Inside The Minds of Suicide Bombers: Ariel Merari’s Latest Book
Ariel Merari, a retired professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, adds yet another interesting dimension to the plethora of research work that exists to study the minds of suicide bombers. Professor Merari says in his latest book that among the suicide bombers he interviewed “none were any more militant than the average Palestinian. For many, the suicide mission was their first involvement in terrorism. Ideological motivation was not what made them suicide bombers.”
In his latest book, Driven to Death: Psychological and social aspects of suicide terrorism published by Oxford University Press, Merari says that “two-thirds (suicide bombers) hesitated somewhere along the line, though this was caused by fear of death and worry about their families.
“They seem to have certain personality characteristics that make them more likely to be recruited to or to volunteer for suicide-bombing missions. None of the 15 would-be suicide bombers we interviewed suffered from a psychosis, but they had one of two personality types. Two-thirds were dependent-avoidant: such people find it hard to say no to authority figures and are more likely to cooperate to carry out tasks against their own judgement. They are also greatly influenced by public opinion. The rest were impulsive and emotionally unstable. These types are likely to volunteer, but in many cases their enthusiasm will not last long enough for them to see it through.”
Under the heading “Terrorist Motivations –Shooting to be Big Shots?”, Michael B. Kraft writes in the blog “Counter-terrorism”: “An interesting new book, that I am still reading, is Driven to Death, Pyschological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism by Prof. Ariel Merari, of Tel Aviv University, who has testified as an expert witness for the Justice Department. The book, which draws heavily on interviews with Palestinians who were arrested before they could conduct their suicide missions, notes the first major mass casualty suicide attack in Lebanon dates back to 1981. A car bomb was set off at the Iraq embassy, during the Iraq-Iran war, killing 61 persons and wounding about 100 others.”
Wikipedia mentions that various studies on suicide bombers have resulted in conflicting results. Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism and expert on suicide bombers, found the majority of suicide bombers came from the educated middle classes, while a 2007 study in Afghanistan, a country with a growing number of suicide bombings, found 80% of the suicide attackers had some kind of physical or mental disability. A study of the remains of 110 suicide bombers for the first part of 2007 by Afghan pathologist Dr. Yusef Yadgari, found 80% were missing limbs before the blasts, other suffered from cancer, leprosy, or some other ailments. Also in contrast to earlier findings of suicide bombers, the Afghan bombers were ‘not celebrated like their counterparts in other Arab nations. Afghan bombers are not featured on posters or in videos as martyrs.
“Many subsequent studies of suicide attackers’ backgrounds have not shown such a correlation. Forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman found a lack of antisocial behavior, mental illness, early social trauma or behavioral disorders such as rage, paranoia, narcissism among the 400 members of the Al Qaeda terror network he studied.
“Anthropologist Scott Atran found in a 2003 study that this is not a justifiable conclusion. A recently published paper by Harvard University Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie ‘cast[s] doubt on the widely held belief that terrorism stems from poverty, finding instead that terrorist violence is related to a nation’s level of political freedom.’ More specifically this is due to the transition of countries towards democratic freedoms. ‘Intermediate levels of political freedom are often experienced during times of political transitions, when governments are weak, political instability is elevated, so conditions are favorable for the appearance of terrorism.”
Here is another take on the subject… “How are Suicide Bombers Analysed in Mental Health Discourse? A Critical Anthropological Reading” by Neil K Aggarwal in the Asian Journal of Social Science, Volume 38, Number 3, 2010 , pp. 379-393. “Most authors apply Western psychiatric concepts to understand suicide bombers without accounting for value differences around life and death or terrorism and martyrdom. Accordingly, these researchers replicate arguments to explain individual behaviour from a particular epistemological perspective.
“In contrast, critical approaches to this literature can expose the worldviews of the analysers and the analysed to devise sounder interpretations. This paper scrutinises mental health discourse on suicide bombing to ask: (1) What do we learn about the authors of suicide bombers in these articles? (2) How do their analyses demonstrate the relationship between knowledge and power? These conclusions can enable researchers to reduce biases and devise behavioural models that more accurately reflect the realities of their subjects.” See here…
In this context, it would of interest to read an article in Yale Global online published last year: “What Motivates the Suicide Bombers?” by Riaz Hassan. “At last, now we have some concrete data to begin addressing the question. The Suicide Terrorism Database in Flinders University in Australia, the most comprehensive in the world, holds information on suicide bombings in Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which together accounted for 90 per cent of all suicide attacks between 1981 and 2006. Analysis of the information contained therein yields some interesting clues: It is politics more than religious fanaticism that has led terrorists to blow themselves up.”