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Suicide Bombers: Rational Actors?


Terrorists are by and large rational actors. Though there may be some exceptions that deviate from this diagnosis and suffer from a mental disease they are a minority. While the terrorist actions may not seem logical or even sane to their respective adversary (or even world community) they are a long cry from “random irrational acts” (Gerstein, 2010). This discussion will review a few points on this very topic below in order to validate such a claim.

It is important when considering such a question that the reviewer does not attempt to envision their individual values and morals as the same of the terrorist. It is this erred perspective that leads to misunderstanding and false conclusions of madness rather than deliberate thought out the action in regard to the terrorist attacks and the like. Though the terrorist ideology and morals may be contrary to typical cultural values (of the time) their rationale in the decision-making process indicates a sane mind.

A great starting point for consideration is an Islamic terrorist. To even further narrow it down a look at an Islamic suicide bomber will be given. The Islamic terrorist is responsible for 81% of suicide attacks since the attacks of 9/11 (Hoffman, 2006, ch. 5). By most western views the suicide bomber is an irrational self-injurious act that defies reason. While it is injurious to the attacker it is far from irrational. Theological perspective must be considered when attempting to understand the Islamic suicide bomber. The radicalized Muslim does not consider the act a suicide (nor do most fundamental Muslims) as it is rather a battlefield death than a selfish act of suicide (Qur’an, 2:207). This is a necessary distinction. While a typical suicide may indicate a depressed or irrational decision, martyrdom does not. From a bombers perspective, they have been promised a great reward for their sacrificial death according to their scriptural belief (Qur’an, 4:74). By this understanding, it is not a more fantastical decision than an individual fasting (self-depriving) for a godly reward. Though there are many reasons identified behind the motivations of a suicide bomber virtually all of them are logical and rational in respective to the individual’s circumstances (Hoffman, 2006, ch. 5)

Image Credit: Associated Press

One excellent supporting theory is the “Staircase to Terrorism”. In Moghaddam’s “Staircase to Terrorism” model he identifies six narrowing steps an individual takes along the route that eventually ends in terrorism. In the staircase model, the individual’s choices are continually restricted as they escalate up the staircase eventually leaving only the option of a terrorist act. This model demonstrates a logically reasoned process throughout the terrorist walk, rather than an irrational or impulsive act as many may suppose (LYGRE, EID, LARSSON, & RANSTORP, 2011).

In fact, the US Government definition of terrorism actually supports the rational position. According to Title 22 of US, Code terrorism is defined as ‘‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents’’ (Moskalenko & McCauley, 2011). The mere fact that the US Government recognizes terrorist acts as a premeditated event supports the rational theory. Premeditation is a process of prior planning and forethought. This is a rational, not an irrational process.

In conclusion, the reader should clearly see that although the terrorist methodology may be contrary to our values they are far from random irrational acts. Rather they are deliberate and often methodically planned means to the desired end. This understanding is a necessary one in the attempt to profile and counter terrorist and their respective attacks. In fact, it is a promising bit of understanding as it is virtually impossible to anticipate or red cell an insane and random decision, however, conversely there is hope when a logical process can be discovered.


Gerstein, D. (2010). Bioterror in the Age of Biotechnology. Joint Force Quarterly, 78-85.

Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside Terrorism. Columbia University Press.

LYGRE, R. B., EID, J., LARSSON, G., & RANSTORP, M. (2011). Terrorism as a process: A critical review of Moghaddam’s ‘‘Staircase to Terrorism”. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 609-616.

Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2011). The psychology of lone-wolf terrorism. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 115-126.

Qur’an. (n.d.).