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What do we know about suicide bombing?: Review and analysis

  • Veronica Ward (a1)

In this article, the present status of our knowledge about the phenomenon of “suicide” bombing or “martyrdom” operations is identified. A review of many studies located at different levels of analysis is conducted, followed by an analysis and evaluation of the state of the research at each level. In addition, an exploration of the evolution in the characteristics of this tactic and the differences, if any, between subnational and transnational acts is undertaken. The conclusion identifies what we know and what may be appropriate for future research and public policy initiatives.

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Correspondence: Department of Political Science, Utah State University, 0725 Old Main Hill, Logan, UT, 84322-0725. Email:
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56Hassan, 2011, p. 52.
57Hassan, 2011, p. 54.
58Hafez, 2007.
59Quoted by Horgan, p. 50.
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82Quoted by Horgan, p. 51.
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86Lankford later published a book in which the same argument is made. A. Lankford, The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
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90Merari, 2010, pp. 103–104.
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95Merari et al., 2010, p. 95.
96McCauley and Moskalenko, pp. 110, 111.
97Merari et al., 2010, p. 96.
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103Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo, p. 81.
104Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo, p. 90. An alternative explanation for the unexpected results may be problematic psychological tests.
105Merari et al., 2010, p. 117.
106Horgan, p. 44.
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108Speckhard, p. 773.
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118Paul Gill cites multiple studies which display a range of percentages of individuals judged mentally ill. Here there is no agreement. P. Gill, Lone-Actor Terrorists: A Behavioural Analysis (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 107.
119Gill, p. 2017.
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129Pape, p. 65.
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138Speckhard and Akhmedova, p. 442.
139 Hansen, S. J., “Revenge or reward? The case of Somalia’s suicide bombers,” Journal of Terrorism Research , 2011, 1(1): 1540, at pp. 24, 25.
140Quoted by M. Roberts, “Tamil Tigers’: Sacrificial symbolism and ‘dead body politics,”’ Anthropology Today, 2008, 24(3): 22–23, at p. 22.
141Roberts, 2008, p. 23.
142 Atran, S., Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un) Making of Terrorists (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p. 303.
143Atran, 2010, p. 13.
144Atran, 2010, p. 317.
145Atran, 2010, p. 450.
146 Ginges, J., Hansen, I., and Norenzayan, A., “Religion and support for suicide attacks,” Psychological Science , 2009, 20(2): 224230, at p. 224.
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148Sageman, 2004, p. 144.
149Sageman, 2004, pp. 154, 156.
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154Wiktorowicz, p. 10.
155Wiktorowicz, pp. 7, 10.
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157Pedahzur and Perliger, p. 1989.
158Pedahzur and Perliger, p. 1995.
159Pedahzur and Perliger, p. 1996.
160 Kirby, A., “The London bombers as ‘self-starters’: A case study in indigenous radicalization and the emergence of autonomous cliques,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism , 2007, 30(5): 415428, at p. 415.
161Kirby, pp. 416, 418.
162Quoted by Kirby, p. 423.
163Kirby, p. 415.
164Quoted by Kirby, p. 422.
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166Jordan, p. 390.
167Jordan, p. 391.
168Jordan, p. 391.
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170 Zelin, A. Y., “Know your Ansar al-Sharia,” Foreign Policy , September 21, 2012, (accessed February 19, 2018).
171Quoted by P. Baker, “Recovered Bin Laden letters show a divided Al Qaeda.” New York Times, May 3, 2012.
173 Wagemakers, J., “What’s in a name: A Jihadi labels himself,” September 11, 2012, (accessed February 19, 2018).
174 Lister, C. R., The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 6970.
175 Burke, J., The New Threat from Islamic Militancy (London: Bodley Head, 2015), p. 99.
176Burke, p. 204.
177Burke, p. 211.
178Singh, p. 9.
179Singh, pp. 11–12.
180Singh, p. 12.
181Singh, p. 13.
182Singh, p. 51.
183Singh, p. 92.
184Hafez, 2006, p. 6.
185Hafez, 2006, p. 8.
186Hafez, 2007, p. 17.
187Quoted by Hafez, 2007, p. 16.
188Hafez, 2007, p. 90.
189Hafez, 2007, p. 221.
190Moghadam, 2008, p. 60.
191Moghadam, 2008, p. 252.
192Moghadam, 2008, p. 253.
193Moghadam, 2008, p. 204.
194 Ebert, B. W., “Guide to conducting a psychological autopsy,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice , 1987, 18(1): 5256, at p. 53.
195 Overholser, J. C., Braden, A., and Dieter, L., “Understanding suicide risk: Identification of high-risk groups during high-risk times,” Journal of Clinical Psychology , 2011, 68(3): 349361, at p. 334.
196Overholser, pp. 335–336.
197Overholser, p. 334.
198 Fierke, K. M., Political Self-Sacrifice: Agency, Body and Emotion in International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 4.
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