Suicide terrorism is a peculiar business. As a means of killing civilians it is hugely efficient. Steven Pinker explains that, “it combines the ultimate in surgical weapon delivery – the precision manipulators and locomotors called hands and feet, controlled by the human eyes and brain – with the ultimate in stealth – a person who looks just like millions of other people.” The most sophisticated drone doesn’t come close.
Relative to the past few decades it is trending. During the 1980s the world saw an average of about five suicide attacks per year. Between 2000 and 2005 that number skyrocketed to 180. The targets have been diverse. Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan get all the media attention, but Somalia and Sri Lanka experienced their share of self-destruction over the past five years.
What’s peculiar about suicide terrorism is that it is especially difficult to understand from a psychological point of view. Most people find it impossible to empathize with someone who walks into a crowded Jerusalem market wearing an overcoat filled with nails, ball bearings and rat poison with the intention of detonating the bomb strapped to his (99 percent of suicide terrorists are male) waist. How do we make sense of this?
Secular westerners tend to understand suicide terrorists as unfortunate products of undeveloped, undereducated and economically devastated environments. This isn’t true. All the 9/11 hijackers were college educated and suffered “no discernible experience of political oppression.” As Sam Harris explains:
Economic advantages and education, in and of themselves, are insufficient remedies for the cause of religious violence. There is no doubt that many well-educated, middle-class fundamentalists are ready to kill and die for God…. Religious fundamentalism in the developing world is not, principally, a movement of the poor and uneducated.
What is a sufficient explanation? In the case of Islam, why are so many of its followers eager to turn themselves into bombs? Harris believes that it is “because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity… Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible.” However you interpret the Koran, Harris’ position is that faith motivates Muslim suicide terrorists and that beliefs are the key to understanding the psychology of suicide terrorism. When nineteen Muslim terrorists woke up on the morning of September 11th they believed that 72 virgins awaited them in Heaven; they believed they would be remembered as heroes; they believed that self-destruction in the name of their God was glorious. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to correctly guess what they were saying (I should say, praying) moments before their doom.
Epistemology isn’t the whole story. Action requires belief but belief is not created in a vacuum. Understanding the motives of suicide bombers demands knowledge of the community they grew up in. You need context.
This is precisely what anthropologist Scott Atran attempted to dissect. After interviewing failed and prospective suicide terrorists he published several articles outlining the psychological profile of suicide terrorists and concluded that a call to martyrdom is appealing because it offers an opportunity to join a cohesive and supportive community of like-minded persons. Here’s Atran’s testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee:
When you look at whom [suicide terrorists] idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.
The work of anthropologist Richard Sosis suggests that Atran is correct. Sosis studied the history of communes in the United States in the nineteenth century. He found that twenty years after their founding 6 percent of the secular communes still existed compared to 39 percent of the religious communes. He also discovered that the more costly sacrifices the religious commune demanded the better it functioned. By requiring members to withstand from things like alcohol and conform to dress codes the religious communes quickly and effectively bound its members together. This is why if the West wants to minimize suicide terrorism, Atran recommends, it should “[learn] how to minimize the receptivity of mostly ordinary people to recruiting organizations.”
Thankfully, the number of suicide bombers has declined in the last few years. In Iraq Vehicle and suicide attacks dropped from 21 a day in 2007 to about 8 a day in 2010. Along with a surge of American soldiers, the decline can be attributed to an attitude shift within the Islamic community. In Pinker’s latest book he explains that, “in the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, support for Al Qaeda plummeted from 70 percent to 4 percent in just five months in late 2007… In a 2007 ABC/BBC poll in Afghanistan, support for jihadist militants nosedived to one percent.” If Atran is correct in suggesting that suicide terrorism is fueled by an appeal to community and an opportunity to gain esteem then this is good news.
Individual belief and the communities they arise from help us understand the psyche of suicide bombers. But even a sufficient explanation would leave me wondering. Our DNA has one goal: replication. That natural selection has given us the means to stop this process might be one of Nature’s great ironies.