The old strategies for explaining suicide bombers range from the idiotic to the inadequate: they hate our freedom, they're just jealous, they hate us for being infidels, they are fascists, they have a perverted ideology, they are Muslims, they are desperate, poor and ignorant, they are anti-globalisation, they are psychophaths, they are brainwashed etc etc. Of these, you can probably surmise which ones are inadequate and which are foolish.
Take religion. One way of conceiving religion as a causal factor is to see it as part of a 'clash of civilisations', pace Huntington and Scheuer, in which most Muslims either support, accept or acquiesce in suicidal attacks on civilian targets on the West (the 'West' is a poorly defined concept, but let's say for now that it includes Europe, the US, Israel, Australia and some non-Western capitalist powers). This has, I have noted, involved some rather ludicrous distortions of evidence as well as grand extrapolations from limited bases of data. As far as we know, while most Saudi citizens agree with the pre-eminent political goal of Al Qaeda, and while most Palestinians appear to support suicide attacks on Israel, there isn't a great deal of support among Muslims for Al Qaeda or any of its confederates. A tiny fraction of Muslims have actually been involved in terrorism of any kind, and a much smaller number have been involved in suicide attacks. This is ABC stuff, and it leads us directly to the next conception: the Bush-Blair explanation.
Aside from the dim-witteries about hating freedom and "killing people for the sake of it" (as Tony Blair incredibly explained last week), the usual strategy is to say that these people are a benighted, hate-filled minority putting their own malign twist on Islam. If this misses the destructive pre-potency of religion itself, it also manages to omit from analysis the largest bulk of suicide missions that have taken place across the world over the last twenty-five years. Of 535 missions that took place between 1980 and 2003, 191 were carried out in Sri Lanka by secular Marxist groups. Further, of the 224 that took place in Israel, Lebanon and Palestine, a substantial number were carried out by non-religious political groups. Similarly, a number were carried out by the Marxist PKK in Turkey. (Sidenote: about twenty of the 535 attacks took place in Iraq in 2003 alone). The first suicide attacks to take place in Israel were a small number carried out by al-Fatah and the PFLP-GC. The latest wave of suicide bombings in Israel began a few months after the failure of Camp David, launched by the secular Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade, and off-shoot of Fatah. The religion of the Tamil minority is Hinduism, which does involve a notion of reincarnation, but it is rejected by the Black Tigers, the elite outfit within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In fact, while the idiom used by the LTTE is Marxist, and the iconography Guevarist, the most striking emphasis of the group is on nationalism. The history establishes fairly conclusively that religion is not a necessary factor in the incidence of suicide bombings.
Similarly, the beginning of the very large spate of suicide attacks that began in the 1980s, and which preceded use of the tactic by the LTTE, was initiated by the Lebanese opposition to Israel: this included Hizbollah, but also the secular Baath-Leb, LCP and SSNP. It was a series of extraordinarily efficacious attacks by these groups on US marines, French peacekeepers and Israeli army outposts that secured the withdrawal of those marines and the retreat of the Israeli army to a small strip of land in Southern Lebanon in 1985, which they finally abandoned after severe military pressure in 2000. But here again, although the strategies of justification were often religious, the attacks wound down shortly after Israel's evacuation of the central zone of Lebanon. It appears to have been less the enabling fixtures of religion that inspired those suicide attacks than their efficiency at killing, (and thus evacuating an occupying force). Robert Pape notes that while suicide attacks amounted to only 3% of terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2001, they accounted for 48% of total casualties from terrorism.
From what we know about the attacks on 9/11, we are entitled to infer that while religious commitments provided some of the context for the motivation, and also facilitated the missions by reducing cognitive dissonance, suppressing the fear of death and so on, the main causes lay elsewhere. For instance, Mohammed Atta, having grown up in a middle class family in Egypt, does not appear to have been an especially devout Muslim until he moved to Germany to continue his studies as a city-planner. He seems to have experienced some culture-shock: from being an educated person of some status to being an ignored or scorned outsider; from being surrounded by a relatively puritan environment to a liberal anything-goes place like Hamburg etc. He reacted by becoming more devout. At the same time, he was reportedly filled with fury by the oppressiveness of the Egyptian state and the indifference of the opulent elite to the plight of the poor. He treated colleagues to several earfuls about this, and about the US and the Middle East autocracies. He said that Egypt was being opened up to market capitalism, regardless of the real needs of the people. He complained that Egyptian universities were nepotistic and that the nation had been sold out to the US. In this, a mixture of vicarious outrage and personal affront at his own difficulties in Egypt and Europe can be seen as supplying the initial fuel for his later atrocity. His complaints were secular, rather than religious. They acquired the mould and fashion of religion, it seems, as he met with radical imams in the al-Quds mosque - who expressed a bellicose message against the US, the Middle East tyrannies and Israel - and became interested in becoming a martyr. It presumably required more than interest or desire to see him through, of course: training in camps in Afghanistan (organisational and doctrinal) will have also been among the necessary causes. (Curious detail: he seems to have also had an aversion to high-rise buildings, believing their presence in Arab towns and cities to be an example of the Western incursion).
Moreover, 'martyrdom' in Islam doesn't include self-murder (which is haram), and it has taken some contortions by bin Laden and his supporters to pretend that the act of slamming a plane into a high-rise tower is actually not suicide. On top of that, the motivations of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, albeit that they distantly involve 're'constituting an Islamic nation based on the Caliphate, are oriented around concrete, secular grievances, which Scheuer notes: the presence of US troops on the Arabian pensinsula, the unconditional support for Israel, the blockade of Iraq (Scheuer wrote before the war in 2003), US support for Russia, China and India in various battles with Muslims, support for corrupt Middle Eastern oligarchies. None of which, to avoid some obvious and deliberate misinterpretation, is to credit bin Laden or his associates as a vanguard for Muslim grievances. It is to say that these grievances, whether expressed in a befuddled and hypocritical fashion or not, are not simply duplicitous or deployed instrumentally to win Muslims over. In fact, it is widely suspected that bin Laden's sympathy for the Palestinian cause is opportunistic and belated - but Scheuer notes that it was expressed long before it was taken note of and rejected by Palestinians. The groups that orient around themselves around bin Laden (and now, perhaps, Zarqawi) cannot be simply assumed to be lying about these motives: that they are serious in their rejection of (real and imagined) injustice doesn't necessarily serve to make their actions more just.
Poverty, globalisation, ignorance, despair, personality disorders.
One of the least compelling attempts at a left-wing explanation for suicide bombings has been Dr Caroline Lucas' repeated claims on television that poverty is responsible. Well, if it is a causal factor, it seems to be largely indirect - as in Atta's outrage on behalf of the Egyptian poor. There appear to be deep structural causes that have to do with declining social mobility in Arab countries and the neoliberal doctrine that many of them are importing. However, the profile of the typical suicide bomber - even in Palestine - would be almost threadbare except for the fact that most appear to be male, early twenties, childless, well-educated and have higher incomes than the reference population. They also tend to be psychologically normal and certainly not suicidally depressive, for reasons I will come to. This is not usually the poor lashing out, although it is suggested that in Palestine pecuniary reasons may be involved because of martyrdom allowances. Simply in order to conduct such attacks, certainly on a global scale such as we are seeing recently, one needs to have unusually high levels of intelligence, (the ability to master languages, technical details, learn new skills, quickly absorbe planning information etc etc). And in fact, if the implication is that the actions are carried out in a state of despair at one's own condition, the answer appears to be that suicide bombers are specifically recruited on the basis that they do have an interest in this world and this life. This is partially to efface the ideological stress involved in Muslims committing suicide, but it also has to do with group workings - the absorption of a psychotically violent or seriously disturbed individual into the group would actually destabilise it and risk exposure among other things.
The other thing, as Pape notes, is that this explanation (poverty/despair/mental illness) involves subscribing to a view that the perpetrators act egoistically. Typically, however, they act altruistically - try not to fall off your stool, this is serious. Just like the Kamikaze warriors, the people who tend to carry out suicide attacks do so with what they undoubtedly consider to be noble intentions. This is another point about the selection of candidates - suicide bombing is a message as much as an act, and part of the message is that the individuals are engaged in these acts precisely are not acting out of pathological concerns, but are so outraged by injustice that they will sacrifice themselves.
That isn't the end of the 'despair' argument, however. Luca Ricolfi notes (Gambetta, 2005) that despair of a very particular kind is certainly an animating factor in Palestinian suicide bombings. Citing research by a Palestinian economist, B. Saleh, which shows almost all suicide bombers having been subjected directly to arrest or maltreatment by the IDF, and a good number having had a family member killed, he notes that compounding the desire for revenge is indifference to death. That is, the extreme repression in Palestine produces a "drastic, extreme and tragic contraction of an individual's set of options". Material deprivation leaves individuals with "literally nothing to do or imagine", while specific repression can "generate a progressive dismantling of a person's emotional world" in which "reality has shrunk to a minimum" and is replaced by a highly mental world of symbols and fantasies. Here, liberal economic theory does not hold: man does not always pursue his own immediate interests in such a situation, and such a society. The moral priority of the community over the individual can lead people thus deprived to be willing to sacrifice themselves. Other research produces similar conclusions, as Jacqueline Rose notes:
According to Eyad El-Sarraj, the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, today's suicide attackers are, for the most part, children of the first intifada. Studies show that during the first uprising, 55 per cent of children saw their fathers being humiliated or beaten by Israeli soldiers. Martyrdom - sacrificing oneself for God - increases its appeal when the image of the earthly father bites the dust. 'It's despair,' El-Sarraj states baldly, 'a despair where living becomes no different from dying.' When life is constant degradation, death is the only source of pride. 'In 1996, practically all of us were against the martyr operations,' Kamal Aqeel, the acting mayor of Khan Yunis in Gaza, explains. 'Not any longer . . . We all feel that we can no longer bear the situation as it is; we feel that we'd simply explode under all this pressure of humiliation.'
Fascism, perverted ideology, brainwashing.
One comical aspect of some of the pro-war Left's attempts to efface Blair's co-responsibility for the terror in London has been the ridiculous idea of privileging a 'fascist' ideology as the leading causal factor. Those who debase the word fascist in this way are neither good anti-fascists, nor good analysts of the movements which are under consideration. But leaving aside the academic (though not scholastic) distinctions about precisely what counts as fascism, what we are interested in here is the idea that an ideology of some description is the chief causal factor in the readiness to kill civilians, particularly in the ways that we have seen in New York, Bali, Turkey, Madrid and now London. It is already fairly well established that the tactic of suicide bombing has been used by a variety of groups, with distinct ideologies. There have been different Marxisms, different secularisms, different Islams involved (Al Qaeda appear to be Sunni, but Hizbollah are Shi'ite). The fact is that in each case the ideology does not seem to have been decisive in the decision to use suicide missions. Similarly, no suicide bombers have come from Iran as yet, which is the scene of a particularly reactionary brand of Islamist rule.
Perhaps, however, it will be argued that this specific kind of ideology, and this specific kind of Islamism contains such a noxious mixture of fanaticism, Occidentalist fantasy, vengeful bloodlust, delusion etc that no injustice need contribute to the decision to kill except in a marginal way. There is, in fact, a correlation between the origin of suicide bombers and the practise of Wahabbist Sunni Islam. Pape notes that Al Qaeda suicide attackers are twice as likely to come from a country where such an ideology is widespread than not. However, he also notes that a) Somalia, which was ideologically so convivial to bin Laden that he spent several years there with a few thousand fellow-travellers, has produced no suicide bombers, and b) a stronger correlation shows that Al Qaeda suicide-bombers are ten times more likely to come from a country with US troops stationed in it than not. This obviously does not mean that ideology has no weight of its own, or that the presence of foreign troops is the sole condition necessary for the production of suicide hit squads. It does suggest, at the very least, that the single cause overdetermining the others, is a nationalist response to a perceived injustice against the nation, just as it is in almost every other case of suicide attack. The fact that these attackers may emerge from countries not directly to do with the nation on whose behalf they believe they are acting is only tangentially relevant: nationalism involves an 'imagined community', and if the nation in question is the 'Islamic nation' or the Umma, then the reaction is likely to be just the same as it would be if the nation was Palestine, Kurdistan, Lebanon etc etc. The ideology has its importance in that it puts in an Islamic idiom what might otherwise be expressed in a nationalist or Marxist idiom. As Stephen Holmes suggests, (Gambetta, 2005), many radicalised young men are attracted to the Islamists simply because they appear to be the ones making a call to arms. The decline of the other two big battalions - nationalism and Marxism - has simply made this ideology more attractive than it might otherwise be.
It remains to be demonstrated just to what extent ideology has a role in preparing people for suicide attacks, but it seems on the information prevently available to be less important than specified material conditions. The final thing to think about is that the enabling cognitive processes are not always to do with the ideology which provides the general background and interprets the reasons for going to war. Certain aspects of the willingness to kill have to do with martial 'virtues', honour and so forth. The people who blow themselves up invariably do so in the belief that they are soldiers, licensed to kill on behalf of their aggrieved community. The idea that soldiers should only try to kill people on a designated field of combat is actually a fairly recent exiguous constraint in international law, (and rarely adhered to at that). The self-description as a soldier is obviously easier in cases like Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Palestine where there is a community of support for such attackers, and where there is a video message and posthumous glorification. But it still seems to obtain in the cases of often rootless and alienated individuals, angered by injustice, and attracted to extreme variants of Islamism because of that.
Suicide bombing as a tactic is used by various groups in diverse circumstances, but usually as a highly efficient means of combatting a perceived transgressor in nationalist terms. Religion and other ideological apparati do help facilitate self-murder and the murder of others, but as a motivational cause they seem to be inadequate on their own. Similarly, organisations provide cash and opportunity for carrying out such attacks, but not the desire. The variety of motivating factors seem to be overdetermined in the case of the London bombings by a rejection not of what the West is, but what it does. If the West's actions were just, this would simply be a stark Manichean case of good versus evil. Instead, what we appear to have is injustice generating recruits for unjust actions.
Sources: Diego Gambetta, ed, Making Sense of Suicide Missions, 2005; Robert Pape interviewed by Scott Horton ; Jacqueline Rose on suicide bombers ; Jason Burke, Al Qaeda: The true story of radical Islam, 2004; Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, 2004.