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Inside the mind of a suicide bomber

University of Nottingham

Suicide bombers are not mentally ill or unhinged, but acting rationally in pursuit of the 'benefits' they perceive from being part of a strict and close-knit religious enterprise, according to a University of Nottingham academic.

Research by Dr David Stevens, of the School of Politics and International Relations, suggests that the widely-held view of suicide bombers as brain-washed religious fanatics, vulnerable through youth and poverty, is not an accurate one.

Dr Stevens argues that while religion plays a central role -- there are few instances of non-religiously motivated suicide attacks -- the suicide bomber is also driven on another level by a rational thought process. This is the desire to be part of a group that engenders strength and solidarity from strictness, and encourages members to submit totally to the collective aims of the group.

Being part of an exclusive group with very strict beliefs requires intense commitment, and engenders a deep belief in shared experience and self-sacrifice, according to a recent paper by Dr Stevens.

Suicide bombers are thus motivated by a "simple cost-benefit analysis", in which the 'benefits' of self-destruction outweigh the cost. The benefits are perceived by the terrorist to be so great -- in terms of membership of the group, achievement of collective goals, the promise of benefits in the after-life, and so on -- that they outweigh the cost.

In this way there is a 'marriage' of violence and religion, via the suicide bomber's participation in the group, Dr Stevens suggests.

"Seen in this light, suicide bombing is explicable in terms of rationally motivated actions, and not in terms of theological and/or irrational motives," he said. "To gain the collective benefits of participation in a strict group requires self-sacrifice, often of extreme levels.

"Suicide bombing is just an extension of this self-sacrifice -- the ultimate extension. The benefits are perceived to be so great as to justify the action. Fortunately this is so only in extreme instances, under certain circumstances.

"But then suicide bombing is in actual fact very rare. Rare, that is, when it is remembered that extreme religious groups make up only a tiny fraction of religious groups as a whole, and 99.99 per cent of those groups are in fact peaceable.

"Statistically, then, finding one or two people willing to make such a sacrifice is incredibly rare. However, given the nature of suicide bombing, it only takes one or two."

The attractions of intense solidarity don't only apply to fringe Islamic sects, but also to other extreme religious groups, Dr Stevens said. Many members of other such groups -- from the Moonies to the Branch Davidians -- explain their decisions to join, and as importantly to leave, in terms of the costs and benefits of participation rather than in the context of a 'brainwashing' process.

Dr Stevens also argues that contrary to popular opinion, poverty, isolation and lack of education are not typical features of the bomber profile. Mohammad Sidique Khan, for example, who blew himself up in London on July 7, 2005, murdering six people in the process, was a 30-year-old with a young family of his own and a job working in primary schools with special needs children.

Likewise it is a common misconception that suicide bombers are mentally ill or irrational, Dr Stevens argues -- because it would make them a liability to the terrorist groups with which they were involved.

He said: "From purely an organisational point of view, working with deranged individuals is extremely hazardous. Terror organisations go to extreme lengths to keep their activities and set-up secret. The costs of discovery are immense for all involved.

"Under such circumstances, who would want to work with someone completely unpredictable -- a maverick, a loose cannon -- someone likely to give the game away at any stage through an act of sheer madness" Even terrorists don't want to work with those with a death-wish -- you achieve very little that way."


Dr Stevens, and Dr Kieron O'Hara, of the University of Southampton, are the authors of Power, Poverty and the Digital Divide, published by Oneworld.

The University of Nottingham is Britain's University of the Year (The Times Higher Awards 2006). It undertakes world-changing research, provides innovative teaching and a student experience of the highest quality. Ranked by Newsweek in the world's Top 75 universities, its academics have won two Nobel Prizes since 2003. The University is an international institution with campuses in the United Kingdom, Malaysia and China.

More information is available from Dr David Stevens, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 4529,; or Media Relations Manager Tim Utton in the University's Media and Public Relations Office on +44 (0)115 846 8092,

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