Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Suicidal terrorism motivation

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Suicidal terrorism motivation:
What motivates suicide attacks?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. The intended audience for 9/11 was the greater American public, not the World Trade Centre employees
“All suicide attack campaigns happen within a complex mix of military, historical, strategic, cultural, and, sometimes, religious circumstances... By the same token, every bomb-carrier’s decision to participate in such a campaign happens within a complex mix of personal, psychological, ideological, cultural, religious, social and community considerations, any one of which might contribute importantly to that individual’s decision...” (Orbell, 2011, p.298)

The process of killing multiple innocent bystanders whilst sacrificing your own life goes against the basic human instinct of survival, and it therefore intrigues people as to what motivates such behaviour (Kruglanski, 2009). A suicide attack can be defined as a psychological warfare tactic used to destroy a physical target in an attempt to affect a larger audience (Atran, 2003). Suicide attacks are commonly used by terrorist groups to send a message to the general public that they are dangerous and unpredictable. Unlike other types of attacks, the intended audience for a suicide attack is not the targets themselves, but the greater population to which the victims belong to (Atran, 2003). The audience for the 9/11 attacks was the greater American public, not the office workers in the World Trade Centres.

Suicide attacks are an effective terrorism tactic because they are unpredictable, random and deadly. With a single attack, one group is able to capture the undivided attention of a nation. Today’s world is dominated by stories of terrorism where suicide attacks are becoming more and more prevalent [factual?], and therefore understanding the motivation behind such behaviour is even more relevant and important.

Central questions

This chapter will aim to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the history of suicide attacks?
  2. How does the collective effort model and rational choice theory apply to suicide attacker motivation?
  3. Are there any other motivators behind suicide attacks?
  4. How can an understanding of these theories and motivators assist policy makers to reduce suicide attack prevalence?

Suicide attack history[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

'Kamikaze' attacks[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Kamikaze attacks deployed by Japanese pilots during World War II

Suicide attacks were used by Japanese pilots during World War II. During the end of 1944, the Japanese were in desperate times, and knew that the only way the Allies would consider peace terms would be if their expansive carrier fleet and army was reduced (Tokarev, 2014). The Japanese decide to send their pilots out to crash their planes into the carrier fleet, killing themselves and Allied soldiers, in addition to damaging the Allies' ships (Tokarev, 2014). These were referred to as ‘kamikaze’ attacks, and are the first documented suicide attacks[citation needed].

The kamikaze pilots are unique, as researchers are able to analyse motivating factors through the multiple letters, wills and journals they left behind. Orbell (2011) found that the largest motivators listed in the 661 pilots’ documents analysed were having an honourable (71.9%) or beautiful (28.4%) death, contributing to the war effort (37.8%) and believing their actions were critical to the war effort (26.9%). All kamikaze pilots believed that their death would make a positive difference to Japan and their position in the war. Religious or familial reasons were listed minimally, which was unexpected. The Japanese military established the 1872 Military Code for the Imperial Navy and Army which stated that death was mandatory for any soldier who attempted to survive defeat (Orbell, 2011). Therefore, an adherence to cultural norms[Provide more detail] and rules was also a strong motivating factor for the kamikaze pilots.

Suicide bombings[edit | edit source]

The most publicised form of suicide attacks are suicide bombings. Between 1981 and 2006, suicide bombings made up 90% of all suicide attacks in the Middle East (Hassan, 2009). Suicide bombings have therefore been historically common, and this trend is set to continue[explain?][citation needed]. Cultural, nationalist and religious reasons are often cited as the top motivational factors for suicide bombers. Araj (2012) conducted interviews with the family and friends of 42 Palestinian suicide bombers in an attempt to understand their motivational drives.  The author found that the strongest motivations cited were a desire for revenge against Israeli forces, religious inspiration and desire for national liberation (Araj, 2012). 

Suicide bombings are not used by all terrorist groups, and culture plays a large part in whether a terrorist organisation will decide to use suicide bombers (Braun & Genkin, 2014). If the group comes from a collectivist culture and has cohesive in-groups that have high levels of loyalty, the group is more motivated to utilise suicide terrorism tactics. Collectivism has therefore been found to strongly correlate with suicide bombing use (Braun & Genkin, 2014). These, and other social group theories are the most effective at explaining suicide attack motivation.

The collective effort model[edit | edit source]

The collective effort model (CEM) is an extension of Vroom's [who?] expectancy theory, that takes into account the effect of social loafing in group scenarios. The collective effort model is a social theory that explains how individuals work in group situations, and thus can be applied to suicide attacker motivation.

Vroom's expectancy theory[edit | edit source]

Vroom’s expectancy theory states that expectancy, instrumentality and valence all equal motivational force (Karau & Williams, 2001). Expectancy refers to whether an individual’s behaviour will result in a particular level of performance (Pousa & Mathieu, 2010). Instrumentality is the perception that this level of performance will result in a desired outcome, and valence refers to the degree of desirability of the outcome or reward (Pousa & Mathieu, 2010). These three elements are able to determine whether an individual will have a high or low motivational force for a collective group task.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Karau and Williams (2001) agreed with Vroom's theory as a reliable measure of motivational force, but believed that it lacked the important motivational factor of social loafing. Therefore Karau and Williams (1993) developed CEM theory as a way to explain an individual's motivational drive on collective task, and what effect social loafing has on their motivational drive. Karau & Williams (2001) built on the theory by adding the components of perceived relationship between individual performance and group performance, perceived relationship between group performance and group outcomes and perceived relationship between group outcomes and individual outcomes to Vroom's aspect of instrumentality (refer to Figure 3 for details). It is these three added components that measure social loafing drive.

Figure 3. The collective effort model including Vroom's expectancy theory model

Therefore, according to the CEM theory, if an individual has high expectancy, high instrumentality (and high on the added social loafing components) and high valence, they will have a high motivational force for the collective task (Karau & Williams, 1993). If not, then the individual's motivational force is low. Social loafing is determined by assessing the three added components of instrumentality that CEM embodies, where if these are low then the possibility of the individual social loafing is also low.

The best way to look at CEM theory is through applying it to a university group assignment setting. This theory can be used to explore each individual group member's motivational drive for a assessment piece. If the student believes that their individual effort will lead to the desired level of performance, they will have a high expectancy rate. In a university setting, this means that the individual sees a relationship between their individual work and their desired grade. The individual will have high instrumentality if they see a connection between their desired grade and overall outcome of doing well in that unit. Similarly, the individual will have high valence if they see the overall outcome of doing well in the unit as desirable. This explains how Vroom's theory relates to motivational drive, but not the CEM social loafing factors of instrumentality.

In this group assignment, in order for the student to avoid social loafing, they must perceive a strong relationship in each instrumentality factor. This means that the individual must see a strong relationship between their individual work and the group's performance of doing. They must also see that doing well on the assessment correlates strongly with the group's outcomes of achieving a desired grade (Karau & Williams, 2001). The student must also see a strong relationship between achieving this desired grade and their individual outcome of doing well in the unit. It the student understands this, they will not social loaf and are more motivated to complete the work (Karau & Williams, 2001).

How this can be applied to suicide attackers[edit | edit source]

CEM was originally created to help companies increase their organisational work group outputs, but it can also be applied to suicide attack motivation. An individual who carries out a suicide attack can easily see how the attack will further the group’s goals and outcomes of terrorising the enemy, asserting power over a population and spreading awareness of the group (Olechowicz & Matusitz, 2013). The added CEM instrumentality components can be met in the following ways:

Table 1. How CEM can be applied to Suicide Attackers using the 3 factors of instrumentality [source?]
CEM Instrumentality Factor Application to Suicide Attackers
1.Perceived relationship between individual performance and group performance The individual needs to see that their individual performance (the suicide attack) is related to the group’s performance (completing missions, creating terror, fighting back).
2.Perceived relationship between group performance and group outcomes The individual needs to see a connection between the group’s performance (completing missions, creating terror, fighting back) and the group’s outcomes (furthering their cause, creating awareness of the group, becoming a viable threat).
3.Perceived relationship between group outcomes and individual outcomes The individual needs to understand that the group outcomes (furthering their cause, creating awareness of the group, becoming a viable threat) are aligned with their individual outcomes (personal significance, infamy, religious reasons).

If the individual sees a relationship in each of these categories, they are unlikely to social loaf. However, the individual's overall motivation for the suicide attack is also dependent on their expectancy and valence measures. Refer to the applied example below for how this can be applied to a suicide attacker.

Applied example[edit | edit source]

John, who lives in Palestine, has recently been approached by terrorist organisation leaders during a recruiting drive and been asked to join. John has been considering joining the group for a while now as he sees it as a way to resist opposing Israeli forces, and therefore agrees to attend a training camp. At the camp, John is assigned to the task of suicide bomber. John isn’t sure about whether being a suicide bomber was the role he envisioned for himself in the group, but knows that his attack will help the group's performance of completing missions and fighting back against the Israelis (expectancy).  During his training, John is told that if he successfully carries out the attack he has shown his life to be significant, that he will enter paradise and that this is what his religion requires of him, all of which are highly desirable rewards for John (valence).

John thinks about whether the suicide attack helps the group with their goals, and finds that suicide bombing would help the group to create terror and fight back against the Israelis, all of which are measures of the group’s performance(instrumentality factor 1).  John then considers whether the group’s performance assists the group’s outcomes of creating a name for the Palestinian terrorist group and resisting the Israeli presence. John sees that it does, and he then thinks about whether these group outcomes align with his own personal outcomes of fighting the Israeli forces (instrumentality factor 2). Both John’s and the group’s goals are the same, and John therefore sees the suicide bombing mission as a way for him to achieve his personal goals within a group setting (instrumentality factor 3).

Therefore, John’s motivation for the suicide bombing is high and it is very likely he will carry it out.

Rational choice theory[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Rational choice theory (RCT) was created to explain the motivation behind criminal behaviour. It is based on the assumption that individuals engage in criminal activity purely for profit, and this is done through a cost-benefit analysis prior to the criminal activity (Perry & Hasisi, 2015). In addition to this analysis, the individual’s background, social groups, relationships, religious affiliations, morals, opportunities and subjective perception of reality are also factored into the decision (Perry & Hasisi, 2015). These factors are different for every individual, and this uniqueness can explain why some people choose a certain path while others avoid it at all costs. RCT also involves the individual taking into account their personally acceptable level of risk and any time restrictions involved (Krstic, 2014).

Figure 3. Rational choice theory is often used to describe criminal motivation, but can also be applied to suicide attackers

In order to effectively maximise the benefits assocaited with the activity, the individual will need to engage in strategic thinking processes where information is analysed, situations are subjectively defined and opportunities and alternatives are evaluated. RCT maintains that the individual has a choice to make, and these thinking processes, such as a cost-benefit analysis, are what the individual uses to determine which path to go down. If the individual expects the benefits to outweigh the costs, they will carry through with the attack or criminal activity as the motivation is high. If not, then they will discontinue or not commence the attack or criminal activity because the motivating factors are low.

How this can be applied to suicide attackers[edit | edit source]

The motivation of suicide attackers can be driven by the anticipated costs and benefits off the act, similar to how criminals are motivated (Perry & Hasisi, 2015). Suicide terrorism is, essentially, a form of crime. Suicide attackers pursue the promise of self-gratifying rewards in a way that will maximize their benefits by labelling themselves as martyrs (Perry & Hasisi, 2015). Suicide attackers evaluate the anticipated costs of the attack against their perceived religious, personal and social rewards that they will gain. According to RCT, the attacker will be motivated to carry out the attack when the rewards outweigh the costs. With suicide attackers, the benefits of the attack are appealing, as terrorist cell leaders are able to distort and enlarge the rewards offered in a way that makes them attractive and desirable.

Religious and cultural reasons are the primary motivating rewards on offer for suicide attackers. The most common rewards or benefits offered to suicide attackers in these areas are personal significance, leaving a legacy, paradise, forgiveness for past sins, revenge, fighting back against occupying forces, martyrdom and altruism[factual?]. Some of these motivators are discussed below in the next section. Both suicide attackers and criminals use the same decision-making process when faced with the choice of whether or not to carry out an act, and this knowledge can assist when making counter-terrorism policies and strategies (Krstic, 2014).

Applied example[edit | edit source]

For this example, we shall use the same John that was motivated by the collective effort model to succeed in his suicide bombing attack. This time, in order for John to have a high motivation level to carry out his suicide bombing, John needs to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of the attack, and figure out whether the benefits outweigh the costs. This will be influenced by John’s subjective reality, background, relationships, religious affiliations and future opportunities.

John draws up a positives and negatives chart. This is what John’s cost-benefit analysis list looks like:

Table 2. John's Rational Choice Theory Table
Positives Negatives
Achieves his personal goal of resisting Israeli forces John will not survive the attack
Terrorist group promises to look after his family John will not be able to say goodbye to his family, as this is forbidden
John will be hailed a hero in his small Palestinian town
John will kill Israelis, which will improve the group's performance and further their cause
John's life will mean something

In John’s list, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. Therefore, John will have a high motivational level to carry out the suicide attack.

Other motivators for suicide attacks[edit | edit source]

The majority of research into suicide terrorism focuses on Islamic extremists and their motivational factors. Therefore, the below motivators are deemed to be the most relevant to Islamic suicide terrorists based on interviews with family and friends of suicide attackers. The Middle Eastern environment of cultural and political disagreements are often what breeds the motivation to participate in suicide attacks[how?][Tread with caution regarding statements such as this.].

Quest for personal significance[edit | edit source]

A major motivational factor behind human behaviour is the desire to leave a legacy or show that our lives were meaningful in some way[explain?][source?]. In regards to suicide attackers, successfully carrying out the attack is a way to achieve significance by gaining status and respect, creating honour and becoming a hero, all of which contrast sharply with leading a disappointing life or being insignificant (Kruglanski, 2009). Terrorist groups remember their heroes and martyrs, and therefore by being a suicide attacker, the individual’s legacy will live on through the group’s memory.

Misinterpretation of religion[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. The Quran is the holy book of Islam, and used by many terrorist groups.

When suicide attack recruits enter training camps, they are often told by leaders that their previous teachings of Islam are false, and that violence against non-Muslims who attack or occupy Muslim lands is encouraged (Urooj & Tariq, 2015). Leaders use specially selected passages from the Quran to support this distorted version of Islam (Caschetta, 2015)[for example?]. Recruits are also told that their religion promises them paradise with up to seventy of their relatives, multiple virgins and forgiveness for their past sins if they successfully carry out the attack (Urooj & Tariq, 2015).

This distorted version of Islam is often what convinces recruits to become suicide attackers. It is a convincing and appealing vision of life after death, and Urooj and Tariq (2015) found it to be a strong motivational factor. If their religion condones and even encourages such behaviour as a suitable conflict tactic, then recruits see suicide attacks as the appropriate way forward.

Resistance to foreign forces[edit | edit source]

It has been argued that most suicide attacks conducted by terrorist groups are done to drive out occupiers from the homeland or to aggravate an enemy (Sheehan, 2014). It has been used as a tactic by Hezbollah to drive out the US and France from Lebanon, by Chechen rebels to get Russia out of Chechnya and by Palestine to expel Israel from the West Bank and Gaza (Sheehan, 2014). However, not all groups are occupied by another force, such as the London bombers and those who go over to the Middle East to join ISIS’s ranks. Resistance to foreign forces is therefore the prime motivator when a country is occupied, but not the strongest motivating factor in other circumstances.

Martyrdom[edit | edit source]

Martyrdom is a large aspect of Islamic culture, and in jihad it is equivalent to immortality (Urooj & Tariq, 2015). Martyrs are portrayed as special to Allah, and are therefore afforded many luxuries in heaven (Caschetta, 2015).  Any individual who dies as a martyr is believed to not really be dead. Suicide attacks can therefore be justified not as a killing act, but a way to achieve religious infamy and be deemed a hero.[for example?]

Altruism[edit | edit source]

In the case of suicide attacks, altruism is when individuals sacrifice themselves for a cause that surpasses personal interests, and enables future generations to benefit from their actions (Perry & Hasisi, 2015). In the form of suicide attacks, this would refer to individuals who use suicide attacks as way to increase the probability of freedom or independence for future generations (Azam, 2012). As suicide attackers often come from educated backgrounds, they usually exhibit a stronger concern for the welfare of future generations and therefore altruism drives their attack motivation (Azam, 2012). It has also been found that older and more educated suicide attackers kill, on average, more people and were more likely to carry out the attack in comparison to younger and less educated suicide attackers (Santifort-Jordan & Sandler, 2014). These statistics could be a result of older and more educated individuals being more highly motivated by altruistic factors than other individuals.[missing something?]

Real world applications[edit | edit source]

Suicide attacks are occurring on a regular basis[say what?] in the 21st century[citation needed], and in order to decrease attack prevalence, appropriate strategies and policies need to be implemented. This can be done through understanding why suicide attacks are so effective and how motivating theories contribute to a suicide attack environments.

Suicide attack effectiveness[edit | edit source]

Suicide attacks are often the tactic of choice employed by the weaker side[explain?]. It is a way for them to fight back against a stronger enemy[explain?] and inflict large amounts of damage despite lacking sufficient military resources (Atran, 2003). If one group or side is economically and militarily inferior, suicide attacks can be an effective wartime tactic that depletes the opposition’s strongholds and fighting force. Suicide attacks are notoriously unpredictable and deadly, which is why they are successful.

Table 3. Why Suicide Attacks are so Effective[citation needed]
Reason Justification
1.Attackers have access to a large variety of vulnerable targets The attackers intend to inflict mass casualties, and this is done by selecting a place densely populated with civilians such as cinemas, shopping malls or schools (Atran, 2003). These attacks are not restricted by location, and can be easily conducted in any area (Sheehan, 2014).
2. The associated material costs are low In comparison to military operations, suicide attacks have extremely low costs, with some suicide bombings costing as little as $150 (Sheehan, 2014). Suicide attacks also do not require an escape plan, which also dramatically lowers costs.
3. Suicide attacks kill in large numbers Suicide attacks have been found to kill many more people in comparison to other types of attacks (Sheehan, 2014). The average number of deaths from one suicide car bombing is thirty times higher than for a shooting, and fourteen times higher than a remote-controlled bombing attack (Sheehan, 2014). They also result in a large number of wounded people, adding to its’ effectiveness as a wartime tactic and in gaining recognition.
Figure 5. World leaders [missing something?] to understand suicide attack motivators in order to develop effective prevention strategies and policies

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Understanding the motivations behind suicide attacks is helpful in identifying risk factors, recruitment and persuasion tactics used by terrorist groups to bring in individuals who will later be suicide attackers (Urooj & Tariq, 2015). These groups persuade recruits to use violence, and that this is the only method available to them.

Understanding the motivational factors will also assist policy-makers, state agencies and educators to formulate ways to combat suicide terrorism by designing interventions and similar prevention strategies (Urooj & Tariq, 2015). However, the most effective counter-terrorism methods are those that look at changing the motivations of suicide attackers, not on limiting attacker’s opportunities or capabilities for carrying out these attacks.

See also[edit | edit source]

Altruism vs Selfishness: To what extent is human behaviour altruistic or selfish?

Anger and Violent Behaviour: What is the effect of anger on violent behaviour?

Terrorism Motivation: What motivates people to join terrorist organisations?

Reference list[edit | edit source]

Araj, B. (2012). The Motivations of Palestinian Suicide Bombers in the Second Intifada(2000 to 2005). Canadian Review of Sociology, 49(3), 211-232.

Atran, S. (2003). Genesis of suicide terrorism. American Associations for the Advancement of Science, 299(1), 1534-1539.

Azam, J. (2012). Why suicide-terrorists get educated, and what to do about it. Public Choice, 153(3/4), 357-373. doi:10.1007/s11127-011-9798-7.

Braun, R.,& Genkin, M. (2014). Cultural resonance and the diffusion of suicide bombings: The role of collectivism. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58(7), 1258-1284. doi:10.1177/0022002713498707.

Caschetta, A. J. (2015). Does Islam have a role in suicide bombings?. Middle East Quarterly, 22(3), 1-19.

Hassan, R. (2009). What motivates suicide bombers? Yale Global, 26(1), 10-21.

Karau, S. & Williams, K. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(4), 681-706.

Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (2001). Understanding individual motivation in groups: The collective effort model. In M. E. Turner, M. E. Turner (Eds.), Groups at work: Theory and Research (pp.113-141). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Krstic, M. (2014). Rational choice theory and addiction behaviour. Trziste/Market, 26(2), 163-177.

Kruglanski, A. E. (2009). Fully committed: Suicide bombers’ motivation and the quest for personal significance. Political Psychology, 30(3), 331-357.

Olechowicz, K., & Matusitz, J. (2013). The Motivations of Islamic Martyrs: Applying the collective effort model. Current Psychology, 32(4), 338-347. doi:10.1007/s12144-013-9187-0.

Orbell, J. T. (2011). An evolutionary account of suicide attacks: The kamikaze case. Political Psychology, 32(2), 297-322.

Perry, S., & Hasisi, B. (2015). Rational choice rewards and the jihadist suicide bomber. Terrorism and Political Violence, 27(1), 53-80. doi:10.1080/09546553.2014.962991.

Pousa, C., & Mathieu, A. (2010). Sales managers’ motivation to coach salespeople: An exploration using expectancy theory. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching & Mentoring, 8(1), 34-50.

Santifort-Jordan, C., & Sandler, T. (2014). An empirical study of suicide terrorism: A global analysis. Southern Economic Journal, 80(4), 981-1001. doi:10.4284/0038-4038-2013.114

Sheehan, I. S. (2014). Are suicide terrorists suicidal? A critical assessment of the evidence. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 11(9/10), 81-92.

Tokarev, M. Y. (2014). Kamikazes. Naval War College Review, 67(1), 61-48.

Urooj, A., & Tariq, S. (2015). Causes of suicide terrorism in Pakistan as perceived by media personnel. Journal of Behavioural Sciences, 25(1), 91-107.