AOAV: all our reportsUnderstanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: SIEDs as a strategic weapon

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

Collective or individual act?

The vast majority of suicide bombings are orchestrated by a terrorist group with a specific agenda as part of a wider conflict. They are typically not isolated events but take place in the context of what Robert Pape calls a ‘campaign’ of several suicide bombings, or as part of a broader campaign of armed violence against states or other organisations.

In these sorts of suicide bombings, the actual perpetrator (the bomber) often plays relatively little role in the planning, preparation or execution of the operation. They deliver and detonate the explosive, but typically have little part in target acquisition and rely on experts to outfit them with bombs and deliver them to the location.

However, there are also suicide bombings – often taking place far from zones of active conflict – which are a much more individual enterprise. Sometimes these attacks are carried out (or attempted) for ostensibly extremist means or under the banner of a particular group without any actual evidence of that group’s involvement. A good example of this was the foiled 7/7 anniversary plot.

Sometimes they are simply individual acts, as in the Columbine massacre (whose perpetrators originally planned to blow themselves up using explosives rather than opening fire with small arms).[i] These incidents are referred to as ‘lone wolf’ attacks. These incidents do not typically represent a tactical use of suicide bombing as part of a campaign, and from a policy and analytical point of view it is better to approach them separately.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that most are carried out by those part of a larger group, be it religious, nationalist or separatist. However, what motivates these individuals to take part in these groups’ activities remains an important question.

Strategic Drivers of suicide bombing

The popular approach to suicide bombings typically conceives of them as fundamentally ideological in nature – that their use is the outcome of a ‘death cult’ mentality.

Of course, there certainly is an ideological element to suicide bombing. However, the notion of a ‘death cult’ is largely manufactured to justify a tactic that has proven incredibly useful in conflicts of many different kinds.

In financial terms, suicide bombings are cheap to carry out.[ii] A suicide bombing will only set an organisation back the cost of constructing a relatively standard IED, which can be made from various easily-acquired materials or from repurposed conventional weaponry. One ‘average’ figure, which is often cited, is $150. This figure seems to be originally sourced from Nasra Hassan’s 2001 New Yorker article on Palestinian suicide bombers. In the same article, she notes that at least in Palestine, the most expensive part of any operation is transport to the target. This suggests that in other contexts the operational costs may be much lower. If funds are provided to the family of the deceased, like Hezbollah appears to have done, this would increase the costs, but this is no longer particularly commonplace.

Whilst the costs of launching a suicide operation are the same as or slightly higher than a standard IED attack, the potential outcome is much greater. In terms of potential casualties, suicide bombings have a far higher average casualty rate. Data from 2011 to 2015 recorded by AOAV’s Explosive Weapons Monitoring Programme shows that suicide bombings caused more than three times as many average deaths and injuries than other IED attacks. [iii]

When disaggregated to distinguish between populated and non-populated areas,[iv] this trend held equally true. Suicide attacks on populated areas caused an average of three times the number of deaths and injuries as a non-suicide IED attack.[v]

This much greater immediate impact of suicide attacks can probably be explained largely by the human element involved in targeting. Suicide bombers are capable of timing and positioning the point of explosion to maximise death, injury and destruction whilst having the cover of blending in to a crowd. For this reason, Mohammed Hafez describes suicide bombers as ‘perhaps the smartest bombs ever invented’.[vi] A suicide bombing also removes the need for an effective extraction plan to ensure the survival of the operative, reducing operational costs and risks.

Strategic uses

The most infamous use of suicide bombers is for large-scale attacks that often target civilians. These attacks can serve a range of strategic purposes, including creating a sense of insecurity for specific groups (‘terrorism’ in its truest sense); coercing governments into granting concessions; drawing attention to a cause; or demonstrating a group’s strength (in response to military defeats for example, as with IS and Boko Haram). These are the main traditional uses of suicide bombing, and a great deal of scholarship has already focused on this kind of suicide mission.

Suicide bombers have also been used for other kinds of missions, including assaults on hard targets and assassination missions against political figures. Increasingly, IS and al-Qaeda linked groups make use of suicide bombings as part of conventional military assaults. IS has made a number of significant innovations in its suicide bombing tactics, including deploying heavily-fortified car bombs to penetrate static defences.

Psychological effect

It has often been argued that suicide bombings have an additional psychological impact far beyond a comparable IED attack. It has been argued that there is something exceptionally repulsive and alarming about an act of violence in which the perpetrator has no concern for their own life. Likewise, suicide attacks are likely to gain more media attention for a given cause, which makes them ideal as weapons of political terror.[vii] Those attacks that inflict the most deaths and injuries, as suicide attacks can be more certain of doing, also increase the likelihood of extensive media coverage.

These secondary effects are clearly much more difficult to quantify than the operational advantages of a suicide bombing. Research has shown that, in Israel for example, there may be a correlation between mass media depictions of political violence, including suicide bombings, and the anxiety felt by the population due to this increased awareness.[viii] However, Brian Fishman’s study of the effect of Iraqi suicide attacks on popular support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq found no clear correlation between the two.[ix] He also found a distinct downward trend in mentions of suicide bombings in American editorials, suggesting that such operations were becoming normalised and losing their newsworthiness.[x]

Nonetheless, research by AOAV has shown that suicide bombings consistently gain more news coverage than other kinds of explosive violence, even if their absolute shock value has receded.

A global problem

With the destabilisation of Iraq and Syria and the spread of suicide bombing to new regions, deaths and incident numbers are now back at 2007 levels. Perhaps more worryingly, in 2007 the phenomenon was largely confined to Iraq. This allowed the US troop surge along with other policies like the aforementioned Sunni ‘awakening’ (ṣaḥwa), to put a significant dent in the harm done by suicide bombings.[xi] Whilst even IS have proven unable to inflict the kind of damage that was normal at the height of the mid-2000s Iraqi insurgency in Iraq itself, suicide attacks are now much more widespread and are affecting more countries. And there is currently no reason to assume that the numbers will not continue rising, both in specific regions and worldwide.

Suicide bombings have been the subject of horror, disgust and profound mystification, both within the research community and in the population as a whole. The potential threat of a killer willing to sacrifice their own life is a potent symbol of terror. But even if we were to disregard the psychological impact of terror by this form of violence, suicide bombings are still alarming for two reasons: they cause far more damage than any comparable weapon, and civilians are disproportionately the victims.

According to AOAV’s data from 2011-2015, the average suicide bombing kills 34 people. Of these, 26 will be civilians. In 2016 alone, there was 38 civilians casualties per attack. To compare, the figures for non-suicide IEDs – which in all respects other than the activation method are similar to suicide bombs – show that the average IED kills 13 people, ten of which are civilians. Suicide bombing thus more than doubles the expected casualty rate.[xii]

It is clear from these figures that suicide bombing represents a disproportionate threat to civilian populations worldwide, especially since it is often used in ways which violate the principle of discrimination and often is used deliberately against civilians. It would not be hyperbolic to describe it as a global problem.

Jihadist networks and the spread of suicide bombing

As we have previously noted, suicide bombings can serve as a much cheaper – albeit somewhat restricted – replacement for air power, as well as being an incredibly efficient means of causing huge civilian casualties. This itself is a compelling explanation for the choice to start making use of suicide bombers.

Nonetheless, many insurgent groups have chosen not to adopt, or failed to adopt, the use of suicide bombings. And as we have previously noted, the common element to almost all of the groups that now carry out bombings is their ideological stance – Salafi-Jihadism.

Whilst Salafi-Jihadism certainly provides a strong ideological framework to justify and encourage suicide bombing, ideas are only part of the story. Why do some groups adopt and some not? What factors are likely to discourage the adoption of suicide bombing?

Probably the most important factor in adoption or non-adoption is the connection with international jihadist networks.Whilst the actual number of Salafi-Jihadists worldwide is quite small, adopting this ideology gives groups access to a worldwide network perhaps analogous to that provided by Communism during the Cold War – although the Salafi-Jihadi network has no one state backer like the USSR. In the 2000s, it was al-Qaeda that formed the centre of this network, acquiring local affiliates through a system that has been compared to franchising. Since 2014, a significant rival has emerged in the form of the IS and its ‘provinces’ (wilāyāt).

Joining these networks – forming bonds with other organisations – allows the pooling of resources, and significantly increases an organisation’s lifespan.[xiii] In some cases – as with Chechnya – it may unlock a source of skilled foreign fighters[xiv] or potential bombers, as well as other forms of international support and legitimacy in the eyes of other jihadis. In the case of becoming an official IS ‘province’ (making bay‘a, the oath of allegiance), it gives groups access to the considerable media resources of that organisation – A‘māq (‘Depths’), the IS news agency, publishes news from all parts of the so-called IS.

Adopting the language of martyrdom and techniques shared by other Salafi-Jihadi groups around the world is, of course, part and parcel of a group’s alignment with international jihadi networks. Using suicide bombings is certainly one way of cementing a group’s symbolic relationship with the broader relationship.

At the same time, access to these jihadi networks makes groups much more able and likely to adopt suicide bombing. Analysis by Michael Horowitz has found a clear link between both institutional age and access to external expertise in the decision to adopt suicide bombing as a tactic.[xv]

Horowitz shows that younger organisations – like young companies – find it much easier to adopt new innovations in their way of doing things; suicide bombing is one such innovation. He also suggests that innovations generally diffuse through specific organisational contacts – in this case, groups training alongside each other. An organisation which is both new and has access to international expertise is much more likely to adopt suicide bombing.

The adoption of suicide bombing, in the vast majority of cases, can be traced through inter-group connections back to Hezbollah, although it is perhaps difficult to imagine now (even Hezbollah and al-Qaeda operatives once trained alongside one another).[xvi] Likewise, IS emerged from an al-Qaeda affiliate organisation in Iraq and Boko Haram has historically had intimate connections to AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The Taliban famously provided sanctuary and assistance to al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, and were apparently trained by Iraqi jihadists in the use of IEDs and suicide bombings – after which the number of bombings rose dramatically.[xvii]

As groups become more closely affiliated with international networks, even long-established groups with certain ways of doing things may launch more suicide bombings. The Filipino Abu Sayyaf group recently declared their allegiance to IS – and shortly thereafter a Moroccan bomb-maker and trainer in suicide bombings was killed fighting alongside them in Basilan.

Personnel costs

The counterpoint to the low financial costs of launching a suicide bombing is the cost in trained personnel. Suicide bombings, by definition, involve the loss of one or more operatives in the course of any operation. Any operative represents a significant investment of resources in recruitment and training. Suicide bombers are no exception, typically undergoing ideological and operational training prior to their mission.[xviii]

However, groups have found many ways to minimise the personnel cost of launching suicide missions. Hezbollah, for example, moved away from using experienced operatives in suicide missions.[xix] There is even anecdotal evidence of Hezbollah attempting to prevent the (ultimately successful) attempt of a skilled, senior military operative called Salah Ghandour from launching his own suicide mission in 1995.[xx] Groups like Boko Haram seem to largely rely on coerced hostages rather than their core membership to carry out suicide bombings.

Effect on support base

Most organisations rely to a significant degree on a constituency of loyal supporters for finances, recruits and general resources. It is very important for a group’s survival and continued operational capacity that this constituency continues to support them. It is obvious that using suicide bombing may have a serious negative effect on a group’s domestic image. Depending on the nature of the conflict and the targets of suicide bombing, the group may be perceived as ultra-violent or as guilty of murdering huge numbers of civilians, as well as counteracting moral or ideological views against suicide, which are culturally quite widespread.[xxi]

In cases where its use will have a serious impact on a group’s domestic image, it is likely that decision-makers will think twice about adopting suicide bombing as a tactic. However, it must be noted that in many cases pre-existing moral ideas about suicide can be overcome through rational argument, as with the cult of the martyr. There are also certain international constituencies in the jihadi world who hold very little aversion to, and may even welcome, ultra-violence and the nihilistic message that it spreads.

There is some evidence that al-Qaeda has recognised some of the risks of suicide bombing to its image. Ayman al-Zawahiri has released a recommendation that they should be restricted in their use and should avoid killing Muslims.

Suicide bombing has manifestly failed to turn the tide decisively in favour of insurgent groups in almost every conflict it has been used in. In the Israel-Palestine context, for example, Brym and Araj pointed out that the use of suicide bombing often incurs huge costs in the form of assassination of leaders, imprisonment of members, freezing of assets and international branding as ‘terrorists’,[xxii] which can have legal implications for foreign funding for example. The same holds true of alignment with al-Qaeda or IS in the age of the War on Terror.

Benjamin Acosta has noted that though suicide bombings are likely to negatively impact a group’s chances of strategic success, they do increase a group’s long-term survivability.[xxiii]

Propaganda value

Alongside the straightforward operational impact, suicide bombings may also have some specific positive propaganda effect for an organisation, stimulating recruitment, increasing support and, in some instances, improving their public image. This argument was famously made by Mia Bloom for Palestinian suicide bombers.[xxiv]

However, the groups which have made use of suicide bombing have either been largely separated from the general public (the Russian Nihilists, al-Qaeda) or enjoy broad public support for their cause unrelated to their use of suicide bombings (Hezbollah, Palestinian groups).[xxv]

Regardless, there is certainly an incentive now with the on-going power struggle between al-Qaeda and IS for both groups to engage in one-upmanship. There was much speculation, for example, that the IS-perpetrated Paris attacks of late 2015 came in response to the al-Qaeda-linked Charlie Hebdo attack of January.  It is possible, in light of this, that the use of suicide bombing acts as a form of proof that one organisation’s followers are more loyal to the cause than another.

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.


[i] Adam Lankford, “The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers,” Palgrave Macmillan, January 2013.

[ii] Robert Pape, “Dying to Win,” Random House, 2005.

[iii] In the EVMP coding methodology, non-specific IEDs are defined as “all IEDs which could not be categorised as either ‘roadside bombs’ or ‘car bombs’.” For suicide bombings, this typically means non-vehicle borne explosives – largely suicide vests. Non-specific IEDs were chosen for the purposes of comparison because disaggregated suicide bombing vs non-suicide bombing IED data would obscure the fact that car bombings (or ‘vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices,’ VBIEDs) represent a far greater percentage of suicide bombing incidents than of IED incidents taken as a whole. Since car bombings allow for much larger payloads, it would be misleading not to control for this factor.

[iv] In the EVMP coding methodology, a populated area is defined as an area ‘likely to contain concentrations of civilians.’

[v] AOAV, “Explosive Violence Monitoring Programme,” AOAV.

[vi] Mohammed Hafez, “Dying to be Martyrs: The Symbolic Dimensions of Suicide Terrorism,” in Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism: The Globalization of Martyrdom (Pedahzur), Routledge, 2006.

[vii] Mia Bloom, “Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror,” Columbia University Press, 2007.

[viii] Michelle Slone, “Responses to Media Coverage of Terrorism,” in Journal of Conflict Resolution (Vol. 44 No. 4), Sage Publications, August 2000.

[ix] Brian Fishman, “The Political Impact of Suicide Attacks in Iraq,” in Suicide as a Weapon – NATO Science for Peace and Security Vol. 30, IOS Press, October 2007.

[x] Brian Fishman, “The Political Impact of Suicide Attacks in Iraq,” in Suicide as a Weapon – NATO Science for Peace and Security Vol. 30, IOS Press, October 2007.

[xi] Domenico Tosini, “Al-Qaeda’s Strategic Gamble: The Sociology of Suicide Bombings in Iraq,” The Canadian Journal of Sociology Vol. 35 (No. 2), April 2010.

[xii] AOAV, Explosive Violence Monitoring Project (2015), Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), December 2015.

[xiii] Benjamin Acosta, “Live to Win Another Day: Why Many Militant Organizations Survive Yet Few Succeed,” Department of Politics and Policy, Claremont Graduate University.

[xiv] Cerwyn Moore, “Suicide Bombing: Chechnya, the North Caucasus and Martyrdom,” in Europe-Asia Studies (Vol 64, Issue 9), Taylor and Francis, October 2002.

[xv] Michael C. Horowitz, “Nonstate Actors and the Diffusion of Innovations: The Case of Suicide Terrorism,” in International Organization (64, no. 1), International Organization Foundation, 2010

[xvi] Michael C. Horowitz, “Nonstate Actors and the Diffusion of Innovations: The Case of Suicide Terrorism,” in International Organization (64, no. 1), International Organization Foundation, 2010

[xvii] Thomas H. Johnson, “Taliban adaptations and innovations,” in Small Wars and Insurgencies, (Vol 24 Issue 1), Feb 2013.

[xviii] Suleyman Özeren, “Recruitment and Training Methods of Suicide Terrorism,” in Suicide as a Weapon – NATO Science for Peace and Security Vol. 30, IOS Press, October 2007.

[xix] Michael C. Horowitz, “Nonstate Actors and the Diffusion of Innovations: The Case of Suicide Terrorism,” in International Organization (64, no. 1), International Organization Foundation, 2010

[xx] Ami Pedahzur, “Suicide Terrorism,” Wiley, December 2005.

[xxi] Stathis N. Kalyvas and Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, “Killing Without Dying: The Absence of Suicide Missions,” in Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Gambetta), OUP Oxford, September 2006.

[xxii] Robert J. Brym and Bader Araj, “Suicide Bombing as Strategy and Interaction: The Case of the Second Intifada,” in Social Forces (Vol 84 No 4), June 2006.

[xxiii] Benjamin Acosta, “Live to Win Another Day: Why Many Militant Organizations Survive Yet Few Succeed,” Department of Politics and Policy, Claremont Graduate University.

[xxiv] Mia Bloom, “Palestinian Suicide Bombing: Public Support, Market Share, and Outbidding,” in Political Science Quarterly (Vol 119, no. 1), Academy of Political Science, 2004.

[xxv] Stathis N. Kalyvas and Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, “Killing Without Dying: The Absence of Suicide Missions,” in Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Gambetta), OUP Oxford, September 2006.