U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Terrorism, Signaling, and Suicide Attack

NCJ Number
Studies in Conflict & Terrorism Volume: 27 Issue: 4 Dated: July-August 2004 Pages: 243-281
Bruce Hoffman; Gordon H. McCormick
Date Published
July 2004
39 pages
This article examines the rationale of the terrorist strategy of using suicide attacks on targets.
The article begins by examining terrorism as a general tactic by a group to "signal" to a target audience that the sponsoring group has the ability and the determination to use violence to achieve its political objectives. This is followed by a discussion of the role of suicide attacks as a signaling tactic. To the target audience of terrorists' enemies, suicide bombers are viewed as irrational fanatics who are prepared to go to any length, including death, to inflict death and severe injury on anyone who represents the enemy. The intent is not so much to kill and maim those within the sphere of the attack, but rather to cause psychological distress on opponents that will lead political constituencies to pressure their political leaders to comply with terrorist demands. Further, as a tactic, suicide bombings are shocking, deadly, cost-effective, secure, and tactically difficult to defend, thus making them a fearful tactic against even a well-armed and well-defended populace. The article briefly discusses the mechanisms used by terrorist groups to recruit individuals for suicide operations. The article concludes by examining the strategic and tactical evolution of suicide operations by Palestinian terrorist groups -- notably Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, along with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. 181 notes