Correspondence: Life Sciences and Islamic Suicide Terrorism

In the winter 2010/2011 issue of International Security, Mia Bloom responds to Bradley Thayer and Valerie Hudson’s article “Sex and the Shaheed: Insights from the Life Sciences on Islamic Suicide,” covered here on the POMEPS blog. Bloom argues in “Correspondence: Life Sciences and Islamic Suicide Terrorism” that Thayer and Hudson overlook important aspects of Islamic suicide terrorism.

Bloom highlights that Thayer and Hudson make important contributions in their article. They use an interdisciplinary approach and incorporate scientific studies of human behavior. Both components strengthen studies of terrorism.

However, Bloom challenges aspects of Thayer and Hudson’s argument as well. Thayer and Hudson argue that resource scarcity and decreased reproductive prospects lead men to take up terrorist activity that can increase the well-being of those they leave behind. Bloom argues that this argument about male behavior does not explain the growing numbers of Islamic female suicide bombers. Additionally, Thayer and Hudson’s focus on the desire of men to take up terrorism ignores the role that terrorist groups play in selecting their operatives. Operatives generally are chosen carefully by groups and suicide terrorists are sometimes coerced into terrorism, growing up in climates where terrorism is normalized or glorified. Some groups rape women in order to make them feel they have no option other than terrorism. Bloom argues that violating women and using female terrorists would be odd given the biological constraints described by Thayer and Hudson. Bloom also argues that Thayer and Hudson’s argument does not acknowledge the complexity of terrorism, including variations in the motivations of terrorists in diverse contexts.

Thayer and Hudson respond to Bloom, agreeing with some of her arguments and disagreeing with others. While arguing that most Islamic suicide terrorist acts are committed by males, they agree with Bloom’s argument that female suicide terrorists may have different motivations than their male counterparts and that coercion plays an important role in terrorism. Thayer and Hudson argue that Bloom’s critique actually supports their argument that women and men who have decreased reproductive prospects might turn to terrorism. They also argue that using female terrorists might tactically make sense at times, even given the overall shortage of women in Islamic societies. More broadly, Thayer and Hudson disagree with Bloom’s critique that they have ignored the complexity in motivations of terrorist behavior. They argue that they embraced this complexity in their article, and that their approach is based on considering wisdom from the life sciences in addition to the many factors explored by social science.

Download “Correspondence: Life Sciences and Islamic Suicide Terrorism” from International Security if your university has access here or email for assistance.