Lessons from a would-be suicide bomber on how to defeat terrorism

Only with a three-pronged long-term approach of education, economic growth and security action can terrorism be defeated. EPA/Mohammed Elryani

A picture given to me for my 40th birthday hangs in my home study. It is a lovely still-life of a fruit bowl masterfully drawn in coloured pencil. Amarah (not her real name), a 19-year-old intern, drew it for me during the time I worked for the United Nations in Islamabad.

Amarah had had a tough life until then. She was not well-off and struggled to stay at university. She was an only child brought up by a single parent. What was more difficult was that she was brought up by a single father. In her culture this made for a very bleak future for a young woman.

Amarah was volunteering with the massive two-and-a-half-year-long relief and reconstruction campaign following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Over the time we worked together, our conversations covered many subjects, from religion (she, a devout Muslim, and I, an avowed atheist) to politics (Pakistan was still a dictatorship), to life in general.

By the time I turned 40 we had become close friends – perhaps too close for our age, religious and cultural differences – hence why the picture has such meaning. I liked her and hoped that she would have a good life.

“What will you do after you graduate?” I once asked her.

“I want to be a suicide bomber,” she said in a matter-of-fact way.

“How would you feel if I died in your attack?” I asked.

“I would be upset,” she said, “not because you would die, but because as a non-believer you would go to hell. I like you and would miss you in paradise. I would like to see you for eternity but can’t. That makes me sad.”

In a strange way it was a lovely thing to say – how much she would want to spend eternity with me even though she would have taken me from “this life” on earth.

Suicide bombing is evil, as is terrorism. There is no justification for it and it must be defeated. But how? Many people like to say that terrorists are insane. They would read the above story and think Amarah was mad and perhaps I was nuts to listen to her.

There is another view, however. To defeat terror we must understand it. Listening to Amarah’s thinking process and justification is critical to finding a path to achieve this.

Theological foundations

Most Muslims, Jews and Christians believe in the same Abrahamic God. Gaining access to God’s afterlife is the key reward for following the codes of conduct set out by their religious traditions.

The Qur’an, Torah and New Testament give Muslims, Jews and Christians guidance on how to reach eternity with their common God through righteousness and piety.

However, all three texts also have episodes of violence and butchery between their pages which, when taken out of context or manipulated by evil, have been used to motivate and encourage acts of violence.

So are the perpetrators of this evil “crazy”? And how do we defeat them?

Imagine if your life was pretty bleak and you had to have 60 years of miserable existence before gaining entrance to heaven. Imagine, then, if someone showed you a shortcut to escape this difficult life and gain access to heaven early.

Would following the shortcut be crazy? Or would it be logical?

If you were told that dying while trying to rescue a drowning child at sea would gain you access to heaven, would a believer attempt it? Such altruism surely would be rewarded? What about trying to kill an infidel who is intent on corrupting the “lifestyle” that God wants humanity to follow?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this thought process “altruistic evil” because of the flawed belief that such evil is what “God wants”.

Today, nearly a decade on, Amarah no longer wants to explode. Instead she works in the Pakistan arm of a major international bank. Creating a career and a sense of hope for Amarah removed the desire to take the shortcut to heaven.

Defeating terror

Amarah’s story provides guidance on how to defeat terror in three ways.

Long-term education support programs for susceptible communities, foreign and domestic, need to be followed.

A ruthless crackdown on fundamentalist social media recruiting, like with anti-paedophilia programs, must occur.

Organisations, like Islamic State, that provide the logistics and planning for terrorist attacks must be defeated. Strong foreign and domestic security responses by armed and security forces must take place – including judicious use of drones and military action where necessary.

The motivation to shortcut the way to heaven must be tackled. Long-term economic growth in foreign and domestic susceptible communities is key to the long-term defeat of the shortcut’s allure.

We must make life worth living for all. Economic disadvantage – including leaving people to fester in refugee camps – does not help this aim.

Killing innocents as collateral damage is also a powerful motivator. Military action – while often necessary – has consequences and needs to be very carefully balanced.

Only with a long-term approach of education, economic growth and security action can terrorism be defeated.