On 7 July 2005 Britain experienced its first ever suicide attack. Four bombs exploded in central London, killing 52 people and injuring over 700. When Scotland Yard launched one of the biggest investigations in its history, another first was quickly uncovered: the suicide bombers were home-grown, they were young British men, attacking their own country.
A handful of scientists have dedicated their lives to understanding the mind of the suicide bomber. It's a field that has grown rapidly in recent years as suicide attacks have become the weapon of choice for extremist groups around the world. These scientists are challenging our preconceptions about who these suicide bombers are.
Much of the early research was conducted by Ariel Merari from Tel Aviv University. He interviewed the friends and family of suicide bombers, as well as those who were stopped before their bombs went off. Merari tried to piece together a personality type capable of such acts. The unsettling finding that emerged was that suicide bombers weren't mad, weren't psychopaths, in fact they did not have any psychological flaws that set them apart.
'More royal than the king'
After the 9/11 attacks on America in 2001, ex-CIA case officer and forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman decided to look beyond the individual. He wanted to know exactly how the 9/11 cell had formed. Looking for patterns in their behaviour, he noticed that the leaders of the cell all joined al-Qaeda while they were living abroad. As he extended his research, he realised this was true for 75% of all al-Qaeda members. It seemed that living abroad was significant. Sageman believed that their isolation from cultural origins meant they had developed an ex-pat mentality and become 'more royal than the king'.
As his database grew, he found that another sub-group had been cut off from their cultural origins. Second or third generation immigrants formed 10% of al-Qaeda members. This led Sageman to conclude that 85% of all al-Qaeda members had experienced some form of cultural estrangement.
Sageman seemed to have discovered a fertile ground for creating suicide bombers. But this still does not explain why some people are willing to kill themselves and others in the process. According to psychologists, the answer lies in a force that can be more powerful than an individual's personality or upbringing. That force is group dynamics, one of the strongest motivational factors in human psychology.
Conforming to the group
When humans are in a group, they conform to the group, they become more and more like each other. Bonds within a close-knit group can grow surprisingly strong – strong enough that they match, or even trump biological family ties. Throughout history, organisations such as the military have harnessed this power of the group to motivate individuals.
It's no surprise that virtually all suicide attacks in modern times have relied on group psychology. From the squadrons of Kamikaze pilots in Japan to the highly trained suicide units of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
But new evidence from Marc Sageman shows that extremist cells can form spontaneously, without any connections to established organisations. His analysis of al-Qaeda has shown that most people who join the organisation join when they are already radicalised, and crucially this radicalisation process has happened among a group of friends. He calls it his 'bunch of guys' theory.
The 'bunch of guys' theory is a vital breakthrough in understanding the mind of suicide bombers. The willingness to carry out attacks very often pre-dates any contact with an organisation. There is no need for a mastermind figure. Recognising the importance of this and of these group dynamics, it is hoped, will help spot future cells before it is too late and, ultimately, prevent further attacks.
Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and Its Consequences by Andrew Silke
Understanding Terror Networks by Marc Sageman
Back to top
Back to the Horizon homepage