Interview Insights

Two of the central themes of my research are (a) the centrality of the organization in executing suicide attacks and (b) the extent to which the capability of the organization impacts on the characteristics and outcomes of the suicide attacks it mounts. So it was with some interest that I read these latest articles by Ariel Merari[i] et al, detailing the process and results from a series of interviews carried out with both would-be suicide attackers and their handlers (those who organize the attacks). This is significant, because not a great deal is known about the motivations or characteristics of those who organize suicide attacks.[ii]

Methodologically, Merari and the rest of the study team conducted a series of semi-structured interviews and psychological assessments of three groups of Palestinian prisoners held within Israeli jails (a group of failed suicide attackers, a group of attack organizers, and a control group made of those involved in more conventional political violence and protest). The articles also recount some interesting detail about the discussions that took place with the in-prison leadership of the groups (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade/Fatah) these interviewees belonged to in order to gain cooperation for the study to take place.

The articles start from the premise that, because there have been very few instances of individuals undertaking suicide attacks in isolation:

‘[t]he role of the group and, specifically, of organizers of suicide attacks is, therefore, crucial in understanding the making of a suicide bomber, and the organizers’ personalities and decision-making are central elements in terrorist suicide’. (p103)

This echoes Hoffman and McCormick’s assertion that suicide attacks are an organizational phenomenon that requires multiple actors and progressive stages in order to be executed.[iii] The article also introduces a quantitative element to the conduct of suicide attacks, pointing out that the three groups undertook attacks at quite different frequencies. Hamas, being the lest frequent, had a success rate five times that of the PIJ and six times that of Fatah (the authors do not appear to have defined what constitutes a ‘successful’ suicide attack). This suggests that Hamas may be more capable of planning and executing suicide attacks. Also in terms of capability, all the organizers stated that operational factors were the most important consideration when deciding to launch a suicide attack (the availability of explosives, a prospective martyr and the ability to reach a viable target). Merari et al note that this suggests capability is of more significance than motivation when determining the frequency of attacks.

Decision Making

In terms of decision-making it is interesting to note that the organizers from all three groups asserted that they retained a high degree of local autonomy in planning their attacks – the decision to use a suicide attacker and the choice of target was always made at a local level (however, all the Hamas and 80% of the PIJ organizers stated that they would refrain from attacks if their parent organizations told them to do so. Contrastingly only one of the four Fatah commanders said they would obey such a command).


Of the attackers interviewed, 53% (8) had freely volunteered for the mission, with the remainder being brought in via recruiters and affiliates with the organization.  As has been reported elsewhere, the organizations appear to have had more volunteers than they could use, with individuals actively lobbying to be sent on a suicide mission.[iv] Interestingly, in some cases the potential candidates appear to have been more interested in the attack itself than in the group that would facilitate it (i.e. they would undertake a suicide attack for whichever group accepted or recruited them first).  None of the candidates questioned previously been involved in any ‘resistance activity’ – presumably this was one of the recruitment criteria, in that if a potential suicide attacker was on an Israeli criminal or intelligence database they stood a higher chance of being intercepted en route to the target.

Another reportedly important recruitment criterion was motivation; both religious conviction and nationalist motivation were identified as important criteria when assessing recruits. Most of the organizers claimed they would not use candidates who appeared to be mentally unstable or suicidal. This reinforces the view put forward by Iannacone, who pointed out that the risk of using such individuals would be very high for sponsoring organization, as ‘no rational person trusts his life to a co-worker with a death-wish’.[v]


Interestingly, Merari et al suggest that there was little effort put into mentally preparing the suicide attackers assessed prior to their missions (however they also note that 36 per cent of those in their sample had aborted their mission). The preparation period for attacks appear to have been quite compressed, apparently due to a fear of discovery or interdiction by Israeli security forces. However, time was still spend addressing candidates fears, particularly reassuring them that their families would be taken care of. One organizer noted that ‘mothers were the pivot of family opposition, and thought that a mother who supported her son’s suicide was insane’ (p112). The use of video wills (martyr videos) was also seen as a means of reinforcing the candidates’ motivation to go through with the attack, marking a point of ‘no return’.


The selection of targets was undertaken in one of two ways: either the organizers selected a city and left the bomber to decide upon targets of opportunity within it; in other cases the target was pre-determined before the attacker departed. The attackers’ instructions were generally to detonate themselves in a crowded place, with the aim of causing maximum casualties. Indeed most of the organizers admitted that the attackers were told to kill civilians at random. Overall the most important criteria for targeting were accessibility and capability (i.e. a target that could be reached and attacked with the resources to hand). If an attacker was unable to reach his target, and was already within Israel, he was expected to choose another target and detonate himself.

Psychological Aspects

In addition to the operational and organizational data  arising from this research, a range of information regarding the personalities and emotional states of those involved in conducting suicide attacks.  Six (40 per cent) of the would-be attackers were found to have had suicidal tendencies, and eight were depressed but none were found to have psychopathic tendencies. (It is not clear how the assessments would have allowed for the fact that these individuals could have become depressed/suicidal as a result of their failure and imprisonment). But if these individuals had been suicidal at the time of their attempted attacks, it is interesting that the recruitment process did not filter them out – implying that either the recruiters cannot identify them, or that they are lying about not using suicidal individuals. The fact that 40 per cent of those who had failed in their attacks were suicidally inclined may reinforce the assertion that using mentally disturbed individuals for such attacks is potentially detrimental to the outcome of the mission, but without detailed information about the specific circumstances of their attacks, this would be difficult to substantiate.


Overall these are useful articles. In seeking insights into how suicide attacks are planned and executed, there appear to be few better alternatives to interviewing the individuals involved in them. The Israeli authorities appear to have a more enlightened view of this type of research that those in the UK, US and more widely.

This research appears to reinforce the importance of the organization in undertaking suicide attacks, with individual volunteers or recruits being inserted into a conveyor belt process, which prepares, equips, targets and dispatches a suicide attacker in a relatively short period of time. These attacks are influenced by a range of factors, but primarily by the capability of the organization to mount a mission (i.e. it has the necessary resources) and to get their attackers into proximity with the desired target. That accessibility is a serious concern indicates that the Israeli authorities’ decision to place significant resources on enforcing border security (both at checkpoints and through the building of the controversial security fence) has had an impact on the ability of Palestinian groups to mount suicide attacks in Israel (as demonstrated by those attacks mounted in the south of the country which were mounted via Egypt).[vi]

Articles Reviewed

Merari, A., Diamant, I., Bibi, A., Broshi, Y., & Zakin, G. (2010). Personality Characteristics of “Self Martyrs”/“Suicide Bombers” and Organizers of Suicide Attacks Terrorism and Political Violence, 22 (1), 87-101 DOI: 10.1080/09546550903409312

Merari, A., Fighel, J., Ganor, B., Lavie, E., Tzoreff, Y., & Livne, A. (2010). Making Palestinian “Martyrdom Operations”/“Suicide Attacks”: Interviews With Would-Be Perpetrators and Organizers Terrorism and Political Violence, 22 (1), 102-119 DOI: 10.1080/09546550903409403


[i]Merari is a leading scholar in the terrorism field, specifically in the area of psychology.

[ii] M Taarnby. Profiling Islamic Suicide Terrorists: A Research Report for the Danish Ministry of Justice 27 November 2003 p37

[iii] B Hoffman and G H McCormick. “Terrorism, Signaling, and Suicide Attack,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. 27, no. 4 (2004).

[iv] S Atran. ‘Who Wants to Be a Martyr?’, The New York Times, 5 May 2003

[v] L Iannaccone. The Market for Martyrs, Global Prosperity Initiative Working Paper 35, George Mason University, December 2003 p14

[vi] For example the January 2007 suicide bombing in Eliat.


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