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”.
Suicide bombing, rarely the strategy of first choice, is selected by terrorist organisations after collective assessments, based on observations and experience, of relative effectiveness of different strategies to achieve their political goals.
The decision to participate in a suicide bombing is facilitated by the bomber’s internalised social identities, their exposure to asymmetric conflict and its costs, their exposure to the organisations that sponsor such attacks as well as membership in a larger community where sacrifice and martyrdom carry high symbolic significance.
In Sri Lanka, the Black Tigers wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attached importance to how the community would view their actions.
They were glorified in their burial rituals, and an eternal lamp adorned the tombstone of every Black Tiger grave to commemorate the sacrifice.
From sociological and economic perspectives suicide bombings can be linked to altruism as a form of intergenerational investment or an extreme form of saving in which the agent gives up current consumption for the sake of enhancing the probability of their descendants enjoying the benefit of the future public good.
Analysis of Hezbollah suicide bombers shows that incidents of suicide bombing attacks increase with current income and with the degree of altruism towards the next generation.
Hezbollah suicide bombers come from above-average wealthy families, and have an above average level of education. The willingness of more educated people to engage in suicide missions suggests that education affects deeply one’s view of the world, enhancing sensitivity to the future.
Altruism is also not antithetical to aggression. In war soldiers perform altruistic actions by risking their lives for their comrades and country and also killing the enemy.
The actions of kamikaze pilots in World War II are examples of military sacrifice.
Altruism can also be socially constructed in communities which have endured massive social and economic dislocations as a result of long, violent and painful conflict with a more powerful enemy.
Under such conditions people react to perceived inferiority and the failure of other efforts by valuing and supporting ideals of self-sacrifice such as suicide bombing.
Religiously and nationalistically coded attitudes towards acceptance of death stemming from long periods of collective suffering, humiliation and powerlessness enable political organisations to give people suicide bombing as an outlet for their feelings of desperation, deprivation, hostility and injustice.
Suicide bombings invariably provoke a brutal response from the state authorities, because by injecting fear and mayhem into the ordinary rhythms of daily life, they threaten and undermine the state’s authority in providing security of life and property and in maintaining social order.
Under such conditions the state can legitimately impose altruistic punishments to deter future violation threatening security and social order These include punishments meted out to the perpetrators and their supporters. The state-sanctioned military actions against the Palestinians, Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan are examples of these punishments.
But altruistic punishments are only effective when they do not violate the norms of fairness. Punishments and sanctions seen as unfair, hostile, selfish and vindictive by targeted groups tend to have detrimental effects and instead of promoting compliance they reinforce recipients’ resolve to non-compliance.
Counter-insurgency operations are aimed at increasing the cost of insurgency to the insurgents. They invariably involve eliminating leaders and supporters who plan suicide bombings and destroying insurgents’ capabilities for mounting future attacks, restrictions on mobility, security checks and other violations of civil liberties.
But there is mounting evidence that such harsh measures reinforce radical opposition and even intensify it. This is now happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. It has also been the case in Sri Lanka and Iraq and other conflict sites.