Turning ordinary people into suicide bombers
- 23 July 2005
- Michael Bond
ASK someone to sketch a personality profile of a typical suicide bomber and the chances are it would not come close to describing the four young men who, it seems, blew themselves up in London two weeks ago. Even from their friends and families the refrain has been, “I can’t believe he would have done such a thing – not him.” And when you look at who they were, it is hard to believe.
There was Mohammad Sidique Khan, father and teaching assistant, loved by the children he taught and well respected by his community; Hasib Hussain, the “nice lad” from a close-knit family; Shehzad Tanweer, the cricket-loving sports science graduate; and Germaine Lindsay, a young father described as “dead brainy” by a schoolmate. None of them had a criminal record, none was mentally ill, none was especially poor, and they were mostly well educated. All of them grew up in the UK. In short, they were not what you’d expect in a suicide bomber.
Except you’d be wrong. Most suicide bombers anywhere in the world appear to be normal. Study after study has shown that suicide terrorists are better off than average for their community and better educated. They are also rarely suicidal in the pathological sense. Ariel Merari, a psychologist at Tel Aviv University who has traced the background of every suicide bomber in the Middle East since 1983, has found symptoms of mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse in very few.
They don’t have to be Islamic extremists either, or even radicalised by faith. True, the London bombers were all Muslims, as are the vast majority of suicide attackers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. Yet many of the suicide bombers in Lebanon in the 1980s were from secular Christian backgrounds. And one of the modern pioneers of suicide terrorism, the Tamil Tigers, are secular Marxist-Leninists.
The question, then, is how can comfortably-off, well-educated young men born and brought up in the UK 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 you’d think. The key lies less with the bombers themselves than with the organisations that recruit and prepare them.
Virtually every suicide attack in modern times has been conceived 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 organise them into small units. Second, exploit their motivation to fight for the cause using religious or political indoctrination, emphasising 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.
Merari and others who have studied suicide attacks across the world have found this pattern in just about every one, 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 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 seems.
“A sense of duty to a group of peers can turn just about anyone into a potential suicide bomber”
Still, there is something unusual about the London bombers. Nearly all suicide attackers have come from communities that are under violent occupation or suffering great social injustice. Typically in these communities there is a visible culture of martyrdom – in the Palestinian territories, the bombers are celebrated on posters and in songs. But none of these factors applied to the London attackers. How did they become so radicalised in a place that seems so far removed from the cause – the liberation of Muslims from perceived western oppression – they are widely presumed to have died for?
For these men, the cause was clearly not far removed. Many young British Muslims feel ideologically closer to their family’s land of origin or to the worldwide Muslim community than to the country they grew up in. Marc Sageman, an American psychiatrist who has studied Al-Qaida supporters in Europe, suggests that radicalisation in the Muslim diaspora starts with a feeling of estrangement from the general population that surrounds them. Young Muslim men especially can come to empathise strongly with Muslims abroad who they think are suffering injustices at the hands of the west. It is not hard to see how, through contact with militant radicals or through the plethora of inflammatory websites, they might see an alleged enemy of Muslim communities in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan as their own enemy – even when that enemy is their own country.
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. And they are not animals. The most difficult thing of all is to recognise that suicide bombers are, alas, all too human.
From issue 2509 of New Scientist magazine, 23 July 2005, page 18