Suicide bombers (SB) are essentially a poor man’s “smart bomb.” They are inexpensive to program and construct; they can be launched from a safe distance; they are “fire and forget” weapons; they are very hard to stop; they cause considerable loss of life and property; there is little or no warning; they disrupt social organization and they elicit a great deal of fear and anxiety. There have been well over 1,000 cases of suicide bombings in the Mideast over the last 8 years. SBs are instruments of war that are used by less powerful people against people with more military, economic and political power. In that sense, it is a defensive weapon. They are used not so much to capture territory or people, or to promote a way of life, as they are to visit destruction and chaos on people who’re perceived as being a threat to the SB’s culture and way of life.
It has been said that that SBs “do not care about life.” That is not true. SBs, like most of the human race, care a great deal about some specific categories of people, but people outside of those categories are not accorded that same consideration.
I have reviewed a number of published studies on the topic of the psychological characteristics of suicide bombers. What follows are my conclusions and impressions from those studies. Almost all of the research into the psychological characteristics of people who deliberately strap on explosives to their body and detonate them around others is circumstantial. Obviously, it is difficult to interview successful suicide bombers, and their relatives or friends are also not dispassionate or uninvolved in the cause(s) being expressed.
In reviewing the published material, there are a number of conclusions with varying degrees of certainty attached. There is no single “profile” that reflects all of these cases.
It must also be understood that it takes a combination of a number of cultural and personal characteristics before the likelihood of a Suicide Bomber increases. At most, some published research offers a predictive statistic of about 63%, given the right combination of known factors.
It is likely that very specific characteristics are known to exist, but these are not available to the general public nor published.
It should also be realized that Suicide Bombers are created by very cold, deliberate and calculating people. Suicide Bombers are not somehow spontaneously born. They are very much a disposable instrument of political interests. A fair amount of training and support is required for any Suicide Bomber, even given the requisite cultural and individual characteristics.
Although this essay deals with suicide bombers as we have seen in the last few years in Iraq and other regions of the mid-east, human history as many examples of similar behavior, such as the Kamikaze pilots of WW-II, who also acted as instruments of their culture in a war-time situation. It seems fair to say that almost all of these instances of deliberate self-destruction for the purposes of killing others occur in the context of a militarily weaker group attacking a stronger group. Given any choice, people prefer to kill others without killing themselves in the process.
Note: I have made a distinction between “cultural” and “individual” characteristics. This is not always a clear distinction, and the “dividing line” may be arbitrary. There may be some utility in doing so, although any one person does not come conveniently packaged that way. It’s sort of blended together. Behavior can be explained as being a function of (1) genetics and physiology, (2) conditioning and learning, (3) the social or cultural environment in which the person lives; (4) immediate stimuli and (5) the interaction of these variables. I do not know how much the concept of “choice” has any useful predictive value apart from these above variables.
1. Suicide bombers (SB) apparent Cultural characteristics:
1.1 SBs are deeply involved members of a “collectivist” society, more than a culture in which individualism is a significant value or ideal. It is fair to state that anyone who voluntarily kills themselves in order, in their minds, to further the welfare of others does so as a part of a highly cohesive group, be that group fellow soldiers or part of a religious or political culture.
1.2 In the culture(s) in which SBs live and die, they are considered by many in that culture to be heroes or heroines, and so honored as martyrs.
1.3 The culture or sub-culture of the SB is one in which there is a rigid vertical structure of dominant/submissive roles according to such issues as gender, religious status, and age.
1.4 Tradition plays a dominant role in influencing behavior of individuals
1.5 Individual variation from prescribed roles is not accepted
1.6 Individual skepticism or questioning of the established political or religious authorities is not acceptable.
1.7 There is a greater difference in financial affluence between a small number of people and the majority of the population than in democratic cultures, and it is not as possible for an individual to move up that ladder of affluence due to individual merit or accomplishments.
1.8 Religion is most often associated with SBs, and at the moment that is usually Islam. The point here is that SBs consider themselves to be acting as agents of their religion and/or culture, not by themselves, and there’s nothing that prevents any religion from being expressed or used in the same way in different circumstances.
2. Suicide Bomber’s Apparent Individual Characteristics:
2.1 Suicide bombers (SB) tend to be single men between the ages of 18 and 30. There are increasing instances of women, rarely children below the age of 14; and some reports of impaired people in wheelchairs or otherwise cognitively impaired. This kind of violent behavior tends to be more likely with young men than women. Almost all of the people incarcerated for crimes of violence are males, less than 30 years of age (Wisconsin DOC).
2.2 These SBs are above average in locally defined education, usually heavily influenced by religious indoctrination or content. Even the few more technically educated SBs have been intensively educated or indoctrinated before that in religious or cultural precepts, as with the 9/11 people.
2.3 They are above average in intelligence. Stupid people tend to make unreliable weapons.
2.4 They are rational and deliberate and are not incoherent or otherwise “crazy” or psychotic. No one seems eager to strap on a high-explosive vest to an unstable psychotic person who cannot be relied on to carry out their mission, preferably somewhere a long ways off. One writer noted: Suicide bombers are not psychotic. In their case, the created identity fits soundly with the external reality and, significantly, is approved by others
2.5 SBs do not behave as they do because they are “Depressed,” in the sense of wanting to end their lives. They consider, in a quite deliberate and non-impulsive manner that their lives are less important than those with whom they identify in their culture. They may believe they can expect to be rewarded in some kind of afterlife, but that is likely to be more than a solace rather than a motivation.
2.6 SBs are not psychopaths or sociopaths. These personality types are not at all inclined to care about others more than themselves.
2.7 SBs are not usually affluent in any Western sense of individually controlled wealth.
2.8 It has been said that SBs are “brainwashed.” There may be some merit to that argument, but that implies they have no choice and are somehow “driven” to self-destruction. It is also an argument used by Western commentators that is equally applicable to Western people who kill others and then themselves, if not by explosives but by firearms. Brain -washing is generally a dog that does not hunt well, dramatic as the term seems to be.
2.9 SBs consider that they, and/or the culture, religion or society with which they identify are victims of some more powerful culture, and that they are acting in self (or culture) defense. SBs do not consider that they are acting offensively, in order to convince others of the merits of their beliefs. Realistic or not, they’re behaving from a paranoid mindset.
2.10 SBs are “true believers,” in the sense of Eric Hoffer, who believe that they as individuals are of little or no value, except as members of some larger entity (religion, god, some political ideology).
2.11 SBs are usually single, but they are also off-spring of a tightly-knit and patriarch dominated family. They’ve also suffered from some real or perceived loss of some family member or other significant person due to actions ascribed to the target population. Anger and resentment are prominent personality traits.
2.12 The human targets of SB actions are depicted to the SB as some category of people that are subject to and deserving of death, and not entitled to any particular respect or value. “Demonizing” other classes of people is a traditional practice expressed by all human societies when engaged in conflicts; this is not exclusively a Mideast culture practice.
2.13 All reported cases of SBs are people who’ve been the subject or target of intense and specific conditioning (or training or indoctrination) by very influential and powerful leaders. These same leaders do not usually put themselves in line first to be SBs.
2.14 SBs are individual instances of a broader cultural conflict, they are not instances of individuals behaving to redress perceived slights or insults to them as individuals.
2.15 SBs have been isolated from interaction with members of the target population. They may live with them for a time, but they do not interact and share with that target population their values and beliefs and they have not worked cooperatively with them for any prolonged period of time. To do so, threatens the premises upon which they are willing to kill themselves and the target population.