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the Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism


  • Scott Atran

    () (IJN - Institut Jean-Nicod - DEC - Département d'Etudes Cognitives - ENS Paris - ENS Paris - École normale supérieure - Paris - PSL - Université Paris sciences et lettres - EHESS - École des hautes études en sciences sociales - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique - Département de Philosophie - ENS Paris - ENS Paris - École normale supérieure - Paris - PSL - Université Paris sciences et lettres)


Suicide attack is the most virulent and horrifying form of terrorism in the world today. The mere rumor of an impending suicide attack can throw thousands of people into panic. This occurred during a Shi‘a procession in Iraq in late August 2005, causing hundreds of deaths. Although suicide attacks account for a minority of all terrorist acts, they are responsible for a majority of all terrorism-related casualties, and the rate of attacks is rising rapidly across the globe. During 2000–2004, there were 472 suicide attacks in 22 countries, killing more than 7,000 and wounding tens of thousands. Most have been carried out by Islamist groups claiming religious motivation, also known as jihadis. Rand Corp. vice president and terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman has found that 80 percent of suicide attacks since 1968 occurred after the September 11 attacks, with jihadis representing 31 of the 35 responsible groups. More suicide attacks occurred in 2004 than in any previous year, and 2005 has proven even more deadly, with attacks in Iraq alone averaging more than one per day, according to data gathered by the U.S. military. The July 2005 London and Sinai bombings, a second round of bombings at tourist destinations in Bali in October, coordinated hotel bombings in Jordan in November, the arrival of suicide bombings in Bangladesh in December, a record year of attacks in Afghanistan, and daily bombings in Iraq have spurred renewed interest in suicide terrorism, with recent analyses stressing the strategic logic, organizational structure, and rational calculation involved. Whereas they once primarily consisted of organized campaigns by militarily weak forces aiming to end the perceived occupation of their homeland, as argued by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, suicide attacks today serve as banner actions for a thoroughly modern, global diaspora inspired by religion and claiming the role of vanguard for a massive, media-driven transnational political awakening. Living mostly in the diaspora and undeterred by the threat of retaliation against original home populations, jihadis, who are frequently middle-class, secularly well educated, but often "born-again" radical Islamists, including converts from Christianity, embrace apocalyptic visions for humanity's violent salvation. In Muslim countries and across western Europe, bright and idealistic Muslim youth, even more than the marginalized and dispossessed, internalize the jihadi story, illustrated on satellite television and the Internet with the ubiquitous images of social injustice and political repression with which much of the Muslim world's bulging immigrant and youth populations intimately identifies. From the suburbs of Paris to the jungles of Indonesia, I have interviewed culturally uprooted and politically restless youth who echo a stunningly simplified and decontextualized message of martyrdom for the sake of global jihad as life's noblest cause. They are increasingly as willing and even eager to die as they are to kill. The policy implications of this change in the motivation, organization, and calculation of suicide terrorism may be as novel as hitherto neglected. Many analysts continue to claim that jihadism caters to the destitute and depraved, the craven and criminal, or those who "hate freedom." Politicians and pundits have asserted that jihadism is nihilistic and immoral, with no real program or humanity. Yet, jihadism is none of these things. Do we really understand the causes of today's suicide terrorism? Do suicide attacks stem mainly from a political cause, such as military occupation? Do they need a strong organization, such as Al Qaeda? What else could be done to turn the rising tide of martyrdom?

Suggested Citation

  • Scott Atran, 2006. "the Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism," Post-Print ijn_00000676, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:ijn_00000676
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    Cited by:

    1. Blank Larry & Enomoto Carl E. & Gegax Douglas & McGuckin Thomas & Simmons Cade, 2008. "A Dynamic Model of Insurgency: The Case of the War in Iraq," Peace Economics, Peace Science, and Public Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 14(2), pages 1-28, July.
    2. Baruch Fischhoff & Scott Atran & Noam Fischhoff, 2007. "Counting casualties: A framework for respectful, useful records," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 34(1), pages 1-19, February.
    3. Jetter, Michael, 2014. "Terrorism and the Media," IZA Discussion Papers 8497, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    4. Nasir, Muhammad & Rehman, Faiz Ur & Orakzai, Mejzgaan, 2012. "Exploring the nexus: Foreign aid, war on terror, and conflict in Pakistan," Economic Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 29(4), pages 1137-1145.
    5. Sarah L. Carthy & Colm B. Doody & Katie Cox & Denis O'Hora & Kiran M. Sarma, 2020. "Counter‐narratives for the prevention of violent radicalisation: A systematic review of targeted interventions," Campbell Systematic Reviews, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 16(3), September.


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