What makes Jamaal kill?

This is the voice of the father of Jordanian suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, who blew up himself and seven Central Intelligence Agency workers in Afghanistan in December.

“They say that Jesus gave his life to people. I say that Humam sacrificed his body and soul for the oppressed.”

The father, quoted in a Sunday New York Times story by Stephen Farrell, both mourns his son’s death and embraces the holiness of his motives.

If you’re like me and you are trying to better understand what motivates suicide bombers, you’ll appreciate another piece in Sunday’s “Week in Review” section of the Times: “The Terrorist Mind: An Update” by Sarah Kershaw. We all have our theories, but the piece focuses on real-world data:

Until recently, the psychology of terrorism had been largely theoretical. Finding actual subjects to study was daunting. But access to terrorists has increased and a nascent science is taking shape.

More former terrorists are speaking publicly about their experiences. Tens of thousands of terrorists are in “de-radicalization” programs around the globe, and they are being interviewed, counseled and subjected to psychological testing, offering the chance to collect real data on the subject.

Terrorist propaganda has flooded the Internet and the thinking of sympathizers is widely available. There are entire cable television channels operated by extremists, and researchers have access to the writings and “farewell tapes” of the growing number of suicide bombers as well as the transcripts of terrorism trials.

So, what does this wealth of material tell us? The Times piece serves as a primer on “Terrorist Psychology 101″ and spells out what we can know in five depressing sections that tell us:

(1) The path to terrorism often begins with well known risk factors, such as:

…a strong sense of victimization and alienation; the belief that moral violations by the enemy justify violence in pursuit of a “higher moral condition;” the belief that the terrorists’ ethnic, religious or nationalist group is special and in danger of extinction, and that they lack the political power to effect change without violence.

(2) Group dynamics (including Internet-based networks) intensify the risk: “justification for extremist action, whether through religious or secular doctrine, is either developed or greatly intensified by group dynamics.”

(3) Morality is important: “…terrorists must inherently believe that violence against the enemy is not immoral, but that they also have internal limits, which they often do not learn until they are deeply embedded in a group.”

(4) When a person has decided to be a suicide bomber, the die is largely cast:

Once a terrorist, it is often difficult to turn back. This is particularly true for prospective suicide bombers. Once assigned to their fatal missions, they become known as “walking martyrs.” Backing down would create too much shame or humiliation.

(5) But disengagement from terrorist groups is possible in some cases, particularly when a person sees hypocrisy in the group or discovers that the reality of life in the group is not as satisfying as expected.

This was an excellent piece that presented mounds of data in a clear manner while also giving us profound, eloquent and heartbreaking sentences like this one:

… the overarching motivation of suicide bombers is the quest for personal significance, the desperate longing for a meaningful life that appears only to come with death.

Read it all.

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  • Jerry

    Steve,

    Thanks for highlighting this important and well-written story. I think it’s critical to take a scientific and fact-based view of the causes of terrorism.

  • http://orthodoxconfessions.blogspot.com JLB

    Is the awkward phrasing of your title intentional?

  • Kathryn

    About the picture in your piece: it scares me to see that child with the AK-47. I guess it shows that the radicals are willing to kill their own future.


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