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What motivates the attackers?

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Reem Antoon


The number of people killed by a suicide bombing at a football stadium in Iraq last week totalled 41, with 105 injured.

At least 27 people, including 10 civilians were killed on the same day when three suicide blasts ripped through Yemen’s second city of Aden. 

Two bombs exploded simultaneously at separate checkpoints in Shaab district, on the western outskirts of Aden, while a third planted in an ambulance was detonated at checkpoint near Mansura, in central Aden.

Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for all the above bombings.

Britain and its western allies, says former British prime minister Tony Blair, must be prepared to send ground troops to defeat IS or risk a terror attack in Europe of “such size and horror” that draconian security measures would have to be introduced.

Sad but true that at a time when the Western world worries about weapons of mass destruction in terrorists’ hands, a more basic device has emerged as a weapon of choice – life itself. But studies by serious scholars and recent surveys show that the spate of suicide attacks in the Middle East is linked more to politics than religion. What motivates the perpetrators of such attacks? 

The study, led by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Papp shows that there is little connection between religious fundamentalism and suicide attacks. 

The leading instigators of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2001 were the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a nationalist group whose members, though from Hindu families, are adamantly opposed to religion. Religion does not play as large a role as it is normally accorded.

The study shows that suicide attacks follow a strategic logic designed to coerce modern liberal democracies into making political and territorial concessions. 

Hizbollah – and Hamas – for instance, directed attacks succeeded in compelling the US and French troops to leave Lebanon in 1983. They also prompted Israeli forces to leave Lebanon in 1985 and quit the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 1994 and 1995. The Tamil Tigers succeeded in winning major concessions from the Sri Lankan government from 1990 onwards using this tactic.

After reviewing psychological studies of suicide attackers, University of Michigan psychologist Scott Atran concluded that suicide attackers have no appreciable psychological pathologies and are as educated and economically well-off as the surrounding populations.  To understand why non-pathological individuals volunteer to become suicide attackers we must focus on situational factors, which are largely sociological in nature. In the Middle East, these include a collective sense of historical injustice, political subservience and a pervasive sense of social humiliations vis-a-vis global powers and their allies.

But what drives a human to suicide in the first place? In modern psychiatry and sociology, suicide is regarded as an end, an exit from adverse social conditions in which the individual feels powerless. 

UN relief worker in Gaza Nasra Hassan interviewed 250 aspiring suicide bombers and their recruiters and found that none were uneducated, poor, simple-minded, suicidal or depressed. But their social contexts displayed the dynamics of their actions.

To eliminate suicide attacks we ultimately require to address and lessen the grievances of populations that carry them out. 

Support for suicide attacks is unlikely to diminish without tangible progress in achieving at least some of the fundamental goals which suicide attackers and those supporting them share. Many Muslims today are speaking out and as they do, others will gain confidence and follow, because majority of Muslims, in my opinion, hate the way their faith has been hijacked. And we should not forget that the majority of terrorist victims are in fact Muslims.

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