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In recent years, much has been learned about the strategic and organizational contexts of suicide attacks. However, motivations of the agents who commit them remain difficult to explain. In part this is because standard models of social learning as well as Durkheimian notions of sacrificial behavior are inadequate in the face of the actions of human bombers. In addition, the importance of organizational structures and practices in reinforcing commitment on the part of suicide recruits is an under-explored factor in many analyses. This essay examines the potential applicability of evolutionary models of altruism to the understanding of commitment to suicide on the part of terrorist organizational recruits. Three evolutionary models of sacrificial behavior in nonhuman species and many categories of human behavior are explored cross-organizationally: reciprocity, inclusive fitness theory, and induced altruism. Reciprocal altruism is unlikely to be a major motivator in suicide attacks because the costs exhibited by attackers are too high to be adequately compensated. However, the role of evolved self-deception in perceptions of personal death, and thus of rewards in the afterlife, is potentially illuminating. Inclusive fitness theory can help explain the motivations of attackers because rewards to kin often are offered by organizations to suicide recruits. However, suicide bombers also often act out of revenge for the loss of or injury to relatives, and inclusive fitness theory generally, as well as more specific theoretical models of retaliatory aggression, may not adequately account for the bombers' actions. Predictions from induced altruism theory appear to be well supported because suicide terror organizations tend to be tightly structured around practices intended to maintain and reinforce commitment though the manipulation of kinship-recognition cues.
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Keywords: altruism: inclusive fitness; induced altruism; kinship recognition clues; reciprocal altruism; suicide terror

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, 250 South Stadium Hall, Knoxville, TN 37996;, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 01 June 2009

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