Suicide Terrorism as a Tactic: How Dominant, yet Subtle Representations Form Identities and Meanings

By Frank Mariscal
Clocks and Clouds
2017, Vol. 7 No. 2 | pg. 1/1


Although terrorism has been present in the world for centuries, it is only since the 1980s that suicide terrorism has become an object of study for academics and an existing concern for government professionals. While discourses on suicide terrorism have evolved, and passed through small, but varied cycles of resurgences, one of the bigger revivals of suicide terrorism discourse appeared in 2001, after the horrific attacks of 9/11. This paper analyzes the two major discourses surrounding the motivations that terrorist organizations in the Middle East have for utilizing the tactic of suicide bombing. These two perspectives, both widely held among public officials, have been at odds with one another on whether to attribute suicide terrorism to Islamic fundamentalism or to secular, strategic motivations. I argue that Islamic fundamentalism is the dominant discourse among U.S. officials and media by explaining how this presiding representation put forth by these entities has influenced the government's foreign policy options towards the Middle East, affected Muslims in the U.S. and shaped the way U.S. public society perceives Muslims in general. By presenting original research on the multidimensionality of suicide terrorism, I will explain that the term "suicide terrorism" is an empty signifier, one which requires recognition of its nominal status. This assertion is crucial to our understanding of how Muslims are misrepresented in today's age, and how powerful discourses can shape the way we think, act, and interact with certain people, oftentimes without conscious effort.


Although terrorism has been present in the world for centuries, it is only recently that suicide terrorism as a tactic emerged as a subject of study for academics worldwide and as an existing concern for government professional ever since the Tamil Tiger of Sri Lanka revolutionized the tactic back in the 1980's (Lutz and Lutz 2013, 276). The tactic of suicide terrorism is one that has increasingly been used by many terrorists and is responsible for more than half of all terrorist attacks in history (Ibid, 276-277). This tactic has clearly caused direct damage to infrastructures and people around the world, but this phenomenon has also indirectly altered perceptions towards people of Arab descent, their way of life, and has shaped U.S policy in unprecedented ways. According to an FBI report, there were only about 20 to 30 Muslim-related hate crimes per year before 9/11, but Muslim hate crimes have gradually increased between 100 to 150 a year following the events of 9/11. In 2001 alone, that number reached nearly 500 (McClary 2015). This new phenomenon has given rise to 2 major discourses that have constantly been clashing with one another: Islamic fundamentalism and secular/strategic motivations. My intent is to answer the question of: how do two seemingly opposite discursive regimes, initiated by American elites, feed off each other such that innocent Arabs and Muslims end up being perceived and treated as combatants, or more specifically, suicide terrorists?

While both discourses on suicide terrorism have developed, and passed through small, but varied cycles of resurgences, one of the bigger revivals appeared in 2001, after the horrific attacks of 9/11. Prior to this date, the more secular and strategic view of suicide terrorism was the main lens through which American elites and the media viewed the perpetrators of such attacks. Due to the influence of the Soviet Union, more secular, MarxistLeninist terrorist groups, such as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Shining Path of Peru, accounted for many of the terrorist attacks during the 80's and early 90's. However, after 9/11, a new mode of terrorism emerged, forever changing the perceptions, aspirations, attitudes and fears of the West towards this new threat that had been jumpstarted by suicide terrorists. No longer was this a political or secular problem, but it changed into a religious problem – more specifically a Muslim problem. Thus, this paper analyzes the two discourses surrounding the meanings associated with suicide terrorism and discusses how certain representations, cast either explicitly or unknowingly by public officials and the media, contribute to the ongoing misrepresentation and faulty perceptions towards certain groups of people who happen to look like the suicide terrorists.

Subsequently, the crux of this paper lies in the need to challenge the discursive development of "Islamic Terrorism" as a widespread existential risk, inciting reflection upon the normative results of the dialect, ideographic confining, and knowledge creation produced by the term. Moreover, I conclude that the binary system perpetuated through the quantitative system of categorizing, compartmentalizing, and distinguishing suicide terrorist's motivations as either "religious" or "secular" contributes to the othering of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. Instead, I call for a more nuanced and constructive way of viewing terrorist organizations and their motivations for said tactic. Through an in-depth analysis of public official statements and media news reports, not only is the Islamic fundamentalist discourse exposed as the current presiding paradigm within the U.S., but it is revealed that it has affected Muslims within the U.S. in many ways, whether it be through the government's increased security in mosques, or through violent actions taken by civil society towards Muslims (Lutz and Lutz 2013, 285286). By presenting original research on the multidimensionality of suicide terrorism, the term itself will show itself to be an empty signifier, one that requires recognition of its nominal status, a word that does not point to any actual object or agreed upon meaning (Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2012, 46). This concept is crucial to our understanding of how Muslims are misrepresented in today's age, and how powerful discourses can shape the way we think, act, and interact with certain people, oftentimes without conscious effort.

This article first synthesizes relevant literature on suicide terrorism with the hopes of establishing a theoretical framework that can be used to situate the research question into the overall academic discourse. The two scholarly camps most relevant in the academic world also happen to be: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Secular/Strategic Efficacy schools of thought. The pertinent literature finds itself directly informing the clashing discourses that are discussed in this paper. After an analysis of the scholarship, the paper lays out the specific methodological components utilized to tackle the research question to justify the specific choices made when it comes to mapping the representations that have arisen from both discourses. Methods such as identifying the specific contexts in which the discourses have been formulated in, discussing the methods used for data generation, and touching on the notions of reflexive and trustworthy research. Subsequently, an analysis on the meanings associated with suicide terrorism, as represented by public officials and the media, is conducted. More specifically, this analysis will scrutinize the language, rhetoric, and specific themes that arise from a plethora of official and media layers of discourse. Additionally, this examination will reveal the dynamic nature of the term suicide terrorism, an empty signifier, and how easy it is to attach multiple meanings and identities to it, which can in turn, incite certain actions towards certain groups of people who have been conflated with the identity of the actual perpetrator.

Literature Review

Although suicide terrorism is a dynamic and constructive term, the definition from Lutz and Lutz will be used to provide a consistent conceptualization of this practice. This tactic can include, but is not limited to the strapping of bombs in certain areas where the individual will also be present (on clothing, in bags, on the body, in a car, inside enclosed room, etc.) or crashing vehicles into a structure with an individual in the vehicle (Lutz and Lutz 2013, 276). Different studies dedicated to explaining the causes of suicide terrorism can be divided into 2 levels of analysis – there are those that focus on the individual bomber and those that focus on organizational motivations. Most analysts agree that profiling suicide bombers individually is difficult given their diverse backgrounds (Post et al. 2009, 22-23). Additionally, scholars claim that suicide bombers do not suffer from salient psychopathology, and thus the probability of mental illness playing a part in their motivations is not likely (Mohhadam 2009, 51). Certain points of study that have emerged can range from a strong commitment to a cause, a desire for revenge, or the expectation of benefits after death (Post et al. 2009, 18-19, 21; MacEoin 2009, 22). Overall, no study has surely identified either the necessary or sufficient conditions for any individual to engage in suicide terrorism. This literature review does not focus on individual motivations of suicide terrorism; instead it will focus on the organizational level of analysis.

Religious Ideology School

The distinguished work of a prominent figure in this school of thought, Michael Bonner, has carved a path for the constant flow of scholarly literature that merges suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism (Bonner 2006, 2). This school of thought has gained so much traction that it has comfortably situated itself into the conscious and subconscious minds of U.S. military leaders, politicians, news reporters and average citizens alike. This is mainly because most suicide attackers tend to be of Arab descent from countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, or Turkey; the common thread here is that most of these countries are predominantly Muslim (MacEoin 2009, 16). Denis MacEoin points out that by 2008, 1,121 suicide bombers had carried out attacks in Iraq. Furthermore, he asserts that apart from Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers used the tactic, suicide bombing has become an almost exclusively Islamic phenomenon (MacEoin 2009, 17-18). These quantitative findings indicate that suicide bombers have been Muslim for the most part, regardless of their country of origin, since the 1990s.

These experts agree that the notion of jihad is what charges terrorist organizations to adopt these suicidal tactics. Jihad does not refer to "holy war" or "just war," but rather translates into "striving" (Bonner 2006, 2). When this word is followed by the following modifying phrase fi sabil Allah, "in the path of God" – when assumed to be in direct force, jihad suggests fighting for the sake of God (Ibid, 3). Additionally, in the Hadith, martyrdom is explicated in detail with all its rewards such as attaining paradise after death, and receiving a proper burial in enemy territory (Hafez 2010, 367). Ironically enough, Islam strictly forbids suicide. Scholars like Grimland and his colleagues highlight the fact that Muslims consider themselves to be servants of Allah, the provider and creator who determines the lifespan of his creations; thus, a Muslim is not free to end their life whenever they want and the consequences of such acts are dire. Conversely, they note that if a Muslim puts themselves into the role of a shahid, or martyr, they are promised life after death in paradise with 70 of his dearest relatives and close friends and 72 virgins (Grimland et al. 2006, 111). These academics have concluded that this promise of the afterlife which the Quran and the Hadiths teach is what many terrorist organizations strive for, and thus they engage in acts of jihad via their strict interpretation of their holy books and take it to a whole new level. (Hafez 2010, 369). At the same time, it is important to understand that there appears to be a split within Islamic teachings between the radicalized jihadist interpretation (extremists within the Salafi camp), the hardliner Salafi interpretation, which is also fundamentalist but not necessarily violent, and the traditional, peaceful Islamic interpretation.

Scholars in this camp suggest the implementation of education programs designed to outright ban religious propaganda that "may set in motion new ways of altering the religious fanatic's mindset" (MacEoin 2009, 24). Additionally, scholars have influenced US foreign policy by sending troops to these "Muslim lands," which have waged jihad against our country, so that we may destroy those who threaten us with religious convictions (Ibid, 24). A shortcoming with this mode of thought is that Islam is the sole motivation for committing the act of suicide bombing, when there is evidence suggesting religious drives are not the only motivational factor. This mode of thought can be traced in the rhetoric put forth by news reporters and U.S. officials. This has fueled the belief that future terrorist attacks can be avoided by a wholesale transformation of Muslim societies, such as seen in the United States' recent conquest in Iraq (Pape 2005, 137). Thus, this school of thought informs the research laid out in this paper because it corroborates the fact that the Islamic fundamentalism school of thought is not only elucidated in official and media layers of discourse but also in academic circles, which further strengthens my claim that these specific representation of suicide terrorists do in fact exist and influence our attitudes, behaviors and perceptions towards Muslims.

Strategic Efficacy School

Academics from this school of thought assert that suicide terrorism is not simply used for religious or ethereal purposes, rather they purport that suicide terrorism has more of a secular and strategic logic to it. Robert Pape, along with other scholars, asserts that contrary to common belief, Islamic fundamentalism is not the central cause of suicide terrorism. This school of thought claims that this false presumption has ignited the belief that future terrorist attacks can be avoided by a total transformation of Muslim societies (Pape 2005, 150). Moreover, Pape discovered that the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a secular Marxist group who were very opposed to religion, committed more suicide attacks than any other religious terrorist organizations during the 90's and early 2000's (Ibid, 237). These scholars argue that a terrorist organizations' decision to partake in suicide terrorism has one strategic, political, and secular goal: and that is to utilize a tactic that is low cost, but highly effective. This is done so that it can be employed as a logical, strategic maneuver that will force democracies, such as Western and European nations, to withdraw military forces from the land these terrorists consider to be their homes so that they can live peaceful lives.

Another intellectual, Bond, states that the 9/11 terrorists committed these atrocities not because of religion but because the cost of the tactic was cheap, and the outcome could achieve maximal results (Bond 2004, 35). He further explains that the terrorists considered the U.S. an occupying force in the Middle East because of the presence of military bases, forward operating bases, and America's support for Israel (Ibid, 36). Grimland also indicates in his research that terrorist organizations wish to effect political change as swiftly as possible in the face of strategic inferiority; he gives examples of how terrorists compelled American and French forces to abandon Lebanon in 1983, and how the Kurds compelled Turkey to grant them autonomy in the late 1990's (Grimland et al. 2006, 112). At the same time, it's important to mention that some terrorist organizations, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan want to install Islamist political desires into the government, rather than purely secular ones, so sometimes there is a crossover between religion and politics and the lines are often blurred (Ibid).

According to many critics, much of the methods utilized by Pape and other scholars in this school of thought, such as the gathering of raw suicide bombing incidents, correlations, and other quantitative methods, are misleading and outdated. In broader terms, statistical regularity or predictability only indicates correlations but not causation. Most of the scholars in this camp guide themselves off correlations, which have the potential for inaccurate results. Scott Atran asserts that Pape's study relies solely on the computations of statistical trends rather than supplementing them with other discernments from nonrandom interviews with the human subjects of study in this topic (Atran 2006, 132-133). This school of thought informs the research conducted in this paper by providing the reader an in-depth understanding of the rationale behind the opposing discourse of the religious motivations. However, the academic literature surrounding this school of thought is not a popular one. It is a view that has gained some traction throughout the years, but not enough to influence the media, political processes, civil society such as the religious discourse has.

Methodological Considerations

Mapping Representations/Evidence Generation

I have conducted a critical discourse analysis on the representations cast by public officials and media representatives on the motivations behind suicide terrorism and the suicide terrorist. Thus, I map how these representations have formulated and "racialized" Arabs and Muslims into becoming the suicide terrorists that everyone fears. This in turn, helps explain the changed perceptions and attitudes towards Muslims which then leads to biases, toxic attitudes, and sometimes harmful practice that can stem from any echelon of the societal ladder: the government, media, and civil society. I rely on a postmodern conceptualization of language to unmask the hidden power structures lying beneath the discourses of Islamic fundamentalism and secular motivations discourse, to better understand how both discourses of suicide terrorism inform each other. Moreover, it is important to recognize that some representations become accepted as "true" and others do not, therefore it is important to ask how certain constructions of knowledge become dominant (Dunn 2008, 83).

I cast a wide net on the types of sources my subject would require so that I could be exposed to a plethora of texts and ultimately ensure I approached my evidence generation collection method in a nuanced fashion (Ibid, 86-87). First, the use of different layers of discourse were explored, such as official or media discourses. For example, George W. Bush's Address to the Nation after the 9/11 attacks and a telephone conversation between the President, and other government officials were used as text that can be critically analyzed. This was specifically chosen because during 9/11, President Bush served as a symbol and the highest echelon of power in the U.S. during this significant paradigm shift that occurred in the U.S. Thus, I thought it was important to analyze the mind of George Bush to uncover his thought processes and biases so that we can understand how his rhetoric and decisions directly stem from his position of power and how that influences those under him in the societal hierarchy of power. Additionally, news reports of suicide bombings from the 1980s up until the present day were selected. To ensure diversity and consistency, 5-10 news articles dating as far back as the 1980s, such as the Beirut suicide-bombing attacks, up until the Paris 2015 attacks, were used as viable texts for analysis. The criteria I utilized when searching for appropriate news articles for the purposes of my research project was three-fold. I made sure to investigate the background and details surrounding every bombing that was reported in these newspapers to find out what terrorist organization was responsible, the number of causalities inflicted, and the geographical location of the explosion. Once this information was collated, and the terrorist organization's traditional modus operandi was identified, I used all this information to my advantage to logically deduce the terrorist organization's motivations for conducting that specific suicide attack. Once this was done, I then proceeded to the linguistic analysis of the text.

After analyzing the texts, many relationships between texts across multiple layers of discourses within both Islamic fundamentalism and the strategic/secular discourses have been elucidated. In addition to this, intertextuality has been established across both overarching discourses as well (Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2012, 78-79). Through this mechanism, I have discovered a hybrid hierarchy in society and a repetitive cycle that exists between government, media, and civil society, which continually feed into each other. Most importantly, I have discovered that the media is often utilized as a tool by the political elite to influence the masses. Both functions serve similar purposes in our government and because of this, it is expected that some primary sources I have utilized will contain shared meanings and thus may make some of the content analyzed repetitive to a certain degree (Ibid, 81).


It is important to note that in interpretivist research, human beings are not understood as objects, but rather as living, breathing, dynamic agents. Such people are viewed as actively and cooperatively constructing or deconstructing their cultures, societies, practices, languages, and realities (Ibid, 46). Thus, this type of research focuses more on contextuality rather than generalizability because different meanings are created depending on the context. For my research, the larger historical context for the discourses and practices I am researching would be the meanings associated with suicide terrorism throughout the passages of time. The first time the tactic of "suicide terrorism" was employed occurred in a vastly different context than the one in which it used today and was perpetuated by the Japanese Kamikaze's during World War 2 (Lutz and Lutz 2007, 273). Moving forward, this tactic flared up during the 1980's when the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka started using it for more secular, nationalistic purposes to drive their oppressive government out of power (Pape 2005, 138). Ever since then, suicide attacks have been increasing at an alarming rate, due to both secular and religious motivations, and post 9/11 is when the number of suicide bombings started to uncontrollably skyrocket (Ibid, 139).

Evaluative Standards/Reflexivity

In postmodern theory, there is no such thing as concrete, objective proof, but if there is a rational, logical suspicion that my claims have validity, it is possible to proceed with the research project (Dunn 2008, 92). I currently hold no position of power, therefore, I lack the ability to sway any politician or powerful person that may have initially perpetuated the ongoing misrepresentation of Muslims via their rhetoric on suicide terrorism. However, I realize that I am a member of civil society and may have unknowingly conflated Muslims and Arabs to suicide terrorists without conscious effort, thus perpetuating the ongoing stereotypes against these groups of people. Furthermore, there was no anticipated language barriers I encountered, mainly because the text I analyzed mostly originate from American politicians and news outlets. In terms of trustworthiness, I have incorporated an explanation and implementation of key terms and concepts to address all aspects and nuances of my data generation and framing of my analysis (Ibid, 92-93).

Realistically, I have not used a large amount of news articles or as many different presidential/public official statements that could have been used. Thus, this lack thereof, may have hindered the breadth of my analysis. With more time outside of the school year, more sources will be able to be analyzed and in turn contribute to the overall conversation, providing an even richer understanding of the discourses. At the same time, I was provided with sophisticated tools to conduct my analysis. I was given access to the software program NVivo, which compartmentalizes and aggregates all the data inputted in the system into separate classifications, nodes and categories. This makes it easier to identify trends across a variety of texts and layers of discourse. In the future, since I already have an adequate supply of resources for a sophisticated research project and more time, I may be able to expand and conduct an even richer analysis on the discourses.

"Suicide Terrorism" as an Empty Signifier

In order to fully comprehend how discourses have the power to warp the identities of the "suicide terrorist," and in turn the attitudes towards the ones who are seen as the constant perpetrators of said practice, one must first understand the very essence of the empty signifier and how this way of theorizing an issue offers an overarching framework around which a large quantity of subjects can be directed towards many different demands and interests. The "empty signifier" refers to a concept, which has no intrinsic meaning and only becomes meaningful in relation to specific contexts (Fadaee 2014, 569). According to Ferdinand de Saussure, all words have two dimensions. The first element is the way a word sounds or looks, which he called the signifier and the second element of a word is what it means, or what it signifies. Ultimately, Ferdinand purports there is often not a clear connection between the signifier and the signification (Ibid). In other words, as Seymour once said, "one person's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" (Seymour 1975). The absence of a universally concurred meaning of suicide terrorism, let alone terrorism in general, provides a permit for the term to be manipulated by those maintaining the hegemonic norms of today, barring any true engagement with the dangers and complexities of utilizing the term as a disparaging name.

Thus, it is important that one is aware of the linguistic link between power and knowledge, whereby discourse is seen to have a "gainful force" which decides the acceptable types of political character and practice (Neumann 2008, 61-62). This concern with how language can be a byproduct of power and how it can be employed through various mediums to maintain certain "regimes of truths" is crucial to analyzing how the discourse of Islamic fundamentalism or secularism is utilized at an elite level. Whether this is done intentionally or not depends on a case-by-case basis, but the fact remains that these "truths," which are formulated from the top, slowly trickle down the societal hierarchy of power by influencing the media next and then eventually influencing civil society, and most of the time unwittingly. This article embraces the notion of the "empty signifier" and affirms that suicide terrorism is to be considered an empty signifier and a challenged idea that is constantly dependent upon a specific social translation of political setting and condition.

Suicide terrorism as an organized tactic utilized by terrorist organizations has always been attributed to either religious or secular, nationalistic motivations. The tactic of suicide bombing has mistakenly been conflated with the identity of the terrorist organization itself, thus lending itself to an assignment of either a "religious group" or "secular group" (Lutz and Lutz 2013, 278). This rigid, quantitative method used by many scholars, politicians and military personnel alike, of automatically assigning terrorist organizations an identity or ideological affiliation in an objective manner has allowed the term suicide terrorism to become synonymous with the terrorist organizations' identity. This in turn makes it easier to label a suicide terrorist or terrorist organization as a certain people and easily associate them based off general characteristics, traits, and outward identities such as a race, ethnicity, or religion. In the case of suicide terrorists, most of these attacks have originated from the Middle East and North Africa in recent years and thus has provided a foundation for some politicians' and citizens' rationale towards associating the suicide terrorist with the identities of other groups, such as Muslims or Arabs (Ibid). Mainly because most suicide terrorists who carry out attacks tend to be of Arab descent and oftentimes radicalized Muslims (MacEoin 2009, 16).


Islamic Fundamentalism and Official Discourse

After conducting an in-depth analysis on the rhetoric used by government officials after a suicide attack occurs, in the short timespan that suicide terrorism, as an organized tactic, has existed, it has become apparent that officials use the Islamic fundamentalism frame, sometimes unknowingly, as a tool to paint the attackers as "inherently evil" or "not human," which ends up stripping the individual's humanity and fuses his or her existence with the devil incarnate (Bush, 2001). Due to the brain's ability to engage in cognitive heuristics, the identities of the individuals who conducted the attack are now easily attributed to other individuals who look like the attacker (Alsultany 2014, 445).

An example of this rhetoric being employed from the highest levels of government is George W. Bush's Presidential Address to the Nation and his Telephone Call to the Governor of New York and the Mayor of New York City immediately after the events of 9/11. Attempting to calm Americans down after these attacks were carried out while simultaneously trying to appear strong in the face of adversity, President Bush states:

As a mark of respect for those killed by the heinous acts of violence perpetrated by faceless cowards upon the people and the freedom of the United States on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I hereby order, by the authority vested in me as President of the United States of America by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White House... (Bush, 2001).

Furthermore, the theme of solidarity and patriotism complements the continual denigration of these terrorists. At one point of his Address to the Nation speech, President Bush confidently exudes:

These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our Nation into chaos and retreat, but they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people have been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining (Bush 2001).

President Bush reaffirms the strength of the American people during times of danger and existential threats by confidently claiming, "our country is strong" and that even though these attacks may "have shattered steel," the American resolve has not wavered (Bush 2001).

This provides a segue to the telephone conversation that President Bush had with Mayor Giuliani and New York Governor George Pataki in two days' time, in which a war-like rhetoric began to take form among the American elite. At one point in the telephone conversation, the Governor responds to the President's remarks and thanks him for the support he has received from the federal government and immediately after exclaims, "You are right our Nation is united as never before, and we will triumph over this evil with your leadership and your inspiration" (Bush, Giuliani, and Pataki 2001). Governor Pataki's remarks reveal the thought processes and ideas he has already concocted in his mind. The Governor has already established that our nation has come under attack by "evil," foreign enemies and the only way to deal with this blow is to triumph against said "evil" with the encouragement and effective leadership skills of the Commander-in-Chief (Bush, Giuliani, and Pataki 2001). The Governor's verbal expression of commitment and loyalty to the president can be construed as a subconscious effort on his part to search and grasp for a leader (in this case happens to be the president) who will be leading this so-called war effort. To top it off, the President finishes up his phone conversation by assuring the Governor and the Mayor that his resolve on winning the war is strong and has been declared on America. He mentions this is a new kind of war and that the government will adjust accordingly (Bush, Giuliani, and Pataki 2001).

Per Giorgio Agamben's explanation, the notion of "ambivalence" is central to modern democratic sovereign power. "Ambivalence" refers to the same act, which is considered both unjustifiable and necessary. Thus, these moments of "ambivalence" come to fruition when "exceptional" moments of crises' take place, such as a terrorist attack against the state. The state in turn takes advantage of these hectic moments to establish procedures and codes to sanction government abuses of power or to simply use force (Alsultany 2014, 445-446). Thinking about the more extensive moral outcomes of the "Islamic Terrorism" discourse and the specific political rhetoric mentioned before, the allotment of a retrogressive, fanatic and characteristically fiendish religious identity can be utilized to exemplify the hegemonic power of the United States. The disparaged figure of the Muslim extremist gives a negative counter-image through which the United States can combine its own aggregate support, proposing a more civilized liberal society that will be secured against the risk of the Islamic "Other" utilizing whatever methods necessary in times of "ambivalence."

Despite 9/11 being the hallmark event that jumpstarted this dominant discourse, the discourse tends to flare up when a suicide terrorist attack occurs in Western nations. The suicide attacks carried out in Paris, France on November 2015, brought forth the same attitudes and responses reminiscent to the time after 9/11, mainly due to this "politics of fear" attitude which has been prevalent since 2001 (CNN 2015). A perfect example demonstrating the aggressive revival of the Islamic fundamentalist discourse in more recent years is found in President Donald Trump's rhetoric, but more specifically when he was running as a candidate in 2016. Rather than attempting to rally citizens together for a war as Bush did and implicitly contributing to the Islamic fundamentalist discourse, President Trump has been a bit more pragmatic and blunt in his interviews and speeches (Trump 2016). For example, in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Trump was asked whether he trusts Muslims in America and he responded: "Many of them I do. Many of them I do, and some, I guess, we don't. Some, I guess, we don't. We have a problem, and we can try and be very politically correct and pretend we don't have a problem, but, Anderson, we have a major, major problem. This is, in a sense, this is a war..." (Ibid).

As evidenced by this blurb from the interview, President Donald Trump has continually tried to frame the problem of suicide terrorism, and more generally terrorism, as a purely Islamic problem. President Trump has painted all Muslims as possible perpetrators and has even offered radical solutions to quell this perceived problem. He has proposed to ban all Muslim immigrants who attempt to enter this country and has called for the monitoring of all Mosques to detect any suspicious activity (Ibid). Whether he will follow through with his efforts is unknown and is not the focus of this subject. President Trump, with all his power and influence, has unknowingly revived the age-old Islamophobia of 9/11, and has promised to offer "solutions" that could causally affect innocent Muslim and Arab lives in the United States. Furthermore, there are also elements of intertextuality woven into these discourses. Interpretive researchers see the research world and the researcher as entwined, with evidence being brought into existence through the formulation of a research question and those actions taken in the research setting, which act on that specific framing (Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2012, 79). The fact that official discourses from 2001 share the same ill-perceived attitudes and thought processes towards Muslims and Arabs (due to actions of suicide terrorists) as ones from today, reveal that hegemonic discourses, such as Islamic fundamentalism, have the power to withstand the passages of time and reappear once again in public official rhetoric.

Islamic Fundamentalism and Media Discourse

In addition to analyzing official discourse surrounding the meanings associated with suicide terrorism, the analysis of media representations of suicide terrorism is just as important in attaining an awareness on how the societal hierarchy, mentioned before, operates and how their specific function assists the hegemonic practices from the government. Countless themes found in the official discourse also appear in the media discourse. For example, in a news report of the Paris suicide bombings on November 2015, the term "Islamic terrorism" was used repeatedly and ISIS was suspected to have been behind the attack (CNN 2015). The news report started out with a more sentimental and dramatic mood: "On a night when thousands of Paris residents and tourists were reveling and fans were enjoying a soccer match between France and world champion Germany, horror struck in an unprecedented manner" (CNN 2015). Pay attention to the initial framing of this short narrative, "on a night when thousands of Paris residents and tourists…" provides expressive details the news reporter uses to create an emotional attachment with his or her audience so that they may feel more connected to the situation and in turn more likely to sympathize with the victims while demonizing the perpetrators. Either way, the final words, "horror struck in an unprecedented manner" paints these "thousands" of innocent Parisians as citizens whose lives were suddenly interrupted by these evil, heartless monsters dubbed ISIS, who happen to be Islamic jihadists (CNN 2015). Thus, upon the mention of "Islamic jihadists," the "politics of fear" resurfaces and a climate of suspicion, confusion, and anger towards individuals who happen to look like these perpetrators come to fruition. Once this process takes place, more sentiments and attitudes are continually expressed to the public via the media.

For example, as U.S. President Obama was sending his condolences and support for the investigation, he was recorded mentioning to the French President that, "This is an attack not just on Paris, not just on the people of France, but an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share" (CNN 2015). Just as in the aftermath of 9/11, the President framed his attitudes and thoughts in a way that paints the specific hectic situation in an "us versus them" light, which in turn inspires citizens to have feelings of solidarity with each other as if they're preparing to head into war. Thus, these violent actors (suicide terrorists) are once again depicted as enemies of the state and any individual who looks like these violent actors or share a similar identity (practicing the same religion) take the flak as well due to our natural tendency to make quick assumptions. Within these quick, cognitive decisions made by the brain, one might not necessarily believe that Arab people are evil, but it is simple to irrationally associate the religion they practice as the source of the problem, which then leads to intolerance and unfair practices towards them, sometimes to the point of physical harm or death (Alsultany 2014, 458-459).

Although the net was cast wide in terms of identifying news sources and articles since the 1980's up until now, not many articles were used in the final product of this paper because many of the themes and nodes present in the media discourse was also found in the official discourse, so there wasn't an urgent need to dissect every news article gathered (Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2012, 80-81). That would require more time and resources to accomplish. The main point that connects the outlet of the media to the dominant Islamic fundamentalism discourse is the fact that media is often used as a tool by the government for certain agendas. Although government officials have standard operating procedures and goals that serve their specific job functions, the government is composed by individual human beings who are also affected by the repercussions of suicide attacks. Similarly, the media can have an agenda they are trying to advance on their own part as well (Alsultany 2014, 447). Whichever the case is, it is necessary to recognize that the media yields the implicit power to shape the representations, perceptions, attitudes and practices of ordinary citizens from every walk of life because they are the lowest echelon of the societal hierarchy.

Secular Discourse and Its Nuances

The alternative discourse of suicide terrorism at play is the secular discourse, which has been in constant flux with the Islamic discourse for the last 30 years or so. This discourse appears to have been more dominant prior to 9/11, specifically in the 1980's when the Tamil Tigers were the main actors in the suicide terrorism arena. This discourse is a bit subtler in its evolutionary timespan and requires a bit more interpretation when put up against the Islamic fundamentalist timeline, which at least has a monumental marker such as 9/11 that denotes the primary paradigm shift in American thought.

For this strategic/secular discourse, the official and media texts both tend to focus on the strategic and logical capacities of the suicide mission itself and thus the aftermath of the incident is emphasized more. Subsequently. It morphs into a "criminal" or "investigative" problem rather than a combatfocused war dilemma in which an "Other" or "enemy" is needed. The traditional us versus them dilemma have not been found because the secular terrorist does not usually subscribe to a specific creed or belief system. Instead, they fight for a cause or an ideology, but there is no big institution, such as the religious institution of Islam, backing them. Thus, the secular suicide terrorist is more fluid and can bypass the exterior biases and judgements oftentimes made by the media, public officials and civil society. In a 2003 news report from the New York Times, the details and strategic logic that the Chechen terrorists implemented in their suicide attack is carefully noted:

The force of the blast, estimated to come from the equivalent of a ton of TNT, gouged a gaping crater more than 30 feet wide and some 20 feet deep in the road and damaged the headquarters of the regional government, as well as offices of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B. (Myers 2003).

When the details of this suicide attack are compared to other suicide attacks televised by the media, it was revealed that the specific details, "20 feet deep in the road" and "30 feet wide," did in fact serve a logical purpose of "damaging the headquarters of the regional government." This level of specificity is generally not present in other news reports that were religiously motivated (Myers 2003). As one can see, these Chechen terrorists, who are also referred to as "separatists," or "guerillas" are detailed in media reports for their specific, logical and strategic goals of inflicting secular, political change. Islamic terrorists may also very well have political motivations and have been found to operate strategically (such as Islamist terrorism), but because of their identity label with a religious institution such as Islam and because of their Arab-looking facial features, they end up being reprimanded more so than other secular terrorists. So, their corporeal selves are depicted as the enemy of the state (signifying the democratic countries of the West, mainly the U.S.).

When looking at cases of public officials' discursive strategies employed within the secular discourse, there are instances when these suicide attacks are treated more like criminal investigations rather than combat operations. For example, a State Department official in a report regarding actions to be taken after the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, mentions that "women police officers can better detect female suicide bombers; women prison guards can help reach female inmates with counseling to prevent them from radicalizing behind bars" (Sewall 2016). Even though democratic values have come under attack due to the recent suicide attacks in Paris, this state official does not automatically assume a combat stance as other officials have done before (see George W. Bush and Donald Trump examples). Instead, she suggests a solution that may be useful for countering future female suicide attacks, which is the use of female police officers who could potentially serve as early warning detection agents. Rather than contemplating further war with terrorists and perpetuating the cycle of "Othering" towards their race or religion, the use of preventive and investigative operations to deter suicide attacks appears to be a more reasonable measure. Moreover, the element of "redemption," or of saving the suicide terrorist from their eventual demise, is apparent in Sarah Sewall's thought processes (Sewall 2016). Some naysayers may purport that because this official is a woman, she may be more prone to having a compassionate and hopeful worldview, particularly when it comes to counterterrorism policy; thereby, ostracizing other points of view that may seem too "aggressive" in relation to hers.

Another exceptional finding within this discourse are the news articles pertaining to the Tamil Tiger's "awesome" and "awe-worthy" suicide bombing practices (Waldman 2003). In a New York Times article, a storyteller's perspective on the Black Tigers alluded to a time when: "They go in sea and on land in black robes," he said, proud of his knowledge. "They will go and jam themselves against anything" (Waldman 2003). In another instant the article mentions that out of all the suicide terrorist groups, they are the most ruthless and most disciplined (Waldman 2003). Overall, the Black Tiger Suicide squad from the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) secular terrorist organization has been depicted as worthy of praise and an impressive model to follow. They are exalted to the level of "guru" among all other terrorist organizations who have utilized the tactic of suicide terrorism. Yet, they aren't condemned to the extent that other "Islamic fundamentalist" groups have been. Neither public officials nor the media focus on their race, ethnicity, or religion. Instead they focused on the innovative and bold ways the Tamil Tigers carried out their attacks, emphasizing the strategic and secular nature of the tactic. Based off these findings, an obvious difference in the representation of a suicide terrorist, in regards to which terrorist organization they are a part of, is apparent. It's almost as if the established classification for the terrorist organization's motivations and identity play a major role in determining whether public officials or media officials will report a suicide attack in a certain way or not.


To conclude, this paper has sought to analyze the meanings associated with suicide terrorism since the 1980's in the democratic West, specifically in the U.S. This has been done via discourse analysis towards the varying representations cast by government officials and media news reports on suicide terrorists. This was all done by analyzing various articles and public official statements, with a special emphasis on President Bush's address to the nation, his telephone conversation with the governor of New York and the Mayor, a State Department official's speech, some New York Times articles on Chechen terrorists and Tamil Tigers, the recent Paris and Brussels attacks as depicted on CNN, and many more. These articles and public official statements underwent a scrupulous linguistic/discourse analysis that focused on syntax patterns, diction emphasis, modes of tonality, and the context in which the rhetoric was employed. The link between the "racialization" of Muslims and suicide terrorist actions has been established through the notion of the "empty signifier," which helps us understand that multiple meanings can be attached to the term suicide terrorism or suicide terrorist (Alsultany 2014, 447). Ultimately, the findings have confirmed that out of the two overarching discourses surrounding suicide terrorism, the Islamic Fundamentalism Discourse has been reigning since 9/11, which marked the paradigm shift in American thought. The Secular Discourse appears to have been in a position of power prior to the events of 9/11 but not afterwards. This dominant religious ideology discourse has formed false misrepresentations of Muslims and Arabs nationwide and has contributed in influencing the attitudes of politicians and citizens alike, which in turn have led to practices that can be harmful and negative towards these people. Examples of such practices by the government is the surveillance of mosques as a security measure after 9/11, and faulty foreign policy options that have led to a belief that Muslim societies are the enemies and require a wholesale transformation of their societies through the deploying of American troops to democratize. Such practices initiated by civil society because of the misrepresentations from the elite have ranged from as small as posting hateful, racist comments of Muslims on YouTube videos or as heavy as brutally beating up people who "look" Muslim or Arab.

This article has problematized the term "Islamic Terrorism" as conveyed inside conventional International Relations discourses for the route in which it muddles complex substances by socially developing the figment of an unmistakably separated metanarrative which at last is logically unwarranted. The discourse of Islamic fundamentalism and the representations thereof, are better understood as an emotional depoliticizing term intended to make citizens, through the use of the media, think less and fear more. Therefore, it is important to not accept hegemonic truths at face value. Is it possible to expose the normative ramifications and underlying motives behind the discourse of "Islamic fundamentalism" or other similar terms? Moreover, it is also important to remember that this practice of suicide terrorism can easily change its meaning over time due to its inherent nature of meaning everything and nothing at the same time. (See the concept of the "empty signifier.") The current dominant discourse attributes suicide terrorism with Muslims, but what if Muslims were not the ones to have attacked us during that paradigm shift period in 9/11? What if they were Buddhists? What if they were Christians? Would Christianity, the dominant religion in the U.S., even get backlash for an attack conducted at the level of 9/11? Hypothetical questions such as these could prove to be useful in exploring the implications of the intersectionality of race, religion and ideology in the field of terrorism.

This does not mean that Islamic terrorism doesn't exist and that it doesn't pose a threat to the established order, because it does. However, this article merely highlights the religious-secular distinction, in regards to the suicide terrorist's motivations and identity. These dangerous discourses and this venomous rhetoric has to be brought to light and called out so that thoughts of "Islamic fundamentalism" are properly reconfigured in the individuals' mind. Instead of viewing one whole religion or one whole race as the source of the problem, one should take the time to first learn about the race or religion, attain a basic understanding of said topic, and then conduct a proper reflection of the lessons learned, which should then reveal that the religion or race itself is most likely not the source of the problem. This would in turn, allow for that reconfiguration of the mind to occur, which would then lead to less misperceptions and negative behaviors towards Muslims in the United States.

Moreover, my research and findings have shed some light on the dangers and risks of using quantitative methods to assess, classify, and assign attributes to the motivations behind suicide terrorism and assigning identities to terrorist organizations who adopt this tactic. This only creates a binary system of an either-or system, either religious or secular, which perpetuates the continual clash of discourses and heightens malpractices towards people who don't deserve it. Ultimately, realizing and understanding the dynamic and constructive nature of the tactic of suicide terrorism and the dynamic motivations of suicide terrorists is key. Classifying suicide terrorists and the term suicide terrorism as a subject that is in constant flux is the appropriate way to view the phenomenon. Looking ahead, I call for more research into the subject of religion (with all its nuances) within the study of International Relations to gain a fuller understanding of the subject, which seems to have a track record of being avoided for the most part in traditional International Relations studies. A critical understanding of the religion of Islam and comparing it to other religions may offer more insight into the tactic of suicide terrorism and the ambiguous answers to the organizations' or individuals' motivations for partaking in such a destructive, but bold action. With enough analysis, perhaps it is possible to figure out how identity is formulated in a meaning-making context and may even offer alternative, more peaceful solutions to US foreign policy towards the Middle East.


Frank Mariscal is a student of International Studies, Justice, Law, and Criminology. He graduates in May of 2018. School of International Service (SIS) and School of Public Affairs (SPA), American University. Email:


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