Between 1981 and 2006, 1,200 suicide attacks made up 4 per cent of all terrorist attacks in the world and killed 14,599 people, representing 32 per cent of all terrorism-related deaths. The question is, why?
At last, now we have some tangible data to begin addressing the question. The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, the most comprehensive compendium of such information in the world, holds details on suicide bombings in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which together accounted for 90 per cent of all suicide attacks between 1981 and 2006. Analysis of the information contained therein yields some interesting clues: It is politics more than religious fanaticism that has led terrorists to blow themselves up.
The evidence from the database largely discredits the common wisdom that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause of their actions. It shows that though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.
On October 4 2003, the 29-year-old Palestinian lawyer Hanadi Jaradat exploded her suicide belt in the Maxim restaurant in Haifa, killing 20 people and wounding many more. According to her family, her suicide mission was in revenge for the killing of her brother and her fiancé by the Israeli security forces, and in revenge for all the crimes Israel had perpetrated in the occupied West Bank by killing Palestinians and expropriating their lands. The main motive for many suicide bombings in Israel is revenge for acts committed by the Israelis.
In September 2007 when American forces raided an Iraqi insurgent camp in the desert town of Singar near the Syrian border, they discovered biographies of more than 700 foreign fighters. The Americans were surprised to find that 137 of them were Libyans and that 52 of these were from the small Libyan town of Darnah. The reason why so many of Darnah's young men had gone to Iraq for suicide missions was not the global-jihadist ideology, but an explosive mix of desperation, pride, anger, a sense of powerlessness, a local tradition of resistance and religious fervor. A similar mix of factors is now motivating young Pashtuns to volunteer for suicide missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Read the full piece here.
And, for further evidence, check out this 2005 New York Times op-ed piece by Professor Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.