Agents of Death: The Structural Logic of Suicide Terrorism and Martyrdom

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While the strategic objectives of those who organize suicide terrorism may be explained in rationalist terms, the choice of those who volunteer to be candidates for death is far more problematic, given the high premium, at least within international relations theory, on survival as the ultimate rational end. The rational choice model also makes it difficult to take language or emotion into account as factors in constituting the meaning of the act. This article begins with an observation: In Western discourse the acts of human bombs tend to be referred to as ‘suicide terrorism’ or ‘suicide bombings’; by contrast the terminology of ‘martyrdom operations’ is more prevalent in the Arab and Muslim Middle East, or among Islamists in the West. The first section of the paper examines the importance of context for understanding the rationality of an action. The second explores ‘martyrdom’ and ‘suicide’ as two distinct frameworks for giving meaning to an act of voluntary death in the post-9/11 world, and the emotional dynamics that link these two ‘games’ to a larger structural logic. The third section further develops the structural logic that emerges from the interaction of the two. The conclusions analyse the significance of this argument for rethinking both the structural dynamics of this international context, as well as the theoretical model of games.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)155-184
Number of pages30
JournalInternational Theory
Issue number1
Early online date6 Feb 2009
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009


  • human bomb
  • rational choice
  • game
  • martyrdom
  • suicide
  • trauma


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