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The Motivations of Suicide Bombers

November 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Her confession aired on Jordanian state television late yesterday. After showing off her explosives vest, 35-year-old Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi calmly described her plans to carry out the suicide attack, with her husband.

SAJIDA MUBARAK ATROUS AL-RISHAWI (Translated): My husband wore an explosives-packed belt and put one on me. He taught me how to use it.

RAY SUAREZ: On Wednesday, the pair mingled with guests at a wedding celebration at the Radisson Hotel in the capital, Amman.

SAJIDA MUBARAK ATROUS AL-RISHAWI (Translated): My husband detonated his bomb and I tried to explode my belt but it wouldn’t. People fled running, and I left running with them.

RAY SUAREZ: Nearly 60 people, mostly Jordanians, were killed in three blasts at the Radisson and two other hotels. Officials said surveillance videos helped identify the bombers. Jordan’s deputy prime minister said the surviving bomber had links to the insurgency in Iraq.

MARWAN MUASHER, Deputy Prime Minister, Jordan: Al-Shamari was accompanied by his wife, Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, who is the sister of another major terrorist who was killed in Fallujah earlier and who used to be the right-hand man for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

RAY SUAREZ: Insurgents in Iraq have used suicide tactics against both U.S. and Iraqi forces. And suicide bombers have attacked targets around the world, too.

In London in July, four suicide bombers packed explosives in backpacks and boarded three trains and a bus during rush hour. Fifty-six people were killed, dozens more injured. Police released these closed-captioned television images to identify the men.

In Indonesia last month, suicide bombers detonated explosives in restaurants, killing 20 people. Photos of the bombers heads helped police track down one of Asia’s most wanted terrorists last week.

And today’s attacks in Afghanistan took aim at coalition forces there, killing at least one NATO peacekeeper and three Afghans.

To explore the motivations of suicide bombers, we’re joined by three political scientists who’ve written extensively on the subject. Mohammed Hafez is a visiting professor at the University of Missouri, and author of “Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic world.” He’s writing a book about Palestinian suicide bombers. Robert Pape is a professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” Mia Bloom is an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. She authored the recent book “Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.”

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pape, as someone who’s been studying suicide attackers for a long time, can you say that there’s a profile? Is there a set of variables or underlying motivations that many of these bombers hold in common?

ROBERT PAPE: We can. But it’s not the profile most people expect. I’ve studied 462 suicide terrorists from around the world since 1980 who actually completed the mission. Over half are secular. The world leader is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka: A Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group.

Instead of religion, what over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks since 1980, all around the world have in common is a specific strategic goal, to compel modern democracies to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists prize greatly.

The Jordanian attack that we have just witnessed is a prime example of this strategy logic. Here we have four Iraqis leave Iraq in order to attack western targets that Zarqawi’s group described as the rear base camp of the American army in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Bloom, are most of these bombers parts of organizations? Is this the kind of attack that a lone wolf conceives of and carries out?

MIA BLOOM: In principle you can have a lone wolf but I think you really do need to have an organization behind the bombers in order to be able to have these large scale attacks. You need to have a series of people who support the bomber, do reconnaissance, provide safe homes, provide the improvised explosive device.

And so it’s very difficult for anyone other than walking into a public location with maybe an AK-47 shooting people, that beyond something as simple that you generally will need to have an organization and a fairly sophisticated network in that organization.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the organization also ensure that the bomber is more likely to carry out his or her assignment? During the investigation of the London attacks in July it turns out that one of the four was really a team leader that made sure that they would all go to their appointed places and not chicken out.

MIA BLOOM: There are a number of ways that the organizations ensure against what we would call a defection. They’d make a videotape of the bombers very often beforehand, which now they are on the videotape very often with the organization logo featured prominently behind them so that no one else can take credit for the attack. And so once that videotape is made it is very difficult to back out.

But the other way that they ensure against defection is, for instance, in this case of Sajida, she is the sister of a well-known insurgent and very often the women bombers are related. Either their brothers or their fathers have been well-known terrorists or have actually also died fighting against whichever foreign occupying force.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Hafez, there are Islamic prescriptions and pretty specific ones against suicide, against the targeting of innocents, of women and children in war.

How does this square with the mainly but not always religious motivations of suicide bombers in the Middle East?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: What we’ve seen is that some of these terrorist organizations have become very innovative in digging deep in Islamic histories to find traditions, perhaps archaic traditions, to justify the killing of civilians, to justify Muslims killing Muslims, and to justify killing yourself, as an Islamic, you’re strictly prohibited from suicide.

One of the main rules that they use is what’s called cutlass torras [ph], or killing human shields and this goes back to sometime in Islamic history where they asked an Islamic scholar is it possible for Muslims to kill other Muslims in order to get at the infidels or at the invaders, and the rule at that time was yes, it is permissible if this is the only way that you could get at the attackers and secondly, if you don’t do it, other people or the attackers or the infidels in this instance would go ahead and win the fight and that jihad would come to an end. It is archaic rule and most people don’t accept it but the jihadists have used it to justify violence.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of reaction has there been inside the Arab world in this attack and with this capture, a woman who was also targeting other Muslims and has actually been able to testify on television about what she did and why she did it?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, the reaction is mixed. But generally speaking what the Pew Research data shows is that in the Muslim world from 2002 to 2005 there has been a declining support for suicide terrorism.

Interestingly Jordan is the only place that has seen an increase in support for suicide attacks. I suspect after this attack, the support in Jordan will decline as it has in Morocco after they suffered an attack in Pakistan and in other places.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Bloom, have there been many opportunities to hear the first person’s story of a failed bomber? Do many of them fail and then talk in this open way?

MIA BLOOM: Well, when I wrote my book I included in the book a number of interviews with failed bombers. And very often one of the things I found compelling is that they never expressed grief at what they were about to do; they expressed a certain amount of concern for the fact that they had failed.

And so they are very disappointed when they fail. And, in fact, they are not feeling remorse — oh, I should have never been involved.

There have been two cases that I know of, women who had changed their mind at the last minute and then hoped that the state — one being Israel and one being Russia — would be lenient on them for having changed their mind. And, in fact, there was no leniency and women recounted their position immediately when they found out that they were going to get the full sentence.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Pape, is there something useful about a woman like Sajida Al-Rishawi to law enforcement, to military forces that are trying to thwart this kind of attack?

ROBERT PAPE: Oh, absolutely. There is no question that using women for a suicide terrorist attack provides a tactical advantage because the fact is most people are not expecting women to do it.

I should say, however, that that’s true even though 20 percent — over 20 percent of those 462 suicide attackers that I’ve studied have been women.

What’s interesting, is that the longer a suicide terrorist campaign tends to go on, whether that’s in Lebanon, whether that’s in Chechnya, whether that’s in Sri Lanka or on the West Bank, the more likely groups are to have women suicide terrorists. Partly, that’s because more women end up volunteering as walk-in volunteers for suicide terrorists and partly it’s because the organization finds tactical utility in the surprise of using women.

RAY SUAREZ: So women come in late in the game. Who’s there on the front edge? Are those the true believers, the ones who sign up first?

ROBERT PAPE: Well, it actually varies from campaign to campaign. In Lebanon, for instance, there were 41 suicide attackers from 1982 to 1986. The first eight or so were pure Islamists, and then the remaining thirty-three were actually not Islamic fundamentalists but communists and socialists; three were Christians. And among those remaining 33 were six women.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Hafez, let’s talk about suicide bombing as a weapon. What’s the underlying goal of the bomber and the people behind him or her? What are they trying to accomplish?

MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I think here there are two levels of motivation: There’s what motivates an individual to carry out a suicide attack and then what motivates an organization.

In terms of the organization, I agree with Professor Pape that strategic logic, that this is an effective weapon. Psychologically it is potent. Basically you are telling your enemy that, look, I am so determined to achieve my goal that I am willing to die for it.

There are certain advantages in terms of the kill rate. But also what’s interesting about the use of women in particular is that politically and culturally it is powerful.

Politically, you are shaming your enemy. For instance, the Chechen suicide bombers oftentimes have been raped or mistreated by soldiers. So this is an ideal story of a person who has been mistreated and all of a sudden has empowered themselves to strike back.

But culturally, particularly in the case of the Palestinian female suicide bombers, they have used this to shame the men into action. And in one instance, I believe it was Ias Akras, who gave in her will and testament that was videotaped saying look you Arab generals sitting in your thrones with all your medals doing nothing to save the Palestinians while we women have taken it upon ourselves to fight, so organizationally it is very strategic.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s a very old story, isn’t it, though, women, marshal women shaming men into action?


RAY SUAREZ: You have to go to ancient Greece to find that.


RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Bloom, let’s talk a little further about who these people are. They are not destitute or desperate in the main, are they? They seem to be from the ones that you hear about pretty well-educated, often extremely well-educated?

MIA BLOOM: Well, actually what’s very interesting is, although many of the populations from which these suicide terrorists are drawn might be affected by poverty and desperation, the people that are actually chosen to carry out an attack will be the best and brightest of their population.

Part of this is involved with the fact that there are so many people, unfortunately, willing to make these kinds of sacrifices that the organizations can pick and choose from among a number of different candidates. And so, given the option, they will tend to select those that are more educated. This may make sense: A more educated individual with a university degree is less likely to mess up. They probably will speak a second language and they can more effectively blend into a civilian population. A Palestinian with a university degree in all likelihood speaks Hebrew. An Iraqi with a university degree in all likelihood speaks English.

What’s also interesting is that many of the organizations when selecting women, select on the more attractive women. So they are more telegenic, which causes us to really ask the question, what is really going on? And so I think that this is where suicide bombing as opposed to all different kinds of terrorist attacks really is effective not just because of the kill rate and the increased media attention, but I think because of the reflective nature; it makes us really wonder what is the true nature of either the occupation or the war or what are they really thinking.

RAY SUAREZ: And Professor Pape, before we go, can we quickly touch on whether the use of suicide bombers as a weapon has a life cycle, whether it eventually runs its course and are there places in the world where it just stops on its own?

ROBERT PAPE: Well, since 1980, there have been 13 suicide terrorist campaigns that have begun and ended. Over seven of those 13 have ended with gains for the terrorist’s political cause. The other six have not.

So, unfortunately, the record that we have with suicide terrorism is that it does tend to come to an end. But the life cycle, it doesn’t simply run out of steam, at least not most of the time. Most of the time it is related to territorial gains for the terrorist’s political cause.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all very much.