The green birds that never fly: What motivates today’s suicide terrorists?

Indeed the souls of the martyrs are in the hearts of green birds and they have lanterns hanging underneath the ‘arsh (the throne of Allah). They roam around in Paradise wherever they wish, then they return to their lanterns.”

Hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Masood, on Quran 3:169

On 22nd May 2017 a 22-year-old Manchester United fan walked into the foyer of an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena. He wore Nike trainers, full rim glasses, a baseball cap, a pair of jeans and a Hollister ‘puffa’ jacket. Salman Abedi also worse an explosive belt.

The question as to how this young man — described by friends as a ‘quiet lad’ and  ‘fun guy’ from a ‘well-known family’, who ‘enjoyed a game of cricket’ – could be capable of an act of unspeakable evil is troubling yet necessary.

The motivation of supposedly ‘Western’, educated, middle-class suicide bombers remains contested.  Faisal Shehzad, for example, the would-be Times Square bomber, holds a Masters degree in business and is the son of a senior Pakistani air-force Vice-Marshal. Often it is incorrect to depict these terrorists as the frustrated products of social and economic deprivation. It is simplistic to view the motivation of Jihadists like Shehzad through a binary lens – either motivated by religious fanaticism or by political extremism. In reality, it is politicized religion – a deadly cocktail of the two – that inspires today’s jihadists.  Secular politics alone is not an effective inspiration in today’s Middle East. After the failures of socialism, totalitarianism, pan-Arabism and individual nationalisms, Islamism has returned. It prescribes forms of rule, territorial conquest, religious radicalism and the ‘re-instauration’ of Islamic might. Yet, some very practical political aspirations are being pursued, hand in hand with the supposedly antiquated religious fundamentalism. The idealised shahid or martyr, who according to picturesque scripture roams paradise as ‘green birds’, is the very worst embodiment of this frightening ideological fusion. Inspired by religious motivation and reward, he or she (more often he) seeks to advance political aims through the most violent of means.

Sane Suicide Bombers?

Are suicide bombers ‘clinically’ suicidal? Whilst most studies of suicide bombers are carried out by political scientists and international relations experts, a growing number of psychiatrists and psychologists have explored the motivations and mental state of would-be suicide bombers, although the research is understandably patchy. Whilst terrorist recruiters undoubtedly prey on the mentally vulnerable, significant numbers of suicide terrorists exhibit no signs of mental health issues. Nasra Hassan of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, interviewed 250 Palestinian suicide terrorist recruiters, trainers and would-be suicide bombers and their families. She asserts that suicide bombers seem to be normal: “They all seemed to be normal members of their families. They were polite and serious, and in their communities, they were considered to be model youth.” However, another UN official, Renate Winter, of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, said of ISIS tactics: “We have had reports of children, especially children who are mentally challenged, who have been used as suicide bombers, most probably without them even understanding.” Yusef Yadgani, a pathologist at Kabul Medical University, found three out of every five suicide bombers he examined, had a physical ailment or disability. Whilst these accounts are viable in war-torn areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, homegrown fanatics in the West are less likely to be ‘selected’ by recruiters owing to mental health problems and often are ‘self-made’. The ex-CIA terror expert Jerrold Post argued  2006: “We’d like to believe these are crazed fanatics. Not true. As individuals, this is normal behavior.” This view is supported by  Ellen Townsend of the University of Nottingham in  Suicide Terrorists: Are they suicidal?

The  University of Alabama Criminal Justice Professor Adam Lankford mounts a compelling rebuttal to those who deny the role of psychological weaknesses in would-be terrorists. He writes that it is not in the interests of the individual suicide terrorists, or the groups of which they are a part, to admit to the vulnerable mental states of many terrorists. The notion that ‘ordinary’ people might choose the path of ‘martyrdom’ gives greater credibility to a fanatical group than the image of a psychologically scarred person being coerced into detonating explosives on their person. Lankford argues: “Traumatised parents want to believe that their children were motivated by heroic impulses. And suicidal people commonly deny that they are suicidal and are often able to hide their true feelings from the world.” He continues: “This is especially true of fundamentalist Muslims. Suicide is explicitly condemned in Islam and guarantees an eternity in hell. Martyrs, on the other hand, can go to heaven.” Whilst not accounting for the full extent of terrorists’ motivations, the psychological makeup of a bomber is of vital significance.

Moreover, Jessica Stern of Harvard believes that suicide terrorists are normally driven by a sense of humiliation and injustice. In line with this theory, several of the 9/11 hijackers and Mohammed Emwazzi, the infamous ‘Jihadi John’ were known to feel degraded – Emwazi remarked that “I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But now I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned and controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace & my country, Kuwait.” Many suicide bombers act out of a sense of bereavement and a desire for revenge. Anne Speckhard observed that of the female suicide bombers she studied in Chechnya, a significant majority were widows or bereaved siblings.

Religion + Politics

Mohamed Abu Tayun, a 17 year old Palestinian who entered Israel with a bag full of explosives but suffered doubts and later returned home, when interviewed from an Israeli prison, confidently explained: “martyrdom leads us to God, I want to become a martyr, I don’t want this life, I want to be with God …  I want to go to paradise where there is happiness and joy, where there are no problems.” He continues “Our lives are worthless, we are hollow bodies leading a pointless life”. Tayun’s testimony includes a chilling account of what would-best be described as grooming. Older men inspired Tayun, cultivated a deep and bitter hatred within him and, as is often the case in suicide terrorism, convinced him that his actions were righteous and noble. Though he, at the time,  decided against his attack in case he killed children or “Jews who wanted peace,” his reversal is expressed through absolutist religious terms. He recalled: “ I can’t kill myself, it’s God who does everything, he said: ‘go home, go home”. That from his cell he saw fit to reiterate his commitment to martyrdom, is testament to the immense power of the brainwashing that occurs in print, online, in schools and at home in parts of the Arab world.

What nearly all suicide bombers of both the secular and religious variety share, is the belief that they are not doing evil but rather that they are dying for a courageous and correct purpose. Lord Sacks describes this as ‘altruistic evil’; indeed some of those who commit willful acts of pure vengeance see themselves as liberators. In 2001, Bin Laden claimed, in relation to the 9/11 attacks: ‘Our nation has been tasting this contempt and humiliation for over 80 years’. In his 2009 book Dying for Heaven, Georgetown University religion Professor Ariel Glucklich highlights the way in which would-be ‘martyrs’ feel a sense of  attachment to their religious community. He believes “There are dozens of reasons for killing, but violent martyrdom is first and foremost about belonging. Strong emotional ties and strong feelings of mutual obligation often hold religious societies together.” Indeed in the Bin Laden tapes, the Al Qaeda leader stated: “We fight because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation. Just as you lay waste to our nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.” The notion of the collective Ummah or Muslim nation has long been stressed by Jihadi recruiters, as has the idea that the Ummah is under attack from Western intervention.

The often-cited religious motivation of suicide bombers is not absolute. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, studied every suicide attack in the world since 1980, evaluating over 4,600 attacks. Until 2003 it was the secular  Marxist fiercely nationalist Tamil Tigers that led the world in this regard.

His research details that: “What 95 percent of all suicide attacks have in common, since 1980, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention, often specifically a military occupation of territory, that the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon and the West Bank in the 80s and 90s, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and up through the Paris suicide attacks we’ve just experienced in the last days, military intervention—and specifically when the military intervention is occupying territory—that’s what prompts suicide terrorism more than anything else.” Pape accepts that religion can often motivate and inspire would-be attackers and that religion can help override instincts of ‘self-preservation’. However, whilst carried out under the banner – or black flag-  of radical religion, suicide terrorism – whether by Hamas, the PLO, Boko Haram or ISIL – serves as part of a rational political strategy.

The idealized martyr

In the Palestinian territories, Dalal Mughrabi is a very famous woman. The monuments in her honour include a public square, a computer center, a football tournament and a summer camp, all named after her. She is most famous for her role in the 1978 Coastal Road massacre, in whichthe hijackingg of a bus killed 38 civilians including 13 children. As recently as May 2017, the Palestinian Authority named a women’s centre in the town of Burqa to remember Mughrabi. The idealisation of ‘martyrs’ like her is widespread and deliberate. By projecting a pure and righteous image of terrorists, organisations recruit new volunteers with the dual attractions of fame as well as paradise in the afterlife. In the past few years, IS has cultivated this culture of death more effectively than any other organisation. The schools, mosques, nurseries and children’s clubs it administered all taught that there was no person more worthy of reverence than the shahid or martyr. Mohammad Hafez of the University of Missouri, spoke of  the pull of “cultures of martyrdom” as a major factor in inspiring suicide operations. Secular groups such as the  Liberation Tigers of Tamil and Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), celebrate the anniversary of their first suicide bombers every year. Similarly, in a clearing in a Sri Lankan jungle, there once stood the Kantharuban Arivuchcholai orphanage. It contained a tiny museum of sorts, inside which was a picture of Kantharuban himself, who blew himself up in 1991. There was also the image of  ‘Captain Miller’, whose self-detonation in 1987 launched not only the unit known as the ‘Black tigers’ – all of whom were specifically trained  suicide bombers – but also the culture that celebrated them. Though it has since been destroyed, a golden statue of Miller was built at Nelliady Madhya Maha Vidyalayam. The eulogising and glorification of supposed martyrs is not a new phenomenon, nor one created by IS.

The grotesquely spectacular

“Successful terrorists are dramatists, they have an eye for the harrowing and the horrific and select the  arenas that offer maximum exposure.”

Terrorism is a military strategy borne out of desperation. A terrorist group is usually dwarfed by the nation it seeks to terrorise. Suicide bombings and terrorist attacks inflict little material damage on a nation’s infrastructure, they kill and maim fewer civilians than conventional warfare. However, successful terrorists warp the imagination of their enemies in order to inflate and aggrandize their actions. The scarring is, in large part, psychological. This battle is fought on a communicative battlefield, the ultimate aim being widespread alarmism and a panic enormous enough to inspire political change. Successful terrorists are dramatists, they have an eye for the harrowing and the horrific and select the  arenas that offer maximum exposure.  The image of the debris-ridden Grand Hotel, Brighton following the 1984 IRA attack or of Coptic Christians clothed in orange jumpsuits being executed by Da’esh by the shoreside, both infected British public opinion with a sense of insecurity disproportionate to the threat posed by those groups. Yuval Noah Harari aptly observed: “Terrorists don’t think like army generals; they think like theatre producers.”  He cites the 9/11 attacks as examples of the iconic insurgency fought by the jihadists of the 21st century. Harari argues that the attack on the Pentagon was of far greater military benefit to Al Qaeda than the deaths of hundreds financial workers in the twin towers. Yet what Al Qaeda cherished more were the unforgettable events in New York –  9/11  is remembered not for the deaths of military strategists in Washington but for the spectacle that was the fall of the World Trade Centre. The loss of the totemic glistening glass towers, reflected the Jihadist belief in the fall of the West.

* * *

Less than two weeks after Salman Abedi walked into the Manchester Area, Ariana Grande returned to the city. In front of a crowd 50,00 strong, she and 26 students from the Parrs Wood High School Choir sung the words “what we got is worth fighting for.” IS’s desire to infect the ‘West’ with a paralysing terror has, so far, failed. The terrorists believe, with unfounded certainty that what they believe in is worth fighting for too. During an Al Qaeda video, Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ‘lead bomber’ in the 7/7 attacks, with an unnerving calm, uttered – in his thick Leeds accent – the words ‘we love death as you love life’. Acts of suicide terrorism possess a uniquely harrowing quality. Suicide bombers demonstrate their absolute commitment to their cause, the damage they are willing to do themselves heightens the terror they spread as it demonstrates how much they wish to maim others.

The motivations of such people are undoubtedly mixed; whilst some suicide attacks are carried out by secular groups, the majority of today’s bombers – at least in the language in which they express their motivation – transmit their message through religious terminology. Nearly all have a desire for territorial ‘liberation’ and significant numbers are psychologically scarred. However, the populist notion that it is the Islamic religion which is the sole motivator and instigator of suicide terrorism is incorrect. Lord Sacks points out that it was Machiavelli and  not Mohammed who said that it is better to be feared than to be loved. In a similar vein, Islam did not invent this most abominable of tactics. In  1945 The Times of London, described a Japanese kamikaze plane as a “suicide-bomb”, in the 11th century, suicide squads were organised by the Indian Chera leaders and in the early 20th century  the Chinese pioneered ‘Dare to Die Corps’. The reason recent decades have seen more widespread usage of terrorism as a strategy is due to the exceptional power of instantaneous communication technology. Indeed, it is only in the last decade that one person has had the ability to share a message, image or video with billions. Sony Electronics and Nielsen research found in 2012 that 9/11 was the most watched news event in American history,  – the horror and genius of the fall of the world’s tallest buildings was that millions watched them collapse in real time. Terrorism is thus not so much a military strategy, rather a psychological one.

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Joel Rosen is a full time student.
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