The State of the Art

ResearchBlogging.orgCrenshaw, M. (2007). “Explaining Suicide Terrorism: A Review Essay” Security Studies, 16 (1), 133-162 DOI: 10.1080/09636410701304580

This article by Martha Crenshaw was one of the reasons I got into my research topic. It was an important piece of analysis, pulling together the various strands which comprised an emerging area of research and injected a good deal of common sense to the debate. In essence, it cuts a swathe through the existing field of research on suicide attackers, highlighting conceptual problems, factual inconsistencies  and weak assertions or conclusions that have been drawn by several researchers.

For example, Crenshaw highlights the difficulty surrounding the issue of defining suicide attacks, pointing out that several authors (notably Robert Pape and Mia Bloom) tend to use ‘suicide terrorism’ as a blanket term for all suicide attacks, regardless of their intended target or purpose. Crenshaw points out that in many instances suicide attackers have targeted government and military targets rather than civilians. This is certainly an assertion which has been borne out by my own research and when capturing and analyzing data on attacks I have sought to draw a distinction between attacks aimed at causing civilian mass casualties and those apparently aimed at military or security forces.

One of the theories put forward as to why groups utilize suicide attacks is that they are used as a means of ‘outbidding’ whereby groups compete with each other for popular support and thus human and financial resources. Bloom, who first posited this theory, sees suicide attacks as a highly visible marketing tool by which organizations can attract greater popular support.(1) I have some sympathy with this view, particularly with regard to the Palestinian case, but Crenshaw points out that one of Bloom’s own case studies (Sri Lanka) contradicts this theory, noting:

“Bloom’s analysis of Sri contradictory. She indicates that when the LTTE began its suicide attacks in 1987, the other Tamil militant groups had largely been destroyed and she accepts the conclusion that the systematic elimination of rivals ended in 1986… Furthermore, al-Qaeda’s actions are hard to explain in terms of competition with rivals…Sacrificing one’s life has deliberately been made into the exclusive symbol of global Jihad, intended to inspire imitation in affiliate groups and thus augment organisational resources. If furthers transnational cooperation, coordination, and unity of purpose, not local competition” (p146)

Crenshaw also asserts that attempts to identify a single profile for potential suicide attackers are likely fruitless, and that the organization which recruits and fields such attackers is the most important agent in the process of building human bombs. Again, this is a view that I share – regardless of how strongly motivated an individual is to mount a suicide attack or achieve martyrdom in pursuit of a cause, it is unlikely that such a person would be able to mount and attack independently (although exceptions to this general principle do exist). Organizations take the motivation or desires of such individuals and fuse them with the resources and capabilities of the group, effectively blending individual intent and collective capability into a viable weapon system.(2)

Finally, perhaps Crenshaw’s most important observation centres on the issue of over-aggregation, i.e. that suicide attacks have been treated as generic, unified acts of violence with little or no effort made to distinguish between different types of targets, or exploring the rationale for attacking one set of targets and not another. She asks a series of key questions: “What explains variations within the phenomenon? For instance, why do some groups target civilians and others military assets or individual officials? Why should the manner of violence matter more than the target or the purpose?”. Such questions have driven a  good deal of my own thinking and research on this issue. The LTTE used their Black Tiger suicide operatives in a variety of roles, ranging from mass casualty attacks, complex suicide assaults on strategic locations to deep-cover penetration efforts to assassinate the Sri Lankan head of state. Similarly al-Qaida in Iraq has used suicide attackers in both attacks against Shia pilgrims and against Iraqi and Coalition security forces, whereas, the Afghan Taliban and their affiliates appear, for the most part, to have tried to avoid deliberately inflicting civilian casualties in its use of suicide attackers both as a means of assassination and in complex assaults on key buildings and bases. I would argue that at least part of the answer to understanding the differing approaches to deploying and using suicide attackers lies in a greater appreciation of the resources and capacities groups and organizations are able to employ in the development of their suicide attack capabilities. This approach may also go some way to explaining why some groups appear to be more effective in the use of suicide attackers, i.e. they are more successful in executing their attacks.


1. Bloom, M Dying to Kill, Columbia Uni Press, New York, 2005, p78

2. Lewis, Jeffrey W. (2008) ‘Self-sacrifice as innovation: The strategic and tactical utility of martyrdom’, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, 1:1, p77


2 thoughts on “The State of the Art

  1. Interesting post & your blog in general.

    • Blackwatertown, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you found the post worthwhile.



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