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Suicide hijackers defy any simple explanations

By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff, 9/23/2001


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Recent US terrorist threats

They were a bit like Japanese kamikaze pilots who killed themselves for God and nation during World War II. A little like Soviet KGB moles who blended into US life only to betray their hosts. And somewhat like cult members who committed mass suicide in Guyana on orders from leader Jim Jones.

Yet the 19 suicide hijackers from the Middle East suspected in the worst act of terrorism on American soil defy easy psychological explanation. They were not only slightly older and more educated than the typical suicide bomber, but they had the mental stamina to remain in the United States for years, still hate Americans enough to kill en masse, and die in the process.

''You'd think living here for a while, they might feel less committed to the cause. It's the big question,'' said Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who specializes in studying terrorists' behavior. ''We really do need to rewrite the book on suicide bombers.''

Psychologists now say there are several issues that need heightened attention in the wake of the attack: The powerful grip of religious fanatacism, particularly when introduced to young males; the step-by-step indoctrination into a culture of suicidal martyrdom, which includes the making of goodbye videos as a form of diploma; and the way in which members of small groups interact that reinforces a hostile mission in a new land.

In interviews with more than a dozen psychologists, sociologists, and historians who study terrorism and espionage, many pointed to the question of how, and how much, information was disseminated to terrorists who burrow into a new society. It's possible, they say, that vital information was withheld until the final days so members would not crack under the pressure of knowing exactly what kind of killing they would do.

''We have to figure out how people get motivated to do this,'' said Martha Crenshaw, a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., who specializes in terrorism. ''How did they not get distracted from their convictions?''

Most terrorism specialists do not think that physical coercion was involved in keeping the suicide attackers in check. Would-be suicide bombers do sometimes change their minds, but researchers have found no evidence that they are ever threatened with torture or harm, or that family members back home would be hurt.

Analysts do think future study will show that, contrary to conventional wisdom, religious zealotry can persist even as people grow older, become more educated, or travel widely. For instance, authorities say that one suspected hijacker, Mohamed Atta, 33, was a graduate of Technical University in Hamburg, Germany, with a master's degree in urban renewal. At least three others pursued advanced degrees or had a bachelor's degree, officials say, and the ages of suspects given out so far are mostly in the mid- to late 20s.

One terrorist specialist said he was surprised that the organization's central leadership even allowed so many recruits to live in a foreign land for a long time as ''dormant suicide candidates'' - and not fear defection.

''I've always thought suicidal terrorists were on a short leash,'' said Ariel Merari, a psychology professor at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the profiles of suicide bombers. ''I never thought you could get a proper candidate, send them abroad and put them on ice for a long time, so to speak. I always thought a change of environment would be enough to change a suicidal person's mind.''

Merari, a former senior fellow at Kennedy School of Government, said in his study of 74 suicide bombers who acted in Israel and Lebanon since the early 1980s, there was not a single case in which the organization deployed suicide bombers to train and work at such a distance, and for so long a time. Typically, he said, suicide bombers are told their assignment a short time before it will take place, then go there to get it done.

He said his study showed that the average age of a suicide bomber was 22. He said some came from middle-class homes and had college educations.

Almost all were unmarried and had no children, though there are exceptions. Merari said that just two weeks ago, a 48-year-old Israeli Arab husband and father became a suicide bomber in a northern Israeli town, blowing up himself and three Jewish civilians near a railway station.

Early FBI reports identified at least one of last week's hijackers as being in his late 30s, married with children, but officials backed away from that report when Saudi officials said that man is alive in their country. So far, there is no evidence that any hijackers left behind a wife or children.

Psychologists who study terrorism or espionage believe these men were kept on their long-term project through tight group control, with the four or five men in each cell serving as a mutually reinforcing small community. Terrorists, especially suicide bombers, never act alone, but are part of a broad network of trained recruits, said Herbert Romerstein, a retired federal official who specializes in espionage and terrorism.

Romerstein said he believes these terrorists, especially in their early years in the United States, probably had practical help from some Americans, probably longtime citizens who may have no connection to the Arab or Muslim worlds but are sympathetic to the terrorists' cause. The assumption is based on his study of Soviet spies who had been sent to infiltrate American life during the Cold War. He said these spies often had the help of American sympathizers to teach them how to rent apartments, buy groceries, and otherwise avoid detection.

Beyond group control, these terrorists were also probably pulled into the culture of martyrdom in their early youth, he said.

While Islam forbids suicide, some extremist groups have cast suicide bombers as martyrs for religious glory.

Andrew Silke, a psychologist who specializes in terrorism at the University of Leicester in England, said terrorist camps usually wait to see which boys will volunteer for suicide duty. They are told that 72 virgins will wait for them in their afterlife, and that their parents or other family will be well cared for after their death, he said.

Silke said that recruits volunteer for suicide-attacker duty, probably out of some emotional vulnerability, and it is the terrorist camps that exploit this mental predisposition. He said ''it is difficult to brainwash someone into being a suicide bomber'' if there is no initial interest, but someone who volunteers can be groomed for the mission.

''Remember the Jonestown cult?'' said Robert Yufit, a Chicago psychologist who specializes in assessments for suicide. ''Here is a leader and he tells the people to drink poison. They do it because they have such an intense belief. They don't have much else in their value system.''

The grip of ''grandiose ideology'' is clearly far more potent than anyone realized, able to conquer any inner voice of dissent or doubt. Said psychologist Merari: ''People who believe God whispers in their ears are very dangerous.''

Patricia Wen can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 9/23/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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