Wednesday, February 1

The Role of Social Context in Terrorist Attacks

The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated February 3, 2006
The Role of Social Context in Terrorist Attacks


Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's question two years ago seemed reasonable enough: "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?"

It's a popular notion: Charismatic religious leaders and their ideologies inculcate violent convictions among their constituents, and desperate or zealous individuals act on those convictions. By this logic, terror is bound to religious extremism.

But a growing body of scholarship on suicide bombing suggests that it doesn't work that way. These authors, primarily drawn from political science and social psychology, concur that suicide bombings — with or without the trappings of religion — are largely a response to occupation, or, since September 11, 2001, to perceptions of general political oppression in the Muslim world. Consider, for instance, that approximately half of the suicide missions in the three decades before 2003 were carried out by secular rather than religious organizations. Consider also that 95 percent of the bombings during that period occurred as part of coherent resistance campaigns and enjoyed significant levels of home-base support. If exalted motivations for self-sacrifice are involved, invoking religious beliefs is not the only way to induce or exploit them.

Scholars analyzing earlier suicide attacks, those before 2001, struggled with different hypotheses — that bombers and their masterminds were irrational, if not crazy, or had given up on life because of desperate life circumstances such as poverty, depression, or social failure. While September 11 led many commentators to propose a causal role for religion, several recent books take issue with all of those explanations.

For instance, in studies of suicide campaigns around the world, suicide attackers overwhelmingly came not from the criminal, illiterate, or poor, but from largely secular and educated middle classes. They possessed no more psychopathology than the population at large, and they were not clinically depressed (a state marked by low motivation and an inability to focus — two handicaps sure to threaten a mission). The perpetrators of suicide attacks, then, were not crazy or emotionally weak; rather than evince suicidal tendencies — as the term "suicide bombers" connotes — they were wholly invested in life, albeit one without what they perceived as present injustice. For this reason, while the notion of "suicide bombers" is now part of our lexicon, it probably contributes to widespread misconceptions of the phenomenon's causes. A more apt description of these terror perpetrators would be "human bombs."

Of the books under discussion here, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, by the political scientist Robert A. Pape, has received the most attention. Pape argues that occupations (loosely defined as military presence) and U.S. support for oppressive authoritarian regimes are the best predictors of where human-bomb campaigns will occur. Pape analyzes 315 attacks, drawn from a database he compiled to include every human-bomb attack around the globe from 1980 to 2003. To show a connection between Islamic fundamentalism and human-bomb campaigns, he says, we would need to find a correlation between violent Salafism, an extremist wing of Muslim thought, and the bombers. Instead, more bombers came from countries with low Salafi populations than those with high Salafi populations. Moreover, not one of the bombers in Pape's database came from an Islamic country designated as a "state sponsor of terrorism"; rather, most came from Muslim regimes considered allies by the United States.

In Pape's view, then, bombers are individuals who aspired to freer opportunities but saw their dreams stymied by dictators, often in collusion with U.S. oil and other interests. The core idea is that motivation for human bombs stems largely from perceived injustice. All these authors agree with that notion, but Diego Gambetta's edited volume of essays, Making Sense of Suicide Missions, uses a variety of methods to produce congruent findings.

For instance, in a review of the backgrounds and writings of Al Qaeda members, Stephen Holmes shows that Osama bin Laden's rationales for September 11 have usually been secular rather than religious, bent on punishing Western injustices, not impieties. In a separate chapter, Luca Ricolfi shows how the trend in the incidence of human bombs in the Middle East correlates almost perfectly with the trend in frequency of all attacks — that is, the impression that human bombs have become a predominant option in the years since September 11 is incorrect. Instead, human bombs are weapons of resistance and terror whose use rises or falls according to situation and sentiment.

If human bombs are rooted in nationalist defiance more than religion, as the authors here argue, we are forced to ask new questions: What is it about both religion and nationalism that drives normal individuals to self-sacrifice? Specifically, how do people acquire the type of radical identities, emotions, and beliefs associated with religion and nationalism? Several books suggest answers to these questions.

Let's return to the popular idea of radical incitement by madrassas and imams. Frederick W. Kagan recently argued in The Weekly Standard that Sunni Arab imams and people like Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, gained power by "their ability to focus anger and hatred. They spewed anti-Americanism, of course, and thereby drove countless young Iraqi men to their deaths in hopeless combat." In this account, elites set the political agenda, and desperate publics swallow it wholesale.

But that thesis — at least the part implying a very gullible public — finds little support in studies of terrorism and ethnic conflict. Why that is the case is aptly illustrated in Marc Sageman's Understanding Terror Networks. Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former intelligence officer, analyzed biographies of 172 terrorists, all members of the global Salafi jihad. He found that "discipleship," where an authority figure such as an imam or teacher holds enough loyalty and emotional sway to prescribe in followers both belief and action, accounted for only 8 percent of his sample. Furthermore, the entire 8 percent came from two Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia and Malaysia. To better distill what is happening in this process, Sageman has since worked with the anthropologist Scott Atran to document the life paths of almost 600 alumni from those two boarding schools. Less than 10 percent of those graduates actively engaged in jihad.

If the story of discipleship cannot explain terror mobilization, what can? Sageman's analysis gives some clues: Of the 150 jihadi terrorists for which there was recruitment information, 75 percent had pre-existing social bonds to members already involved in global jihad or had decided to join the jihad with a group of family members or friends. That trend also appeared in Sageman's recent study of boarding-school alumni: Of those who have embraced terror, most entered the jihadi network through friends or family connections.

The important point here is that interpersonal relationships were at the center of these individuals' radicalization, not psychopathologies, discipleship, or prior ideological beliefs. That suggests a profoundly different mechanism for how people develop radical beliefs: Emotion and social ties precede the acquisition of an ideology. Choosing terror, then, might seem more a product of chance — the type and intensity of grievances one lives with, the means available for dealing with such stressors, plus the network one falls into — than anything else. Furthermore, and with huge implications for notions of deterrence and how we fight terror, joining the jihad is a social and emotional process that happens over time.

Some will wonder how beliefs that begin as the product of seemingly mundane interpersonal connections can lead people to kill and die. Additional data from Understanding Terror Networks suggest that it may come down to context. Of 165 mujahedin for whom he had information, Sageman found that a full 84 percent joined the jihad as "immigrants" — either in a country where they had not grown up, or as members of the second generation of diaspora Muslims born in the West. The would-be recruits suffered various forms of alienation in their Western surroundings, and new social networks most likely offered emotional relief. While incoming members may have disagreed at first with the radical views of their new associates, over time their worldviews came together.

For those who talk to terrorists, that is a plausible story. When I was a journalist in the West Bank and Gaza in 2003 and 2004, Palestinians often told me, "Before the istish'hadi [intentional martyrsi.e., human bombs], there were shuhada [unintentional martyrsi.e., innocents killed by the other side]. We didn't start this. We were already at war." A conflict, where the stakes are already life or death, becomes emotionally salient to a new member and provides impetus for action.

Another hypothesis offered by Holmes in Making Sense of Suicide Missions is that religious practices, as opposed to beliefs, help sustain a bomber's convictions once he or she has committed to a mission. By crowding out cognitive functions, certain ritualistic activities and preparations — such as those depicted in the training manual for the September 11 bombers — serve as physiological and psychological sedatives. Performed in a group, they reify emotional loyalties and serve as a check against faltering in the mission's last moments. (Of the attacks done by Al Qaeda in Pape's sample, for instance, 89 percent were done in teams.)

Importantly, according to neuroscientific studies, ritual effects do not require religion — any social ritual, where people are brought together in repetitive acts imbued with meaning, will do. That point may help us to understand the mass radicalization of beliefs often observed in situations of emerging violence, where liturgies of loss become the order of the day. Anne Marie Oliver and Paul F. Steinberg's ethnographic depiction of life in the Gaza Strip throughout the first and second intifada, The Road to Martyrs' Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber, brings such rituals to life for the reader. Noting the radical changes in Israeli-Palestinian relations that occurred before the second intifada in autumn 2000, they write: "Demonstrators were shot every other day ... collaborators were killed, their ... tortured bodies dumped on the street or in front of mosques and the houses of people who publicly spoke out against collaborator killings. ... Blood and wounds of martyrs were commonly displayed and photographed."

As a journalist, I observed plenty of funeral rallies that had a common catalyst: In the night, the Israel Defense Forces entered with tanks and helicopters, attempting to seize a militant or two. (The legitimacy of the mission was irrelevant to what came to pass.) Shaken from sleep, families hid in their homes if they could. If the sounds of violence came close, they often ran terrified through the streets, trying to get away from the army. Inevitably, somebody fell or was shot. He could be a militant; she could be unarmed. Usually friends and family stopped to aid. But bent, black shadows appeared threatening to young soldiers, who had little choice but to shoot again. Daylight rose in a blur of green flags (the signature color of Hamas), the drone of a loudspeaker, and throngs of people circling another mark in the ground. Through the megaphone came ardent words: "The enemy will feel our pain."

And yet even in the throes of violent conflict, motivations cannot be reduced to revenge. Instead, the aroused state of danger among a population in conflict, irrespective of actual risks, may engender a need for control. "I can be killed any moment," one would-be Palestinian bomber told me. "I prefer to choose my death." Another frequently heard bomber logic is quoted by Pape: "If we don't fight, we will suffer. If we do fight, we will suffer, but so will they." That logic seems unconcerned with victory or making a change in the political status quo. Instead, it implies a preoccupation with empowerment.

For the most part, Americans lack exposure to the losses and social rituals prevalent in the conflict zones of the Arab world. In addition to Oliver and Steinberg, Ami Pedahzur (Suicide Terrorism) and Mia Bloom (Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror) succeed in bringing distant lives into the readers' emotional purview. Both authors went through painstaking field research to talk to families of bombers; Bloom even surveyed Sri Lankan communities under the control of the Tamil Tigers. In each book, bombers are depicted through the eyes of their communities.

Strikingly, even those depictions support the conclusions discussed above: While most bombers are said to have hated the enemy, they are remembered for their altruism. If self-sacrifice was viewed as the only way to make the enemy feel their pain, it was offered out of a sense of duty.

In Suicide Bombers: Allah's New Martyrs, Farhad Khosrokhavar offers a superb illustration of that point through an analysis of 15 interviews he conducted with previously nonviolent, second-generation Muslim terrorists in Europe: "They ... feel a vague but crushing sense of guilt about their parents' societies, especially when, like Pakistan, most Arab countries or even Afghanistan are hit by crises. ... [Playing a] role ... in their parents' country of origin ... allows them to recover much of the dignity they have lost in Western societies, where they feel themselves to be the object of scorn and an almost palpable racism." This story, like that of the Palestinian funerals, Sageman's diaspora mujahedin, and even bin Laden's diatribes against Western injustices, is about status and esteem.

Originally writing in 2002, Khosrokhavar presaged the biographies of Germaine Lindsay, Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Mir Hussain, and Mohammad Sidique Khan, the bombers who tore up London's subways, having no connections to terrorist organizations. The same mechanism appears to have been at work for the October 2005 Bali bombers, as well as for the two Britons who attacked Mike's Place in Tel Aviv in April 2003.

Is this independent, transnational terror mobilization a new type of threat? Possibly. According to a recent study by Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation, 81 percent of human bombs since 1968 occurred in the four years after September 11. And, while secular organizations perpetrated approximately half of the human bombs up to 2001, Hoffman says, 31 out of 35 groups perpetrating terror today are jihadi. It is difficult to deny that religious inspiration is at work in the motivation and mobilization of terror today. Still, religious inspiration is not causation: As Sageman's statistics showand interviews by Pedahzur, Bloom, and Khosrokhavar attestalienation and perceived grievance are necessary to galvanize a population; social networks remain the primary mechanism by which mobilization occurs.

Each of these books challenges basic assumptions about what motivates human bombs, giving us clues about how best to respond. Joining the jihad does not appear to be an explicit decision. Rather, beliefs are acquired as part of a social process, and the willingness to fight follows. Rational or not, commitment to jihad is rarely the product of raw calculation. This means that current counterterror strategy is fundamentally flawed, resting as it does upon the notion of deterrence — that the use or threat of force can dissuade militants from taking action. Most militants forge loyalties that are difficult to betray, and many would prefer to fight to the death.

If employed separately from a larger political strategy, attacking terrorists, imams, or madrassas, as Rumsfeld suggested, can only work against us, lending further legitimacy to the terrorist cause. Would-be bombers empathize with what they view as victimized groups and feel responsible to do something in their aid. Once we establish force as the means of response, the universe of constructive possibilities withers.

Nichole Argo served as a freelance journalist for The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004. She is a doctoral student in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 22, Page B15
Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education