08 May 2006

Are Suicide Bombers Suicidal Fanatics?

Are suicide bombers religious fanatics motivated in large part by a desire to end their own lives? Perhaps not.

As uncomfortable as the notion may be, the psychological profile of a suicide bomber looks a lot more like the psychological profile of a war hero who believes that he is fighting for a just cause than that of a crazy fanatic.

[S]uicide attackers come not from the criminal, illiterate, or poor, but from largely secular and educated middle classes. They do not exhibit signs of sociopathy or depression, nor do they appear to have suffered more than their respective populations. Surprisingly, many are volunteers, rather than recruits. . . . Rather than evince suicidal tendencies -- as the term "suicide bombers" connotes -- psychological autopsies of past and would-be bombers show many of these individuals to be wholly, even altruistically invested in life. As a result, it is more apt -- and less misleading -- to refer to these individuals as "human bombs" rather than "suicide bombers. . . .

Martyr missions made their official twentieth-century debut in the Second World War with the Kamikazes; they showed up again in the 1960s, when Viet Cong sympathizers exploded themselves amidst U.S. troops. Their debut in the Islamic world was not until the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. Facing a far superior Iraqi military, Ayatollah Khomeini rounded up children by the tens of thousands and sent them in "human waves" to overrun the enemy. While Persians accrued losses in the war against Iraq, the role of the martyr in defensive jihad was exalted. As in U.S. wars, the dead became heroes.

In "95 percent of the bombings prior to 2003," the bomber was an "element in a coherent campaign of resistance against a perceived occupier."

In fact, there isn't that much isolated "brainwashing" time involved before the act is carried out:

Twenty percent started their mission within one week of accepting it, while 80 percent set out on their mission within a month. Indeed, half of them volunteered for missions, while those recruited were usually approached to take on the mission by family or friends.

Many bombers tried to act independently and ended up working through a militant organization only after finding the technical aspects of the task to be too complex to accomplish alone, which also points against brain washing by the sponsoring terrorist organizations themselves.

In Iraq:

The largest group [of foreign fighters] is young kids who see the images [of war] on TV and are reading the stuff on the internet. Or they see the name of a cousin on the list or a guy who belongs to their tribe, and they feel a responsibility to go.

The link notes that "most Muslims, including terrorists, justify defensive jihad in response to violent social injustices."

A comment to the linked article states the matter similarly, but not identically, based upon what he was told when visiting "Israel Palestine" in 2005 and 2006:

What makes one strap on a bomb and commit suicide/homicide?
I was told:

1. there was a precipitating event: either they witnessed the killing of a family/friend and reacted out of anger/desire for vengence

2. they have lost all hope

3. nobody does for it the virgins.

The bottom line (from the main linked article):

For what are normal individuals able to kill? A plausible answer is: their community, under threat. When does a person make costly sacrifices to do so?

Within a social structure -- a terror cell, a military unit, a family, or group of friends -- that continually regenerates conviction to a cause, a feeling of obligation to do something about it, and a sense of shame at the idea of letting each other down. . . . the prerequisite for this path is perceived injustice. . . .

The social networks theory has several implications for policy. First, because commitment to jihad is rarely a cost-benefit decision, or an explicit decision at all, military deterrence will likely fail. Terrorists and insurgents forge loyalties that are difficult to betray, and like our own military units, many would prefer to fight to the death rather than leave their brothers. Second, under urban conditions of asymmetrical engagement, military missions almost inevitably entail civilian casualties. Military leaders must re-conceptualize the effect civilian casualties have on the populations surrounding the terrorist or insurgent. They are frequently interpreted by the population as offensive, and thereby engender an impulse to fight back. As one Palestinian told a reporter: "If we don't fight, we will suffer. If we do fight, we will suffer, but so will they."

Lastly, findings about the way in which people acquire beliefs suggest that a war of ideas will mean nothing unless it resonates emotionally with our targets. Emotional resonance only comes when the values we promote reflect our role in the local realities on foreign ground.

I agree with those on the right that terrorism needs to be stopped. But, what works?

Another comment to the same article states:

My kid that was recently recruited to the Israeli army said: "Dad, how come Grandfather tells us stories about how he hunted the head of a terror group, and you hunted terror leaders, and now I am still involved in the same hunting of the SAME "head of Jihad / Hammas / Fatach" in charge of terror? have we all failed?"

Our common indoctrination claiming that if we could only "kill faster than they recruit" as Donald Rumsfeld is quoted saying in your article, is proven to be a false strategy.

The implication of this article is that the best way to stop suicide bombings is to create a perception of justice, fairness and hope. Ironically, symbolism and a good legal system, rather than expensive military hardware, may be the best weapons against one of the most dreaded treats facing our 21st century military.

(I quote liberally from the linked article here in the understanding that individuals writing articles calling for policy change are generally liberal in their understanding of what constitutes fair use.)

Hat Tip to Anne Zook.

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