Human Weapons: What Drives People To Become Suicide Bombers?

When it comes to acts of terror, nothing quite compares to suicide attacks. Showing complete disregard for their own lives as they detonate explosives strapped to their own body, many people are unable to comprehend what could possibly drive people to commit such acts. Nevertheless, suicide bombings are a very real, and increasingly prominent part of the world we live in, with 2017 having already seen close to 300 people killed in reported suicide bombings in nine different countries. In recent years, the annual number of people killed by such attacks has consistently been in the tens of thousands. It is very important for us to begin to understand why these attacks happen, in order to effectively prevent them.


Contrary to what some may think, suicide bombings, as we know them, are actually a relatively new development. Although the first recorded suicide bombing involving a person carrying explosives dates back to 1881—when a bomber used the new technology of dynamite to assassinate Tsar Alexander II—suicide bombings only really became common after 1980. In fact, there were no reported suicide bombings at all after World War II up until the 1980s, despite the high number of conflicts involving insurgent groups, such as in Vietnam and Northern Ireland.

This all changed in 1981 when the Islamic Dawa Party used a car bomb to attack the Iraqi embassy in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, killing 61 people. Two years later in 1983, militant group Hezbollah bombed the US embassy in Beirut killing 63, and later the same year, more suicide bombers attacked US and French military barracks in the city, killing 305 people. These devastating attacks threw suicide bombing into the international spotlight, and it was not long until the practice began to spread.

By 1999, numerous groups had carried out their own suicide bombing attacks in the Middle East. Even so, the total number of attacks from 1981 to 1999 was around 50, a number that pales in comparison to the frequency of attacks today. It was during this time that Al-Qaeda carried out its first suicide attack.

The international landscape was, however, changed dramatically by the terrible and devastatingly large scale attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001. These attacks were on a scale that had never been seen before. Although the Japanese had used Kamikaze pilots to fly into US ships during WWII, these were for military, not terrorism purposes, and were not targeted at civilians. The US’s response to 9/11 by invading Iraq, and its subsequent greater presence in the Middle East, greatly changed the dynamic of the region, which some argue has been a significant factor in the increasing rate of suicide bombings.

The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism has reported that the global rate of suicide bombings was on average three a year throughout the 1980s, one a month in the 1990s, close to one a week from 2001 to 2003, and has now risen to average more than one a day.

The three countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are the locations of approximately three quarters of all suicide attacks, although the number of countries affected, just like the number of attacks, is rising, particularly in west Africa. In 2015, Chad and Cameroon were targeted for the first time, and in that year Nigeria’s casualty rate was 14 times what it was in 2011.

The rise of the Islamic state has also coincided with this increase in suicide bombings, and according to Reuters, the group is recruiting children and youth “at an alarming rate.”

Why such attacks are popular with military groups

There are a couple of reasons for the use of suicide bombings, though the two main ones can be narrowed down to practicality, and the psychological aspect such attacks have.

Due to their nature, suicide attacks have the potential to be destructive in ways other attacks can’t be. Bombers are able to conceal their explosives, under their clothes and so can better infiltrate targets. Suicide bombers also do not need to deal with remote detonation, and have no need for extraction plans.

Suicide bombings are cost effective in terms of how many victims the attack can affect, and plans for attacks can be adapted more easily compared to larger scale coordinated attacks. Bombings also have a large media benefit, often attracting significant coverage and publicity, while holding relatively little risk for the coordinators of the attack, with the bombing leaving no one to point back to them.

In addition to the practicality, suicide bombings are frequently utilised for their psychological impact on those they affect, as well as the wider community. Attacks may be aimed at destroying the public’s feeling of safety, and creating divisions within communities. Such attacks are dramatic and almost always emotionally traumatic for those affected. Such terrorist acts may aim to demonstrate that governments are incapable of protecting their own people, and to show the power of the group behind the attacks.

In relation to increasing rates of attacks, an interesting point made by academic Robert Pape is that competition between insurgent groups can be a motivator in conducting more attacks. Each group is striving to show its commitment to its cause, and does not want to be overshadowed by the actions of other groups. Each group is constantly trying to find new and more extreme ways to stand out and attract the most publicity.

Why people become bombers

There is no one reason that compels people to carry out suicide attacks, and to generalise all bombers as religious fanatics is to be ignorant to the complexities relating to the issue, and to miss out on possible ways to address it.

Perhaps one of the less difficult ways to comprehend reasons for people to conduct suicide bombings is that they are acting under military orders. Such people, like the Japanese Kamikaze pilots, act out of nationalism and obedience to their superiors. They may also be defending their country against foreign attack.

Another motivation for bombers is poor life circumstances. They may feel that by carrying out an attack they can somehow get back at those who are responsible for the wrongs done to them, while at the same time escaping their situation.

An interesting study of the remains of 110 suicide bombers in Afghanistan in 2007 carried out by pathologist Dr. Yusef Yadgari, discovered that before the attack, 80% of those bombers were suffering physical problems like cancer, leprosy or missing limbs. This seems to support the idea that people in poor life circumstances are more likely to carry out suicide attacks.

Joining groups with people someone know is also apparently a good motivator, with 70% of al-Quada members joining with friends, and 20% joining alongside family members, according to professor Scott Atran.

One significant factor in suicide bombings that must also be recognised is that of radical Islam. Professor Atran has claimed that since 2004, the majority of bombers have been acting in relation to the ideology of martyrdom, where by being killed for a cause, one obtains the favour of Allah. The fact that so many groups carrying out suicide attacks are associated with Islam seems to support this; however, there are many criticisms of such a simplistic view of things, claiming that the motivations of attackers are a much deeper issue.

Looking in to the profiles of foreign fighters at an insurgent camp in Iraq, researchers have made claims that the main motivation for suicide missions was not the following of an Islamic idea of Jihad, but rather “an explosive mix of desperation, pride, anger, sense of powerlessness, local tradition of resistance and religious fervour.”

Martyrdoms may not be entirely religious, with people wanting to become martyrs to their community and be seen as heroes. Suicide attacks may be portrayed as courageous  and valiant actions against an oppressive enemy, particularly by groups trying to promote such attacks.

One particularly disturbing reason for people carrying out suicide bombings is that they are coerced and manipulated against their will. There are cases of children and mentally disabled adults being convinced into carrying out attacks, sometimes on the pretense that they will not actually be killed.

This tactic has been used before in Iraq, where children or even mentally disadvantaged adults have been sent with explosives into populated areas, and then detonated from a distance. Children are sometimes given an amulet which they are told will protect them, and some are not even aware they are carrying explosives, which are then detonated remotely.

One of the most terrible ways of coercing people to commit attacks has been seen in Iraq. Women and young girls are raped by members of terrorist groups, and then in their emotionally devastated state, convinced by the group that they are dirty and impure because of what has happened to them, and that the only way to redeem themselves and their families from the dishonour is to carry out a suicide bombing. In 2009, a woman, Samira Ahmed Jassim, was arrested after coordinating the rape of 80 Iraqi women and girls so they could be recruited as suicide bombers. Twenty-eight of these women are believed to have carried out the bombings.

What can be done

The issue of suicide bombings is an extremely difficult one to address and as with other forms of terrorism, forceful attempts to prevent it may often not have the intended effect, as seen by the continuing prevalence of terrorist groups in the Middle East.

As the perpetrators of suicide bombings cannot themselves be punished, action is normally taken against the people or group who are believed to have been behind the attack. Since 9/11, Western nations have expended a large amount of effort and resources conducting military operations against countries believed to be involved with or supporting terrorism. Many, however, suggest that the ‘War on Terror’ has actually resulted in more recruits going to terrorist groups, and a greater willingness to carry out bombings against Western “invaders.”

Increased security measures and surveillance are one major way to address the threat of suicide attacks; however, this is more addressing the symptoms rather than the source of the problem. Surveillance and monitoring can also be extremely difficult to carry out, as many materials used in suicide bombs serve different purposes, such as fertiliser, and cannot practically be prohibited.

To effectively reduce the incidence of suicide bombings, the heart of the issue must be addressed. The decision to kill oneself, whatever the main cause behind it, is almost always an incredibly emotional one, and Dr John Sawicki of the Catholic Health Association of the United States claims that ways of addressing it must be equally emotional. Common responses to terrorism are often logical and rational. However, people susceptible to becoming bombers do not tend to be thinking logically and rationally, and such responses are unlikely to dampen their raw emotion and identification with their cause.

Instead, susceptible people must be shown the misguided nature of suicide bombings, and exposed to things outside their one radicalised worldview which may be all they ever experience. Foreign troops and workers should be actively involved in local communities, providing valuable services such as education and healthcare, and being proof to those susceptible to radicalisation that they are not in fact terrible people responsible for all of their problems, and that the ideology being propagated by those who would exploit them has very serious holes.

Societal imbalances must also be addressed so people don’t turn to suicide bombing as a way out. Vulnerable groups such as women and the poor must be empowered so they don’t feel disenfranchised. A causal relationship has been found between raising the education and income of women and a decrease in terrorist violence. Prioritisation of governments protecting children from abduction and recruitment is also vitally important.

Empathy is at the core of the issue. If we can try to understand the situations and influences that pull on the people who eventually turn to suicide bombings, only then can we get to the heart of the issue. More violence will not resolve this problem, but serious attempts to understand and aid the vulnerable might.


Fraser Lawrance