An Inquiry into Suicide Terrorism: Psychological Perspectives

13 Jun, 2008    ·   2596

Kanica Rakhra delves into the mental conditioning of suicide bombers

In 2007, there were more than 280 suicide attacks all over the world. Used typically as a weapon of psychological warfare to affect a larger public audience, most of these attacks have taken place in countries with a heavy presence of US and allied forces, countries that were also predominantly Muslim countries. The number of countries that have seen suicide attacks has also increased. Why are Muslim youth willing to become bombers?

The three basic reasons for individuals getting influenced into executing suicide attacks could be classified as personal reasons, societal reasons and the influence of militant leaders.

Suicide often occurs when a person's identity becomes more important than his or her life. During adolescence, changes in one's conception of the self and self-esteem take place. The opportunities for development provided by the schools and the communities, the family traditions, and the larger cultural context and historical time period all affect identity development. The organizations leading the insurgencies talk to young people about how their identities are being suppressed, and sway them into believing that by making the ultimate sacrifice, they would be martyrs. This invites a kind of identity confusion that can make them vulnerable. By becoming a part of an organization, the person gets an identity and is given a purpose in life.

Studies suggest that young males experiencing some kind of frustration about the political situation are particularly susceptible to an ideology that requires them to aggress against others and/or themselves. Also, the usual age of suicide attackers falls at the transition phase from childhood to adulthood during which uncertainty about one's life course and the proper ways of conducting one's affairs is likely to reign. The organizations involved use various methods of propaganda to influence individuals. People are constantly reminded of the atrocities committed by the stronger parties, inciting them to retaliate in any way they can. The media is used as an important tool; the organizations celebrate the deaths of the suicide attackers, and the attackers make videos before committing suicide attacks showing the world that they have no remorse about what they are doing.

If an individual belongs to a society that has a history of suicide bombers, who are glorified all the time, the children end up trying to emulate their relatives, and wanting to follow the tradition. Also, if society is largely accepting of the concept, the youth can get drawn towards it. The behavior becomes pro-social instead of anti-social. For example, radical organizations in Palestine not only encourage but also shower admiration on suicide bombers. Becoming a martyr is one of the highest personal attainments and also a way of regaining the pride lost by the entire community under humiliating occupation, whether it is in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine.

The attackers come from a community values-based society rather than an individualist society as Western societies usually are. Thus, the idea of the honor or the prestige of the family is given a lot of priority. The bomber-in-waiting feels that he would bring glory to the family by making such a huge sacrifice, glory that he could not bring as a living person. The family would be well respected and their status in society would go up. Many times when the individuals are not able to help out in the day-to-day work of the house, and are considered worthless by the family members, they feel the need to prove themselves and the organizations provide them with this opportunity.

Suicide bombings have, until now, been associated with three main factors - religion, nationality, and ethnicity. However the trend is clearly towards a rise in religion-based attacks throughout the world. The concept of pan-Islamism, as promoted by organizations such as al Qaeda, is growing. From Africa to Europe to South Asia, the rise of the local parties who have sworn allegiance to al Qaeda is a hard reality at this point. Psychologists have different theories on why religion as a tool of influence works well. One of them is the behaviourist school of psychology which believes that religion can be used as a powerful source for conditioning individuals as the origin of religious behavior can be traced to the source of reinforcing stimuli.

Leadership, too, plays an important role in influencing people one way or the other. Powerful leaders win the hearts and mind of their public and bring them under their sway. They talk about the oppression of their people and the humiliation faced by them, which inspires the youth to take things into their hands. Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, found that people all across the world would engage in life-threatening violence simply out of obligation to an 'authority figure' no matter how superficial. In short, people can be manipulated and this tactic is employed by the insurgent groups to their benefit.

There are thus various psychological factors that lead a small section of the youth to accept suicide attacks as a part of the war in protecting their ways of living. These factors range from personal reasons such as identity confusion, retaliation, reward satisfaction, to social reasons such as family prestige, societal glory and leadership skills.