By BENEDICT CAREY
Los Angeles Times
Via the Houston Chronicle, Aug. 3, 2002
The list includes architects and drifters, engineers and poets, teen-agers and middle-aged men, a 30-year-old woman, an 18-year-old girl, and, every week it seems, someone else, someone different.
“You hear people say that these are all desperate people, or poor people whose families need the money,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism specialist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “This is nonsense.”
Long before the recent rash of suicide bombings in Israel, psychiatrists and terrorism specialists were searching for clues to what prompts people to strap on explosives and annihilate themselves in a crowded street or cafe.
Experts examined psychological profiles. They interviewed Sri Lankan separatists and imprisoned Palestinian militants. They studied the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, and the Japanese kamikaze missions of World War II.
Their emerging understanding contradicts the notion the bombers are deranged fanatics. The evidence is just the opposite: They tend to be free of obvious mental illness. Many are competent, successful, loving and loved.
What, then, triggers their acts?
Most have fallen under the influence of an extreme group, be it al-Qaida, Hamas or the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, experts say. Like a cult, the group demands absolute obedience and promises immortality to the most devoted.
Conditions of chronic conflict and bloodshed endow suicide with a sinister logic. When death seems pervasive and unavoidable, whether in Sri Lanka or a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, members of the group come to value its survival above their own. They become willing, even eager, to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause — a psychological response found not just in terrorist cells, experts note, but among soldiers in wartime.
In the end, the suicide terrorist sees his mission as acceptable, logical, even noble. “It can be perceived as a very idealistic act,” said psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School and an author who has studied cults and suicide. “They believe there’s a higher purpose, that in some way they are bringing about a purification, a perfection. They are destroying the world to save it.”
A common trait of nonpolitical suicides — people who take their own lives without harming others — is a feeling of isolation or disconnectedness from the world. Suicide terrorists are anything but isolated. Often, they have connected with others deeply, and it is this affiliation that helps prepare them to take their own lives, said Clark McCauley, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies terrorism.
The best evidence these terrorists are mentally competent is the planning and patience required for their missions.
“The crucial quality that recruiters look for is mental stability,” said Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist at George Washington University who recently completed a study of 35 Palestinian militants in Israeli jails, several of whom had recruited suicide attackers.
In addition to levelheadedness, terrorist organizations look for a willingness to conform and obey. Those qualities are not hard to find, research shows. Regardless of education or background, most people have a tendency to follow instructions, especially when given by an authority figure who promotes a larger cause.
This is the principle on which many terrorist groups operate. They begin by asking members to take small risks and gradually up the ante, said McCauley.
“It’s hard to accept for outsiders, but from the bombers’ point of view, they don’t actually die in a suicide attack — they become immortal,” said Gunaratna, whose recent book, Inside Al Qaeda, details the ideological indoctrination that occurred at Osama bin Laden’s training camps. “It’s not the end, but the beginning. You are surviving in a way; you are being granted an eternal life.”