Do “suicide bombers” really commit suicide? *

Israel Oron (Ostre), Ph.D. (Psychology)[1]


This article applies a psychological approach to explore and to explain the behavior of Palestinian terrorists who blow themselves up in the light of their own words. It is shown that terrorists have no suicidal intent; hence their behavior is not an act of suicide. Psychological analysis point to a behavioral reaction to stress situations that are perceived as threatening to survival, which could account for the lethal activity of the Palestinian terrorists. These findings suggest that such terrorists could be deterred if an appropriate  alternative for their lives was available to them.


The violent confrontations in Israel brought about by the Palestinians from 1992 to 2005 were epitomized by "suicide bombings" – the term given to terrorists who blow themselves up along with their intended victims[2]. This method was also employed during the 1980s against the IDF in Lebanon, as well as against American soldiers in the Marine Headquarters in Beirut. Of course, the outstanding example of these terrorist attacks was the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. This method is employed today against American soldiers in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

This kind of terrorist attack primarily constitutes an operational problem for the armed forces and the intelligence services, and has also elicited academic interest. Without exception, researchers from different schools consider that this is a case of a suicide (To name only a few: Atran, 2003. Bloom, 2005. Kimhi & Even, 2004. Merari, 1990, 2006. Moghadam, 2003. Pape, 2003, 2005).

My point of view regarding this kind of terrorism is that of a psychologist who has dealt for many years with the subject of suicidal behavior (Oron, 2008, 2011, 2012). Based on knowledge gathered in the field of the psychology of suicide, this article analyzes verbal material produced by Palestinian terrorists. The aim is to inquire, first and foremost, whether these self-exploding Palestinian terrorists are suicidal, and in any case to pinpoint the typical circumstances in which the act is devised and carried out. The main findings are discussed below.

[*] To cite this article:  I. Oron (Ostre), Ph.D., Do "suicide bombers" really commit  suicide? International Bulletin of Political Psychology, Vol 18(5),  7/24/2012 Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

[1] The Department for Psychology, Law and Ethics/ University of Haifa, Israel.  National Program for Suicide Prevention, Ministry of Health, Israel.  Formerly, Psychologist, Behavior  Section/ The Department of Criminal Investigations &Intelligence, Israel Police HQ

[2] The author’s definition of any act of political terror is the use, or threat of use, of violence by non-state individual actors or groups, acting in opposition to established authority in order to bring about desired political outcomes. (The definition draws partially on Wardlaw, 1982). This activity is not considered political-terror if it takes place as part of hostile activities between countries.

The definition deliberately avoids a moral judgment and has no negative or pejorative connotations as regards the actors, because this would limit and even contradict the essence of any scientific research, especially involving social issues. Science by definition is a conceptual and technical framework for solving questions through an understanding of the factual data. A scientific definition does not deal with good and bad. It is only useful or not useful and these qualities are defined primarily in terms of how efficiently it can generate predictions concerning relevant events which turn out to be verified. (The scientist’s personal stance on social issues is another issue entirely).