Donald Macintyre: What makes a suicide bomber?

Most attackers approach their mission with light hearts, confident of its absolute rightness

In an interview with The Independent in April 2004, he said they had had "ordinary conversation" as Makdad prepared the explosives the previous night. He added coolly: "There was no need at all to convince this man to carry out the operation. He himself chose to be a martyr. The easiest thing [about such operations] is to find a martyr. In our nation we have thousands of people who want to be martyrs."

It is during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past five years that suicide bombing has been most studied.

On the one hand, the Israeli experience provides some answers - not least through the frequent arrests and interrogation of failed suicide bombers and the dispatchers and organisers of successful ones - to the still deeply disturbing question of why young men, or, increasingly among Palestinian militants at least, young women, are prepared so readily to sacrifice their lives, even for a national cause in which they believe.

On the other hand, that research - extensive though it is - may give fewer clues in what motivated the quite different West Yorkshire cell who now appear to have perpetrated the first suicide bombings in Britain.

It is true that techniques like the videos made by Palestinian - and in some cases Iraqi - suicide attackers before a mission, or the last dinner enjoyed by their Tamil Tiger counterparts with a revered idol from the movement, may be ways of locking the bomber in and preventing second thoughts. All the evidence, however, is that most attackers approach their missions with relatively light hearts, confident of its absolute rightness, in the way that Makdad described.

That doesn't, of course, mean that suicide bombers in different countries are motivated in the same way. Nevertheless, Boaz Ganor, the head of the Herzilya Institute of Policy Research for Counter Terrorism, believes that counter-intuitively the bomber has taken "an entirely rational" decision based on his indoctrination in a version of Islam which bars suicide but which encourages "martyrdom" and which explicitly ensures that the martyr will go straight to paradise - bringing, at least in the Palestinian case, honour among his peers in the process.

And although there is little tradition of martyrdom in Sunni Islam, religion and the concept of a translation from a frequently miserable earthly world for a heavenly one certainly plays a central part in many cases. It is a fact that a note left in an airport car park from Mohamed Atta, the leader of the suicide bombers who in September 2001 did most to change the world order, exhorted his comrades to remember the 72 virgins they would encounter in paradise.

But most of the recent literature on the subject - and three books on the subject have been published in the past few months - shrinks from providing one simple explanation for suicide bombing. The earthly benefits of money for the "martyr's" family from the Palestinian armed factions - and, until his toppling, Saddam Hussein - may be part of the explanation on occasions.

You didn't have to stay long at the pitifully dilapidated home in the West Bank village of Rantis of the 17-year-old militant who bombed a bus stop outside Tel Aviv, on the day in September 2003 that saw two bombings in a quick succession, to realise that his family - the mother deeply grieving, the aunt less convincingly professing her "pride" in her nephew's sacrifice - was desperately poor. But that, too, is no more than one of many elements of the story even among Palestinian militants and is unlikely to figure at all in the machinations of al-Qa'ida. In an attempt to render the multiple complexities of a suicide bombers' motivation, two authors, Anne Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg, suggest: "What the rank-and-file [of Hamas] seemed to live and die for, in the end, was neither hospitals nor politics nor ideology nor religion nor the Apocalypse, but rather an ecstatic camaraderie in the face of death on the path of Allah."

Another expert, Louise Richardson, the executive dean at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, pointed out that among suicide bombers there was often "more interest in the dying than the killing, as evidenced by the sometimes remarkable lack of attention to deploying the suicide bomb to maximum effect."

Although this is no doubt true on occasions, the terrible flip-side is often an apparent indifference to the death of victims in cases like last week's, where the bombers have tried to maximise the killing. Abdul Rahman Makdad was at his most chilling 15 months ago when he claimed he could not even remember the numbers of the buses whose bombing he had organised in Jerusalem in January and February 2004.

But Ms Richardson questions whether the motivation for suicide bombing is really as unique as it is made out to be, adding: "In all our societies we reserve the highest honours for those who have given their lives for their country. Having read these studies one is left wondering whether suicide bombers are so different. Had the members of the Hamas cell whose final videotape is depicted by Oliver and Steinberg ever learnt Latin, and had an eye for dramatic effect, one could imagine them ending their video reciting in unison Horace's ode into the camera: 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.'"

And yet this does nothing to explain, much less confront, a network like al-Qa'ida, which unlike the Palestinian factions does not even have a comprehensibly focused national goal and yet which has the power to kill innocent civilians on a global scale. Much less could it help with the rootless individuals who may be connected to extremist organisations by the internet, as depicted by Dr Rosemary Hollis since last Thursday's carnage.

Nor, finally, does it do justice to the deeply disturbing crises posed to free societies by suicide bombers, problems that genuinely can be described as unique. They cannot easily be described as "cowardly" - the word routinely used to describe the Irish Republican bomber who slips a carrier bag under a chair in a pub before making his escape; or "evil", when he may think he or she is doing something good. They cannot be "hunted down" by the forces of law and order when they have died with their victims and when their names may even be proudly proclaimed by their comrades. They cannot be subject to punishment, let alone vengeance.

Dr Ganor rightly points out that almost all modern suicide bombings are highly organised, rather than the alternative of what he calls "personal initiative attacks", and argues that it is the organisations which therefore have to be confronted.

True though that may be, it is far from clear how easy that confrontation is going to be in the case of the slaughter in London's first suicide bombing.

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