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Economist Says Trading Life for Identity is Key to the "Logic" of Suicide Terrorism

Originally Published 19 March 2003

Suicide terrorism seems to many to defy logic. Economists find the idea particularly hard to understand in the context of economic theories that are usually based on ideas of self interest: surely self interest must preclude self killing. But now a new research paper by Professor Mark Harrison an economist at the University of Warwick says that the value placed on personal identity by suicide terrorists provides some of the answers.

The paper examines three elements involved in the emergence of suicide terrorism: how young people build their identities, the role of conflict and oppression in their environment, and the "contract" they make with the terrorist factions.

As we grow up we try different roles in our search for an identity. Identity is very precious. We need it to function in society; without it, we cannot enjoy income, physical health, marriage, or friendship. Through trial and error each of us eventually establishes an identity that we hope will pay better than others. That identity is concerned with how we are expected to live, but may also define how we should die. In particular circumstances some may conclude that their identity's value can only be preserved by death and will be devalued or completely destroyed by continuing to live. Examples include a mother dying entering a burning house in a futile attempt to save her children, because if she didn't she would have to live on without her identity as a loving parent, or someone who accepts a death sentence rather than recant their religious faith.

Professor Harrison suggests that sometimes young people choose identities that can only limit or end their lives. They invest in identities that turn out not to be viable because they lack the ability or resources to carry them off or they choose identities based on wrong information or defined too narrowly to cope with change. This is made more likely if they are trying to construct such identities in a conflict riven and or oppressive environment that further limits that identity and may overcome the innate will of children to love life. This idea may give insights into some key puzzles about suicide attackers such as:

  • Why are they not old? Because their choice emerges from a crisis of the young person.
  • Why are they mainly men? The range of possible identities available to them may be restricted by their gender. Young women are often expected to invest in identities that emphasise their attachment to the rest of humanity through caring and nurture. Young men are limited to more rigid, introverted roles that are more fragile and less resilient under the pressures of growing up.
  • Why has the proportion of women suicide terrorists risen recently? Draconian attempts to combat terrorism may hinder normal family life and the formation of new families, lowering the opportunity costs facing adolescent women who choose to step outside their normally expected caring nurturing roles. Also, with the rising number of male attackers the relative distinction of the identity to be won by young men may decline, prompting recruitment of more women for whom the distinction of volunteering may be higher.
  • Why are they not uneducated? Young people often make substantial efforts to get an education but if the efforts invested fail to pay off the identity of a warrior martyr may become more attractive.
  • Finally, why may they behave irreligiously before they die, for example by drinking and smoking? Because their identity will be affirmed by how they died, not by how they lived.

Professor Harrison notes that terrorist organisations play a crucial role. Suicide terrorism is the outcome of a contract. The suicide attacker and the terrorist faction enter voluntarily into this contract in expectation of mutual benefit. The volunteer trades life for identity. He will die to promote the faction's terrorist objectives. In return the faction agrees to affirm the volunteer's identity in the community as a warrior martyr, and also provides the means of destruction to distinguish this identity through violence. However, such a contract risks being broken because it involves one party dying who cannot then observe its fulfilment by the other party. This risk is covered by the widespread promotion of the "living martyr": a few days before the event the bomber records a final statement of joy at becoming a martyr in photographs, videos, and letters. When the recording has been distributed and the letters and photographs have been sent each side is fully committed and neither can draw back since each will now lose more by breaking the contract than by implementing it.

For further information please contact:

Professor Mark Harrison, Department of Economics University of Warwick
Tel: 024 7652 3030

Note for editors: Professor Harrison's paper 'The Logic of Suicide Terrorism' presented to a conference on 'Weapons of Catastrophic Effect: Confronting the Threat' at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, 12-14 Feb 2003, is published in the current issue of the RUSI Security Monitor (Feb 2003). A longer draft paper, 'Suicide Terrorism', is available from This Link to the University of Warwick's Econmic Department.