Robert Pape, associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has spent 25 years creating a database of such attacks and has chronicled them in his new book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.
According to the author, most suicide terrorists were well-integrated and productive members of their communities from working-class or middle-class backgrounds.
"Technicians, waitresses, security guards, ambulance drivers, paramedics ... few are criminals. Most are volunteers whose first act of violence is their very own suicide attack," Pape said.
A broad misunderstanding of the issue, he said, is taking the US-led war on terrorism in the wrong direction and could in fact be fueling an increase in what he calls suicide terrorism.
Pape has created what he calls the first comprehensive database on every suicide terrorist attack in the world since 1980, using Arabic, Hebrew, Tamil and Russian-language sources.
The US Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, as well as the UN Secretary-General's office were looking at the information, he said.
Not "Islamic fundamentalism"
"Islamic fundamentalism is not the primary driver of suicide terrorism," Pape said. "Nearly all suicide terrorist attacks are committed for a secular strategic goal - to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory
the terrorists view as their homeland."
Attacks in Iraq are a response
to foreign occupation, Pape says
"Yes, it's true we're killing terrorists day by day, but the real measure of suicide terrorism is simply the number of attacks," said Pape. "The problem with suicide terrorism is that it's not supply limited, it's demand-driven."
Pape cited suicide terrorism campaigns from Lebanon to Israel, Chechnya and Sri Lanka, where he said major democracies - the United States, Israel, France, India, Russia - had been the principal targets.
Pape writes that the world's most prolific suicide terrorist organisation is the Tamil Tigers - a secular, Hindu group in Sri Lanka which he said invented the "suicide belt".
Never in Iraq's history
Iraq, he said, was a prime example of strategic terrorism.
Prior to the US-led invasion in March 2003 there was "never in Iraq's history a suicide terrorist attack" but since then they had doubled every year.
There has been a sharp escalation in violence since Iraq's new Shia-dominated cabinet was announced in late April.
More than 700 Iraqis and 80 US soldiers were killed in bombings and other attacks in May, making it the deadliest month in Iraq since January.
Pape collected demographic information on 462 suicide attackers who completed their missions and said he found that the common wisdom was wrong.
"The standard stereotype of a suicide attacker as a lonely individual on the margins of society with a miserable existence is actually quite far from the truth," he said.
Pape, who has been invited to discuss his analysis with a bipartisan group of US congressmen, said he hoped his book would demonstrate to policymakers that a presumed connection between suicide attacks and Islamic fundamentalism is misleading and could contribute to policies that worsen the situation.
The US government had only "a partial understanding" of what has been driving suicide terrorism because it did not begin collecting data until 2000, Pape said.
"Once you have a more complete picture you can see that the main cause of suicide terrorism is a response to foreign occupation, not Islamic fundamentalism, and the use of heavy combat forces to transform a Muslim society is only likely to increase the number of suicide terrorists as is now happening."