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Calculated, Passionate, Pious Extremism:Beyond a Rational Choice Theory of Suicide Terrorism

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This article proposes a theoretical framework to identify the main ideal types of motivations underlying voluntary suicide missions in terrorist campaigns, with special reference to Sunni extremists, such as Al-Qaeda and its allies. Based on empirical evidence from several suicide missions, the paper argues for conceptualising a specific kind of rationality qualitatively different from a calculation of costs and benefits and in addition to the complex constellation of affectual orientations driving militants. On one hand, martyrdom videos and biographical information on suicide attackers, as well as interviews with would-be suicide bombers, make it plausible to hypothesise not only a type of instrumental rationality in which suicide missions are viewed as adequate means for both egoistic and altruistic goals, but also affects and feeling states, such as outrage and humiliation, that create a desire for revenge. On the other hand, militants’ frequent references to a series of absolute values support the theory of an axiological rationality of suicide terrorism, meant as a disposition to conform unconditionally one’s action to certain moral duties and normative expectations regardless of their consequences. From this perspective, success in recruiting and inspiring suicide bombers, demonstrated by Al-Qaeda’s propagandistic call for jihad and martyrdom in defence of Islam and oppressed Muslim countries, cannot be explained only by militants’ search for social consideration or by their cognitive view of a strategic use of suicide bombings. Such responsive participation in suicide missions is also based on a wide set of emotions and militants’ adhesion to superior principles requiring ultimate sacrifice and indifference to other costs.

Affiliations: 1: University of Trento


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