Palestinian Suicide Bombers Revisited: A critique of current wisdom
Author: Basel Saleh
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 01/18/2005
After the September 11 attacks scholars from various disciplines were resolved to uncover the secrets to the human bomb. This ambition was motivated by the urgency to preclude future attacks given the scope of tragedy inflicted by 19 individuals who were determined to die. For that purpose, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict represented an opportunity. Palestinians- in the West Bank and Gaza Strip- have launched a campaign of suicide attacks as part of their operational tactics since 1993, especially after the start of the current intifada in September 2000. Since the 9/11 hijackers and Palestinian suicide attackers share a common religion and ethnic origin, and the obvious potential this would have on unraveling the mysteries of suicide missions, it was essential to examine Palestinian suicide attacks.
But with the exception of few studies, most research focused primarily on the dynamics of suicide attackers recruitment and venues of prevention. The policy implications derived from these studies were centered on two counter-insurgency tactics: intercepting the funding for militant organizations and smashing their leaders. But these are tactical responses that don t address the intermingled root- causes of terrorism. Even after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, there has been a crescendo in suicide attacks that spread to Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Spain, Russia, and Indonesia. The most important player in the suicide mission, the executioner- the suicide bomber, went unnoticed. What is seriously lacking and urgently needed is information about the lives of suicide attackers which can identify risk factors that, directly or indirectly, may have led them to opt for a mission that ends with death. A scrutiny of the lives of Palestinian suicide attackers is important and as Jennifer Harbury said listening to the other side does not dishonor the innocent victims. Failing to listen will lead to more bombings and more victims.
Reverend Naim Attek also wrote:
When healthy, beautiful, and intelligent young men and women set out to kill and be killed, something is basically wrong in a world that has not heard their anguish cry for justice. These young people deserve to live along with all those whom they have caused to die.
Not listening is exactly what the forefront research on suicide attacks failed to do. In the rush to produce studies on suicide attacks, researchers ignored psychological factors, that are known to control and influence behavior, and emphasis was placed on what seemed on the surface to determine the suicide attacks: personal characteristics, economic well-being, and education. Profiles of the personal characteristics of the suicide attackers failed disclose any common pattern that can help identify them. Therefore, with the exclusion of other factors, the debate on the root causes of terrorism including suicide attacks focused solely on the link between poverty and terrorism. The current consensus among academics, policy makers, and military officials is that fighting poverty and fighting terrorism are not necessarily related.
That claim is attributed to the study by economists Alan Krueger and Jitka Malechova who were the first to offer an innovative empirical study on the correlation between education and poverty on the one hand, and the support or participation in suicide attacks and terrorism on the other. The conclusions of their empirical research enjoyed a media blitz and became the de facto statement when it comes to the root causes of terrorism. They also shattered the traditional conviction that poverty can at times drive some people to violence. However, their conclusions could imply two propositions. First, that there are more factors at play when it comes to terrorism, and neither poverty nor
education alone or combined can explain the event. Or it could also mean that militant extremists are not driven to terrorism by their economic deprivation or by their ignorance. Hence they are bent on destroying the “American way of life,” it being their prime motivator. The first proposition is consistent with the authors of the study views.
However, the media, politicians, and other scholars were inclined to interpret the results according to the second proposition. For example Robert Barro, a prominent economist at Harvard, is skeptical about the longheld view that improvements in education and poverty can lower international terrorism. He explains:
It is naïve to think that increases in income and education will, by themselves lower international terrorism… To find a lasting solution for the terrorism problem, we have to continue to look elsewhere.”5
The same views were also expressed by the Deputy Secretary- General of the United Nations Louise Frechette when asked about the link between economic development and violence6.
But two of the most committed allies to the U.S. in its war on terrorism continue to insist that alleviating poverty constitutes a legitimate course of action to reduce support for terrorism and halt the spread of militant extremism. In an article published in the Washington Post in June 1, 2004, the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf advocates the “Enlightened Moderation” strategy to rid the Muslim world of militant extremism. The most important component of this strategy is combating poverty and illiteracy. He said:
We need to understand that the root cause of extremism and militancy lies in political injustice, denial and deprivation. Political injustice to a nation or a people, when combined with stark poverty and illiteracy, makes an explosive mix.7
This comes from a military man who saw the rise and fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Similarly, the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroy, expressed the same views about the situation in the Philippines. President Arroy makes the observation that:
The solution to terrorism, however, rests not only in sophisticated intelligence and modern weaponry, but in addressing the conditions on which terrorism finds sustenance—despair, exclusion, and hopelessness born out of poverty and intolerance, which make people vulnerable to the siren song of extremism.8
These two statements invoke the stark difference between the views held in the U.S. and the views held elsewhere when it comes to the war on militant extremism. One can argue, however, that the statements made by the presidents of Pakistan and Philippines have self-serving motives− making it difficult for the U.S. government to deny economic assistance and aid to them. Not discounting the element of truth in that argument, we cannot deny the relevance of the argument made by head of states dealing face-to-face with the extremist elements in their respective nations.
It is my contention that the contemporary empirical research on terrorism and suicide attacks is innovative and challenging, but is fundamentally misguided. Suicide attacks were being analyzed without adequate reference to the long period of conflict and its military dynamics. A study that does not give weight or importance to a nation’s yearn for justice, equity, and revenge in a conflict zone, is acutely deficient. The great economist, Kenneth Boulding, recognized that “human beings are moved not only by immediate pressures but by distant goals that are contemplated in the imagination”9.
Therefore, limiting explanatory variables to the realm of tangible stimuli such as poverty and education is not sufficient, and to study an event in a vacuum will inevitably result in fallacious conclusions. In an attempt to fill this gap in the literature on Palestinian suicide attacks, this paper will provide evidence on the relevance of individual motivational factors to carry out or support suicide attacks. The following is an attempt to understand not justify the deadly actions of Palestinian suicide attackers. Only when all legitimate leads are properly investigated that we can hope to discover the root causes of this tragic action.
During the course of my graduate studies I have succumbed to the temptation of studying Palestinian suicide bombers. Although Palestinian resistance to occupation includes multifaceted forms of attacks, only suicide attacks commanded attention. The phenomenon by itself is surreal and although suicide missions by Palestinian militant groups are not new, this method of attack was different. Suicide attacks make a statement. The attackers deliver not only a bomb but also a message. The existing body of research focused on the bomb. But I was driven by the need to understand the message: Why would an individual as young as 16 years-old10 decide to end his/ her life? Why in such a horrific way? I believed that an in-depth examination of their lives can reveal and uncover clues to answer these questions and ultimately can contribute to effective tactical measures to curb such a tragedy. visited all Palestinian militant websites to read more about the biographies of suicide bombers11 and during the past two years I have managed to compile the most comprehensive list of Palestinian militants including suicide bombers that were killed during the second intifada and before that. The database includes several socioeconomic indicators on the militants such as: age, marital status, family size, place of residence,highest educational achievement, and occupation. In general, researchers believed that these factors are sufficient to explain the phenomenon. However, as others found, there did not seem to be any pattern that can uniquely define a profile of a Palestinian suicide bomber. Most were young in their early twenties. Some had successful careers, others were unemployed. Many were well educated with college degrees completed or in college at the time of the attack. Some were from well-to-do families, others were impoverished. There were those who are married with children, newly wed, or single.
Hence, it has been widely cited that neither lack of education nor poverty appear to be a prime suspect and motivator12. On the contrary, if any link exists, then the statistical analysis indicates a positive association between education, poverty, and terrorism. This finding enjoyed undisputed and favorable reception by the media and among the circles of policy makers especially in the U.S., Russia, Israel, and even in Haiti13. The new received wisdom is that military violence can quell insurgent violence. Government deployment of counterinsurgency measures that can disrupt economic and social life and increase economic stress on the civilian population, however undesirable they may be, don’t necessarily cause a backlash according to existing studies. The use of disproportional power in conflict areas became an indispensable tool to military strategists.
The fallacy with that proposition is clear. Attempts to explain suicide attacks and terrorism in purely economic terms ignores the real political, social, and psychological factors which have always motivated collective violence. Recent research on Palestinian suicide militants has failed to consider the full range of stressors leading to suicide attacks. Restricting attention to only economic factors or level of education has resulted in no understanding of why young Palestinians carry out suicide attacks. Individuals are not only driven by poverty or education but also by imagination.
An important psychological factor prevalent in conflict zone which is ignored or suppressed by researchers is the grievance factor. Empirical research on terrorism did not account for this factor. But the significant role grievances play in motivating actors in political contexts has long been known. In 1919, Lewis Richardson’s Arms-Race Model explicitly incorporated a “grievance factor” to explain military buildup among nations14. A 1999 report entitled “The Sociology and Psychology of a Terrorism”15 surveys research conducted by psychologists and sociologists on terrorists. According to the evidence cited in the report, terrorist are psychologically normal with no evidence of a depressed personality16:
there is little reliable evidence to support the notion that terrorists in general are psychologically disturbed individuals. The careful, detailed planning and welltimed execution that have characterized many terrorist operations are hardly typical of mentally disturbed individuals. (page 10).
However, there is considerable research which indicates the importance of psychological factors such as frustration and trauma that current research on terrorism ignored. Psychiatrist Eyad El Sarraj recognized the impact of living in a conflict zone could have on some individuals. He said:
The people who are committing suicide bombings in this intifada are the children of the first intifada-people who witnessed so much trauma as children. So as they grew up, their own identity merged with the national identity of humiliation and defeat, and they avenge that defeat at both the personal and national levels.17
The attached table lists 50 suicide attackers. The list was compiled from the biographies published on the Palestinian militant organization websites. All of them had a direct reference to a traumatic experience in their lives. Almost half of them indicate a traumatic experience in the first intifada. They were either injured, arrested, or had a family member killed or injured by IDF. As an illustration, one can cite the story of Mohammad al-Debes who was killed when he infiltrated Doughet, an Israeli settlement in Gaza on 4/27/2002. He lost eyesight in his right eye from tear gas and was shot in the leg during clashes with the IDF in the first intifada. His family has 14 members and his father worked in Israel but was unable to work for the past two years due to his poor health. His cousin was killed by IDF on 11/11/2000. He made the decision to revenge the death of his cousin according to a statement made by one of his friends which was posted online. He went on to infiltrate an Israeli settlement armed only with a knife.
Such stories are abound in the biographies of suicide attackers. Of course there is also those who carried out suicide attacks but were never injured, arrested, or experienced a personal traumatic experience. However, the evidence presented suggests that personal grievances have a considerable weight in motivating attacks. Military measures will have short lived effect in subduing violence, but in the long run, more attacks would be inevitable. Psychologist Rona Fields examined Palestinian children who survived the Sabra/ Shatila Massacre in Lebanon in 1982. Her examination revealed that most of the children had been severely traumatized by violence before and after the massacre. Four years later in December 1985, several of the boys she interviewed were among the group who opened fire on passengers queuing at departure desks for Israel’s national airline, El Al at the Rome and Vienna Airports. The attackers, who were part of the “suicide squads”18 created by Abu Nidal Organization, killed 13 helpless people, including children19. National Geographic host Lisa Ling traveled to Chechnya and to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to speak with families of the female suicide bombers. She stated categorically:
We found in talking to the [bombers’] families and people in the community-and I want to limit this to the women whose stories we looked into-all of them had very traumatic personal stories and issues. Those things, combined with the horrors of living under occupation, could have provoked them to act.20
The evidence presented here indicate that structural models of terrorism and suicide attacks that are not correctly specified can lead to trivial results or misunderstood ones. Once other elements are considered the results could become more meaningful. For example, political scientists Hilal Khashan conducted a study on factors that contribute to Palestinian support and proneness to participating in suicide missions. His findings, contrary to existing studies by U.S. scholars, indicate a statistically significant crucial role played by Islamic militancy and dismal poverty in explaining support for suicide bombers among Palestinians living in southern Lebanon whose living conditions resemble the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip where more than half of the suicide bombers came from.21
Focusing on personal characteristics including the poverty and education of suicide attackers serves to minimize the political, psychological issues that motivate them. The evidence presented here suggests that suicide attackers can be motivated by a host of factors including economic, political, social, and psychological. But recent publicized research by scholars in the U.S. used rather simple models to explain it. As a result a divide emerged between the widely held views among politicians and scholars in the U.S., and what politicians and scholars in the Middle East are advocating. For the former group poverty and education are not crucial and the search for clues must lie somewhere else. The latter group agrees that the search should include other factors (grievances, political environment, and frustration) but also indicate that abject poverty mixed with political frustration and military imbalance are also prominent variables.
However, the evidence presented here is speculative and more research in this direction is required but is currently hampered by data quality and limitations. Still it is a potentially promising area in which one can search for answers. There is a need for a more holistic approach to studying suicide attacks which can illuminate and not obscure.
Family or Self exposure to IDF actions
There are 44 suicide attacks with recorded explicit grievances resulting form Israel Defense Force (IDF) military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip SSA=Suicide Shooting Attacks. SBA=Suicide Bombing Attacks. FI=First Intifada.
Date of attack Grievances as mentioned in their bios as posted in the official
website for Hamas, PIJ, and al-Aqsa Brigades.
Hamas Suicide Attack
1 11/7/2002 (SSA) His cousin killed in a gun fight with IDF.
2 5/13/2002 (SSA) Arrested in 1995 for one year.
3 1/1/2001 (SBA) Arrested before twice.
4 5/25/2001 (SBA) IDF killed his older brother in the First Intifada.
5 11/7/2000 (SBA) with a
(i) Arrested once before.
(ii) Lost three fingers in the first intifada after the IDF shot him
in the hand.
(iii) IDF shot and injured three of his brothers and had two
6 4/6/1994 (SBA) Arrested in the First Intifada and lost part of his eye sight and
developed arthritis while in Israel prison.
7 10/10/2002 (SBA) Arrested in the First Intifada.
8 3/31/2002 (SBA) (i) His cousin was assassinated with a car bomb by Israeli
(ii) His older brother arrested by IDF.
(iii) He was arrested in 1997 by IDF.
9 10/19/1994 (SBA) (i) IDF killed his brother in 1988.
(ii) He was arrested by IDF.
10 3/27/2001 (SBA) Injured by IDF gun fire before.
11 6/4/1994 (SBA) Injured by IDF gun fire in the First Intifada.
12 11/8/2001 (SBA) Arrested for the first time when he was still in high school and
the second time when he was in college.
13 5/18/2001 (SBA) His father died when he was young and he had to quit school at
age 16 to help earn income for the family.
14 7/9/2001 (SBA) (i) IDF injured him during the First Intifada in the eye.
(ii) IDF killed one of his brothers in 1987.
(iii) IDF shot and fully paralyzed his other brothers.
15 4/23/2002 (SSA) Left a farewell note to his family informing them of his
intention to carry out an attack in revenge for the actions of the
IDF in Jenin Camp during the incursion.
Was arrested before by IDF and by the Palestinian National
He was kidnapped and beaten by the Israelis when he was
four years old because he throw rocks at them.
Suicide shooting attack
His cousin was killed two months before the attack during an
The bomber arrived from Jordan to work illegally in Israel. He
was arrested several times for illegally work in Israel. One time
he was fined 30,000 New Israeli Shekels ( about $7000)
Paletinian Islamic Jihad
Suicide Attack date
20 5/1/1997 IDF arrested him several times.
21 12/13/1993 (First Suicide
(i) He was arrested twice and spent 2 ½ years in Israeli jail.
(ii) He was orphaned at the age of 10.
22 11/22/1995 Was arrested three times in 1989 and 1994.
23 11/4/2001 He was arrested twice and injured by IDF twice.
24 5/24/2001 The IDF has beaten to death his brother during the First
25 5/12/1993 (i) IDF arrested his brother in 1986 .
(ii) The IDF broke his arm after arresting him.
26 3/4/1996 (SBA) IDF arrested him twice and injured him 3 times.
27 11/5/1995 (SBA) (i) Injured by IDF gun fire in the First Intifada.
(ii) IDF arrested him twice.
(iii) PA arrested him three times.
28 11/6/1998 (SBA) (i) IDF killed his brother in the First Intifada.
(ii) IDF arrested him three times before.
29 10/9/1998 (SSA) (i) IDF shot and killed his father after his father attempted to
stab a soldier.
(ii) IDF shot his young brother 7 times in his body.
(iii) IDF shot his sister in the head. She suffers form full
30 1/22/1995 (SBA) (i) IDF injured him 7 times in the First Intifada.
(ii) IDF arrested his two brothers one for 3 years and the other
for 1 ½ years.
31 4/7/1993 (SSA) He was injured several times during the first intifada.
32 11/2/1995 (SBA) He was arrested at the age of 15 when still in school. His
farewell letter states that his attack was in revenge for the
assassination of the leader of Islamic Jihad Dr. Al Shiqaqi.
33 3/22/2002 (SSA) Few days before his attack and IDF tank fired at a house in his
refugee camp killing the entire family except for a little child.
34 4/19/2000 (SSA) IDF killed two of his uncles (not specified when this
35 12/28/2001 (SSA) IDF killed his brother.
36 11/27/2001 (SSA) He was injured by IDF gun fire before.
37 11/22/1993 (SBA) (i) IDF shot him in the leg in the First Intifada.
(ii) IDF arrested him for 1 ½ years before.
38 10/5/1993 (SSA) (i) His three brothers were in Israeli prison when he carried out
(ii) He was arrested in the first intifada when he was very
39 10/28/2002 (SSA) IDF arrested him in the first Intifada for 1 ½ years.
40 11/11/1994 (SBA) (i) IDF killed his best friend few days before he carried out the
(ii) He was arrested before
41 11/6/1998 (SBA) IDF arrested him twice, the first time when he was only 15
years old. The second time when he was 17 years old. He spent
a total of 4 years in Israeli Jail.
42 10/22/2001 (SSA) (i) IDF arrested him twice in the First Intifada.
(ii) IDF shot him twice in the First Intifada. The doctors could
not remove one of the bullets form his body.
Al Aqsa Brigades Attack
43 5/27/2002 (i) IDF assassinated his cousin who was a leader of Islamic
Jihad in Nablus and demolished his house.
(ii) The father of the suicide bomber said that his children
became unemployed after the intifada death is better than
living their lives the way it is.
44 2/27/02 (2nd female SB) (i) Her cousin carried out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv almost a
month before her
(ii) Her mother and sister indicate that when Israelis shot and
killed two pregnant women next to her home trying to cross the
check point, she decided to avenge their killing.
45 11/27/2001 (SSA) (i) Arrested in the First Intifada.
(ii) IDF shot his brother in the stomach.
46 4/12/2002 (female SBA) (i) Her father ill and can’t work.
(ii) her sister had a chronic disease.
(iii) left school at the 7th grade to work to support the family.
47 10/4/2001 SSA His two brothers were arrested before and one of them spent 4
years in jail.
Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine
48 Suicide bomber
His family house was ran sacked by the IDF several times.
His brother was injured from an explosive device that left him
49 Suicide shooting attack
Was shot and injured by IDF before.
50 Suicide shooting attack
Arrested twice in 1992 and 1991
1. For a good review of studies on suicide attacks the reader can consult Scott Atran (2003), Claude Berrebi (2003), Alan Krueger and Jetka Malechova (2003), Ariel Merari (), Nasra Hassan (), Sean Yom & Basel Saleh (2003), Robert Pape (2003).
2. In May 2003 forty-one people are killed and many are injured in a series of suicide bomb attacks in the business capital Casablanca. In April 2002 a suicide bomber drives a truck filled with explosions into an ancient synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba killing ten people. In august 2003 a suicide bomber detonated a wired car outside the Marriot Hotel in Jakarta killing ten people
3. Quoted with permission from a book manuscript by Jennifer Harbury (2004)
4. Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek. Suicide Bombers: What is theologically and morally wrong with suicide bombings? A Palestinian Christian Perspective. Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Documents No.1 (2003)
5. Rober Barro. Business Week; 6/10/2002, issue 3786
6. Harvard International Review. Spring 2003. A conversation with Louise Frechette, p.40-41.
7. A Plea for Enlightened Moderation by president Pervez Musharraf. Washington Post, june 1, 2004. downloaded from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A5081-2004May31.html
8. To Win War on terror, we must also win peace with development. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 21 (4) Fall 2004.p45-48.
9. Kenneth Boulding. Conflict and Defense: A general Theory. P.24 (1962). Harper & Row. New York.
10. The youngest Palestinian suicide bomber was born on June 1988 in Askar refugee camp near Nablus. He carried out the suicide attack on November 1, 2003 which killed three Israelis. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attack.
11. All militants’ websites include a section on the martyrs of the organization. That section usually includes a photograph of the individual and sometimes a brief biographical sketch. Data are available upon request from the author.
12. Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova. “ Education, poverty, political violence and terrorism: is there a causal connection”. NBER working paper series. 2002. This paper was recently published in the Fall 2003 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. It is the first paper after 9/11 that attempts to quantitatively to address the link between poverty and education and terrorism. I offered a critique of the findings of this paper. Please visit http://www.sba.luc.edu/orgs/meea/
13. In an interview with CNN anchor Judy Woodruff , the former President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide labeled the people revolting against him as the 9/11 hijackers and that he is fighting terrorism in his country the way the U.S. is fighting its war on terror. See “Aristide: Haitian killers like those of 9/11” an interview with Judy woodruff, 2/26/2004,ttp://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/americas/02/26/cnna.aristide/index.html
14. As cited in Keneth Boulding Conflict and Defense (1962), p.28.
15. Rex Hudson. The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism. Library of Congress-Federal Research Division. September 1999.
16. I discovered that many of the suicide bombers went on with their normal lives until the minute they had to leave to carry out the attack. For instance many of them would be studying for their high school exams till the last minute. Others would continue going to work, meet friends, and enjoy the things they usually do such as sports.
17. Eyad El Sarraj. “Suicide bombers: Dignity, despair, and the need for hope.” Journal of Palestine Studies. 29(4). Summer 2002. 71-76.
18. The group never plans an escape route when planning an attack.
19. Rona Fileds. The psychology and sociology of Martyrdom in Rona Fields et al (eds.) The martyrdom: the psychology, theology, and politics of self-sacrifice. Sociology of Martyrdom. 2004. Praeger. Connecticut. P.23. The detailed info on the attack are available at the B.B.C website.
20. Brian Handwerk. Female Suicide Bombers: dying to kill. December 13, 2004. interview with Lisa ling available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1213_041213_tv_suicide_bombers.html
21. Hilal Khashan. Collective Palestinian frustration and suicide bombings. Third World Quarterly, vol. 24,
No.6, 1049-1067, 2003.
Bio: Basel Saleh is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, College of St. Benedict / St. John’s University and can be contacted at email@example.com