We know from scholarly research in academic psychiatry and psychology the psychological processes which underpin the mindset of these barbarians who persist in their unsatiable desire to bomb and kill the innocents like lambs to the slaughter. Why do they do it? Many theories and lots of competing and diverse evidence, but the main reasons are outlined below. We scholars working in the research enterprise need to know what are the most appropriate research questions to ask them. Dr Russel Razzaque, a Muslim Consultant Psychiatrist found that we can’t advance our knowledge and understanding if we persist in seeing them as “evil”. This is a layman’s emotional response and one that is globally shared. But the reality goes much further. He argues that it needs an intelligent response. Most young men and women who have been radicalized have specific personality traits but when combined with specific socio-cultural factors “ripen” them for full radicalization as suicide bombers. In most empirical studies we understand that they feel angry at the West, in particular for its secularization and overly sexualized culture, and there is a sense of alienation. In fact most of them feel disenfranchised marginalized, seeing life as full of inequalities and being unfair to them. Because of this, the young radicalized bombers feel that they are unable and lack the competence to effect real social economic and political change, so experience a deep sense of victimhood. This group of personality traits facilitates the rationalization of extremist terrorist attacks with horrendous violence. His research went on to show that members are psychopathic and have difficulty in moral reasoning. They have a deficiency in empathy and are impressionable young fanatics who want to “fit in” at any cost. Most can be brainwashed into carrying out inhuman acts of violence without justification. A biological reason and motive for recruiting them is that at this young age, the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and impulsivity is still developing.
Following the grotesque and needless tragic deaths of children and their parents recently at Manchester Arena, psychologists are often asked by media about the state of mind of these suicide bombers and terrorists. What we do know from psychological researchers who have talked openly to suicide bombers and those who organize their dastardly acts, is that they are not psychologically different form other terrorists. They seem to have certain personality characteristics such as vulnerability that make them idea for radicalization and suicide bombing missions. In a study by Ariel Merari in 2010, he found that after interviewing 15 would be suicide bombers that none of them suffered from a psychosis but they had one of two personality types. Two thirds were “dependent-avoidant” which signifies that they find it hard to say no to those in authority and are more likely to comply for requests form superiors to carry a bomb into virtually any public event. They are also heavily influenced by public opinion even though it is a minority social influence. Other personality types are very impulsive and emotionally unstable. They are excited at being asked to carry out such a hideous crime but feel that once the days get nearer the bombing date, many lose enthusiasm and have to deal with the consequences.
The researchers went on to report that none were any more militant than any other Palestinian. For many, the suicide mission was their first involvement in terrorism. Ideological motivation was not what made them suicide bombers. Two thirds hesitated somewhere along the line as they feared death and worry about their families. Many ask how they are able to see the operation through to the end. The answer is that many of them enter a psychological state of “dissociation” in which they shut themselves off to disturbing thoughts. One bomber who tried to blow himself up on a bus, was frightened when he was on the bus and the bomb didn’t explode, he panicked and frightened all passengers as he was kicking and shouting. He told the researchers how afraid he was from the moment of recruitment. In fact, he was in mental conflict. He remembered nothing about getting onto the bus or what happened.
Those in authority, ie the military commanders of Palestinian military groups have a very different psychology and personality type. They are not dependent they are manipulative and more intelligent than the younger suicide bombers, but have legitimate authority in the group so gain the respect of minors. The average age of the commanders is 27 yrs old in most studies. By contrast the age of the bombers is 19yrs on average. Some had a university education. They were not psychopathic. These organisers were very pragmatic believing they were doing this for their nation and it was justified. They did not express any moral doubts about asking the younger recruits to carry out the suicide bombing attacks. The psychologists reported that whilst interviewing the teenage bombers they looked pitiable young boys. There was no air of malice around them. During the interviews they were kind and polite. The psychologists saw them as easily manipulated.
There is still widespread confusion about the Psychology of Islamic suicide attackers, whether they strike at home or abroad on beaches of holiday resorts. Are they attempting to sacrifice their lives for an ideological cause, or do they really wish to die? The answer to the question could help us define the concept of “martyrdom” with global repercussions. And it might even be the key to bringing about a reduction in these attacks. According to conventional wisdom suicide terrorists are not mentally ill or even suicidal. They are in most cases psychologically normal and stable individuals who sacrifice themselves for altruistic reasons. In a 2009 article published in Psychiatry the conclusion was that “Stressing the importance of social psychology emphasizes the “normality” and absence of individual psychopathology of suicide bombers. Taking it from this perspective, we can see that those who carry out “martyrdom” operations in the service of radical Islamic ideologies are the product of their own contexts. Conversely, other psychological researchers found a difference in their research. They found that after conducting interviews and tests on pre-emptively arrested suicide bombers, many had suicidal thoughts and patterns in their thinking, or as in most occasions suffered from chronic depressionand previous suicide attempts. In some cases in USA for example, the Chattanoga shooter might have seemed like a violent but psychologically normal young man. He had been researching martyrdom for at least two years which could be interpreted as an ideological commitment. Researchers found that he was not a social outcast; he did “fit in” as an “Arab Redneck”. Before that attack his peers said he was a guy who would cheer you up if you had a bad day. His professor said he was he normal happy guy at college no different from all others. Many of these teenage suicide bombers do in fact suffer from mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression, and substance abuse. In the Islam religion there are powerful prohibitions against conventional suicides and shooting oneself in the head wold be considered an unforgiveable crime against god. Unfortunately, “martyrdom” has really become a dangerous loophole, it’s the only way Islamic suicide attackers can guarantee their own death and go to heaven instead of hell. Interestingly, this can be seen also as a cover up to disguise their suicidal motives.
Psychologically, the only way to deterring Islamic suicidal attackers is to expose their suicidal motives and close the “martyrdom” loophole once and for all. Until suicide bombers are widely seen for the desperate, traumatize, and mentally ill people they really are – instead of “psychologically normal” altruists- USA and UK especially will continue to experience more of these tragedies in both young and old. We need much more effort internationally to change global understanding and perceptions of suicide attackers.
Arthur Cassidy Ph.DC.Psychol, AFBPsS