Saturday, 18 December 2010

The psychology of a suicide bomber

Coming hot on the heels of the Stockholm suicide bombing, the Wikileaks cables expressing misgivings about PREVENT have reignited debate about the appeal of violent extremism in the Muslim community.

I was not surprised by the critical comments about PREVENT. I made most of them myself at the time.

PREVENT lacked transparency, was a gravy train for self appointed community consultants, and evaded addressing the fundamental issue; politics as the principal driver for those engaged in suicide bombing.

This latter fact has been proven again and again yet our politicians are reluctant to admit it, because to do so is to admit their culpability. Yet the academic evidence is conclusive.


A recent study from Tel Aviv University into Palestinian suicide bombers found that their 'depth or intensity of religious belief was not something which distinguished them from other non-suicide terrorists' and a sense of 'national humiliation' ranked higher than religion as a motivation for their actions.

Anthropologist Scott Atran makes the same point. He dismisses western clich├ęs about incompatibilities of Islamic and Western identities and describes religion as a 'negative predictor' of violence.


Instead he points to the impact on those 'cast in the driftwood of globalisation', living lives that feel without meaning and purpose, subject to demonisation and marginalisation at home while their brothers and sisters are bombed abroad, and painfully aware of a sense of humiliation, not in individual sense, but in the collective of  friends, family, and communities.

Instead of a global conspiracy pulling the strings of terror via brain-washed terrorist sleeper cells, Atran says the reality is the opposite.

He cites case studies to argue that Muslims caught up in extremism 'self-radicalise' in tightly knit groups of friends, neighbours, schoolmates, football and body-building circles.

Sometimes this self-radicalisation is triggered by encounters with people who have been to Afghanistan or Pakistan, sometimes not. Once it takes hold, those infected seek Al Qaeda, usually via the internet, not the other way round.

He highlights the example of the Madrid bombers. Five of the 7 bombers responsible, who blew themselves up when cornered by the police, all grew up living 200 meters from each other in a neighbourhood in northern Morocco.

They had no background in religious indoctrination and drifted into petty criminality and the drug trade when they arrived in Spain looking for work. They were attracted to extremism in the disastrously mistaken belief that they were doing something noble with their lives for others, in the process finally attaining purpose and meaning for their own lives.

For Atran the real battle is for the minds and souls, and for some, the outcome is finally balanced. Take the findings of opinion polls in the same Moroccan neighbourhood from which the Madrid bombers originated.

Shortly after the bombings, and before the election of Barak Obama, the top three heroes were 1. Ronaldinho, 2. the Terminator (the character, not the actor, and even less the politician) and 3. bin Laden. After the US presidential election Obama had knocked bin Laden off the number 3 perch.  Disaffected Muslim youth are finding themselves at the crossroads between 'yes we can' and 'happiness is martyrdom'.

Atran concludes that extremism 'cannot be fought mainly with bombs, traditional law enforcement or military means (although such means can help thwart attacks). It must be fought with ideas and proposals for action that appeal to this rising sense of injustice and moral outrage among increasing numbers of youth. In the long run, this is a public health issue rather than a strictly criminal or military issue.'

He is absolutely right.