Psychology Of A Suicide Bomber

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It could be you.

Terrorist attacks are not about terrorism. Politicians like to spread the view that terrorist attacks are carried out by 'evil' men in order to spread terror. Nothing is further from the truth. Just as "warfare is politics being transported out by other means" – to use Major-General Von Clausewitz's famous phrase, so is terrorism. Just as the number of soldiers likely to be killed in a particular war action is almost incidental to the general who plans it, so is the number of civilians likely to be killed in a terrorist action. What is very clear about all acts of terrorism is that they are transported out as specific acts designed to achieve specific political results.

Take for example 9/11 in New York City in 2001. This was a general declaration of war following a series of build-ups by both sides. American needs for oil and Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. The kicking out of US oil corporations from further developmental work in Saudi Arabia. The Gulf War against Saddam's take-over of the Kuwaiti oilfields. The closure on the part of the Saudis of the last US base, as well as the full adoption of Shariah law in the constitution of Saudi Arabia. The build up of a massive US base in Qatar and Special Units around Saudi Arabia. The 9/11 attacks were specifically planned against the Pentagon, the White House probably (which did not succeed) and world trade in general, symbolized by the Twin Towers. The large number of people killed was incidental. No one believes for one minute that Mohammad Atta thought the World Trade Center Towers would actually collapse.

Too easily the word 'mindless' is used by politicians in conjunction with terrorists and their acts when, in fact, terrorists are far from being 'mindless'. Suicide bombers are not the mindless, evil individuals they are often portrayed to be. They are, more often than not, well educated and more sensitive than the norm for their age groups, and they see themselves as carrying out political acts rather than terrorism per se. Furthermore, suicide bombers are not necessarily bound to religious protesters.

This is the conclusion reached by Dr. Ariel Merari, Director of the Political Violence Research Unit at Tel Aviv University. It is also the conclusion reached by a host of other political analysts and counter-terrorism experts throughout the world.

Most suicide bombers everywhere appear to be normal. Study after study has shown that suicide terrorists are better off than the average for their community, and better educated just as well. They are also rarely suicidal in the pathological sense. Dr. Merari in particular has traced the background of every suicide bomber in the Middle East since 1983, and has found symptoms of mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse in very few. Furthermore, suicide bombers do not have to be Islamic extremists either, or even radicalized by faith. True, the 9/11 attackers were all Muslims, as they are the vast majority of suicide attackers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. Yet many of the suicide bombers in Lebanon in the l980's were from secular Christian backgrounds. And one of the modern pioneers of suicide terrorism, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, are secular Marxist-Leninists.

The question, then, is how can normal, well-educated young men, some with above-average sensitivity, end up sacrificing themselves and killing civilians for a cause that seems a long way from their daily lives? The answer is, much more easily than one would think. The key lies less with the bombers themselves than with the organizations that recruit and prepare them.

Virtually every suicide attack in modern times has been understood and managed by militant groups, and they all employ the same methods:

[] First find people, usually young and male, who are sympathetic to the group's cause and organize them into small units.

[] Second, exploit their motivation to fight for the cause using religious or political indoctrination, stressing the heroic nature of their mission and the nobility of self-sacrifice.

[] Third, have all members of the unit make a pact declaring their commitment to what they are about to do. Beyond this point, it becomes psychologically very hard for them to back out.

Dr. Merari and others who have studied suicide attacks across the world have found this pattern in just about every case, from kamikaze pilots to the 9/11 hijackers. The sense of duty to a small group of peers that the process creates can, they say, turn just about anyone into a potential suicide bomber. The crucial factor is not the psychology of the individual but, rather, that of the group. Many researchers have shown that it is not difficult to persuade normal, rational people to do evil things if you apply the right conditioning. Persuading someone to die in the doing is not as fantastical as it looks.

The immediate reaction to suicide bombers is to label them as animals, or inherently evil. But this will not do. Blowing themselves up in a crowd is often the first evil thing these people have done in their own lives.

And they are not animals. The most difficult thing of all, in fact, is to recognize that suicide bombers are, alas, all too human.

Luigi Frascati

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