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Suicide Terrorism and Its Psychological Factors Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 20th, 2021


Suicide terrorism is a phenomenon that has taken precedence in modern society. Many terrorists and insurgents have literary incorporated suicide attacks as part of their operations. These acts have resulted in widespread loss of lives and property in various countries across the world. Security systems have not helped much in controlling the menace at both national and international scales.

Therefore, it is vital to understand the underlying causes of this approach. Psychology experts have increased interest in the study of the underlying factors that drive individuals to participate in suicide terrorism. Some researchers categorize suicide terrorism as altruistic suicide; however, others view the act as an assault solely intended to achieve a predetermined objective, political or otherwise(Moghaddam, 2005).

Psychologists and psychiatrists have tried to find the link between suicide and suicide terrorism in an analytical approach to determine the factors responsible for these two forms of suicide. Divisions still exist on the appropriate classification of the forms of suicide, with a school of thought completely negating to classify suicide terrorism as “suicide.” This paper will attempt to find out the psychological and psychiatric underpinnings of suicide terrorism, with an aim to understand the key factors which contribute to such violent and hostile behaviors. The paper will focus on the altruistic and fatalistic forms of suicide terrorism.


Altruistic suicide is a form of suicide in which individuals sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Suicide terrorism may be classified thus or not depending on the context. Some psychologists argue that in the altruistic form of suicide, the individuals do not cause harm to others but rather do it as an expression of support for a course on behalf of others (Moghaddam, 2005). A perfect example is a youth who burnt himself to death in Tunisia, sparking widespread riots that eventually led to overhaul of the ruling regime.

The youth was expressing the frustrations experienced by the majority of the nationals. These experts claim that self-immolators can not be classified as suicide terrorists since, unlike the latter, whose aim is to instill fear and or intimidation, the self-immolators aim to elicit sympathy and arouse inspiration or understanding in the target group (Townsend, 2007).

A school of thought claims that suicide terrorism is fatalistic in the sense that the individuals who carry it out are under the influence of political, ideological, or group course and elements of totalitarianism. Suicide terrorism is a form of murder, a deliberate effort to take lives or the life of another individual. The principal objective is to kill as opposed to committing suicide. Numerous studies on potential suicide terrorists reveal the absence of any form of suicidal signs in the perpetrators. The psychological intrigues surrounding suicide terrorism may be compared to other forms of suicide since those who commit it do so as an expression of unmet emotional needs (Townsend, 2007).

The psychological factors that play into the minds of suicide attackers vary in form and context. Anger, aggression, hopelessness, manipulation by religious beliefs, and possibly group process may play a role in triggering these activities. The causative factors may also vary in other cases as has been indicated by leading suicidologists such as Atran (2003), who claims that the suicide terrorists do not necessarily demonstrate any form of hopelessness and, on the contrary, ooze with the hope that their acts will act to deliver others from life bondages, inspire others or bring gratification to themselves in the afterlife (Townsend, 2007). From a layman’s point of view, suicide terrorism may sound or look like a crazy manifestation by an individual; however, it has a deep psychological element to it (Victoroff& North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2006).

Terrorism is an emotional expression. The acts of suicide terrorists may be analyzed as an emotion of anger. In this context, anger gets in the way of one’s judgment resulting in an overreaction to a situation. Most suicide terrorists demonstrate an emotional reaction to insult of their belief or principles. The individuals may also be frustrated by the state of affairs that directly touch on their lives or group ideologies. Religious attachment is one such factorial ideology(Victoroff& North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2006).

The identification with a group may trigger one to sacrifice for their cause or to express their frustrations and insult even if the particular individual is not directly affected. This may explain the high cases of suicide terrorism activities by middle-class perpetrators, who seemingly have a variety of options to make it in life. A case in point would be the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, who were well-educated working individuals (Victoroff& North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2006).

The motivation among such individuals is overly strong, and no matter the amount of persuasion, these individuals always go ahead to fulfill what they perceive as a personal cause. The psychosocial component of such individuals is powerfully connected to the cause they pursue. Some terror groups take advantage of such individuals and train them on areas to target to achieve maximum impact. The Palestinian terror group, Hamas, has employed this tactic where the “converts” are organized into brotherhood groups that are bound by non-induced desire to partake in the projects through suicide terrorism (Victoroff& North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2006).

Another factor that influences one to involve in terror activities as extreme as suicide attacks is the public support such acts elicit among sympathizers. The number of individuals willing to participate in suicide attacks has always been on an upward trend since the highly publicized 1981 Beirut terror attacks. The effects of the suicide missions on the targets have been a source of inspiration to many young volunteers the world over(Grimland&Apter, 2006).

The videos young volunteers release before partaking in these missions reflects a deep connection with the community they come from. They usually express their desire to advance the community’s goal as their predecessors have done before. Strong peer influence plays a major role in influencing the decision of many more to join in terror activities. Many terror groups have used this tactic based on the support they receive from their supporters, as evidenced by the 1995 decision by Hamas not to continue using the tactic after widespread opinions revealed many Palestinians were not in support of the same(Kruglanski& Fishman, 2009).

Revenge is one major motive realized from suicide attacks. This may arise as a result of perceived humiliation on the part of the perpetrator or what he/she stands for. In the Arab world and, in particular, Palestine, the majority of the suicide bombers possess an element of vengeance against systems they feel have deprived them of their rights as a sovereign people. In Chechen, the suicide terror activities were exacerbated by a culturally created attitude of revenge against the Russians whom they accuse of torture and murder of Chechnya’s independence movement advocates.

The vengeance mentality is so strong among the survivors to an extent; they have found never to rest until all Russians are eliminated. The Tamil Tigers movement in Sri Lanka, one of the most advanced suicide attack operatives, is filled with vengeful hearts seeking to avenge the deaths of their loved ones in the hands of the army (Victoroff& North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2006).

It has been widely agreed among psychologists that the motivations behind suicide terrorism could have a strong link with religion or some form of doctrinal cults. Without any form of bias intended, Islam looks at suicide terrorism as an act of martyrdom in the cause of fulfilling the aims of Jihad (holy war). Actually, according to the holy Koran, suicide is prohibited. From interviews and surveys carried out among potential suicide terrorists, it is clear that the majority are religious (Townsend, 2007).

The terror groups claim that participating in suicide terrorism guarantees immortality. This conviction in the minds of many young men and women influence them into indulging in such activities. An interview with a Hamas affiliated Imam revealed that the Muslim terrorists believe in cleansing of sins and direct entry into paradise with an assured physical manifestation in the new world, should they participate in suicide terrorism (Townsend, 2007).

The indulgence of individuals into suicide terrorist attacks may be self-inspired or result from influence from leaders. In many parts of the world, some charismatic leaders have influenced their followers to adopt different means of expressing themselves for certain causes. This may be through initiation into such groups through oaths or persuasion. Just as some religious or cult leaders have influenced their followers to partake in mass suicide, secular leaders can also influence the followers to adopt suicidal terrorism as a tactic to challenge systems. These individuals are psychologically manipulated to believe in the cause they are undertaking, leading them into such heinous acts (Walter, 1998).

Most terror group organizations employ this tactic in their training where they intentionally manipulate these individuals’ minds to a level of creating a sense of willingness and commitment to the organization’s mandate through a sense of brotherhood indoctrination that inculcates a sense of belonging which may force one to involve in such acts as using suicidal terror for political or ideological gains ( Grimland&Apter, 2006).

Much as the candidate knows the mission from the beginning, the authority of the organization employs tactics that act to strengthen the personal dedication to the potential cause. Some groups, such as the Hamas, have used nationalistic themes and other relevant heroic themes from the past among Palestine nationals to inspire and create unwavering commitment among the recruits (Taylor &Horgan, 2006).

An individual may involve in such acts as suicide terrorism after undergoing psychologically traumatizing experiences such as conflicts. This results in posttraumatic disorders, panic, hopelessness, and helplessness as a result of such wars that may have destroyed their livelihoods.

This may arouse within the population of individuals with suicidal thoughts. The dissociative disorders these individuals suffer from may ultimately make them emotionless to the extent of embracing suicide terrorism as an option to seek justice. The psychological trauma they suffer makes them feel useless, and death to them seems the easiest option to end this suffering. The majority of individuals of this type are hitherto innocent civilians who are never prepared psychologically for the intensity of events such as warfare like those in the military do(Kruglanski& Fishman, 2009).

Suicide terrorists do not suffer from any form of psychological illnesses, according to psychologists. Leading psychological associations in the world have not identified any signs of mental illness among potential suicide bombers, and even data collected from among their peers and families indicate no signs of mental inadequacy. This means that the participants are psychologically sound to make informed decisions. Though there may be an external influence on their decisions to commit terror suicide, the individuals have to initially commit themselves to the mission (Scott, 2003).


From the numerous studies carried out, suicide terrorists are individuals facing psychological issues almost similar to those of the other suicide victims. Different psychology experts have divided opinions on the classification of suicide terrorists into either altruistic or fatalistic categories. Some studies reveal that suicide terrorists make a conscious decision to die for a course or face challenges emanating from hopelessness in their ability to change prevailing situations similarly to other suicide cases.

To find effective ways to deal with the menace of suicide terrorism, psychologists need to understand the individual and organizational aspects of this phenomenon. The factors that force or influence individuals to partake in suicide terrorism have received considerable attention from psychology and psychiatry studies, but the individual’s absorption of the whole idea and the willingness to execute it has not been given enough attention. The community’s role in promoting suicide terrorism as well as the media reporting tactics must be addressed as links have been identified between the media’s way of reporting and the proliferation of more suicide attacks.

The psychological factors that play into the minds of suicide attackers require more elaborate remedies from experts to reduce the incidence rates in the world. A psychoanalytical technique is important to understand the underlying personality issues that trigger such radical behaviors as suicide terrorism. Poor parenthood may force children to seek identity from social groups surrounding them.

This may create room for peer influence into such activities as criminality. Most suicide terrorists’ profiles reveal dysfunctional backgrounds in their upbringing, which psychiatrists point to as possible trigger factors. The environment surrounding an individual may determine their susceptibility to societal influences. As revealed by studies in Palestine and many other Arab nations, the youths are strongly attached to and easily influenced by religion. This has seen many abandon socially acceptable livelihoods to pursue terrorism to seek gratification as promised by religiously fanatical doctrines.

The common elements between suicide and suicide terrorism are societal pressures that push ambitious minds to the limit leaving no room to express themselves in a more elaborate and socially acceptable way. Many therefore opt for the extremes to pass the message across to an intolerant society. Adequate support is necessary for society in tackling challenges facing humankind to avoid unnecessary blood shed through such acts as suicide terrorism. To understand the suicide terrorists’ behavior, the adoption of techniques such as psychological autopsy will help gain more information on psychological, social, and medical aspects regarding all forms of suicide, altruistic and fatalistic in nature.


Grimland, M. & Apter, A.K. (2006). The phenomenon of suicide bombing: A review of psychological and non psychological factors. The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 27(3), 107-118.

Kruglanski, A. W. & Fishman, S. (2009). Psychological Factors in Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Individual, Group, and Organizational Levels of Analysis. Social Issues and Policy Review, 3, 1–44.

Moghaddam, F.M. (2005). The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration. American Psychologist, 60(2), 161-169.

Scott, A.(2003). Genesis of Suicide Terrorism.Science 7, 1534-1539.

Taylor,M. &Horgan, J. (2006). Terrorism and Political Violence: A Conceptual Framework for Addressing Psychological Process in the Development of the Terrorist. Terrorism and Political Violence. 18(4), 585-601.

Townsend, E. (2007). Suicide Terrorists: Are They Suicidal? Threatening Behavior 37(1). Web.

Victoroff, J. I. &North Atlantic Treaty Organization (2006). NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Psychology and Terrorism, Tangled roots: Social and psychological factors in the genesis of terrorism. Amsterdam, Netherlands: IOS Press.

Walter, R. (1998). Origins of Terrorism.Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, State of Mind. Washington D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

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