Palestinian Suicide Attacks Revisited

Ignoring the psychological impact of Israeli military actions has led to distorted views of suicide attackers

By Basel Saleh | 2005-04-01 12:00:00

After the September 11 attacks, scholars resolved to uncover the secrets of the human bomb to preclude future attacks. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict represented an opportunity. Palestini-ans in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have included suicide attacks as part of their 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, it was essential to examine Palestinian suicide attacks to unravel the mysteries of suicide missions.

But with the exception of a few studies, most research focused on attackers' recruitment and venues of prevention. The policy implications derived from these studies centered on two counterinsurgency tactics: intercepting the funding for militant organizations and smashing their leaders. But these tactical responses don't address the root causes of terrorism. Even after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, suicide attacks spread to Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Spain, Russia, and Indonesia. The most important player in the suicide mission, the suicide bomber, went unnoticed.

What is seriously lacking and urgently needed is information about the lives of suicide attackers to identify risk factors that, directly or indirectly, led them to a suicide mission. 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.1" 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 anguished cry for justice. These young people deserve to live along with all those whom they have caused to die.2"

In the rush to produce studies on suicide attacks, researchers ignored psychological factors known to control and influence behavior, and emphasized personal characteristics, economic well-being, and education. Profiles of the personal characteristics of suicide attackers failed to disclose any common pattern. Therefore, the debate on the root causes of terrorism focused on the link between poverty and terrorism.

Innovative, but flawed, research

Economists Alan Krueger and Jitka Malechova were the first to offer an innovative empirical study on the correlation between education and poverty, and the support of or participation in terrorism. They shattered the traditional conviction that poverty can drive some to violence. However, their conclusions could imply two propositions: (a) that there are more factors at play when it comes to terrorism (i.e., neither poverty nor education alone or combined can explain it), or (b) that militant extremists are not driven to terrorism by their economic deprivation or by their ignorance, but rather by a desire to destroy the "American way of life."

The first proposition is consistent with the study authors' views. However, the media, politicians, and other scholars interpreted the results according to the second proposition. The current consensus among academics, policy makers, and military officials is that fighting poverty and fighting terrorism are not necessarily related.

The contemporary empirical research on terrorism and suicide attacks is innovative and challenging, but fundamentally misguided. Suicide attacks were 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 yearning for justice, equity, and revenge in a conflict zone is acutely deficient.

I believed that an in-depth examination of attackers' lives could explain why individuals as young as 16 would end their lives in a horrific way, and could contribute to effective tactical measures to curb such tragedies. Itried to understand, not justify, their deadly actions.

I visited Palestinian militant websites to read the biographies of suicide bombers3, and in the past two years I have compiled a comprehensive list of Palestinian militants killed before and during the second intifada. My database includes socioeconomic indicators such as age, marital status, family size, place of residence, education level, and occupation. However, as others found, there did not seem to be any pattern to uniquely define a Palestinian suicide bomber. Most were in their early 20s. Some had successful careers, others were unemployed. Many were well educated, with college degrees completed or in progress. Some were from well-to-do families, others were impoverished. Some were married with children, some newly wed, some single. Hence, it has been widely cited that neither lack of education nor poverty appear to be a prime motivator.4

This finding enjoyed undisputed and favorable reception by the media and among policy makers, especially in the US, Russia, and Israel. The new received wisdom is that military violence can quell insurgent violence. According to existing studies, government deployment of counterinsurgency measures that can disrupt economic and social life and increase economic stress on the civilian population do not necessarily cause a backlash. 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 ignore the real political, social, and psychological factors that have always motivated collective violence. Restricting attention to only economic factors or education has resulted in no understanding of Palestinian suicide attacks.

So What's Missing??

Current research on terrorism has ignored considerable research that indicates the importance of psychological factors such as frustration and trauma.

A 1999 report entitled "The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism"5summarizes research conducted by psychologists and sociologists. According to evidence cited in the report, terrorists are psychologically normal with no evidence of a depressed personality:

"There is little reliable evidence to support the notion that terrorists in general are psychologically disturbed individuals. The careful, detailed planning and well-timed execution that have characterized many terrorist operations are hardly typical of mentally disturbed individuals."

An important psychological factor prevalent in conflict zones that empirical research did not account for is the grievance factor. 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 nations.6

Psychiatrist Eyad El Sarraj recognized the impact living in a conflict zone could have on some people:

"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.7"

I have compiled a list of 50 suicide attackers from the biographies published on the Palestinian militant websites. All had a direct reference to a traumatic experience in their lives. Almost half indicate a traumatic experience in the first intifada. They were either injured, arrested, or had a family member killed or injured by the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Forty-four suicide attacks have recorded explicit grievances resulting from IDF military operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Mohammad al-Debes was killed when he infiltrated Doughet, an Israeli settlement in Gaza, on April 27, 2002. He had lost sight in an eye from tear gas and was shot in the leg during clashes with the IDF in the first intifada. His cousin was killed by IDF on November 11, 2000. According to a friend, Mohammad had decided to avenge the death of his cousin when he infiltrated Doughet armed only with a knife.

Such stories abound in the biographies of suicide attackers. There are those who had never been injured, arrested, or experienced a personal trauma. However, the evidence suggests that personal grievances have considerable weight in motivating attacks. Military measures may have the short-term effect of subduing violence, but in the long run, make more attacks inevitable.

Psychologist Rona Fields examined Palestinian children who survived the Sabra/Shatila Massacre in Lebanon in 1982. She revealed that most 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" created by Abu Nidal Organization, killed 13 people, including children.8

National Geographic host Lisa Ling traveled to Chechnya and to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to speak with families of 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.9"

Political scientist Hilal Khashan conducted a study of factors that contribute to Palestinian support and proneness to participating in suicide missions. His findings, contrary to existing studies by US 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.10

A divide has emerged between the widely held views among politicians and scholars in the US, 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. Future research on suicide attacks must take a more holistic approach in order to illuminate, not obscure, the root causes of this tragedy.

1 Quoted with permission from a book manuscript by Jennifer Harbury (2004).

2 Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Suicide Bombers: What is Theologically and Morally Wrong with Suicide Bombings? A Palestinian Christian Perspective. Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Document No. 1 (2003).

3 Data is available upon request from the author.

4 Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, "Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection." NBER working paper series (2002). Published in the Fall 2003 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. It is the first paper since 9/11 that attempts to quantitatively address the link between poverty and education and terrorism. For my critique of the findings of this paper, please visit

5 Rex Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism. Library of Congress-Federal Research Division (September 1999).

6 As cited in Kenneth Boulding, Conflict and Defense (1962), p. 28.

7 Eyad El Sarraj, "Suicide Bombers: Dignity, Despair, and the Need for Hope," Journal of Palestine Studies, 29(4), Summer 2002, pp. 71-76.

8 Rona Fields, "The Psychology and Sociology of Martyrdom," in Rona Fields et al., eds. Martyrdom: The Psychology, Theology, and Politics of Self-Sacrifice (Connecticut: Praeger, 2004), p. 23.

9 Brian Handwerk, "Female Suicide Bombers: Dying to Kill." Interview with Lisa Ling published on National Geogra-phic website on December 13, 2004. See

10 Hilal Khashan, "Collective Palestinian Frustration and Suicide Bombings," Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 6, 2003, pp. 1049-1067.

Basel Saleh is Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Minnesota.

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