What Makes Terrorists Tick

Theories About Motivations and Causes

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LONDON, JULY 16, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Last week’s transit bombs in London sparked off a new round of commentaries as to the causes of the upsurge in terror attacks in recent years, above all those carried out by Islamic believers. A book published in England shortly before the July 7 attacks provides useful insight into the subject.

The book, “Making Sense of Suicide Missions,” is edited by Diego Gambetta and published by Oxford University Press. It has chapters ranging from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to the situation in the Middle East and a look at al-Qaida.

A chapter by Jon Elster, professor at Columbia University, looks at the role of motivations and beliefs in suicide missions. He contends that the willingness to sacrifice one’s life in such a mission is not, in itself, irrational. In fact, suicide attackers are rarely subject to pathological or suicidal motivation, Elster states.

He notes a number of psychological factors contributing to the motivation of suicide attackers. Peer pressure and the desire to be well thought of by others can play a part in motivation. As well, in the case of Palestinian attackers, psychological pressure is put on them by the organizers of the group in the days prior to an attack. This induces a mental state that makes it easier for them to give up their lives.

One motivation that is the subject of debate is the desire to reach a religious hereafter. The Koran, Elster observes, contains no clear ban on suicide. But the prophetic tradition does prohibit it. Elster contends that, in practice, the religious legitimacy of suicide now seems to be widely accepted, even if it remains controversial.

The Columbia professor further contends that a few years ago it was assumed that suicide attackers were young, single, unemployed males for whom a religious movement filled a gap in their lives. But more recent data reveal that poverty and illiteracy are limited as causal factors. More relevant, he argues, are feelings of inferiority and resentment. Many of the terrorists come from countries where poverty is a problem, but this by itself is not enough to lead to terrorism, Elster says.

Common elements

In another chapter Diego Gambetta, professor at Nuffield College, Oxford, notes that suicide missions show such a diversity of traits that the search for a global explanation or pattern can seem futile. There are, however, some common elements.

Among these is the importance of the organizational backing. He noted that all suicide missions have been decided and executed with the support of an organization. Yet none of the organizations involved rely exclusively on suicide missions so it is a mistake to focus only on such attacks in analyzing these groups. In addition, the suicide missions are carried out by the weaker side in a conflict.

Gambetta further observes that, while no religion apart from Islam is directly involved in suicide missions, Islam-inspired missions account for only 34.6% of attacks carried out between 1981 and September 2003.

The Oxford professor also notes that suicide missions are used above all against democracies. This reflects the fact that democracies are more sensitive to the costs involved in these attacks. As well, democracies tend to be more restrained in their response to the community from which the attackers come. Then too the existence of a free media means the attacks will receive wide publicity.

Gambetta insists that the attackers themselves can be considered “altruists,” in the sense that they believe that sacrificing their lives will further the interests of a group or the cause they identify with.

The simple life

Islamic-based terrorism was examined earlier, in Jessica Stern’s 2003 book, “Terror in the Name of God.” Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, spent four years interviewing members of extremist groups — Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.

In her interviews Stern found that the terrorists were motivated by the conviction that they are creating a more perfect world, purifying it of injustice. She also observed that people tend to join religious terrorist groups partly to transform themselves and to simplify life. And because they are convinced that their cause is just, they persuade themselves that any action is allowed.

Stern likened terrorism as a kind of virus, which spreads as a result of risk factors at various levels. Yet it is more complex than the analogy would imply, she said. The same variables that lead some to terrorism can motivate others to positive, good acts. Here are some of the risk factors:

— At the global level the advances in communication have greatly eased the coordination needed for a worldwide network. The terrorist groups can recruit and manage their finances through the Internet. And they stage their attacks in order to maximize media coverage.

— Refugee camps, bad neighborhoods and failed states are hothouses of rage and extremism, as well as crime.

— A government’s inability to provide basic services or to protect human rights damages the state’s ability to fight extremist groups. This can give rise to a situation where violence breeds more violence.

— Terrorists are clever in exploiting the needs of the poor and the ignorant, who later serve as foot soldiers for the groups. For example, the practice of providing compensation for the families of those who die in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Palestinian territory makes the groups more appealing to the poor.

— Humiliation is another factor. At the national level violence is seen to be the answer to perceived humiliation at the hands of the West. At a personal level, a number of terrorists see their actions as a way to heal the wounds of personal humiliation.

Why a hotbed

Stern also looks at why Muslim countries produce so many terrorists who attack Western targets. One factor she identifies is resentment at U.S. support for Israel. As well, she notes that, being authoritarian regimes in large part, Mideast countries have taken strict measures to suppress terrorism, leading extremists to look for more vulnerable targets.

In addition, a number of Mideast states suffer from a lack of good government, where a combination of stagnant economies, corruption, cronyism and extremist religious groups provide a fertile breeding ground for recruiting potential terrorists.

Combined with this is the organization skill of al-Qaida. That terror group has managed to combine the exploitation of these grievances with a sophisticated structure, careful planning and adroit use of modern means in communication and financing.

In his Angelus message last Sunday Benedict XVI expressed sorrow for the victims of the London bombings. He also had words for the terrorists involved: “Let us also pray for the attackers, that the Lord will touch their hearts.” The Pope called upon those who foment sentiments of hatred to cease. “God loves life, which he has created, not death,” he said. A message all can hope will reach its target.

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