||Likely Suicide Bombers Include Profiles You'd Never Suspect
By: Sharon Begley, Wall Street Journal
Friday, April 04, 2003
Adjunct Professor Scott Atran's research about what makes a suicide bomber tick is featured in the April 4, 2003 Wall Street Journal. The text of Likely Suicide Bombers Include Profiles You'd Never Suspect follows:
With a suicide bombing of American troops in Iraq, the call by Syria's highest Muslim cleric for "martyrdom operations," and renewed warnings that such bombers may target the U.S. and Europe, an old quest has assumed new prominence: Getting inside the mind of a suicide terrorist.
Doing so, homeland-security experts believe, might keep people from succumbing to terror recruiters. Failing that, it would at least allow us to profile potential terrorists -- arguably a more effective defense than trying to secure the West's myriad soft targets.
But there is a formidable barrier here. Many political leaders as well as ordinary citizens believe that suicide terrorists are cowardly lunatics. As President Bush said in October, "Those who would commit suicide in their assaults on the free world are not rational."
That belief is at odds with the growing body of new research focusing on profiling and prevention. As a 1999 report to the Central Intelligence Agency concluded, "Unfortunately for profiling purposes, there does not appear to be a single terrorist personality." Moreover, it continued, "contrary to the stereotype that the terrorist is ... mentally disturbed, the terrorist is actually quite sane, although deluded" by ideology or religion.
The last century presented scientists with abundant examples of terrorism. Based on studies of groups such as Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, psychologists spun imaginative theories that "narcissistic injury," "frustration-aggression," grandiosity and a damaged concept of self explained heinous acts. "In the 1970s," says Clark McCauley, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, "the popular idea was that terrorists must be psychopaths or sociopaths."
Since then, studies of Palestinian suicide bombers, of al Qaeda allies in Southeast Asia and of the Sept. 11 terrorists have painted a different picture. These operatives, typically men in their early 20s, came from diverse social, economic and work backgrounds. They have at least as much education as the general population where they grew up, and usually more. They are seldom fatherless, friendless, jobless or hopeless.
"These are rational people, not necessarily uneducated or impoverished," says retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Todd Stewart, director of the Program for International and Homeland Security at Ohio State University in Columbus. After all, terrorist cells need reliable killers who blend in, not mentally unstable misfits who behave unpredictably.
What, then, leads a sane individual to suicide terrorism? Scott Atran, an anthropologist and psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and at France's National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, believes at least part of the answer lies in the famous "Milgram Experiment." In 1961 and 1962, psychologist Stanley Milgram recruited ordinary adults to, supposedly, help other volunteers learn better. When the "learner," hidden by a screen, failed to memorize word pairs quickly enough, the "teacher" was told to administer an electric shock, and to keep upping the voltage.
Prof. Milgram found that up to 65% of the adults complied with instructions to give potentially lethal shocks (labeled as 450 volts, but in fact 0). This, despite the victim's (actually, an actor's) screams and pleas. Ordinary people, it seems, can commit atrocities out of a sense of obligation to authority.
If individuals are capable of terrible things under the right circumstances, that suggests "it is not possible to 'profile' suicide terrorists: They are just like us," says Prof. Atran.
Surely, not entirely. A crucial distinction may be that to a terrorist, his cell is everything: kin, friends, neighbors, teachers. Psychological manipulation causes recruits to view the group as a fictive family for whom they are as willing to die as a mother for her child. Such manipulation, says Prof. Atran, "can trump individual personality and psychology to produce apparently extreme behaviors in ordinary people."
Terrorists promote small-group cohesion much as the military does. Says Maj. Gen. Stewart, "If you ask a soldier why he is willing to fight and die, he'll tell you it's for his buddies."
So with terrorists. Some may be lured by the promise of riches to their survivors, or by the feeling that life offers them nothing else but, perhaps, a moment of glory. "Terrorists kill for the same reasons that groups have killed for centuries," says Prof. McCauley: "For cause and for comrades. We all know we are going to die. Every normal person believes in something more important than life."
Suicide terrorism is as old as the Zealots, who 2,000 years ago mounted suicide attacks in Roman-occupied Judea, and as new as human bombs in the West Bank. It may reflect a deep-rooted survival mechanism that allows us to act "in otherwise paralyzing circumstances," suggests Prof. Atran in the journal Science. As researchers probe the genesis of suicide terrorists, it's clear that it will be some time before we disprove Dostoevsky's sad observation: "While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him."
Copyright © 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
To read more about media coverage of Atran's Science article and the related UM News & Information Services press release, see the Genesis of Suicide Terrorism news item.