Hot Topics

Book Review

"Making Sense of Suicide Missions"

cover by Diego Gambetta, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Review by Ed O'Connell, RAND Corporation

Oxford University sociologist Diego Gambetta has edited a compendium of research papers presented at recent workshops held in Europe on the features, conditions and purpose(s) behind suicide missions. In Making Sense of Suicide Missions he examines the motivations and morale of suicide bombers worldwide, utilizing case studies of the Japanese Kamikazes of World War II, Palestinians during the first intifada and Al Qaeda in the days leading up to September 11, 2001. He does so in a manner that illustrates “though suicide missions (SMs) are rare they are not historically or psychologically abnormal.” Gambetta’s colleagues make the case that SMs indeed have historical precedent. His argument stumbles when one considers the current environment in today’s Iraq, where SMs are hardly “rare.” Gambetta makes a strong case, through the use of a “value methodology,” that suicide bombers are not psychologically abnormal. However, he concedes in his own final chapter (“Can We Make Sense of Suicide Missions?”) that in the end the motivations of suicide bombers are still somewhat obscure.

Nonetheless, Gambetta offers unique views and insights that give commanders and police both cause for concern and hope in confronting the suicide bomber phenomenon that is so ubiquitous in today’s Iraq. He describes SMs as either a weapon of last resort or a means of aggressively building up and establishing an organization by killing and by dying. Military commanders in today’s Iraq appear to be opting for the first view as a means of denigrating the enemy – i.e., this illustrates they are “in the last throes” – versus the second view which holds more deleterious consequences. While Gambetta downplays the role of religion in the early motivation of a suicide bomber, he hints at their potential vulnerability when he observes that religious beliefs can both encourage and discourage SMs.

Perhaps Gambettta’s most useful contribution to the increasing discussion regarding the motivation and morale of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan is his breakdown of a given mission into intrinsic, symbolic, and instrumental values. He describes intrinsic value as the least vital motivating factor for SMs in recent conflicts. Instead he posits two values for each SM that have an additive effect. He assigns a symbolic value as indication of the bomber’s commitment by choosing his own death, as well as an instrumental value as the number of victims one will kill by the act. It is from Gambetta’s detailed explanation of these values in his last chapter that the reader and today’s counterinsurgents will gain the most insight.


Edward (Ed) O’Connell is currently serving in Iraq and the Middle East as a Senior Analyst for the RAND Corporation. O’Connell retired from the Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2002, after more than 20 years of military service. His last duty assignment from 2001-2002 was Chief of the Current Operations Targeting Branch, US Central Command Headquarters where he worked directly for General Tommy Franks, during the War in Afghanistan. O’Connell ran a 150-person branch responsible for coordinating all attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban senior leadership. He was awarded a prestigious fellowship by the Air Force Chief of Staff in 1993 to the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. O’Connell first became involved in Iraq in Feb-March 1991, when he was a Captain serving on a combat survey team that operated inside southern Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War. He also served on an assignment to Korea from 1988-1989.

Since his retirement from the military, O’Connell has worked on projects for RAND involving counterinsurgency, counter-IED, information operations, and developing the potential of Muslim youth, and has written widely on these issues. He spent many months in the last two years studying counterinsurgency, counter-IED, and information operations in downtown Baghdad and across Iraq. O’Connell has two masters degrees: one in international relations and the other in national security studies. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East, is a graduate of the Naval War College, and has served as a military attaché overseas.