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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Bomber

What sort of person is willing to become a suicide terrorist? Psychological profiles reveal that the personalities of suicide bombers are as varied as the causes for which they fight: 1. Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad use shahids (martyrs) in their campaign to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state. Boaz ...

What sort of person is willing to become a suicide terrorist? Psychological profiles reveal that the personalities of suicide bombers are as varied as the causes for which they fight:

1. Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad use shahids (martyrs) in their campaign to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state. Boaz Ganor, director of Israel’s International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, characterizes the typical shahid as a male, religious, unmarried, and unemployed high school graduate between the ages of 18 and 27. Many have had a relative or close friend killed, injured, or brutalized by the Israelis. Ganor observes that shahids do not volunteer, but rather are identified and recommended by their religious teachers. Once skilled field officers have selected and recruited the shahids, they begin a highly regimented process of mental purification and military preparation. The suicide candidates are also showered with rewards that help cement their sacrificial dedication. Often coming from a modest social background, most of them know that the suicide act will instantly upgrade their social status — and that of their families. (Indeed, the shahid’s family is consistently awarded honors and praises and often receives a generous sum of money.) The martyr himself is guaranteed eternal life in paradise.

2. The Black Tigers are the suicide battalions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has waged an armed conflict against the Sri Lankan government since 1976 in hopes of establishing an independent Tamil state. Similar to the Palestinian shahids, Black Tiger recruits tend to be young, unemployed, and unmarried. However, they are not trained to become mere "human bombs." According to Rohan Gunaratna of Saint Andrews University, male and female volunteers come from the organization’s toughest combat battalions and must bring with them a superb fighting record. The LTTE has fully integrated its suicide units with the organization’s secular nationalist army, whose recruitment process employs neither religious rites nor clerical oversight. Just like other LTTE fighters, members of suicide squads are socialized into a culture of supreme sacrifice that glorifies death in action and reveres a long list of dead heroes. The recruitment process involves a tough military program aimed at selecting the most able and devoted soldiers. Although designated to die in kamikaze-like attacks, many of these volunteers are often called upon to carry out sophisticated commando operations that do not require suicide.

3. Between 1995 and 1999, 15 individuals conducted suicide bombings on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which seeks to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey. All but four of these perpetrators were young women. According to Dogu Ergil of Ankara University, these female suicide bombers were between the ages of 17 and 27, possessed no professional skills, generally came from large, poor families, and in some cases had lost relatives and loved ones in the struggle against Turkey. Coming from a rural traditional society that discriminates against women, most of the volunteers appear to have been motivated by a combination of devotion to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and the communal prestige bestowed on them as a result of their supreme sacrifice.

The PKK preferred female bombers because they could easily equip them with explosives and dress them to appear pregnant — thereby reducing the chance that they would be frisked by male police officers and soldiers. Also, according to captured PKK members, suicide missions were an effective means of "thinning their ranks" since women were not always able to keep up with the men in the treks across the mountains of southeastern Turkey. The suicide bombings reached their peak following the arrest of Ocalan in February 1999, but stopped five months later when it had become clear that he would not be sentenced to death.

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