Terror in Europe

Psychology Of Suicide Bombers — Inside The Kamikaze Mind

Researchers across the globe are trying to understand what drives the sense of martyrdom to which terrorists aspire. Complicating the explanations is the fact that these killers have a wide range of psychological profiles.

A Japanese WWII kamikaze and an al-Qaeda suicide bomber
A Japanese WWII kamikaze and an al-Qaeda suicide bomber
Frédéric Joignot

PARIS â€" "They detonated." This expression is being used increasingly in newspapers and on television to describe the acts of suicide killers. What happens in the minds of these people who wrap themselves in explosive belts to shed as much blood as possible? What drives these young people born in France to commit such criminal offenses before killing themselves? Since the 1981 suicide attack against the Iraq embassy in Beirut (61 dead), which marked the beginning of a series of suicide operations, battalions of researchers around the world have been trying to understand what drives these self-destructive terrorists.

In France, the journal Etudes sur la mort (Studies on death) dedicated an entire issue to the subject. Italian psychiatrist Antonio Preti explains that "suicide with hostile intent" has a long history. It's a form of immolation in which the suicide attacker destroys those he deems responsible for his decline. It's the only way he can find to take revenge. It's the violence of a desperate man.

In the Bible, a chained Samson kills himself by destroying the palace of the Philistines, which crushes him. During the occupation of Galilee (66-70 A.D.), the Jewish Sicarii stabbed the Romans on the street, at the risk of being killed. Some historians consider them the first political "terrorists." In 1945, when the war was being lost, Japanese kamikaze crashed onto American ships. A similar figure was Mohamed Merah, who carried out three gun attacks targeting French soldiers and Jewish civilians in March 2012, killing seven people before being killed by French police. He presented himself as a "mujahideen" enrolled in a holy war and answered French negotiators by saying, "You have in front of you a man who does not fear death. I love death like you love life."

Japanese kamikaze on Nov. 25, 1944 â€" Source: Wikimedia Commons

"Normal" men

Where does their passion for death come from? Why do they choose to murder civilians while at the same time sacrificing themselves? Marie-Frédérique Bacqué, the editor of the magazine that dedicated an issue to the topic and a psychopathology professor at Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, believes there's no specific "personality structure" for suicide killers, who have a wide range of psychological profiles.

"It would be reassuring to note that kamikaze acts are the result of a historical context on specific minds â€" ill minds, madmen pushed towards massacre by murderous folly," she explains. "But we are forced to admit that it's not the case."

Terrorists aren't psychopaths, they are conscious killers. And "normal." Just like the Nuremberg trials resulted in Hannah Arendt's conclusion that simple normality could lead an individual to perpetrate genocide, we are forced to recognize that those who carry bombs and hijack planes are mostly "normal" people.

A psychological profile can't explain suicidal killers, but can sociology and anthropology help us? Anthropologist Scott Atran, who has met ISIS fighters and young European jihadists, has a few explanations. In the anxious address he delivered at the United Nations Security Council on April 23, 2015, he mentioned the "dark side of globalization." A handful of young Europeans who are "humiliated" by the way they and their parents are treated. They feel rejected as Muslims and no longer consider themselves "French or Arab," and start rejecting the norms and values of society as they "struggle with a search for social identity," he says. They become radicalized, look for other forms of action and existence "that bring them meaning and glory."

But this "breeding ground" explanation doesn't explain why young French men, armed with assault rifles, killed unarmed fellow citizens attending a concert, to specify one of the attacks. It has even triggered outraged criticism. At the French National Assembly on Nov. 25, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls got carried away: "No excuse should be looked for," he said. "No social, sociological or cultural excuse." But Atran isn't so much looking for excuses as trying to understand. Citing Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, he also says some people are fascinated by terror. "Human beings can experience a particular feeling of delight when faced with terror, because they see it as the manifestation of superior, limitless and inexplicable forces, close to the terror of God," he says.

Young killers are fascinated by the potential to stun, because it provides them with a tremendous "sense of power," the anthropologist says. It's the kind of fear that terrorists spread, that terror in the face of death that they themselves defy â€" sometimes taking amphetamines to make committing their crimes easier â€" that fascinates them. All the while they know they are guaranteed media coverage. "What inspires them at the highest point isn't so much the Koran or religious teachings, but mostly an exciting cause and a call for action that promises glory," Atran says.

Religious, fanatical and sectarian dimensions

Activist nihilism like what Russian terrorist Sergey Nechayev supported has historically fascinated young generations looking to make a statement. That's where we are today, and Atran isn't the only person to say so. In a Le Monde article published on Nov. 24, political specialist Olivier Roy also talks about "generational nihilism," comparing today's terrorists to the 1970's Marxist-inspired movements: "They choose Islam because it's the only thing available on the market for those in search of a radical uprising," he writes. "To join ISIS is to be certain to be able to fulfill the desire to terrorize."

But many specialists of the Muslim world believe the nihilism analysis neglects the religious, fanatical and sectarian dimensions of these crimes. Antony Samrani, a journalist from the Lebanese daily L’Orient-Le Jour, agrees that the "spectacular and deadly" force of such attacks "appeals to young people eager for violence," but he also describes a new religious "martyrology."

Research on jihadist literature, websites and Facebook pages has revealed that the perpetrators of the suicide attacks saw themselves as martyrs â€" like Chérif Kouachi, who declared himself a "defender of the Prophet." At the Bataclan concert venue, the killers shouted that they were "soldiers of the Caliphate" coming to avenge "the women and children of Syria."

International "jihadosphere"

With the war in Syria, an international "jihadosphere" emerged, reinforced by social networks. It claims to return to a literal, early, combative Islam, that glorifyies the "lions of Islam," whether it's Hamza, Muhammad's paternel uncle, the first Muslim martyr, or Osama "the lion" bin Laden.

This grandiloquent propaganda eventually gained followers. Under the picture of a large lion, the forbidden French jihadist website Ansar Al-Ghuraba writes, "We live like lions, we die like lions." Abou Mariam, a 24-year-old French jihadist from Toulouse who is now in Syria, told Syrian journalist Loubna Mrie that "martyrdom is probably the shortest path to paradise, and that's not something I was taught. I saw it directly in my martyr brothers. On their faces, I saw bliss, I smelled the scent of musk coming from their dead bodies." He added, "The only thing we lack to reach paradise is death."

Such determination to die as martyrs, by killing "infidels," is the result of the "radical indoctrination techniques used by sectarian drifts," explains Dounia Bouzar from the Prevention Center Against Sectarian Drifts Linked To Islam (CPDSI). It's a new form of religious indoctrination, connecting emotional propaganda to fundamentalist preachers, and we are only just beginning to fight it.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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