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On the Edge: Professor identifies how suicide bombers work on periphery of terrorist networks

The use of suicide terrorism—a tactic employed so effectively in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001—has grown dramatically during the past five years. From 1999-2004, there were 3.5 times as many suicide terrorist attacks as had occurred from 1983 to 1998. In 2005, the number soared even higher, with a significant concentration of attacks occurring in Iraq.

“From a cost-benefit perspective, suicide terrorism is quite effective,” said Dr. Ami Pedahzur, associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin and a terrorism expert. “A suicide bomber with an explosives belt kills on average four times as many people as an attack with a delayed detonation device or a shooting attack.”

Ami Pedahzur
Dr. Ami Pedahzur, Associate Professor
Department of Government

In fact, data from the U.S. State Department show that while only three percent of all terrorist incidents in the world employ suicide bombers, these attacks account for 48 percent of all fatalities.

The success rate is high because the bomb is, in effect, a “smart bomb” that can modify the exact location and timing of attack based on a real-time assessment of the target. In Haifa, Israel, for instance, a suicide bomber stopped from entering a busy shopping mall simply walked 100 yards up a hill from the blockade and detonated himself in a popular, congested restaurant killing 15 people.

But what makes a person willing to take his or her own life as well as the lives of several, if not dozens, of strangers?

“People’s initial reaction to a suicide terrorist is to think the person is crazy or a religious zealot, but that’s not the case,” said Pedahzur, who just released a book on suicide terrorism. “Most suicide bombers see themselves as soldiers carrying out a mission to inflict damage on the enemy.”

In addition, suicide bombers are not radical loners operating on the fringes of society. Research by Robert Pape, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, shows that about 95 percent of suicide attacks are planned by some sort of structured organization, generally to achieve a political goal.

Profile of a Suicide Terrorist

From 1999-2004, there were 3.5 times as many suicide terrorist attacks as had occurred from 1983 to 1998.When suicide terrorism first gained notoriety in the early 1980s, scientists set out to decipher the personality of a suicide terrorist. Unfortunately, years of research and several theories were unable to find common characteristics that transcended the personalities of people committing these attacks. Many individuals who become suicide bombers, in fact, could be described as “normal people” who showed no suicidal tendencies prior to committing the act.

While it does not seem possible to identify a single dominant characteristic of suicide bombers, current theories point to societal influences conditioning an individual for a mission as a suicide bomber. Pedahzur’s research indicates that suicide bombers are motivated by a personal commitment to a leader, group or ideology or a personal crisis brought about by the suffering of family, friends or community members with whom they feel a deep sense of identification. Furthermore, they must be in an environment that supports suicide terrorism.

Environments that Support Suicide Terrorism

While the use of suicide terrorism can be traced back as far as the 11th century, the rise of this tactic in modern times can be traced to Lebanon and Iran in the 1980s. While this tactic spread to groups east and south of these countries, it did not move west. This migration has to do with a number of preconditions that must exist to aid suicide terrorism.

“In order for suicide terrorism to be a viable alternative, there must be a culture that supports, even glorifies, death, a sense of supreme hopelessness and an asymmetrical alignment of forces where a small group is confronting a much larger and more powerful force,” explained Pedahzur.

In order for suicide terrorism to be a viable alternative, there must be a culture that supports, even glorifies, death, a sense of supreme hopelessness and an asymmetrical alignment of forces where a small group is confronting a much larger and more powerful force. -- Dr. Ami PedahzurIn a community that either is, or perceives itself to be, oppressed by the reigning powers and where an improvement in the situation seems impossible, dying in a suicide attack is seen as an honorable way to help one’s community while ensuring eternal salvation.

Terrorist Networks

“Terrorist organizations used to be hierarchical and organized like military units. Now they’re more like street gangs,” said Pedahzur. “Small cells of terrorists operate on the local level and may or may not be tied in to the larger organization even though they claim an affiliation. The flattened structure makes terrorist networks more fluid and agile.”

This changing structure has become particularly evident in recent years.

“You saw this splintering and flattening in Al-Qaeda after the American invasion of Afghanistan and with Hamas after the Israeli reoccupation of the Palestinian territories in 2003,” said Pedahzur.

Each local cell has one or more individuals who function as “hubs.” Each hub is connected to many other individuals within the cell and, although he or she may be only marginally connected to figures within the national organization, he or she runs the local operations. Individuals recruited and dispatched as suicide bombers are not connected to the hub. They operate on the periphery of the group.

Terrorists seeking to recruit suicide bombers look for individuals with the characteristics described earlier, people who are emotionally vulnerable and have the potential to be inspired by the goals of the network. Individuals are generally recruited by family members, close friends and, less frequently, casual acquaintances.

Book jacket for Ami Pedahzur's 'Suicide Terrorism: Root Causes of the Culture of Death'
“Suicide Terrorism: Root Causes of the Culture of Death” by Dr. Pedahzur was published in 2005.

Once identified, training the suicide bomber can occur very quickly—sometimes in a matter of hours. In addition to conveying basics about the operational side of the mission, the trainer must ensure the recruit’s mental preparedness for the mission. The goal is to ensure that his/her mental state is completely resolved to the task to reduce the chances that he or she will change his or her mind at the last minute.

While Islamic religion condemns suicide just as Christian religion does, terrorist recruiters position the act as “self sacrifice” for a supreme cause—a sacrifice that brings the individual honor and respect and guarantees him or her eternal salvation.

The indoctrination process generally includes showing the recruit persuasive thematic material that supports the effort and exploiting charismatic images to help them internalize the cause. Recruits also are often shown final testimonials from “successful” suicide bombers that reinforce the commitment to die for the cause. The conditioning process may occur in such a manner that the recruit is not even aware of what group he or she is acting on behalf of.

Fighting Terrorism

“I am convinced that terrorists are very shrewd politicians with very clear agendas,” said Pedahzur. “The question we must then consider is how do we minimize their followers and support?”

It’s a troubling question as 70 percent of all terrorist attacks happen in democratic countries or countries that uphold democratic ideals and the very traits that form a democracy—freedom of movement, open access, self expression—create an environment in which terrorists can operate with relative ease.  

“In the long run, we need to build relationships with moderate leaders in countries where terrorism thrives and work to create an atmosphere of trust and open dialogue that will allow people to see a brighter future,” said Pedahzur. “By working with leaders who have the respect and legitimacy of their people we can try to shift support from the more radical to the more moderate organizations.”

Pedahzur conceded this will be difficult and will require concessions from all involved. However, the alternative is even more disturbing, he said.

BY Marisa Rainsberger

PHOTOS of Dr. Pedahzur: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 6 February 2006
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