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  • CorrespondenceLife Sciences and Islamic Suicide Terrorism
  • Mia Bloom (bio), Bradley A. Thayer (bio), and Valerie M. Hudson (bio)

To the Editors (Mia Bloom writes):

In their article, "Sex and the Shaheed: Insights from the Life Sciences on Islamic Suicide Terrorism," Bradley Thayer and Valerie Hudson argue that in a resource-scarce ecological environment, biological imperatives drive suicide terrorism.1 In this Darwinian environment, alpha males compete over water, land, and access to mates (p. 43). Non-alpha males resort to a variety of strategies to shift the social hierarchy in their favor (p. 44). The authors further claim that young unmated males are attracted to extremist ideologies and participation in militant Islamic groups that use suicide terrorism. The need to construct a new kind of family (along the lines of what Marc Sageman refers to as "a group of guys") binds the unmated males together and directs violence outward (p. 45).2

Thayer and Hudson's article is a welcome addition to the study of suicide terrorism in two respects. First, it attempts to address issues of political violence by engaging in multidisciplinary research. Second, it introduces a much-needed hard scientific approach to the study of human behavior, which has been largely absent from the literature on political violence.3 There are, however, four main problems with the Thayer-Hudson study. First, a possible gender bias may be driving their results. Second, a potential selection effect may reveal who elects to become a suicide terrorist. Third, would-be suicide bombers may believe that they have no other option. The fourth problem involves the role of coercion in the decision to employ suicide terrorism (for [End Page 185] men but especially for women who become bombers). I discuss each of these problems below.

The Female Suicide Terrorist

In explaining the propensity for Islamic societies to engage in suicide terrorism, Thayer and Hudson write that "young males in these societies feel a keen sense of emasculation and humiliation. … [T]hese young men, in particular, have a strong cultural imperative to find some means to address these emotions" (p. 47). Thayer and Hudson's argument seeks to address why Muslim men might conduct suicide operations, but it fails to capture the complicated dynamic of women's increasing involvement in suicide terrorism, for example, in Chechnya, Egypt, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and Somalia. Contrary to Thayer and Hudson's claim, a shortage of women resulting from the practice of polygyny and the trend of men marrying later in life cannot explain women's involvement in suicide operations (p. 39). Furthermore, the growing role of female bombers within Islamic-oriented terrorist groups (including those loosely affiliated with al-Qaida) actually undermines Thayer and Hudson's argument, because one would expect that no organization would waste a valuable resource, especially one in such short supply.

Thayer and Hudson's inferences from the biological sciences denude the political motivation of individuals and groups engaged in suicide operations, which cut across gender, religious and secular groups, and Islamic and non-Islamic terrorist organizations. The use of terrorism across a diverse array of peoples, places, and contexts indicates a biological component to terrorism, not just a situational one. Yet, by arguing that Muslim males react to emasculation and direct their violence outward, Thayer and Hudson reify the Islamic world in a way that is inaccurate, given the many fault lines that exist throughout the region. They also fail to account for the nuanced motivations of suicide terrorists in, for example, Pakistan (sectarian violence against other, supposedly heretical, Muslims), Israel/Palestine (resistance against an occupation), and Iraq (a combination of both).

The Best and the Brightest

Thayer and Hudson claim that non-alpha males engage in suicide terrorism to assert themselves in society (p. 44), and that underachieving males in the society might gravitate toward involvement in suicide terrorism in order to distinguish themselves. The authors, however, fail to account for the presence of a selection effect. Most terrorist organizations choose their operatives through a careful process.4 According to Alan Krueger and Jitka Malecková, the majority of suicide bombers—not only those for al-Qaida but also for Hamas, Hezbollah, and several other groups—possess university degrees and...