What Motivates Suicide Bombers? It might not be what you think.

What Motivates Suicide Bombers? It might not be what you think. October 15, 2012

What motivates someone to become a suicide bomber? Irrational religious fanaticism? Sometimes. A desire to see a global caliphate combined with animosity towards a western society which has colonized and abused Muslim lands? Sure.

But sometimes they are motived by a quite rational and honorable desire to protect their mothers and sisters from rape and abuse by white men.

In this article at Foreign Policy, Hussain Nadim, “a faculty member at the Department of Government and Public Policy at National University of Science and Technology,” describes what he discovered about the motives of three young Pakistani boys who had been arrested for plotting a suicide attack:

The militants have also been able to successfully invoke fear amongst young children by repeatedly showing them rape videos, and telling them how their mothers and sisters will be treated by the “white men.” And it was out of this fear of losing their mothers and sisters that the boys I interviewed agreed to become suicide bombers.  In their minds, they were out to sacrifice themselves to protect their loved ones, but little did they know of the reality that rest of the world was viewing on TV.

Aside from their brutal brainwashing, Nadim believes that their isolation from the outside world made them perfect targets for recruitment. Consider this for a moment.

Image Credit: U.S. Army Alaska via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

You’ve grown up in a very small village with only one TV and a radio which is controlled by jihadists who tell you that the white man, the westerner, America is a destructive force of evil bent on destroying your family and your way of life. You have essentially no knowledge of 9/11, the War on Terror, the reasons for the US invasion of Afganistan, etc. The only school you have access to is a religious school run by Muslims who likewise drill this ideology into you. Then one day, drones fly over your village and blow up houses and people, apparently looking for the militants in your area.

Then these militants kidnap you, force you to watch videos of these people raping and abusing women until you cannot sleep without thinking of these horrific scenes, and they tell you that you have a chance to stop them from doing this to your family, if you will sacrifice yourself. What kind of red-blooded young man would cower from the opportunity to sacrifice himself to save his mother from rape (sorry for the patriarchalism)? So, you agree to become a suicide bomber, cross the boarder into Afganistan, and pay the ultimate price to defend your people from tyranny.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, we skim over a headline on HufPo which reads “Suicide bombers kill five US soliders in Afganistan.”

My point is threefold:

1. We live in an absurd world were a Pakistani can bravely commit himself for fighting for justice, completely unaware of the larger conflict, with no real conception of the lives he will affect across the world. Moments after his death, his existence is recognized for the first and last time across the world through AP and Reuters. And we–having no real conception of the lives that affected him across the world–grow more callus to the war on terror and more convinced that Muslims simply can’t be reasoned with.

2. Although I think it would be a mistake to take this one interview–or even worse, my fictional alternative–as proof that suicide bombers are not driven by radical Islam, it is a very important and healthy reminder of the unintended consequences of our foreign policies and of the incredible complexity of global warfare. Do we really know who our enemy is?

3. The War on Terror is to a large degree a PR campaign, and the failure to recognize this will only provide fresh recruits for our enemies and more lives lost. This is one of my greatest concerns with a Romney presidency. Many (but by no means all–thank God [literally] for the libertarians) conservative critics of Obama’s foreign policy have made the argument that the most important thing is to not look soft–and so an apology for burning a Quran, for example, is condemned. Some want us to cut foreign aid to countries where rioting over the Mohammed YouTube video took place (See the ACLJ). They object to our government stopping military training classes which depict Muslims as fundamentally at war with non-Muslims (see the Thomas More Law Center).

For these three kids in Pakistan we completely lost the PR war because the jihadists’ propaganda was better than our message.

Here’s another example. Right after the embassy protests in Cario broke the news, I read through the Twitter feed from the Cario embassy. You can see the person in charge of the account responding to accusations from Muslims that this video is really just another instance of systematic America abuse of Muslims:

Part of what we’re combating is a huge misinformation campaign focused on making us appear to be evil oppressors. And so, there’s little doubt in my mind that many of the people rioting over that video were under the impression that the US Government approved of its content. My fear is that when we hear of reports of Middle East violence like what happend on 9/11/2012 we think in one of two ways:

1. These people are savages who cannot be reasoned with–so we’d better bomb them into rationality.


2. They have made a conscious and rational decision to hate us, so we must respond in kind or be perceived as weak.

When in reality it’s quite possible that they have very little idea of who we actually are, why we are fighting in their country, how we defend the rights of Muslims in our country, etc. So, next time there’s a massive riot in the Middle East against the US, or you read of some suicide bombing, remember, you probably don’t know why that person chose to attack us. Of course, ignorance never excuses violence–but then again, violence never excuses ignorance, either.


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