Surprising New Study On The Motives Of A Suicide Terrorist
The most selfish individuals in the collectivist societies within which suicide terrorists are cultivated are their leaders. I have not yet heard of a leader in the Palestinian Authority offering up his or her son or daughter on the altar of martyrdom. So how do they get other peoples’ kids to take up the knife, the explosive belt or get behind the wheel to kill themselves for the “greater good”? And how do they get other kids’ parents to ululate and hand out candies instead of weep in pain?
Academic journals publish studies seeking to understand what makes someone set out from home one day with the purpose of wiping himself or herself off the face of earth, taking along as many of the Zionist enemy as possible. First I will summarize the extant approaches for studying the phenomenon and then I will present the results of a new and fascinating piece of research.
Quick Summary of Theories Explaining Suicide Terrorism
- Individual explanations:
- depression or other psychopathology — suicide attacks may seem to be a good way to kill oneself without shaming the family, without doing something against religious edicts, and, in fact, bringing the honour and pride that accompanies shaheedism (martyrdom);
- unemployment, lack of hope for a decent future — with nothing to live for, the individual may be more susceptible to radicalization and willing to take his/her own life as revenge for injustices committed by the hated oppressor;
- personal revenge for experiencing oppression and/or witnessing the killing and maiming of friends or family members.
- Societal explanations:
- in the collectivist Arab culture, the individual is seen as less important than the group; suicide attacks are then seen by the terrorist as being an altruistic act on behalf of the greater good;
- Islam causes terrorism because of the call for jihad against infidels, strengthened and promoted by incitement in the mosques.
According to Momayezi & Momayezi (2017), Islam is not the cause, but a tool skillfully fashioned and wielded in order to accomplish political goals, in the case of the Palestinian Authority, to get rid of the oppressive Israeli yoke.
It appears that there is no singular psychological profile of the suicide terrorist. In fact, there appears to be a debate between those identifying psychological issues and those claiming socio-cultural motivations behind killing oneself in order to kill others. This debate found its way, in 2012, onto the pages of the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, whereby Ariel Merari, a Jewish Israeli researcher, provided evidence of individual psychopathology in the wanna-be terrorists he studied and the research team, Robert Brym & Bader Araj, a Canadian and a Palestinian Arab, claimed that such psychological studies “obscure the largely political and social roots of suicide bombing” (p 439).
This same dichotomy — individual psychopathology versus societal motivations — characterizes the field to this day. It is not clear how much biases on the part of the researchers interfere with the supposed purity of their studies.
Methodology is also problematic: Any interviews of failed suicide terrorists (those who may or may not have killed or injured Israelis but did not manage to get killed themselves in the process) are not going to cooperate with attempts to uncover psychopathology. Similarly, interviewing surviving friends and family is not going to produce useful results. When there is a vested interest in portraying the suicide terrorist as a hero, nobody is going to say that they, or anyone they knew, were depressed or troubled . . . they must uphold the position that: “I/he/she did it for the Ummah”.
Trying to assemble sufficient data from news reports has similarly been unable to shed light on the mindsets of the terrorists before they set out on their suicide missions.
New Study of the Suicide Terrorist
Neuroscientist and clinical psychologist, Shuki Cohen, originally from Israel and currently at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has had a long-time interest in examining the unconscious motives and interactional patterns demonstrated by certain groups of people, whether these are psychotherapists, psychotherapy patients or terrorists. In an innovational paper published about a year ago, he has opened up a new way to examine the motivations behind the Palestinian Arab suicide terrorist, motivations that may be beyond their own cognitive awareness.
Cohen suggests that farewell letters prepared by the suicide terrorist before embarking on the deed would provide the best raw material for understanding what was going on in their minds. Palestinian Arab society is highly invested in these final words and they are published on social media, posters venerating the martyr and in the official biographies put out by the authorities. The authenticity of the letters were verified by examining the writing style, local dialects and idiosyncratic typing errors; in addition, they usually contained instructions to family members with details too intimate for others to have been able to dictate to the terrorist. Were they fake, family members would likely recognize that they were not the production of their kin, especially in cases where the suicide terrorist acted for Hamas when the family is not aligned to Hamas. In fact, Cohen found that for 80% of the farewell letters in his sample, the motivations for the act expressed by the terrorists were different from the motivations claimed by Hamas in their military bulletins.
Cohen was able to gather, from online sites, 211 farewell letters that satisfied his inclusion criteria. How he selected the letters and the details of his analysis are beyond the scope of this brief report; suffice it to say here, that the analysis was a computer-based content analysis that took into consideration frequency of word use and the context in which the words were used. If you want to know more, please refer to his original article, the link repeated here.
The most interesting finding of his research was that farewell letters were essentially farewell letters to their parents and they showed a preoccupation with Paradise and with parents, especially mothers. Cohen relates that, according to Islam, honouring parents and tending to their needs overrides the commandment to jihad. If the child did not share his or her intentions to commit terrorism (out of fear of what Israel will do to the parents as accessories) and the parents are unhappy with their child’s actions, then that child may be denied the right to enter Paradise.
I wonder if that puts the handing out of candies after a terror attack into a slightly different light. Whereas I interpreted the candies and ululating as joy that their child-martyr killed as many Jews as possible, perhaps it has more to say about the parents’ obligation to their child to help him or her get to Paradise.
There was little evidence of revenge motives in the farewell letters. Rather, Cohen writes that the results of his study suggest that the suicide terrorists’
understanding of Islam [was] as an interpersonal relationship to Allah, including the wish to be closer to him, the Prophets and the Righteous that surround him, and leveraging this proximity to intercede on behalf of other family members.
Therefore, perhaps what we have here is cynical abuse, by leaders, of altruistic and pro-social individuals who want to do the right thing for their families. Knowing that their society places a high value on suicide terrorism (the martyr is a hero, the martyr’s family receives a lifelong stipend), perhaps the enmeshed offspring sees this act as rewarding the parent for having raised him or her and perhaps the emotionally neglected offspring sees this as a way to have value in the eyes of the unseeing undervaluing parent. The constant incitement we see in the Palestinian Authority may be the way by which leaders counteract the Islamic injunction to put one’s parents’ needs above jihad.
Cohen suggests that the suicide terrorist may experience conflict between these two commands: taking care of parents versus jihad. He proposes that counter-terror strategies that target messages broadcast by the leaders may be missing the mark if the concerns of the suicide terrorists themselves are quite different. While Israel must fight the incitement and rewards for terrorism, at the same time,
insights from this study are consistent with counterradicalization interventions that (re-)integrate jihadists into a social context that purports to fulfill their pro-social motives and values using non-violent tactics.
I think, however, that this depends upon Israel (or other actors interested in this goal) having access and influence in the relevant sectors of the population of the Palestinian Authority. Given the recent video of adults apparently approving the kids playing a game of shooting Israeli soldiers with toy guns, we might wonder how much children will continue to have to worry about whether or not their parents approve of them becoming suicide terrorists.
Disappointing and upsetting. As long as Palestinian kids are taught to hate Israel early on, peace remains elusive.https://t.co/ctInnyDYZO
— Transatlantic Inst. (@AJCTAI) August 14, 2017
At the same time, I found this study fascinating and I look forward to others replicating it to either support or refute its findings.