Profile: Look at the Mind of a Suicide Bomber

Morning Edition: March 7, 2003

Research Reveals New Profile of Suicide Bombers


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

Israeli tanks and troops today took up positions near the Gaza refugee camp where 11 Palestinians were killed yesterday. Israeli military sources say the current operation is open-ended and designed to prevent Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel. The incursions into Gaza follow Wednesday's suicide bus bombing in northern Israel that killed 15 people. It's hard to imagine an act more desperate than strapping on a bomb and blowing yourself up to kill others. Social scientists have studied suicide bombers and their families and supporters. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports what they have found contradicts a popular belief about what drives suicide bombers.


It's often said that terrorists are driven to suicidal attacks by poverty, hopelessness and ignorance. People as varied as the Dalai Lama and President George Bush have made that claim. Here's the president at the economic summit in Monterrey, Mexico, last year.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Many here today have devoted their lives to the fight against global poverty, and you know the stakes. We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.

JOYCE: But that's not what anthropologist Scott Atran has found.

Mr. SCOTT ATRAN (Anthropologist): There's this knee-jerk reaction that people who do this have to be maniacs or cowards, uneducated or miserable or in despair, and none of this seems to be true at all.

JOYCE: Working at the University of Michigan and the National Center for Scientific Research in France, Atran has collected surveys of failed suicide bombers and of the families of successful bombers. These surveys were done by Pakistani relief workers, as well as Israeli and Western psychologists and economists. They also interviewed members of terror organizations and studied their literature. What the researchers found contradicted the stereotype of the terrorist fanatic.

Mr. ATRAN: These people are fairly well educated, mostly from middle class and not acting at all in despair.

JOYCE: Atran summarizes these findings in today's issue of the journal Science. He notes that the government of Singapore recently published a similar report on Asian terrorists linked to al-Qaeda that found the same trend.

At Princeton University, economist Alan Krueger has studied not only bombers but the views of the Palestinian public on terror attacks aimed at Israelis. Again, surveys found no link between poverty and illiteracy and support for terror.

Mr. ALAN KRUEGER (Princeton University): I think there's very little connection between economic circumstances and support for terrorism or maybe even an opposite relationship, from what most people suspect.

JOYCE: As for the bombers themselves, Krueger says terrorist literature indicates they are more likely to come from the ranks of middle-class college students.

Mr. KRUEGER: I think that in the West, we think very much in terms of materialistic terms. And we think, you know, `Who could possibly want to give up their lives for a cause? It must be someone who has nothing to live for,' whereas I don't think that's what's motivating the people who participate in terrorism.

JOYCE: What does motivate suicide bombers then? Eyad Sarraj has some ideas on that. Sarraj is a Palestinian psychiatrist and director of the Mental Health Community Center in Gaza. He talked with NPR last year after a spate of attacks by suicide bombers.

Dr. EYAD SARRAJ (Mental Health Community Center Director): We're not talking about all of them, but most of them are usually very nice, timid, introvert, have had a problem with power in their childhood, and most of them have had personal experience with serious traumatic events in their lives and particularly witnessing the helplessness of their fathers and the humiliation of their fathers.

JOYCE: But suicide bombers rarely act alone. They are recruited and supported by terrorist organizations. Scott Atran at the University of Michigan says these organizations often use religion and religious rites to create a sort of ritual communion, or bonding, among would-be bombers.

Mr. ATRAN: And this sort of ritual communion often includes gestures of submission and trust, kneeling, bowing, prostrating, baring throats and chests, as well as courtship and bonding. And you find that in forming their suicide cells, the sponsors, these often charismatic sponsors of suicide terrorism, consciously manipulate these kinds of communion to form very tight-knit groups willing to die for one another.

JOYCE: Atran says conclusions about what motivates suicide bombers and their supporters are still based on scant evidence. It's not an easy thing to study nor are there clear answers on how to stop the bombing. But he and Krueger agree that merely eliminating poverty and improving education, no matter how worthwhile these goals are, is unlikely to extinguish the roots of terrorism. Suicide bombing, they say, is ultimately a political act. Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Washington.

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