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What makes a suicide bomber tick?

By Paul Wilson - posted Tuesday, 23 April 2002

What is it that motivates suicide bombers to strap on a bomb, drive to a crowded restaurant or shopping mall and blow themselves and innocent civilians into eternity?

"Evil" was the term that George Bush and John Howard used to describe the motives of terrorists after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre. But though the acts they commit are truly monstrous it seems inappropriate to describe suicide bombers as "evil", if only because such an expression does little to explain why they engage in such grotesque activities.

After the planes crashed into the twin towers some commentators explained the terrorists’ behaviour by way of religious fanaticism. As William Safire, the conservative New York Times columnist put it, the normal survival spirit in a terrorist is replaced by a "pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer’s self martyrdom leading to eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins".


But do terrorists, especially suicide bombers, really think like this? Are such people so shallow and "evil" that they believe that by murdering innocent civilians - and killing themselves in the process - they will obtain a passport to heavenly bliss?

In my opinion such a view simplifies and distorts the way we both see and react to suicide bombers. Indeed, recent research, including that conducted by the Israelis themselves, shows a profile of terrorists radically different from that portrayed by William Safire.

Suicide bombers typically are unmarried men in their late teens and early 20s. Indeed, one survey found that two thirds of them were aged between 18 and 23 though there have been some that have been either much older or much younger. While over 80 per cent are single most have close relatives either living with them or residing in the same city or town.

The majority have high-school education and sometimes even a university degree. Though nearly all are male, Ayat Akhras, the 18-year-old schoolgirl who blew herself up outside a Jerusalem supermarket recently, demonstrated that young women are increasingly prepared to die for the Intifada.

"We have 200 young women from the Bethlehem area alone prepared to sacrifice themselves", a spokesperson for the al-Aqsa terrorist organisation told journalists after the supermarket bombing.

This is not empty rhetoric. Undoubtedly the Palestinians do have thousands of young women, and probably tens of thousands of young men, willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause.


The point here is that the psychological profiles of suicide bombers do not reveal a few isolated, emotionally disturbed, badly educated young men and women, fanatically sacrificing themselves to religious martyrdom. Instead, there are literally thousands of young men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for their country.

In a video made just before her suicide mission Ayat Akhras contemptuously remarked, "I am going to fight instead of the sleeping Arab armies who are watching Palestinian girls fighting alone".

This was hardly the statement of a disturbed young woman motivated by evil. Nor, it appears was she passively and unquestioningly obeying her political masters or acting against her will. Neither, it seems were the more than 70 other suicide bombers who have struck Israel since the signing of the Oslo agreement between the Jewish State and Palestine in 1993.

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An edited version of this article was first published in The Courier Mail on 9 April 2002.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Wilson is a writer and criminologist. He is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bond University. He co-authored Justice in the Deep North: A History of Crime and Punishment in Queensland.

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