we expand our definition of “organization” to include national military forces instead of just guerrilla groups, then the Japanese Kamikazes of WWII and the Chinese “Dare to Die Corps” of various 20th century wars in China from the Xinhai Revolution to the Sino-Japanese War surely count. There were also apparently some suicide attacks by both sides during the Korean War.

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