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Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Social drivers of suicide bombing

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.

In order to understand individual motivations behind suicide attacks, one needs to look past the religious language with which such attacks are justified. That is not to say that religion is irrelevant in the equation, but that it is usually the component that enters an individuals’ radicalisation process last. In other words, many suicide bombers possess, even without the religious component, many of the characteristics which enable them to commit an act that will take their own life and others. Religion, and the martyrdom it promises, is usually what gives them purpose and finally pushes them towards the decision.

That does in no way mean that a person is born a terrorist or a suicide bomber. Nevertheless, there are several drivers in individuals’ everyday lives which may push them to commit a suicide attack. In most cases, one single reason, grievance, or driver is not enough. Rather, they usually act in confluence. In this section, we have identified three prominent drivers: social, economic and psychological.

Social drivers of suicide bombing

‘Social’ is a very broad term, and social drivers are in many cases directly linked to economic factors. Nonetheless, there are often community or relationship factors which compel the rise of suicide bombing. These include personal connections to radical environment, communal support for radical ideas, consequences of living through conflict, as well as direct coercion.

Communal support and traditions of resistance

Communal support obviously plays a key role in both legitimising and sustaining suicide bombing campaigns and convincing individuals to undertake attacks. As discussed above, traditional and social media are one method by which organisations seek this support. However, while this helps to create a cult of martyrdom, it does not alone explain support for suicide bombings.

Communal support for suicide bombing is always going to be context specific to the country and campaign in question. Pew Global Attitudes Studies suggest that the belief that suicide bombing is often or sometimes justified has generally diminished in Muslim countries over the last decade.

Equally, concerns about Islamic extremism in Muslim countries rose between 2013 and 2014. Nevertheless, significant minorities of Muslims in these countries do hold the view that suicide bombing can be justified. In the last decade large numbers of foreign fighters have journeyed to Iraq and Afghanistan to join the jihad, but Syria has witnessed an unprecedented influx of these individuals in recent years. The marketing concept of less-is-more is useful for understanding the importance of this dynamic. The revolution in communications technology means that local support is no longer as important for continued success as it once was. By utilising the Internet effectively companies found that despite declining domestic sales they could still massively increase their consumer base by selling their products globally. The same is true for jihadists. Despite declining support for these organisation and suicide bombing domestically, by effectively spreading their message across the “cyber-umma” they have managed to generate enough communal support to survive and continue their operations.

Obviously, these studies could not be conducted in countries currently experiencing extreme violence like Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. Given the extent of the suicide bombing campaigns in these areas we can be relatively certain that at least some degree of communal support must exist for the practice.

Terror management is a general theory for explaining why this support exists and fluctuates in these conflict zones. It argues that when communities perceive themselves as at risk, aggressive actions towards out-groups they find threatening become more legitimate.[i] Sustained conflicts only reinforce this. For example, surveys between 1995 and 2006 showed that unlike paramilitary operations Palestinian support for suicide bombing was strongly correlated with perceptions of threat, grievances and optimism about the future.[ii]

Looking at the regional case studies, each of these areas can be considered in whole or in part a warzone in which communities are justified in feeling under threat. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Nigeria there has been mounting violence and a general increase in the number of suicide attacks each year – except 2015 which saw a small reduction in most countries. Conversely, suicide attacks in Afghanistan have been declining since US troops started withdrawing. This changed Taliban tactics and saw them focus on more traditional paramilitary operations.

Number of attacks by year by country

Despite large numbers of civilian casualties in the last five years, suicide attacks have also typically been used against security or government targets. These attacks usually targeted army bases, police buildings, military buildings, checkpoints and soldiers on duty. In Iraq, Syria and Yemen, attacks targeting civilians often targeted the Shia population.

Within this period, suicide bombings in Iraq consistently targeted civilians in greater numbers than in other theatres – again these attacks were generally carried out in areas with a dominant Shia presence. In Sunni areas, attacks were overwhelmingly against security or government targets, whereas Shia areas bore the brunt of attacks against civilians. For example, of the 19 suicide bombings directed against civilians in 2015, 12 took place in Shia areas.

In Yemen, the vast majority of suicide bombings have been against security forces and government targets. In this case bombings have targeted both Yemeni military and Houthi rebels – with attacks on civilians primarily directed against Zaydi Shia.

Target of attacks by percentage: security and government / civilian.

AOAVs research on Dabiq further supports the importance of this often sectarian, out-group targeting dynamic, in suicide bombing in recent years. While Sunni civilians were undoubtedly killed in these attacks, of the 32 suicide bombings, 31 are explicitly described as having targeted security forces, the government or Shia civilians. At no time are the deaths of Sunni civilians mentioned, let alone the idea that they were targeted, even though this has clearly occurred as a result of IS attacks. Along with the increased vitriol of the descriptions, istishhadi were also far more likely to be identified by name in cases were Shia civilians or Iraqi Popular Mobilisation fighters were killed.

Traditions of anti-state resistance or, particularly, jihadism and other radical Islamist perspectives in specific areas are another indicator for whether a community will support a suicide bombing campaign. These traditions are often tied to long-standing economic or political grievances, although this is not necessarily the case.

Areas with well-established traditions of radical Islamism and particularly of sending people abroad to fight jihad are often bigger producers of jihadis – unsurprisingly – than other areas. Infrastructure and experience on sending jihadis abroad may already exist, making the process of travelling abroad much more realistic and easier.

Whilst the details vary from area to area, some regions of interest include Derna in Libya, (which now has at least two generations of experience of jihadi resistance and currently hosts an IS offshoot), and Qassim in Saudi Arabia. Both of these areas have been major sources of foreign fighters.[iii]

Educational attainment is another driver that is often discussed in relation to communal support for suicide bombing. The popular logic is that education reduces this support. While support for suicide bombing is always relatively low, studies conducted in the mid-2000s suggest there are no clear correlations across education levels. In Indonesia, educational attainment made people slightly less supportive of attacks targeting civilians. Those who completed higher education were more supportive of attacks on Westerners than those without primary education. Similarly, those in Jordan and Pakistan with primary education were less likely to support attacks on civilians and more likely to support attacks on Westerners than those without primary education. Surveys in Lebanon, Turkey and Morocco indicated that education had no bearing on support for suicide bombings against civilians.[iv] On the basis of this study, there is no clear connection between education and support for suicide bombing. Arguably, if educational curriculums and institutions do not promote peaceful conflict resolution then educational attainment is unlikely to have much measurable effect.

Looking at individual suicide bombers, stereotypes of them as ignorant and uneducated again appear to paint an incomplete picture. Exact information on the education levels of suicide bomber in Afghanistan and Nigeria are difficult to come by. However, general accounts suggest that while not particularly high, they are not out of keeping with the education level of the general population in the local areas in which these campaigns occurred. There was also no real correlation between education and suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria.

Corroborated documents leaked to the website Zaman Alwsl, included a list of 122 suicide bombers who crossed into IS controlled territory. These individuals had signed up to, and by this point many have engaged in, suicide bombing for the IS. The document shows that an individual’s education had no clear bearing on their motivation to engage in a suicide attack. 43% of the real and potential istishhadi had a high school level of education, 28.1% had attended college and 26.4 had primary or middle school education.

Ultimately, educational attainment is not a particularly useful dynamic for explaining either communal support for, or the individual motivations of suicide bombing and bombers.

In areas where communal support for suicide bombing exists it can also help to motivate individual bombers. Most Salafi-Jihadi propaganda includes continuous, general references to the importance and nobility of martyrdom and martyrs, which likely translates to increased social status. The Centre on Religion and Geopolitics report indicated that the virtue of martyrdom appeared explicitly in 32% and implicitly in 68% of AQAP, IS and Jabhat al-Nusra propaganda.[v] Similarly, AOAV research on Dabiq revealed that the virtue and nobility of martyrdom and martyrs was constantly referenced.

Prior to attacks, Palestinian and Hezbollah suicide attackers historically reported enhanced social status. Arab television networks spread their names, posters and calendars with their faces distributed as ‘martyrs of the month’ and potential suicide bombers were inspired by their martyrdom videos.[vi] Recruits would long have been aware of the potential increase in social status from becoming a suicide bomber. Consequently, newfound fame would not normally be a prime motivator but a side benefit for these individuals.

For IS istishhadis, this side benefit is less important as glorification of suicide attackers appears to have diminished in recent years. The Zaman Alwsl documents show that, when emigrating, some foreigners list their intention to become suicide bombers. Given historical precedents and the importance placed on martyrdom they may gain some extra social status from this. However, in Dabiq less than half of the suicide bombers selected are even mentioned by name. Of these named suicide bombers only one had their picture in the magazine. Conversely there are 13 pictures of the devastation cause by their attacks. This suggests that in the IS the attack is much more important than the attacker.

Personal connections

One of the most important common factors in the recruitment of suicide bombers is the existence of strong personal relationships with other members of a radical group.[vii]

This feature is not unique to suicide bombers specifically. It is very important in radical groups in general, as well as in conventional state military units. It plays a crucial role in convincing people to risk and sacrifice for the collective and in promoting a sense of solidarity.

Various studies of Saudi jihadis[viii] and al-Qaeda recruits in general[ix] have found that an overwhelming number of them joined through, or with, relatives or groups of friends. Suleyman Ozeren – writing for NATO – has also previously highlighted the importance of friendship groups in PKK suicide bomber recruitment in Turkey.[x] Whilst details of how specific foreign jihadis have made their way to Syria are often scarce, many of the British citizens who have gone to join IS went as groups of friends. In fact, it is notable how many of those for whom we have established identities are described in this way.

The importance of connections probably goes a long way towards explaining why it is that particularly small areas without any other distinguishing features produce so many jihadists and foreign fighters. Notable in Europe, of course, is the impoverished Brussels suburb of Molenbeek that produced the Paris terrorists.

Other countries have their own hotspots – most of the disproportionately large number of Tunisian fighters who have gone to fight with IS come from the two well-known jihadist hubs of Ben Gardane, Bizerte, Ettadhamen and Douar Hicher.

There is thus merit for a focused approach, identifying key areas of recruitment of suicide bombers and investing in thoughtful and considered interventions in these areas to reduce the allure of suicide bombing as a form of violence.

Consequences of conflict

It is something of a cliché to say that violence breeds violence, but it is nonetheless true that the wide-ranging social repercussions of armed conflict – direct and indirect experience of violence, lack of economic opportunities, the disappearance of a positive social structure and a sense of belonging – can all stimulate further conflict.

Experience of violence may generate a strong desire for revenge on the part of those who have been victims. This has been particularly well-studied in the Palestinian context. In 2001, a Hamas recruiter told journalist Nasra Hassan that “[a]fter every massacre, every massive violation of our rights and defilement of our holy places, it is easy for us to sweep the streets for boys who want to do a martyrdom operation.”[xi]

Whilst it is important not to automatically take the organisation’s own claims at face value, the idea that revenge fuelled suicide bombings launched during the Second Intifada is supported by the work of Brym and Araj, which found that most such attacks were not particularly strategically motivated, and instead came as a reaction to individual events.[xii] A similar point is made by Hilal Khashan, who notes the importance of frustration and despair as a motivation for suicide bombing.[xiii]

Similar points may be made in the case of the Taliban. A Pakistani counter-terrorism expert, Sohail Tajik, claims that 90% of recruits at suicide bomber training centres in South Waziristan were Pashtuns. Of these, 70% came from one specific tribe, the Mehsuds. Hassan Abbas believed this reflected the level of sheer tribal frustration in areas beset by chronic underdevelopment, corruption and the constant threat of violence.[xiv]

At the same time, the destruction of social structures, the absence of opportunity and positive alternatives may motivate individuals to find meaning in radical groups – which may entail becoming a suicide bomber. Anna Cornelia Beyer argues that despair and other mental health problems may encourage people to seek out inclusion, which is offered by terrorist organisations. This sense of inclusion and group solidarity may later allow individuals to subject their own survival to the ends of the collective.

The gender politics of suicide bombing

While historically suicide bombing campaigns in Palestine and Sri Lanka have seen women play a larger role, in the last five years women have taken part in very few attacks. In fact, the only continuous demographic for suicide bombers are young, single men. Of the 122 IS bombers in the Zaman Alwsl document, only 19.8 were married, whilst 68.6% were single and the rest unknown. This is mirrored in Dabiq, where of the 98 attackers identified, none were women.

Various studies have attempted to attribute psychosocial or biological explanations to this. Explanations include: adolescent rebellion, heightened testosterone leading to increased likelihood of aggression, and frustration generated by the inability to satisfy an evolutionary biological drive to mate. However, while potentially interesting, these factors are common to all young men the world over. This makes them of little value for developing a profile of a suicide bomber.

While the first female suicide bombing in Afghanistan did not occur until 2010, women have been involved in a number of attacks in Iraq. Between 2005-2010, a total of 44 attacks carried out by women took place in Iraq, 84% occurring between 2007-2008. Since 2014, Boko Haram has made the greatest use of female suicide bombers. In June 2014 a middle-aged woman detonated explosives at an army barracks in Gombe. 19 further attacks by women occurred that year; 85% of these were perpetrated by Boko Haram. 2015 has seen an exponential increase in these numbers; 124 women engaged in istishhadi operations last year, with 120 of these dispatched by Boko Haram.

As Boko Haram has shown, there are a number of advantages for using women in a suicide bombing campaign. From a strategic standpoint, women draw less suspicion than men and therefore face less challenge in reaching desired targets. Minimised body searches for women in Islamic countries and the use of pregnancy outfits and baggy clothing also make it easier to disguise explosive vests. Moreover, using female bombers often means that the fighting strength of an organisation is not reduced. From a social perspective, suicide attacks by women often produce much greater media coverage for the organisations. The belief that women do not engage in suicide terrorism and that it is inherently more disturbing also offers psychological advantage to campaigns.

By Israel Defense Forces, Propaganda Poster Glorifying Suicide Bomber, CC BY-SA 2.0,, via Wikimedia Commons

On a wider social level, emancipation and freedom from traditional gender roles have often been used to explain why some women engage in suicide bombing. Historically, studies on the PKK and the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), suggested that this was an important motivation.[xv] However the lack of attacks by women outside of Nigeria in the last five years suggests that the importance of this as a driver of suicide terrorism has declined. IS in Iraq and Syria maintain incredibly strict restrictions on women but this has not been accompanied by an increase in female suicide bombers in these areas. When IS has used female bombers, it has usually been a result of strategic necessity. For example, in August 2015 female bombers were employed in Sirte in a desperate attempt to hold the port against unity forces.

Historically, revenge has tended to be a better indicator for why some women engage in suicide bombing. This dynamic continues to be relevant. In Iraq, female insurgents have witnessed extensive warfare resulting in the loss of close family, friends and wider community members. Revenge as a motivator in female martyrdom is evidenced in the case of Baida Abdul Karim al-Shammari, a failed bomber from Diyala province in 2009. Having worked on IED construction with five of her brothers, all of whom were killed by US forces, she was captured attempting to complete the suicide attack that her brothers had planned to carry out.

More than 150 women have engaged in suicide attacks in Nigeria since 2014, killing over 1000 people. However determining the motivations of female Boko Haram bombers has proved particularly difficult. Coercion seems to play a much greater role for Boko Haram than other organisations. The group’s strategy of abducting women is well known, particularly the 270 Chibok girls in 2014 and the 400 women and children taken from Damasak in 2015. There is certainly enough evidence to support the view that some of these women have been coerced into blowing themselves up. In 2015, 35 of the 120 female Boko Haram bombers were teenagers or children aged 8-18 who were arguably too young to make an informed decision. There have also been reports that women were remotely detonated by their male accomplices.

Equally, there are many cases of women being active members of Boko Haram: in 2014 a female wing of Boko Haram recruiters was allegedly identified, female fighters have been known to attack Nigerian soldiers, and women have volunteered for suicide missions. Problematically, the data on female Boko Haram bombers comes almost exclusively from press reports, which makes determining their motives challenging. For example, we rarely know the names or ages of these women, they do not leave videos, their attacks are rarely claimed and they have predominantly struck low value targets like markets and bus depots.

Indoctrination and de-radicalisation

Because organisations channel a diverse set of personal motivations many of them use elaborate rituals to reinforce the commitment of would-be suicide bombers and prevent backsliding. This indoctrination is not brainwashing, as the majority of suicide bombers are volunteers. For recent istishhadis there is often a paucity of information on what these indoctrination rituals include. While some likely underwent extensive preparation for their attacks, others (particularly on the battlefield) will have gone from making the decision to orchestrating their attack without much time for formal rituals.

Preparatory procedures for suicide bombers have included cutting off communication with friends and family, forbidding music and television in the run up to attack, undergoing education on the importance of the jihad, re-enacting past operations and reminders of the woes of life like sickness and old age.

For Palestinian suicide bombers this process often lasted weeks though for recent suicide bombers, particularly in Iraq and Syria, it seems the procedure is quicker and more streamlined. The only near constants are a few hours of religious preparations like prayer and recitations of the Qur’an and the creation of a martyrdom video, like those discussed above, explaining the motivations of the bomber. Even the creation of these martyrdom videos are not guaranteed, nor are all of them publicly released. Whilst some videos can be useful for determining the personnel motives of the bomber, they more often present disembodied propaganda speeches and say little about the individual conducting the attack.

Another important part of the indoctrination process is that it is often carried out in cells of multiple bombers. Of the 51 suicide bombings and combined operations mentioned in Dabiq 25 were undertaken by groups of bombers. It was implied that many had known each other in advance and likely trained together. For example, the October 2015 attack on a meeting of Saudi, Emirati and Yemeni officers in Aden was a coordinated operation by four bombers that had clearly planned and prepared for the attack together, as had Abu Zahra al-Shami and Abu Uthman al-Shami for their attack on an Iraqi military base in March 2016. The power of group commitment means that individuals feel they have a personal obligation to their fellow bombers. Consequently, backing out seems like a betrayal of the group and would be incredibly shameful for the individual and potentially his family.

Coerced bombers

Beyond the soft coercion implicit in radicalisation and indoctrination procedures there are reports of bombers being more overtly coerced to act as proxies and commit attacks on behalf of terror groups. Any form of indoctrination of children is arguably coercion, as they cannot give truly informed consent.

The Taliban have long used children for insurgent activities such as blowing up IEDs, gathering surveillance and collecting discarded weapons after battles. Afghan authorities say they have arrested up to 250 children over the last 10 years for such activities. The number of children employed by the Taliban is likely much higher. In 2011, UNICEF claimed that at least 318 children had been recruited by the Taliban. While the Taliban technically forbids the use of children some of its officials have acknowledged that it occurs.

The Taliban has also used children for suicide bombing operations. Many of these children are recruited from madrasas – a school of Islamic instruction – on the Pakistani side of the border. There are thousands of unregulated madrasas in North-West Frontier Province popular with Afghans for the free education and board they provide. These madrasas represent a prime recruiting ground for Taliban groomers. In June 2012, three child suicide bombers from madrasas like these were arrested before they could conduct their attack, as were Naqibullah and Mohibullah in 2014. Interviews with failed child bombers also show many are simply recruited from the streets.

Confessions from failed child suicide bombers give an insight into how children are groomed to commit these attacks. Many were told that women and children are raped by foreign forces and that the Qur’an was being burned by Americans. Children were also told it was their religious duty to join the jihad and that their success would ensure their parents place in heaven. Lastly, some were informed that civilian casualties were excusable because many Afghans were not proper Muslims and those that were would go to heaven as martyrs. Most disturbingly, some juveniles report being given an amulet containing Qur’anic verses that would allow them to survive the blast. Others were told that the bomb blast would be painless and were given a necklace of keys with which to open the gates of paradise after the attack.

In some cases, child suicide bombers are remotely detonated by adult accomplices to ensure they complete their attack. For example, an eight year old girl was remotely detonated at a police checkpoint in central Uruzgan province in 2011.

Though the exact figures are unknown, IS is also believed to have used children in some of its suicide attacks. It is likely they relied on similar indoctrination techniques to the Taliban. General recruitment of children into IS frequently involves coercion after abduction – a favoured method. The UN estimates that at least 800 between 5 and 15 have been abducted. These children are then taken to camps to become ‘cubs of the caliphate’ and trained as child soldiers and suicide bombers. The UN Human Rights Council has reported that in 2014 children were being deployed in active combat missions including suicide bombing. A further UN official has suggested that some of the children used in these bombings ‘are mentally challenged’. In the first half of 2016, IS propaganda has depicted 12 child killers. One video included a four-year-old British boy apparently detonating a car bomb killing four alleged spies trapped in the vehicle. In August 2016, a 12-14 year old boy also targeted a Kurdish wedding party in the Turkish city of Gaziantep wounding at least 69 people.

As discussed in the gender politics of suicide bombing, Boko Haram has a history of coercing young women and children to conduct suicide attacks through indoctrination and, at times, remote detonation. In 2015 one in five of these attacks was conducted by children, 75% of which were committed by girls between 8-18. Unlike the Taliban, who primarily relied on extreme indoctrination, Boko Haram often drugs the girls and then straps the explosives to their bodies before sending them out.

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


[i] 12, pp.148-149. Paul Gill, ‘A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Suicide Bombing’, International Journal of Conflict and Violence, vol. 1 no. 2 (2007), pp. 148-149.

[ii] 12, p.149. Paul Gill, ‘A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Suicide Bombing’, International Journal of Conflict and Violence, vol. 1 no. 2 (2007), p.149.

[iii] Nate Rosenblatt, “All Jihad is Local: What ISIS’ Personnel Files Tell Us About Its Fighters,” New America, July 2016.

[iv] 18. M. Najeeb Shafiq and Abdulkader H. Sinno, ‘Education, Income, and Support for Suicide Bombings: Evidence from Six Muslim Countries’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 54, no. 1 (February 2010).

[v] Tony Blair Emman Ed-Badawy, Milo Comerford and Peter Welby, Inside the Jihadi Mind: Understanding Ideology and Propaganda (Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, 2015).

[vi] 6,7. Gregor Bruce, ‘Intrinsci and External Factors and Influences on the Motivation of Suicide Attackers’, Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, vol. 21, no. 3 (2016); Bruce Hoffman, ‘The Logic of State Terrorism’, The Atlantic, June 2003.

[vii] Anne Speckhard, “Understanding the Psycho-Social and Political Processes Involved in Ideological Support for Terrorism,” in Suicide as a Weapon – NATO Science for Peace and Security Vol 30, IOS Press, April 2011.

[viii] Thomas Hegghammer, “Saudi militants in Iraq: Backgrounds and recruitment patterns,” Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), February 2007.

[ix] Marc Sageman, “Islam and al-Qaeda,” in Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism: The Globalization of Martyrdom (Pedahzur), September 2006.

[x] Suleyman Ozeren, “Recruitment and Training Methods of Suicide Terrorism,” in Suicide as a Weapon – NATO Science for Peace and Security Vol 30, IOS Press, April 2011.

[xi] Riaz Hassan, ‘Life as a Weapon: Making Sense of Suicide Bombings’, The Flinders Journal of History and Politics, vol. 26 (2010), pp. 45-46.

[xii] 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.

[xiii] Hilal Khashan, “Collective Palestinian Frustration and Suicide Bombings,” in Third World Quarterly (Vol 24, No 6), Taylor and Francis, December 2003.

[xiv] Quoted in Hassan Abbas, “The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier,” Yale University Press, 2 May 2014.

[xv] 10, p.109. Meytal Grimland, Alan Apter and Ad Kerkhof, ‘The Phenomenon of Suicide Bombing: A Review of Psychological and Nonpsychological Factors’, Crisis, vol. 27, no. 3 (2006), p. 109.