Friday, September 4, 2009

What Makes Suicide Bombers Tick?

Suicide bombing attacks have become a weapon of choice among terrorist groups because of their lethality and ability to cause mayhem and fear. Though depressing, the almost daily news reports of deaths caused by suicide attacks rarely explain what motivates the attackers. Between 1981 and 2006, 1200 suicide attacks constituted 4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the world and killed 14,599 people, or 32 percent of all terrorism related deaths.

The question is why?

At last, we have some concrete data to begin addressing the question. The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, the most comprehensive in the world, holds information on suicide bombings in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which together accounted for 90 percent of all suicide attacks between 1981 and 2006. Analysis of the information contained therein yields some interesting clues:

It is politics more than religious fanaticism that has led terrorists to blow themselves up.

The evidence from the database largely discredits the common wisdom that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause. It shows that though religion
can play a vital role in recruiting and motivating potential future suicide bombers, the driving force is not religion but a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.

In September 2007, when American forces raided an Iraqi insurgent camp in the desert town of Singar near the Syrian border, they discovered biographies of more than 700 foreign fighters. The Americans were surprised to find that 137 were Libyans and 52 of them were from a small Libyan town of Darnah. The reason why so many of Darnah’s young men had gone to Iraq for suicide missions was not the global jihadi ideology, but an explosive mix of desperation, pride, anger, sense of powerlessness, local tradition of resistance and religious fervor. A similar mix of factors is now motivating young Pashtuns to volunteer for suicide missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Apart from one demographic attribute — that the majority of suicide bombers tend to be young males — the evidence has failed to find a stable set of demographic, psychological, socioeconomic and religious variables that can be causally linked to suicide bombers’ personality or socioeconomic origins. With the exception of a few cases, their life stories show no apparent connection between violent militant activity and personality disorders.

Typically, most suicide bombers are psychologically normal and are deeply integrated into social networks and emotionally attached to their national communities. Randomly attached labels such as “mad” denote one’s inability to fathom the deeper
reasons but don’t advance our understanding of the causes of the phenomenon of suicide bombing. Rather, they impede us from discovering its real nature, purpose and causes.

Understanding the terrorist organization’s logic is more important than understanding individual motivations in explaining suicide attacks. Suicide bombings have high symbolic value because the willingness of the perpetrators to die signals dedication to their cause. They serve as symbols of a just struggle, galvanize popular support, generate financial support for the organization and become a source of new recruits for future suicide missions.

Suicide bombings serve the interests of the sponsoring organization in two ways: by coercing an adversary to make concessions, and by giving the organization an advantage over its rival in terms of support from constituencies.
Contrary to the popular image that suicide terrorism is an outcome of irrational religious fanaticism, suicide bombing attacks are resolutely a politically motivated phenomenon.

Humiliation, revenge and altruism appear to play a key role at the organizational and individual levels in shaping the subculture that promotes suicide bombings. Humiliation is an emotional process that seeks to discipline the target party’s behavior by attacking and lowering their own and others’ perceptions of whether they deserve respect.

The actions of the US prison guards at Abu Ghraib played on what it meant to be an honorable, self-respecting subject in Iraqi society. The disciplinary practices humiliated the prisoners, but were also felt and seen as humiliating to all Iraqis. In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, daily suicide bombing attacks in Iraq increased dramatically. Similarly, counterinsurgency operations involving random house searches, interrogations, arrests and other violations of human dignity were followed by an increase in suicide attacks.

People tend to have a strong aversion to what they perceive as injustice, with the dark side manifested as revenge. One consequence of the desire for vengeance is an individual’s willingness to endure sacrifice to fulfill the act. Contemplation of revenge can appear to achieve a range of goals, including righting perceived injustices, restoring the self-worth of the vengeful individual and deterring future injustice.

Revenge is also a response to the continuous suffering of an aggrieved community. At the heart of the whole process are perceptions of personal harm, unfairness and injustice, and the anger, indignation and hatred associated with such perceptions. Men attach more value to vengeance than women; and young people are more prepared to act in a vengeful manner than older individuals. It is not surprising, then, to find that most suicide bombers are both young and male.

The meaning and nature of suicide in a suicide bombing are strikingly different from ordinary suicide. Suicide bombing falls into the category of altruistic suicidal actions that involve valuing one’s life as less worthy than that of the group’s honor, religion, or some other collective interest. Religiously and nationalistically coded attitudes toward acceptance of death, stemming from long periods of collective suffering, humiliation and powerlessness enable political organizations to offer suicide bombings as an outlet for their people’s feelings of desperation, deprivation, hostility and injustice.

The causes of suicide bombings lie not in individual psychopathology but in broader social conditions. Understanding and knowledge of these conditions is vital for developing appropriate public policies and responses to protect the public.
Suicide bombings are carried out by motivated individuals associated with community-based organizations. Strategies aimed a finding ways to induce communities to abandon such support would curtail support for terrorist organizations.

Strategies for eliminating or at least addressing collective grievances in concrete and effective ways would have a significant and, in many cases, immediate impact on alleviating the conditions that nurture the subcultures of suicide bombings. Support for suicide bombing attacks is unlikely to diminish without tangible progress in achieving at least some of the fundamental goals that suicide bombers and those sponsoring and supporting them share.

by Riaz Hassan The Jakarta Globe
Riaz Hassan is an ARC Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology at Flinders University in Adelaide. Copyright YaleGlobal 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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