Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Fully Committed: Suicide Bombers’ Motivation and the Quest for Personal Significance

Abstract: A motivational analysis of suicidal terrorism is outlined, anchored in the notion of significance quest. It is suggested that heterogeneous factors identified as personal causes of suicidal terrorism (e.g. trauma, humiliation, social exclusion), the various ideological reasons assumed to justify it (e.g. liberation from foreign occupation, defense of one’s nation or religion), and the social pressures brought upon candidates for suicidal terrorism may be profitably subsumed within an integrative framework that explains diverse instances of suicidal terrorism as attempts at significance restoration, significance gain, and prevention of significance loss. Research and policy implications of the present analysis are considered.



Authors: Arie W. Kruglanski, Xiaoyan Chen, Mark Dechesne, Shira Fishman and Edward Orehek, University of Maryland, College Park. This paper appeared in Political Psychology 2009, and was supported by DHS grant N000140510629 to NC START (National Center of Excellence for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism). University of Maryland, College Park. 

“Mankind's common instinct for reality has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism. In heroism, we feel, life's supreme mystery is hidden. We tolerate no one who has no capacity whatever for it in any direction. On the other hand, no matter what a man's frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically, in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever” (William James, 1902/1969, p. 330)


The motivations underlying suicide terrorism are of major interest to terrorism researchers, possibly for two underlying reasons. One reason is epistemic, and it stems from curiosity about a bizarre phenomenon: The readiness of seemingly unexceptional human beings not only to massively murder innocents, but also to sacrifice their lives in the process, contrary to the basic human instinct of physical survival. The second reason is pragmatic. Understanding terrorists’ motivation may be a pre-condition for altering it, hence it offers a potentially important tool for counterterrorism.

Major recent analyses (e.g. by Bloom, 2005, Pedahzur, 2004, Sageman (2004), or Stern, 2005) devoted considerable attention to terrorists’ motivations. They differed, however, in the kind and variety of motives identified as relevant to suicide terrorism. Some authors emphasized a singular motivation (Sageman, 2004, Pape, 2005), others listed a potpourri of motives (Bloom, 2005; Stern, 2005).

For instance, Sageman’s (2004) work on terrorist networks emphasized the quest for emotional and social support by Muslims of European Diasporas who feel rejected by, and alienated from the local societies. Pape (2005) highlighted resistance to foreign occupation as a main motivating force. Spekhard & Akhmedova (2005) assigned this role to personal loss and trauma. And Nasra Hassan’s (2001) concluded that Hamas terrorists’ main motivation concerned entering “Paradise.. being in the presence of Allah… meeting the prophet Muhammad” and reaping the rewards of participating in a Holy war.

In contrast to an emphasis on a single crucial motivation (quest for social support, coping with trauma, martyrdom), Bloom (2005), listed diverse motivations for suicide terrorism, including honor (pp. 87, 145), dedication to the leader (pp. 64), social status (pp. 65), personal significance (pp. 88), pain and personal loss (pp. 35, 86-87, 145), group pressure (pp. 85), humiliation and injustice (pp. 35, 86), vengeance (pp. 63-64, 86-87), or feminism (pp. 143, 145-147) (i.e., convincing society of women’s contribution). Similarly, Stern (2005) mentioned as possible motives humiliation (pp. 32, 62, 281, 285), exposure to violence (pp. 53), occupation (pp. 57, 59, 136), lack of alternative prospects (pp. 69), modernization (pp. 69), displacement (pp. 132, 284), restoration of the glory of Islam (pp. 135), poverty(pp. 284), moral obligation (pp. 148, 281), need to belong (pp. 9), desire to enter heaven (pp. 125), simplification of life (pp. 69), inspirational leadership (pp. 171), friendship (pp. 47), status (pp. 51, 22, 54, 282), glamour (pp. 51), money and support for one’s family (pp. 51, 62). In a similar vein, Ricolfi (2005, p. 106) suggested that “the motivational drive to engage in suicide missions is likely to be found in a cocktail of feelings, which include desire for revenge, resentment, and a sense of obligation towards the victims, as revealed in the…video recorded pronouncements” (emphasis added).

A reasonable step in dealing with such a heterogeneity might be to reduce it by classifying the varied motives identified so far into fewer, more general, motivational categories. Several authors have hinted at such a classification typically based on a partition between ideological reasons, and personal causes for becoming a suicide terrorist (Pedahzur (2005, Taarnby, 2005).

In these terms, alienated individuals’ quest for social and emotional support (Sageman, 2004) may be assumed to stem from their personal experience. So do the pain, trauma, and redemption of lost honor, often listed as motives. In contrast, liberation of one’s land, or carrying out God’s will, pertain to ideological factors (Atran, 2004; 2006) that transcend individual actors’ life circumstances. By ideology, one usually means a belief system centered around some social or collective ideal (e.g., based on the values of justice, fairness, or inalienable rights). Ideology’s motivating power resides in its identifying a discrepancy from an ideal state and offering a means of removing the discrepancy through action. A terrorism justifying ideology identifies a culprit (the enemy, e.g. the West, Israel) presumed responsible for the discrepancy and portrays violence against that culprit (e.g., jihad) as an effective means for moving toward the ideal state. 1,2

Beside ideological reasons and personal causes, a third motivational category likely involved in suicidal attacks involves a sense of social duty and obligation whether internalized or induced by peer pressure. This is apparent in data on the Japanese Kamikaze pilots (e.g., Ohnuki-Tierney, 2006) but it is also relevant to present day suicidal terrorism (Bloom, 2005; Gambetta, 2005; Merari, 2002; Stern, 2005).

Classification of terrorist motives into ideological, personal, and social is helpful, yet insufficient. It is descriptive rather than analytic and it stops short of explicating the underlying dynamics of suicidal terrorism. Several questions remain. For instance, is either of these motive categories unique to terrorism, or could they foster alternative activities in alternative circumstances? The answer seems obvious. Alienation, pain and trauma could foster numerous nonviolent activities. The same holds for ideological objectives and social pressures. As concerns ideological objectives, Mahatma Ghandi’s ideological commitments identified non-violence as the supreme means for the pursuit of freedom from foreign rule (Bondurant, 1988); Ghandi’s ideological commitment to non violence was adopted by Martin Luther King in reference to the civil rights movement in the U.S. Similarly, social pressures and a sense of duty and obligation represent psychological mechanisms of influence capable of inducing any kind of commitment, not necessarily commitment to violence. Thus, the question is what precise role do these motives play in terrorism, and under what circumstances might they instigate it.

It is also of interest to ask whether all three motivational categories constitute authentic terrorism-driving forces and if not which is, and which isn’t. Different authors varied in their position on this issue. Some (Sageman, 2004: Spekhard & Akhmedova, 2005) regarded personal circumstance factors as the true explanations of terrorists’ behavior and viewed their ideological statements as post hoc justifications. As Spekhard and Akhmedova (2005, p. 25) put it “..the political statements of the individuals involved in terrorism appear less of a driving force for their participation than as a means of justifying their actions..”. Similarly, Sageman (2004, p. 108) agreed with Dambruoso that , “ [the jihadists motivation] is not religious, it is psychological and personal.”

Other authors put greater faith in terrorists’ idealism. Pape (2005) in particular noted that “egoistic and anomic motives are insufficient. Altruistic motives, either alone or in conjunction with others, play an important role” (p. 184). Too, Gunaratna argued that “what actually motivates Al Qaeda is not power, wealth or fame but an ideological belief in their struggles” (Gunaratna, 2007, pp. 29).

Atran (2004, pp. 68-69) observed that terrorists “..are motivated not by personal comfort or immediate gain but rather by religious or ideological conviction and zeal” and that “debriefings with captured Al Qaeda operatives at Guantanamo, and with Jemmah Islamiyah prisoners in Singapore suggest that recruitment to these organizations is more ideologically driven than grievance-driven” (ibid). Yet other authors (e.g., Pedahzur, 2005) proposed a differentiation whereby some individuals carry out terrorist acts for ideological reasons (such as commitment to a cause or an ideology), whereas others do so because of personal crises. In short, recent analyses of terrorists’ motivations enumerate a broad variety of possible motives and include a heterogeneity of positions and perspectives on this issue. These differences among scholars require sorting out.

The present paper attempts to “connect the dots” furnished by several recent analyses of motivational factors in suicidal terrorism. By synthesizing a widely dispersed literature, it seeks to uncover a deep motivational structure that may afford a common understanding of numerous disparate instances of this phenomenon, and suggest how the various motive-categories identified thus far may functionally relate to each other. As a preview of what is to come, we first introduce the concept of “significance quest” as an overarching motive propelling suicidal terrorism. We then explore the implications of this motivational notion and review empirical evidence relevant to those implications. We finally explore the ramifications of our analysis for counterterrorism, and discuss strategies for minimizing suicidal terrorism at levels of military strategy, foreign policy, immigration programs and educational initiatives.

The Quest for Significance as the Underlyng Motivation for Suicidal Terrorism

The quest for personal significance has been hailed by psychological theorists as a major motivational force in human behavior. In this vein, Victor Frankl (2000, p. 138) wrote “that a fundamental characteristic of the human reality [which he came to term]..its self transcendent quality [denotes the fact that] being human always relates and points to something other than itself.. [person] is oriented toward the world out there.. [she or he] is actualizing himself to the extent that he is forgetting himself by giving himself ..through serving a cause higher than himself..[According to Frankl then,] self-transcendence is the essence of human existence..”

Abraham Maslow’s (1943) influential theory of motivation identifies self-esteem and self actualization concerns as top level human strivings of obvious affinity to Frankl’s “search for meaning” notion. In Maslow’s (1965, p. 78) terms, “the business of self actualization” can best be carried out via commitment to an important job”, that is, to a transcendental cause of recognized societal significance (Frankl, 2000, p. 84).

Recent analyses of human motivation (Becker, 1973; Greenberg, Koole and Pyszczynski, 2004) have implied that in the human species the biological need for physical survival is intimately linked to the quest for personal meaning and significance. The reason is assumed to stem from humans’ awareness of their own mortality, and the implied threat of personal insignificance; the nightmare of ending up as “a speck of insignificant dust in an uncaring universe.” It is this awareness that motivates people to “do well” in culturally prescribed ways, and to be “good” members of society. A supreme “goodness” in this sense is the readiness to sacrifice oneself for the group in an hour of need (typically, in case of a severe perceived threat to the group’s survival).

As Crenshaw (2007, p. 153) recently summarized it: “the [suicidal] act is not just about dying and killing. The expectation of gaining status and respect as a martyr for the cause is important, so that individual action is linked to anticipation of both popular approval and collective political success…Sacrifice for the cause is both personally redemptive and a mark of honor, a way of becoming a hero and part of an exalted elite. ..It [contrasts sharply with] an otherwise insignificant or disappointing life.”

Putting the group first is highly valued and rewarded by nothing less than the promise of immortality. The group remembers its heroes and martyrs; symbolically, their lives go on in the group’s collective memory. Furthermore, through the act of sacrifice, one’s personal identity is meshed with that of the group (Post et al., 2004); so that the group’s continued existence becomes inseparable from one’s own. As Elster (2005, p. 241) noted “a common denominator [of motivations for suicidal terrorism] is a desire to transcend death by living on in the grateful or admiring memory of others….” From a yet different perspective, personal sacrifice may serve the individual’s gene pool and/or value system shared by one’s kin. Hence, suicidal terrorism may be powered by evolutionary forces (Abed, 1997; Buss, 1996; Trivers, 1985).

Finally, in the jihadist ideology at least Shahadat (martyrdom) does not signify an end of individual existence, but rather immortality in highly pleasurable circumstances. For male shaheeds it entails the promise of paradise, and the allure of wedding numerous (seventy two) virgins of incomparable beauty (Hafez, 2006). Paradise is also promised to female shaheeds. It is believed to entail removal of the severe restrictions on their sexual relations, the possibility of having liaisons with past Muslim heroes, becoming one of the seventy two virgins, bestowal of great beauty irrespective of one’s worldly physical appearance, the opportunity to meet Allah and the prophet Muhammad, and liberation from the grave’s pains for 70 members of one’s family (Berko & Erez, 2006) 3.

In a sense then, whether reflecting symbolic immortality and a place in the group’s collective memory, or concrete immortality as denizens of paradise, paradoxically, the willingness to die in an act of suicidal terrorism may be motivated by the desire to live forever.

Is Significance Quest Unique to Suicidal Terrorism?

Is significance quest assumed to underlie suicidal terrorism unique to this particular phenomenon? Obviously not. As noted by motivational theorists such as Frankl (2000), Becker (1962), or Maslow (1843, 1967) the quest for significant existence constitutes a fundamental human striving, accounting for a broad preponderance of human activities. We behave in accordance with the dictates of our culture and its norms. The adolescent culture tells the teenager what counts as “cool” and what activities are “trendy” and likely to gain the peers’ approval. The norms of aesthetics and morality, suggest to members of a community what is valued and respected in their culture, hence what constitutes a “good life,” that confers significance on one’s existence. At moments of crisis, however, an opportunity may present itself for an enormous significance gain, unimaginable in ordinary circumstances; such opportunity may be often coupled with the potential for considerable significance loss in case one had failed to respond to the challenge. On this analysis, the underlying motivation for suicide terrorism involves the coupling of a quest for significance with a collective crisis situation, involving a perceived threat to one’s group, and a terrorism justifying ideology whereby a suicide attack is portrayed as an act of heroic sacrifice (martyrdom) lending one’s existence and demise an aura of supreme glory. As Gambetta (2005, p. 270) put it “All suicide missions belong to a family of actions in which people go to the extremes of self-sacrifice in the belief that by doing so they will best further the interests of a group or the cause they care about and identify with”

The foregoing analysis begs the question as to motivational commonalities and differences between suicidal and non suicidal brands of terrorism. To start with a commonality, endorsement of a terrorism-justifying ideology may well underlie the activities of non-suicidal participants in the terrorist enterprise, operators of improvised explosive devices (the IEDs), and other personnel carrying out the logistic, financial, supply, or transportation tasks of a terrorist organization. A major difference between suicidal and nonsuicidal terrorists seems to reside in the specific role one assigns oneself within the common ideological context. Thus, whereas many may agree that the goal of the terrorist organization is worthy, and that terrorism constitutes an effective and morally warranted means to that goal (Kruglanski & Fishman, 2006), only some may adopt the act of suicidal terrorism as their personal assignment. Because of the extremity of the act, and its exclusivity (that is, incompatibility with alternative, socially sanctioned, objectives) it will likely require a conjunction of psychological forces of supreme magnitude (particularly intense significance quest, particularly powerful social pressures, and a particularly engulfing presence of a suicide-prompting rhetoric). In this sense then, the motivations involved in suicidal and nonsuicidal types of terrorism may differ in degree rather than in kind. Simply put, suicidal terrorism confers upon one greater prestige and represents a more auspicious opportunity for significance gain. For instance, in the case of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) even though all members of the organization are required to commit suicide when captured, the “Black Tigers, the LTTE suicide unit.. are considered elite” (Stack-O’Connor, 2007, p. 52). As Ricolfi (2005, pp.113-114) put it in reference to Palestinian suicide bombers: “ A martyr is not an anonymous militant who caries out a mission, and whose name may remain unknown. A martyr is a volunteer who has been selected, who leaves a last will and testament…, and who will be remembered by his fellow countrymen through photographs, posters, murals, and plaques exhibited in public places…While a militant may die anonymously, and thus sacrifice himself twice, a martyr pays ‘only’ with his life but obtains fame and recognition in return. The symbolic calculation may explain why certain people may prefer to choose martyrdom directly over militancy of a more traditional kind.” In summary, suicidal terrorism represents an extreme case of significance quest, an opportunity to catapult oneself to the pinnacle of cultural veneration by an act of supreme sacrifice for an ideologically touted cause.


Our analysis has several testable implications. If reminders of one’s own mortality convey one’s potential insignificance then such reminders should augment the quest for significance as defined by one’s cultural norms and accepted ideological frames. In some cases, such norms and ideologies may identify the suicide mission against one’s groups enemies as a most honorable act, lending one a sense of immense veneration and significance.

If our theory is valid, adoption of cultural causes that lend one a sense of personal significance should reduce death-anxiety. Furthermore, perceived loss of significance through events other than mortality reminders should fuel efforts at significance restoration. Finally, a threat of potential loss of significance should instigate preventive actions designed to fend it off. Taken as a body, these implications identify a deeper motivational theme, of significance quest, that ties together the categories of personal circumstances, ideological reasons, and social pressures involved in suicidal terrorism. This theme is consistent with empirical data of various kinds. We review them below.

Terror Management Research

Much recent psychological research supports the idea that reminders of one’s own mortality motivate individuals to embrace their group’s culture and ideals. By now this prediction has been corroborated in hundreds of psychological experiments carried out in numerous world locations. In one well known study, it was found that when research participants were reminded of their mortality they recommended a more severe sentence for a prostitute, representing a deviant from cultural norms (Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, Lyon, 1989). Yet other work found that exposing Italians to death reminders increased their bias in favor of Italy (their in-group), and the perception that Italy was cohesive and united. Castano and Dechesne (2005, p. 233) recently concluded from this research that: “Becoming part of collective entities [allows] individuals to extend their selves in space and time [and hence] to overcome the inherent limitations of their individual identity inextricably linked to a perishable body.”

Recent research by Pyszczynski and colleagues (Pyszczynski, Solomon, Greenberg, Cohen, & Weise, 2006) looked at the effect of mortality salience on Iranian students and their respective support for martyrdom. When Iranian students answered questions about an aversive topic (unrelated to death), they evaluated a fellow student who opposed martyrdom attacks against the United States more favorably then a student who supported martyrdom attacks. However, the reverse was found when Iranian students answered questions about their own death. In this instance, they rated more highly the student who supported martyrdom then one who opposed it.

Real Life Death Reminders

Mortality reminders can come in the form of personal trauma occasioned by the loss of a loved one. Spekhard & Akhmedova (2005) carried out an extensive study of Chechen suicide terrorists via interviews with their family members and close associates and with hostages who spoke with the terrorists during the three day siege in Moscow’s Dubrovka theater. The relevant data are displayed in Table 1.



Table 1: Frequency of Traumatic Events in the Lives of Suicide Bomber

Traumatic Event Frequency %  
More than one family member killed 16 47    
Father or mother killed 5 15    
Brother killed 8 23    
Husband killed 1 3    
Family member disappeared after arrest 3 9    
Family member tortured 1 3    
Total 34 99    
















As can be seen, all of the interviewees mentioned traumatic events that appeared to alter the course of the fallen terrorists’ lives. Indeed, the authors concluded: “when we looked for the primary motivation in our sample of terrorists we would have to say that it was trauma in every case” (Spekhard & Akhmedova, 2005, pp. 25-26). Of particular interest, Spekhard and Akhmedova (2005, p. 22) observed that their subjects sought out ideological inspiration in response to their personal trauma. Specifically, “In the interviews concerning the accomplished suicide terrorists eighty-two percent (28/34) were secular Muslims prior to their experiences of trauma. Of these, twenty-seven had no prior relationship to fundamentalist militant groups but sought out the Wahhabists radical groups in direct reaction to the traumas they had endured knowing full well of the groups’ beliefs and terroristic practices.” It appears then that personal trauma, feelings of alienation, and disenfranchisement , etc., may spur a quest for meaning that in cases of a severe intergroup conflict may be afforded by a terrorism-justifying ideology. 4

Commitment to Cultural Causes Attenuates Death Anxiety

Terror management research demonstrates a link between overcoming death anxiety and commitment to cultural causes. In turn, commitment to cultural causes may attenuate death anxiety. In other words, if death reminders cause anxiety because of the insignificance threat (the “speck of dust” prospect) they convey, and if embracement of cultural causes restores one’s sense of significance then embracement of cultural causes should attenuate death anxiety. In support of this possibility, Durlak (1972) found a significant negative correlation (r=-.68; p<.001) between purpose in life defined in terms of commitment to cultural objectives and measured by Crumbaugh (1973) PIL (Purpose in Life) test and fear of death. Illustrating the reverse effect, Mikulincer, Florian, Birnbaum, & Malishkevich, 2002) showed that depriving people of a sense of belonging increases death related cognitions. Arndt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Simon (1997) first reminded half of their participants about death and assessed their reactions to pro and anti-US essays. Unsurprisingly, accessibility of death thoughts increased after the reminder of death. Importantly, accessibility of death thoughts declined after participants were given the opportunity to derogate the critic, in this sense defending the cultural norm.

The link between a sense of “oneness” with the group and the attenuation of death anxiety (possibly instilling the readiness to sacrifice oneself for the collective) appears to have been intuitively understood by leaders whose causes required from their followers acts of supreme self denial. In this vein, Mao Tse Tung asserted “All men must die, but death can vary in its significance… To die for the people is heavier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather..” (quoted in Lifton, 1968, p. 27).

Overcoming death-anxiety through commitment to ideological objectives plays a significant part in the indoctrination of contemporary suicide terrorists. One failed suicide terrorist interviewed by Nasra Hassan (2001) was asked “How did you feel when you heard that you’d been selected for martyrdom?” He answered: “It’s as if a very high, impenetrable wall separated you from Paradise or Hell,” he said. “by pressing the detonator, you can immediately open the door to Paradise — it is the shortest path to Heaven.”Another failed suicide terrorist recounted: “I spent a month in a mosque. I learned how important it is to be a shaheed. It is is the loftiest objective. It's the biggest and most holy thing you can do. And then you receive all the rewards in Paradise…”

The Ubiquity of Ideological Justifications for Suicidal Terrorism

Explicit statements by failed suicide terrorists, or farewell videos left by “successful” ones, contain ample evidence for ideological arguments. We examined over three hundred clips from the MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) TV database (from late 2004 to the present). MEMRI’s TV monitoring center that oversees every major Arab channel focusing on political, cultural, religious, and social developments and debates in the Arab and Muslim world and in Iran. Its data base contains a large number of video clips from farewell tapes of suicide terrorists, interviews with captured terrorists, failed suicide terrorists who were captured and imprisoned and those who escaped from prison. It additionally includes interviews with the mothers (father in one case) of successful suicide terrorists.

We had four coders independently go through three hundred clips (from late 2004 to the present) in two pertinent categories, namely “Jihad and Terrorism” and “Suicide (Martyrdom) Operation”. From among all clips in these two categories we identified seven farewell videos from suicide terrorists and five interviews with mothers of successful suicide bombers. We analyzed these videos in terms of the motives they implied for carrying our suicide missions and engaging in terrorist attacks. The researches used a set of keywords to identify and group the motives into the two general categories: ideological/collectivistic and personal. For the category of ideological/collectivistic motives we used the key words: martyr, Jihad, Allah, heaven, role model, pride, honor, love of country, defense/fight for (one’s people/country/community/homeland), wedding (to the black eyed virgin of the paradise), support of one’s brethren (e.g., Iraqi brethren), fighting infidels (e.g., Americans), occupation (of) homeland, sacred, etc. We operationally defined the category of personal motives in terms of all statements regarding individual affairs (e.g. the loss of a family member, destitution). As can be seen in Table 2 that includes the seven farewell videos from MEMRI, the suicide terrorists’ statements reveal exclusively ideological motivations.


Table 2 here

We broadened our search by analyzing several recent tapes featured on the website of the Palestine Media Watch (PMW). The PMW is an organization established in 1996 to gain an understanding of Palestinian society through monitoring of the Palestinian Arabic language media and schoolbooks. PMW describes and comments on the Palestinian culture and society from numerous perspectives, including studies carried out on youth summer camps, analyses of poetry, schoolbooks, religious ideology, crossword puzzles etc. In September, 2006 this website featured six farewell tapes of recent suicide terrorists. Of these, five mentioned religion as the reason for their fateful decision, represented in terms such as ‘Allah,’ ‘Qu’ran,’ ‘Prophet,’ ‘purify,’ ‘jihad,’ or ‘martyrdom’. Four tapes mentioned the rewards for martyrdom related to reaching ‘Paradise’ and wedding the ‘Maidens of Paradise’. Two mentioned nationalism, including language about ‘liberating occupied Palestinian land,’ and one mentioned collectivistic revenge for ills inflicted on the Palestinians by the Israelis (see Table 3).

The PMW website also featured 9 recent interviews with mothers of successful suicide attackers. All nine mentioned religion, expressed in language about “Allah”, “Shahada,” etc. One mentioned nationalism (fighting for the ‘homeland’). Three mentioned ‘pride and honor’ accorded the terrorists and their families by the community, and three out of the nine mentioned Paradise and its Maidens. Table 4 presents our analysis of stated reasons for the suicide action from the 9 PMW and the 5 MEMRI interviews of mothers of successful suicide bombers (one father as well). Once again, the statements by suicide bombers’ and their parents suggest that the motivation underlying their acts was ideologically based.

In a recent work, Oliver & Steinberg (2005) discuss a video titled “The Giants of Al Qassam Imlaq” and recorded by three Hamas soldiers prior to a planned suicide mission (that was ultimately thwarted). Ideological statements pervade their rhetoric as well. For instance, the first of the three Giants Mahir Abu Surur stated that the martyr’s mission was to “present our spirits and make our blood cheap for the sake of Allah and out of love for this homeland and for the sake of the freedom and honor of this people in order that Palestine remain Islamic, and Hamas remain a torch lighting the road of all the perplexed and all the tormented and the oppressed, and Palestine be liberated”. The remaining Giants offer similarly ideological reasons for their intended actions (Oliver & Steinberg, 2005, p. 120)


Tables 3 and 4 here

Authentic or manufactured ideologies? One might wonder whether the farewell videos left by the would be suicide terrorists or their parents reflected these individuals’ genuine beliefs, or whether their statements were prepackaged, and “put in the speakers’ mouths” by the terrorists’ organizational launchers. Even if the latter were the case, however, (i.e., if the statements were, in fact, pre-manufactured) it doesn’t mean that the statements’ substance wasn’t authentically embraced by their deliverers. Three psychological arguments militate against such a conclusion: (1) It is unlikely that one would go so far as to sacrifice one’s own life for something one didn’t actually believe, (2) the sheer act of making such statements and rehearsing them may well produce the well known “saying is believing effect” (Higgins, McCann and Fondacaro, 1982; Janis and King, 1954), in which the communicator ends up believing a statement he or she was induced to recite, particularly if the communication was addressed to a respected audience, and (3) It is generally conceded that such tapes are typically used as effective recruitment devices; hence, they are likely to be believable to candidates for suicidal missions. Furthermore, the contents of the tapes are, if anything, more likely to be firmly embraced in temporal proximity to the mission, when social and personal pressures to fully commit to the mission are mounting.

To summarize, (1) mortality salience may prompt individuals to strengthen their commitment to collectivistic (cultural) causes embodied in prevalent ideologies, (2) in numerous instances personal losses and traumas (arguably representing real life inducements of “mortality salience”) may lead individuals to embrace ideological causes (Spekhard and Akhmedova, 2005), and (3) in the preponderance of cases suicide terrorists’ stated reasons for their actions were in fact ideological. These data are consistent with the possibility that mortality salience represents a significance loss prompting an attempt at significance restoration via an embarkation on a culturally revered act (self sacrifice for a collective cause) identified as such in a prevalent ideological frame.

Alternative Sources of Significance Loss

It is important to note that reminders of one’s own mortality constitute merely one among several cues to insignificance. Other such cues may originate in one’s current life circumstances. Feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement by Muslim youth in European Diasporas (Sageman, 2004) could be of this ilk. So could social shame and ostracism to which one might be subjected by failing to live up to the norms of one’s society.

For instance, Wafa Idris, the first female suicide terrorist in Palestine, was infertile, and wanted to show the community that she still had her pride (Pedahzur, 2004, pp. 138-139). Shifa Adnan Al-Qudsi a twenty-six-year-old from Tulkarm who was arrested before she was able to complete her suicidal mission suffered a social stigma because of her divorce (Pedahzur, 2004, p. 139). Ayat Al Akhras, was socially shunned because she was rumored to have had extramarital sex (Pedahzur, 2004, p. 140). A sixteen-year-old boy from Nablus who detonated an explosives belt when approached by Israeli police on 16 June 2002 was said to have been infected with the HIV virus (ibid., p. 138). In all these cases, and many others, a sense of personal loss of significance as a consequence of deviating from normative injunctions of a highly traditional society may well have introduced a strong quest for significance restoration believed to be served by sacrificing oneself for a cause.

Relative Deprivation

Often a perceived loss of significance pertains to a sense of injustice dealt to a group with which one strongly identifies, hence constituting a principal aspect of one’s social identity. Indeed, a major motivational analysis of terrorism and political violence (Gurr, 1970) is based on the concept of relative deprivation. This notion refers to the experience of being denied something to which one feels entitled (Runciman, 1966; Olson, Herman & Zanna, 1986; Walker & Smith, 2001). Political scientists and sociologists invoked the relative deprivation of a social class or sector as an important underlying factor in social movements, that in extreme cases may inspire violence expressed in rioting, terrorism and civil wars (Gurr, 1970). According to this view, social movements may arise when people feel deprived of what in their eyes constitutes their “fair share” (Rose, 1982). Importantly, “relative deprivation” need not be real or objective, but rather represent a subjective feeling of injustice and a sense of collective grievance.

The emphasis on the experience of relative deprivation and its pertinence to terrorism casts an important light on the findings that poverty, poor education, or political oppression as defined by some absolute standards may not appear to constitute root causes of terrorism (Atran, 2003; Krueger & Maleckova, 2002; Berreby, 2003) and that well-known perpetrators of suicidal terrorism (e.g., Muhammad Atta and his 9/11 co-conspirators) were neither destitute nor poorly educated. Despite their adequate personal resources, there are good reasons to believe that they felt either that they themselves or their group had less (e.g., freedom, respect) than they deserved, that they were denied their national (Pape, 2005) or religious (Hafez, 2007) rights, or that they were discriminated against by native citizens of their host countries (Sageman, 2004).

The psychological relevance of relative deprivation to the notion of significance loss is straightforward. A disparity between what one has and what one feels entitled to may readily induce a sense of disrespect and disparagement on part of the actor(s) deemed responsible for such derision. Should it be allowed to stand, such a humiliation may betoken an acceptance of one’s inferiority and hence a profound sense of significance loss relative to what seemed right and just.

Adoption of Collectivistic Goals and Support for Terrorism

Where individuals perceive their group to confront enemies who deprive it of its entitlements, adoption of collectivistic goals, touted in an accessible ideology, may motivate support for terrorism. Such goals relate to removal of the apparent discrepancy between the group’s current outcomes and what it subjectively deserves. In an electronic survey recently conducted in 12 Arab countries, as well as in Pakistan and Indonesia we found that the endorsement of individualistic objectives such as education, professional success and raising a family was associated with significantly lower support for attacks on Americans (whether military personnel or civilians) than endorsement of transcendental goals such as defending one’s nation or one’s religion (Fishman, Orehek, Chen, Dechesne, & Kruglanski, 2006). Adoption of collectivistic goals may reflect the motivation to remove the group’s perceived state of relative deprivation and in this sense, it may represent a significance quest via militancy and terrorism.


Socialization into Suicide-Justifying Ideology and Significance Gain

The quest for significance doesn’t necessarily require acute reminders of insignificance (mortality salience), or the personal experience of significance loss. The notion of relative deprivation pertains to a subjective experience or a belief that one’s group’s just deserts have been unfairly denied. It thus defines an opportunity for significance gain, inculcated early in the socialization process, or “bred in the bone” (Post, 2005). Recently, the Egyptian daily Ruz al Yusuf (of August 18, 2006) has published a report about the Hezbollah Shi’te youth movement “Imam al-Mahdi Scouts.” These children range in age from 8-16, number in the tens of thousands, and are indoctrinated with the ideology of radical Iranian Islam. According to Ruz al Yusuf the objective is “to train high caliber Islamic generation of children who would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Allah (awlad istishhadiyyun). Psychologically then, the adoption of ideological goals can represent a quest for significance gain anchored in a shared reality (Higgins and Hardin, 1996) deliberately engineered by an organization.

It is also of interest to suggest that as individuals’ baseline level of felt significance increases a “just noticeable” increment in felt significance (marginal utility) would require a successful attack of a correspondingly higher level of importance. For instance, assuming that Osama bin Laden’s baseline level of subjective significance is relatively high, one would expect his selected targets of attacks to be proportionately high in significance as well (as assessed in terms of their symbolic value to the targeted population). In this vein, Sprinzak (2001) discussed the “megalomaniacal hyperterrorists” whose sense of personal grandeur may drive them to undertake particularly spectacular acts of devastation. In his words, “They perceive themselves in historical terms and dream of individually devastating the hated system.” (p. 73). For example, in 1995 “Ramzi Yousef …openly discussed his dream of seeing the World Trade Center towers fall into one another, causing 250,000 casualties. While hiding in the Philippines.. he planned to destroy 12 U.S. air craft in midair. Yousef also entertained ideas about using chemical weapons on a large scale..”

Consistent with these notions are recent data reported by Benmelech and Berreby (2007). These investigators find that in the Palestinian context older and better educated individuals are assigned more important missions (indexed by the size of the population centers attacked and the civilian [vs. military] nature of the targets) than younger and less educated individuals. Specifically, age of the suicide bomber is significantly associated with the attack being carried out in a big city, and education of the suicide bomber is significantly associated with the attack being carried out against a civilian (vs. a military) target.

Whereas Benmelech and Berrebi (2007) interpret these findings in terms of a rational choice model whereby organizations assign abler operatives to more important targets it is also plausible that the abler (older, better educated) operatives are more likely to volunteer for missions commensurate with their ability, promising to bestow upon the actors the appropriate degree of felt and reflected significance. Indeed, as Benmelech and Berrebi (2007, p. 5) note “on the supply side terrorism may offer greater benefits for those with more education.”

Suicidal Attack as the Prevention of Significance Loss

At times, preventing a significance loss could constitute a powerful motivating force in suicidal terrorism. Relevant here is Ohnuki-Tierney’s (2006) analysis of World War II Japanese Kamikaze pilots’ letters and personal diaries. It appears that many of them highly valued life and were reluctant to die, but were actually pressured into “volunteering.” Their sense of shame, had they refused the mission, as well as honor and solidarity with fallen comrades made it psychologically unacceptable for them to avoid their tragic assignment.

Hayashi Ichizo, a tokkotai pilot (Kamikaze) who died on his mission on February 22, 1945, wrote in a letter to his mother two days before his final flight “I find it so hard to leave you behind... I want to be held in your arms and sleep.. [yet] All men born in Japan are destined to die fighting for the country. You have done a splendid job raising me to become a honorable man..” (Ohnuki-Tierney, 2005, p. 173).

Traumas, Ideologies and Duties: Suicidal Terrorism as Significance-Quest

The notion of significance-quest affords an integration of seemingly disparate motivational contexts of suicidal terrorism involving: personal traumas, ideological reasons, and social pressures. In different ways these may relate to the constant human yearning for significance (Frankl, 2000) arguably born of awareness of our temporality (Becker, 1962; Greenberg et al., 2004).

Personal traumas, and frustrations, represent a significance loss, motivating the quest for significance restoration. Often, however, it is beyond the power of the individual to restore her or his lost sense of personal significance. It is impossible to bring back to life the loved ones lost to enemy violence. Nor is it easy to undo the deeds that brought one ostracism from one’s community, or to convince members of an indigenous majority to accept a minority immigrant as equal. Where the direct restoration of one’s lost sense of personal significance seems impossible the individual may seek to do so indirectly through alternative means, including an identification with a collective loss (or one’s group’s relative deprivation) that affords a clear path to renewed significance via participation in militancy and terrorism. Thus, through a kind of “collectivistic shift” individual powerlessness may be overcome by an empowering collectivistic ideology in which name terrorist acts are carried out.

Commenting on Palestinian suicide bombers, Hafez (2006, p. 152) noted in this vein that “Hamas deliberately framed suicide attacks in terms of a culture of martyrdom that was previously unfamiliar to Palestinian society. [Consequently] Palestinians came to venerate martyrdom because of a ‘confluence of perceived threats and a sense of victimization.”

In more general terms, adoption of ideologically based means (terrorism in this instance) may constitute a substitute vehicle for significance restoration, if individual means for doing so were thwarted (Kruglanski, Shah, Fishbach, Friedman, Chun & Sleeth-Kepper, 2002). The ideologies elucidate what a significance gain according to one’s group, consists of, and afford a way of preventing a significance loss involving adherence to these ideological dictates.

At times of a severe danger to one’s group, an ideology may call for the ultimate sacrifice from its members, to be repaid by the group’s veneration. Promoting one’s sense of significance or preventing its loss thus seems to constitute the common motivational denominator in numerous instances of suicidal terrorism. This analysis is supported by a variety of data referred to earlier including the prevalence of ideological narratives in suicide bombers’ farewell video-clips, audio recordings, interviews and other materials (Hafez, 2007), by findings that personal traumas seemed to prompt an embracement of such narratives (Spekhard & Akhmedova, 2006), and by a psychological analysis and supportive data identif