Suicide attacks are the defining acts of political violence of our age, according to Diego Gambetta and other contributors to Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Since 1981, roughly 30 organisations throughout the world - some secular, others affiliated to radical Islam - have carried out more than 500 attacks. The authors spent three years researching such missions because they found that existing interpretations were simplistic, overly ideological or silly ("The organisers of the 9/11 attack saw the Twin Towers as deliberately mocking Islamic minarets," one commentator wrote).
The book reminds us that, in spite of the current wave of Islamic suicide operations, the tactic was first used at the start of the 20th century by Russian anarchists. Then came the Japanese kamikaze fighters, who carried out 3,000 suicide missions between October 1944 and August 1945. Their average age was 20. The Japanese attackers were seen as fanatically devoted to their cause but, despite referring to themselves as "men of the cherry blossom squadrons" and chanting "We are ready to spill our blood, oh so red", they were volunteered by their superiors and had no choice but to go.
Other chapters deal with the Tamil Tigers, the Palestinians and the history of self-immolation. A stunning essay on al-Qaeda and 11 September 2001, written by Stephen Holmes, considers such vital questions as: did the 9/11 hijackers sacrifice themselves for religious or practical reasons? How were 19 people persuaded to kill themselves? Did they feel their own deaths atoned for the murder of innocents? Holmes argues that al-Qaeda's aims are as much secular as religious; in his account, Mohammed Atta and Osama Bin Laden emerge looking rather like anti-globalisation activists (Atta hated "fat cats") or even Marxists.
Something common to all agents of suicide missions is the belief that they are acting from altruistic as well as militaristic motives. This contradicts the modern Darwinian view that people behave with extreme altruism only towards their own kin. Although some suicide attackers want to avenge the deaths of family or friends, most say they are acting for a larger cause. They challenge the notion that heroism happens on the spur of the moment: suicide missions are calculated in cold blood.
How do the motivations of those who carry out suicide attacks differ? For the leaders, the mission is an exercise in military strategy and morale-boosting: your aim is to show the enemy that you can penetrate its ranks and spread terror. The attackers themselves are hardly ever coerced into giving up their lives. In Palestine, for example, organisations can pick and choose - the volunteer pool is larger than demand.
But why do Palestinians want to become "shahids", or martyrs? One thing seems certain: it is not because they are crazy. Nor does poverty seem an important motive. The majority of Palestinian suicide bombers are better off and better educated than the general population. Most, however, have no access to a meaningful career and see themselves as having been humiliated by the Israelis. Luca Ricolfi writes that personal glory seems to have become a main aim of the Palestinian suicide mission. "The real question to ask is: why has glory become so important in Palestine? The answer is as simple as it is disarming: because almost everything else is missing."
Why are people revolted by suicide missions yet untroubled by war heroism? Do people find them chilling because the perpetrators value their lives less than your death? If dying is what matters, why kill in the process? And if suicide missions on average kill four times as many people as other terrorist attacks, why isn't every group using them? These are some of the questions raised by this challenging and timely book.
Sandra Jordan is co-producer, with Azmi Keshawi, of An American Martyr, a feature documentary directed by Rodrigo Vazquez, to be released early next year