Photo Credit: Sridhar1000
Sbarro restaurant after suicide bombing
The Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem after a suicide bombing. The Netanyahu government will feel more "pain" next week when it frees more terrorists.

*Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth installment in ‘Setting The Record Straight,’ the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD 

“A current lament: You can’t even blow-up Jews these days without being labeled an anti-Semite.” [1]


The suicide bomber “is the ultimate smart bomb,” because they are “inexpensive and effective.” [2] For the most part, they are more devastating than other terrorist attacks. Terrorists are able to employ destructive practices such as “suicide vests” and ram cars into targets. [3] “Perhaps most important, coldly efficient bombings tear at the fabric of trust that holds societies together,” by “shrink[ing] to nothing the areas in which people move freely.” [4] “It’s the ultimate asymmetric weapon,” noted Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on terrorism and political violence. “You can assimilate among the people, and then attack with an element of surprise that has an incredible and devastating shock value.” Furthermore, “Without weapons of mass destruction, a single terrorist can create a disproportionate impact by detonating a bomb”—whether the result is derailing Mideast peace negotiations or undermining American diplomatic efforts. [5]

Suicide missions are a particularly persuasive method to signal the probability of more attacks and additional pain, because “suicide itself is a costly signal,” and because terrorists will not be deterred by the risk of severe retaliation. Terrorist organizations can manipulate the conditions of the attack to increase fear about when the next bombing will occur. They intensify anticipation by having deliberately violated the taboo of what are legitimate targets and by expanding recruitment by aggressively promoting martyrdom. [6]

Suicide bombings are “low cost” missions requiring no escape routes or complicated rescue contingencies. Significant numbers of fatalities and extensive destruction are assured, since the precise time, setting and circumstances of the attack can be determined in advance. The certain death of the suicide bomber guarantees no information will be revealed in an interrogation. [7] Suicide bombings spare the organization from having to lose valued followers in a lone attack. [8]

The terrorists are “lethally flexible and inventive.” A suicide bomber with an explosive belt is far more difficult to apprehend and defend against than a device left programmed to detonate in a marketplace or any other crowded venue. At the last minute, a person can adjust to maximize the damage based on accessibility to the target, the number and density of the people, and the security measures in place to thwart an attack. [9]

“Suicide attacks…remind us that there are people who consider their struggle—whatever the cause to be—more important than their own lives,’” [10]  so that one’s constituency should not let their martyrdom be in vain. Their sacrifice is an admonition for others to follow their example. The attacks are also designed to enhance the status and reputation of the organization that sponsored them.  [11]

A Form of Theater

A pervasive characteristic of suicide bombing is that none of their acts are random or senseless. Each attack is designed to achieve maximum publicity and intimidation. They seek to “frighten and, by frightening to dominate and control. They want to impress. They play to and for an audience, and solicit audience participation.” By attracting public attention, they send a message. [12]

“Terrorism is a form of theater,” observed Kenan Malik, a British broadcaster. “What matters is the spectacle, nothing else. The more depraved the spectacle, the more it achieves its aim.” When the media broadcasts an endless stream of videos of terrified people, grief-stricken parents and distraught children, they produce the horrific spectacle that terrorists very much covet. “There comes to be complicity between terrorism and its audience,” Malik concludes. [13]

Bret Stephens, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004, witnessed first-hand the appalling spectacle that terrorists desperately crave. “To witness a suicide bombing up close is to understand, at its etymological root, the meaning of the word ‘carnage,’” he said. “A bomb packed with nails, ball bearings and metal scraps… doesn’t just kill. It shreds. Human beings are turned, instantly, into scraps of bone, organ and flesh. The smell of explosives mingles horribly with that of charred skin, burned metal, melted plastic and enormous quantities of blood. Cafes, buses, markets and concert halls become abattoirs, public and obscene.”

Not only the victims perish. “The bomber dies, too,” he notes. “The act turns the perpetrator into somebody’s martyr while denying his victims the possibility of justice. Mockery from beyond the grave thus compounds the nihilism of the act: I got you; you can never get me.’”

He describes how “on Azza Street in Jerusalem, I saw a man’s body on a blown-up bus swaying back and forth, as if reciting a final prayer. He was one of 11 victims that day, in a bombing that took place a block from where I lived. It’s a sight that’s never left me.”

“I offer this description,” he said, “to make the point that our intellectual understanding of terrorism will be stunted if we lack a visceral understanding of it. The standard definition of terrorism — ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’—anesthetizes reality.” [14]


[1] Barry Oringer, “Terrorism Chic,” Pacific News Service (May 9, 2002), reprinted in Ron Rosenbaum, Ed. Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism (New York: Random House, 2004), 286.

[2] Bruce Hoffman, The Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” The Atlantic Monthly Volume 291, Number 5, (June 2003).

[3] Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005), 28.

[4] Ibid.

[5]  Don Van Natta, Jr., “Big Bang Theory; The Terror Industry Fields Its Ultimate Weapon,” The New York Times (August 24, 2003).

[6] Pape, op.cit.28-29.

[7] Ehud Sprinzak, “Rational Fanatics,” Foreign Policy (November 20, 2009).

[8] Mohammed M. Hafez, Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers (Washington, D.C. United States Institute of Peace, 2006), 13.

[9] Hoffman, The Logic. op.cit.

[10] Christoph Reuter, My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004), 2; Rachel Lu, Terrorists Are Cowards. Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Otherwise,” The Federalist (June 14, 2017); Philip Carl Salzman, “How human rights succumbed to Western self-loathing,” C2C Journal (August 16, 2017).

[11] Hafez, op.cit.13.

[12] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 131; Neil J. Smelser, The Faces of Terrorism: Social And Psychological Dimensions (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), 41-42;  Dipak K. Gupta and Kusum Mundra, “Suicide Bombing as a Strategic Weapon: An Empirical Investigation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 17 (2005): 574

[13] Kenan Malik, “The Jihadi State of Mind,” The New York Times (May 24, 2017); Jean Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism,” Harper’s (February 2002).

[14] Bret Stephens, “Love does not conquer hate — hatred of evil does,” The Seattle Times (May 26, 2017).


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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.