9/11: Why suicide bombers blow themselves up

The father of Nael Abu Hlayel, who blew himself up in Israel in 2002, holds up pictures of his son. AAP

Ten years ago, nineteen young Muslims commandeered passenger jets and killed themselves, taking with them 2973 people to the inferno of fire. Since the 9/11 attacks, suicide bombings have become a staple of daily news.

A commonly accepted narrative frames these attacks as a modern phenomenon of self-destruction perpetrated by psychologically impaired, morally deficient, uneducated, improvised individuals and, most of all, religious fanatics.

But the analysis of information based on 1597 suicide attacks between 1981 and 2008 which killed over 21,000 people in 34 countries undermines this common perception that the psychopathology of suicide bombers and their religious beliefs are the principle causes.

The findings published in my book Life as a Weapon present a detailed analysis of suicide bombings as a method of choice among terrorist groups around the world and the motivations.

Surprisingly, altruism emerges as major factor in the complex set of causes behind the suicide attacks.

In its most fundamental character altruism, following the seminal studies of economist Ernest Fehr and his colleagues, can be defined as being costly actions that confer benefits on other individuals.

Altruism is a fundamental condition accounting for human co-operation for organisation of society and its cohesiveness.

In the conceptual map of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, suicide bombings would fall in the category of altruistic suicidal actions.

These are distinct from other types of suicidal actions caused by personal catastrophes and feelings of hopelessness which lead people to believe that life is not worth living.

On the other hand, altruistic suicides involve, believing one’s life is less worthy than the group’s honour, religion, or some other collective interests.

The genesis of suicide bombings is rooted in intractable asymmetrical conflicts over political entitlements, territorial occupation and dispossession between the state and non-state actors.

Invariably such conflicts instigate state sanctioned violence and repressive policies against the weaker non-state party or parties causing widespread outrage and large scale dislocation of people, many of whom become refugees in makeshift camps in or outside the “war zones”.

Carolyn Nordstrom captures the mood in Sri Lanka during the recently ended civil war:

“In the war zones, violence and war permeated all aspect of daily life. It was not certain a person going for work would return in the evening. A home could be suddenly searched, someone brutally killed, a mother raped or father taken away. A shell could land anywhere destroying everything around….This kind of pervasive atmosphere of violence, rather than breaking down the resistance and spirit of population, in times creates resistance and defiance, particular in the youth”. Other contributing factors include incarceration and dehumanising treatments of insurgents in state custody and mutual demonisation of the “other”.

Israeli police clean up after a suicide bombing that killed seven people in Jerusalem on June 19 2002. AAP