NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Suicide Terrorists

September 12, 2001

While suicide bombers are often portrayed as lone mad zealots, they are in fact pawns in large terrorist networks that wage calculated psychological warfare, according to Ehud Sprinzak, dean of the Lauder School of Government, Policy and Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

Most terrorists, while willing to risk their lives, do not undertake actions that require their deaths in order to succeed. They wish to live after the terrorist act in order to benefit from their accomplishments. The motivations of suicide terrorists are different, although they never perceive their deaths as suicide; rather, they see them as acts of martyrdom.

The leaders of terrorist networks are cold and rational, rather than suicidal. For them, suicide terrorism has inherent tactical advantages over "conventional" terrorism, according to experts:

  • It is a simple and low-cost operation (requiring no escape routes or complicated rescue operations);
  • It guarantees mass casualties and extensive damage (since the suicide bomber can choose the exact time, location and circumstances of the attack);
  • There is no fear that interrogated terrorists will surrender important information (because their deaths are certain);
  • And it has an immense impact on the public and the media (due to the overwhelming sense of helplessness).

Although suicide terrorism was used by 11th century Assassins, recent suicide terrorism dates back to the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marines' barracks in Lebanon. It has been employed by various terrorist groups since then because it can be effective.

Based on a survey of all the organizations that have resorted to suicide terrorism since 1983, Sprinzak says that some groups that resort to suicide terrorism do so only rarely and unsystematically, while others adopt it as a strategy. It has also been dropped as a tactic when the leaders of terrorist organizations perceive it is counterproductive -- either because of massive retaliation or the loss of public sympathy for a cause.

Suicide attacks often involve dozens of terrorists and accomplices who have no intention of committing suicide, but without whom no suicide operation could take place.

Source: Ehud Sprinzak, "Rational Fanatics," Foreign Policy, September-October 2001.


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