Published in USI Journal :


            Terrorism is the preferred means of waging proxy war. Overtime states have evolved effective ways and means to deal with traditional means of terrorist attacks. However, suicide attack by terrorist organization help enhance the terror quotient of an attack manifold due to its lethality and helplessness of the target state to deter it. Professionals and military experts have been struggling with the motivation and deterrence paradigm of a suicide attack. A multi-causal reasoning of motivation pitched at individual, organizational and environmental levels appears to be the best explanation put forth by social and psychological scientists. Conclusions drawn from discussions on the causality of suicide attacks makes it amply clear that it is nearly impossible to deter individuals from undertaking suicide attacks. But at the organizational levels we do have the space to deter such attacks. Terrorist organisations can be deterred by building a perception of invincibility through the twin strategies of deterrence by denial and punishment. The aim of deterrence by denial essentially involves making a potential target extremely difficult to access. Deterrence by punishment involves focused targeting of terror leadership and the resources used to mount such attacks by an organization. Using these two strategies India too can deter terrorist organisations from launching suicide attacks. An important aspect without which we cannot conduct deterrence operations is the need for sound intelligence. Finally, environmental factors such as addressing the socio-economic conditions, searching for political solutions and countering the terror ideology also helps in deterring suicide attacks. (250 words)



1.         Suicide bombing is an age old phenomenon. Japanese Kamikazes, Chinese “Dare to Die Corps” and German suicide aerial missions are a few examples. In recent times suicide bombings started with the bombing of US Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon by the Shiite groups in 1983. (Wright 2019) Later the LTTE exploited it. In the eighties, various factions in Lebanon civil war carried out suicide bombings. Since then the phenomenon has spread like wild fire to other parts of the world. Many countries are victims of suicide attacks. Middle East, West Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are most affected by suicide terrorism. (Horowitz 2015) But, mother of all suicide attack remains 9/11. It changed the entire complexion of a suicide attack in the world. Suicide attacks have not spared India too. 26/11 still remains etched in our memories. Recently a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist, Adi Ahmad Dar carried out the Pulwama attack. In the video released by JeM, Dar showed no remorse. Dar remarked that by the time video was released he would be in Jannat (heaven). What moves such people to self-destruction? (BBC 2019) The paper will attempt to answer this question. It will also recommend solutions to deter such attacks.



2.         There are many definitions floating in the academic world. This paper will highlight the most acceptable definition. Terrorism experts suggest two approaches to define suicide attacks, narrow and the broad. In the narrow definition death of the perpetrator is essential for the act to cause the damage. Some examples are suicide belt bombers or ramming of explosive laden vehicle /plane. In the broad definition, death of the perpetrator is almost certain. But the damage to the target is not entirely dependent on his death. Fedayeen attacks would fall into such a category. Scholars such as Moghadham and Pape are the main proponents of such an approach. (Moghadam, Defining Suicide Terrorism 2006 a, 17-18) As per Pape “in narrow definition attacker kills himself. In the broad definition an attacker fully expects to be killed by others during an attack. (Pape 2003, 3)  

Motivators of Suicide Attacks

3.         What motivates a suicide attacker? Almost all experts reject the theory of mentally deranged people as suicide attackers. Various scholars attribute different reasons as a cause of motivation. Some of the possible causes are discussed as follows. Hafez says in respect of Palestinian bombers that religious and nationalist appeals that equate self – sacrifice with martyrdom and national salvations are instrumental in producing volunteers for suicide attacks. (Hafez 2006) Sheehy- Skeffington suggests shared sense of injustice by the entire community as a possible cause. (Sheehy-Skeffington 2009) Bloom gives spiritual rewards in afterlife, responsibility with God for the attackers’ families, celebrity status and even cash bonuses as some reasons. (Bloom 2006, 36) He goes on to quote Stern that people indulge in suicide attacks driven by a sense of humiliations or injustice. But, Pape has also proposed a cocktail of reasons like politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. (Singh 2014) Moghadam has taken this idea further and suggested a multi-causal framework of motivation. He has divided the framework into three levels, individual, organisational and environmental. (Moghadam, The roots of suicide terrorism: a multi causal approach. 2006b)

5.         At individual level for Arab suicide bombers he suggests combination of seeking of revenge, posthumous benefits in heaven, material or immaterial benefits. He has also described personality types that are prone to commit suicide attacks like the exploited suicide bomber and tribal mentality. Exploited suicide bombers emerge due to traumatizing life experience and humiliating treatment meted to their community or family by the security forces. Tribal mentality of avenging defeat to the bitter end also motivates some to commit suicide attacks. These factors have created a culture of martyrdom against the current regimes in ME & West Asia. US support to them further aggravates the hatred against them.

6.         Organizational level motivators are socio – cultural environment that honours those who sacrifice themselves in the name of larger collective. (Moghadam, The roots of suicide terrorism: a multi causal approach. 2006b) Outbidding competitors for example Hamas versus Fateh in Palestine, ISIS versus AQ in ME and Taliban versus other groups in Afghanistan. (Moghadam, The roots of suicide terrorism: a multi causal approach. 2006b) Bloom suggests political power and strategic signaling to the target audience and the State as a possible reason. (Bloom 2006) In fact Hoffman and McCormick go on to add that they are preferred by the organization because they are shocking, deadly, cost effective, secure, and very difficult to stop. (Hoffman 2001) Moghadam also extends similar reasons such as creating fear in the minds of target audience, garnering international support and internal moral boosting. Tactical advantages such as accuracy, lethality, cost efficiency and irrelevance of planning an escape route also act as strong motivators at the organisational level. (Moghadam, The roots of suicide terrorism: a multi causal approach. 2006b)

7.         Finally, there are environmental factors that motivate individuals and organisation to undertake such a deadly option of causing damage through self-destruction. Territory perceived to be under foreign occupation, poverty, and government repression contribute to environment prone to emergence of suicide terrorism. Likewise religious, ethnic and nationalist public figures may also encourage the culture of martyrdom. Hassan has quoted Pape stating that suicide attacks follow a strategic logic specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to make significant political and territorial concessions. (Hassan 2009) Foregoing discussion suggests that most effective way to deter suicide terrorism is at the organisational level.


Force Multiplier of Proxy War

8. Terrorism has been the strategy of non-state actors. But state actors are also using terror groups to undertake proxy wars. The table below highlights the popularity of this form of warfare. Some very responsible state actors like US, Iran and Russia are indulging in it. Deniability and victory without using conventional forces are major advantages of proxy war. Even the cost of waging a proxy war is very low with high strategic gains. The state also clubs information operations and propaganda with terrorism and exploit social-cultural differences and economic fault lines to wage information operations. These steps help the proxy non-state actor to build its terror base.

Table – 1: Countries Involved in Proxy War (Amos February 2019)

*Data on Pakistan and China is based on common knowledge and assessment of the Author

9.         The primary tool of proxy war is terrorism. Its success depends upon the effectiveness of terrorism in the target country. Three percent of all terrorist incidents from 1980 to 2003 were suicide attacks. But suicide attacks account for 48 percent of all the fatalities. Even after discounting 9/11, average suicide attacks are twelve times deadlier than other forms of terrorism. (Pape 2003, 6)[1] Hassan Riyaz also states based on Yale Global Data that suicide attack constituted only 4% of all terrorist attacks around the world over one period (between 1981 and 2006), but caused 32% of all terrorism-related deaths (14,599). Ninety percent of those attacks occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. (Riaz 2009) Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University, Israel suggests decline in suicide attacks over the past few years. Major findings of its report are:-

(a)  In 2019, around 149 suicide bombings took place worldwide. 2018, there were 293 suicide attacks – a decline of around 49 percent.

(b)   For the second consecutive year, the most active area was Asia. Total 68 suicide bombings took place here. The focal point was Afghanistan – accounting for 45.5 percent.

(c)  Middle East, saw around 47 suicide bombings in 2019. Accounting for around 31.5 percent of all suicide bombings.

(d)   In Africa, around 33 attacks have taken place in 2019. Accounting for around 22 percent of attacks during the year.

(e)  According to data collected in 2019, out of the 236 suicide bombers, 22 were women. These suicide bombings killed 1,850 people and wounded 3,660. The study however predicts continued use of this tactics particularly by the global jihadi groups ISIS and Al Qaeda due to their allure to divine path. (Yoram Schweitzer 2020)

Concentration in Islamic Radicalism

 10.      People belonging to all faiths have undertaken suicide attacks in the past. But, radical Islamic Jihadists are now more active in conducting suicide attacks. Among the radical Islamic groups, Salafi Jihadist are predominant group that indulge in suicide attacks. ME and West Asia remain the favourite operating areas of ISIS and AQ. Taliban Afghanistan, ISIS, AQ, LeT, JeM are active in Afghanistan. Therike Taliban Pakistan is the predominant group in Pakistan. LeT and JeM though based in Pakistan are active in India. Recently Sri Lanka also saw some attacks by ISIS/elements affiliated to ISIS. Likewise ISIS affiliate Boko Haram is active in Nigeria. AQ affiliate Al Shabab is active in Somalia and Kenya. These groups see the current rulers of Islamic world straying away from the path of Islam. They justify waging war on the ground that current rulers push people into jahaliyat. Divinity and martyrdom in the name of Allah are strong motivators. It propels people to take extreme actions. The implications are loud and clear, the world including India continues to remain under constant threat of suicide attacks. It is not going to go away in a hurry.

How do We Deter a Human Being Driven by Divine Faith

11.       Sheer complexity of suicide terrorism increases the difficulty of deterring such a threat. These attacks are like a force multiplier in terrorism. Terrorist operate in a force asymmetric environment and find it a convenient tactics. It is a weapon with one way ticket to the heaven, easy to launch, self-guided, fire and forget system. It also helps in hastening the achievement of their political goals. It is a seventh generation human weapon platform.[2] Answer to deterring suicide attacks lies in its definition and causality. Definition negates the possibility of deterrence at the individual level. How do we convince a person who has decided to become a martyr and proceed to heaven? Thus strategy to deter will focus at the organisational and environmental levels. If we deter the organisation the bedrock of suicide terrorism will get eliminated. Actions at the environmental level should target the socio-economic conditions, terrorist ideology and search for political solutions. Radical Islamic jihadist are the major perpetrators of suicide terror. We must therefore counter their radical religious (salafi), political and cultural extremism. (Singh 2014)

Strategies to Achieve Deterrence

12.       An organisation or a group of people in a society can be deterred if they are seen to be losing the battle with the state. If we build a victory bank of foiling terror attacks on a regular basis, a perception of invincibility gets created. This has the potential to deter terror groups from undertaking suicide attacks. (Almog 2004) But we must ensure effective protective measures on possible suicide attack targets. Many experts suggest prompt retaliation on attacking group to achieve deterrence. Recent case of Balakote bombings by India is an example of such an approach. But the state must keep demonstrating such an intent for any meaningful impact. The twin counter attacks post Uri and Pulwama may have achieved temporary deterrence. Almog has cited similar examples by Israel as the probable cause for reduction in suicide attacks on Israel by Palestinian Suicide Bombers. (Almog 2004) The discussions so far suggest a two pronged strategy of deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Both have to go hand in hand to deter suicide terrorism.

Deterrence by Denial

13.       Denial would include measures such as hardening of possible targets especially high value. The endeavour in this strategy is to make it extremely difficult for a suicide attacker to access the potential target. Establishment of effective protection measures. Gainful utilisation of Special Forces. Effective intelligence and surveillance measures for both offensive and defensive actions. Collaborative approach to cut off financial and other resources to the terror group. International alliances and working in close cooperation with international agencies will help. If the intelligence machinery becomes weak passive strategies become difficult to put in place. Hence we must consistently work towards seeking intelligence for better preventive measures.

Deterrence by Punishment

14. Kinetic action against the terrorist leadership, bomb makers, weapon sources, financiers, trainers, over ground workers and political supporters forms the corner stone of such as strategy. State should take steps to deny resources such as explosives, arms and munitions. Targeting training camps, operating bases and launching pads are few other actions. Another way to deter by punishment is to induce a terror group to harbour and ambition of transforming into a state. Bar says, “The more a terrorist organization takes on the attributes of a state, the more susceptible it becomes to deterrence. A threat of punishment of unknown proportions looms darker than a punishment meted out on a regular basis. (Bar 2008) A classic example is inducing terror groups to seek control of territory and start indulging in state functions such as tax collection and business. This is exactly what happened to ISIS and it met its doom in Syria. Taliban is also forced to negotiate because it has ambitions of forming a nation state. The only caution here is that it is a dangerous step. Sometimes in attempting such a strategy, the State may end up losing to the terror group. It is probably due to this reason that Afghan government is dragging its feet on implementation of the recently signed peace agreement between USA and Taliban.


15.  India has been consistent victim of proxy war waged by our western adversary. It has been periodically subjected to suicide attacks. Groups such as Lashkar –ei- Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-ei- Mohammad (JeM) are hyper active against India. From Mumbai to Pulwama it has suffered loss of human lives and had earned an image of soft state. However, by a combination of denial and punishment we can create an image of hard power and invincibility. We need to make it difficult for a suicide bomber to reach his target through sound intelligence, interceptions and neutralisation. State must raise specialised counter terror Special Forces / security forces for this purpose. The NSG in its current format is not optimally effective. Unless it adopts the structure and methodology followed by international Special Forces such as GSG 9 of Germany, GIGN of France and Sayeret Matkal of Israel, it is unlikely to achieve desired results. The country must also inflict an unacceptable punishment to the sponsors of proxies. But it must be prepared to deal with any misadventure. The space provided by revoking of Article 370, 35-A and the delineation of the state into two Union Territories must be used to eliminate the leadership in the valley. India must also cut off the resource base to include weapons, ammunition, explosives, funding and over ground workers support to the various radical groups in J&K.

16.       Environmental factors must focus on counter ideological framing that debunks the divinity out of such attacks through concerted information operations. Suggested themes are one undermining the Pakistani idea of Kashmir. Two promoting the less extremist interpretation of Islam against radicalism. Three encouraging alternate and moderate Islamic voices. Four promoting the just-cause strategy. Five educating against us versus them discourse. Six delegitimising and dis-empowering the terrorist leadership by exposing their misdeeds. These steps have the potential to demotivate the support base of terror group which may also then discourage people from taking the divine path to self-destruction.


18.       Proxy war through state sponsored terrorism involving non-state actors under the overall rubric of grey zone warfare is becoming a preferred strategy of many states for reasons such as deniability, excessive cost of war and avoiding their own nations cost in terms of resources and human lives. One of our adversaries on the Western Border is a past master in such a warfare. Terrorist leaders to gain recognition often resort to suicide attacks when traditional methods of inflicting terror fail. We have seen that such a tactics often has strategic impact on the target nation. As highlighted such attacks can only be deterred if the organisations or their proxies are made to realise the futility of suicide attacks. Relentless targeting of the support base of suicide terrorists is a must. Measures to deter would generally fall under the broad typology of deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Finally, in any deterrence strategy importance of intelligence will remain paramount.  (2800 words)

Works Cited

Almog, D. (2004). 2004. “Cumulative Deterrance and War on Terrorism.” Parameters, US Army War College 4-18.

Amos, C Major. February 2019. “In Pursuit of a General Theory of Proxy Warfare.” Land Warfare Paper 123.

Bar, S. 2008. “Deterring Terrorists.” Hoover Institution Stanford University. June 2. Accessed April 22, 2020.

BBC. 2019. “Kashmir attack: Tracing the path that led to Pulwama.” BBC India. May 01. Accessed April 21, 2020. .

Bloom, M. 2006. “Dying to Kill: Motivation for Suicide Terrorism.” In Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism , by A. Pedahzur, 25 – 53. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Hafez, M. M. (2006). Dying to be Martyrs : the symbolic dimension of suicide terrorism. In A. Pedahzur (Ed.), Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism (pp.54 – 80). New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. 2006. “Dying to be Martyrs : the symbolic dimension of suicide terrorism. .” In Hafez, M. M. (Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism , by A. Pedahzur (Ed.), 54-80. New York: Hafez, M. M. (2006). Dying to be Martyrs : the symbolic dimension of suicide terrorRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Hassan, R. 2009. “What Motivates the Suicide Bombers.” Yale Global Online. Accessed November 21, 2012.

Hingorani, Aman. 2017. Can International Court of Justice untie K knot. May 28. Accessed March 23, 2020.

Hoffman, B., & McCormick, G. 2001. “Terrorism, Signaling, and Suicide Attack.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 27(4) 243-281.

Horowitz, Michael C. 2015. “The Rise and Spread of Suicide Bombing.” Annual Review of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania. May. Accessed April 22, 2020.

Moghadam, A. 2006 a. “Defining Suicide Terrorism.” In Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism , by A. Pedahzur, 13 – 21. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Moghadam, A. 2006b. “The roots of suicide terrorism: a multi causal approach. .” In Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism, by A. Pedahzur (Ed.), 81-107. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Pape, R. A. 2003. ” The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” American Political Science Review 1-19.

Riaz, Hassan,. 2009. YaleGlobal, What Motivates the Suicide Bombers? September 3. Accessed April 16, 2020.

Sheehy-Skeffington, J. 2009. “Social Psychological Motivations of Suicide Terrorism.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISPP 32nd Annual Scientific Meeting, Trinity College,. Dublin: Ireland Online. Retrieved online on August, 2012,from

Singh, Dushyant. 2014. “Deterring Suicide Terrorism.” In Understanding Suicide Terrorism: Psychosocial Dynamics, by Updesh Kumar & Manas K. Mandal, 261-275. New Delhi: Sage Publication India Pvt ltd.

Wikipedia. 2020. “Suicide Attack.” April 15. Accessed April 21, 20. .

Wright, Robin. 2019. “The 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombing and the Current U.S. Retreat from Syria.” The New Yorker. October 23. Accessed April 22, 2020.

Yoram Schweitzer, Aviad Mendelboim, Dana Ayalon. 2020. “INSS Insight No. 1244.” The Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University. January 2. Accessed April 15, 2020.

[1] (Pape, Dying to Win, p. 6). The same figure is found in Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism, p. 12, and a similar figure – 3 per cent produced 45 per cent of the casualties – is found in Merle Miyasato, Suicide Bombers, Profiles. Methods and Techniques, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KA, 2007, p. 3)

[2] Seven is the number associated with God, hence the colloquial use of the term seventh generation.


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