Destination Paradise: inside the mind of a suicide bomber

Not so long ago a renowned expert in terrorism controversially claimed that despite decades of scholarship on the subject, “we still don’t know what leads people to turn to political violence”. The phenomenon of suicide terrorism may be the most multifaceted and understudied subject of all. Individuals, men and women alike, seemingly ‘go against human nature’ by killing themselves and others in a manner that is gruesomely communicative and provocative. In this article, Alejandra Gentil delves into what is known – and not known – about the complex mind of a suicide bomber.

On 27 September 2017, a visit of the US Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, to Kabul prompted a concerted attack on the airport using mortar rounds and suicide bombers. Previously, in March of the same year, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a police checkpoint at the entrance to Dhaka’s Shahjalal International Airport. And in 2016, Istanbul’s Ataturk and Brussels’ Zaventem airports were also targeted by suicide bombers. As a consequence, landside security measures have been brought to the forefront of the discussions on airport security measures, the testament of which is the upgrading of Annex 17’s recommendations on ‘measures relating to the landside’ to standards. Members of certain national security agencies with roles in the protection of airport premises are, in addition, trained to detect the ‘signs’ of a potential suicide bomber. While these measures help mitigate the symptoms, in order to truly address the plight, as an industry and as a society we should endeavour to understand what makes a person become a suicide bomber.

The psychological and sociological aspects of terrorism, and most notably of suicidal terrorism, have been the subjects of great debate within academia. For decades, the rhetoric that dominated was that suicide bombers must be ‘crazy’, ‘abnormal’ or ‘brain-washed’. This perception still serves to appease some minds by dividing the world between ‘them’ and ‘us’, the ‘rational’ and the ‘irrational’, the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’, but it does not work towards a real understanding of the phenomenon. To most, after all, it came as a shock that the 9/11 cell leaders were for the most part highly educated, intelligent and well in control of their faculties. As a result of this and the prominence of the use of suicide bombing as a tactic, the last few decades have seen an increase in research focusing on the macro- and microspheres of suicide terrorism.

The Crime-Terror Nexus

By all accounts Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui led rather normal lives as the sons of an immigrant Moroccan family in Brussels. Certainly nobody close to them could foresee that they would end up as suicide bombers. Ibrahim caused complete devastation to Brussels Zaventem airport’s check-in area, while his brother Khalid detonated his explosives on a subway car at Brussels’ Maelbeek metro station. Hardworking and devout parents could seemingly not counterbalance the harsh environment of the neighbourhood they grew up in, and the identity crisis that breeds within first generation immigrants. From being dedicated students, they became high school drop-outs and started blighted careers as criminals, engaging in carjacking and armed robbery. Soon enough they ended up in prison, where, according to their eulogy in ISIS magazine Dabiq, they were radicalised.

“…the concept of ‘martyrdom’ or ‘dying for a cause’ is not exclusively religious…”

Prisons are believed to be cesspools of radicalisation. A recent study into the crime-terror nexus in Europe, based on the profile of 79 recent European jihadists with criminal pasts, concluded that, “there is complete alignment between a group like Islamic State and criminals who are attracted by its core counter-cultural message of redemption through strength, power, and violence” and that, “Islamic State and/or its successors increasingly find recruits in European ‘ghettos’, in prisons, as well as among the European ‘underclasses’ and those who have previously engaged in violence and illegal acts”. Criminal networks and terrorist groups are recruiting from the same environments and thus create an interaction between them. To criminals who end up in prison, converting to a cause is a means of ‘washing away’ their dirty past, cleaning the slate, seeking purification of their sins. To brothers Khalid and Ibrahim, it also meant finding a cause they could fight for, and after their early release from prison, they found their way to Turkey, intending to join ISIS in Syria. Their plans were thwarted when they were arrested in Turkey and swiftly deported. With their names now on the radar and their movements curtailed, their eyes now focused on their homeland.

When Killing is Sacred

Ibrahim and Khalid benefited from the very strong bond that derives from being brothers. They epitomised the close-knit kinship that reinforces terrorist cells. Facilitated by online access to terrorist organisations’ training, ideological literature, magazines, discussion forums and social media, siblings, childhood friends, spouses, cousins and schoolmates are grouping together, and forming cohesive yet secretive units. Radical views that result in violent acts, which society finds so revolting and shocking, are ‘normalised’ within this milieu through cognitive dissonance and ‘groupthink’. We are what we think, after all, and when that thought process is validated by our closest peers, it becomes the norm, rather than the oddity. Soon enough the individual is immersed in a small world where what is read, watched and discussed relates almost exclusively to the extreme ideology. In this world, he is the norm while others opposing his view are the oddity, the ‘out-group’. Members of the contrasting out-group are cast into a categorisation of ‘the others’ and are inherently dehumanised. It logically follows that the ‘enemy’ may be a significant part of a population and may, if the groups are essentially messianic and not constrained by political objectives, justify mass murders of the target population and are more likely to yield high numbers of victims. When people are perceived as something other than individual human beings, their lives are stripped of value and killing them becomes…easy. This process is at the core of genocides, wars and the Holocaust.

“…we are what we think, after all, and when that thought process is validated by our closest peers, it becomes the norm, rather than the oddity…”

The demonisation of the ‘other’, cultivated by terrorist organisations, portrays the enemy as being ‘satanic’, ‘infidel’, ‘demonic’, a ‘beast’ or otherwise the cause of all evils. The ‘other’ is defined within the context of the particular organisation and its creed, be it secular or religious. This definition of the ‘enemy’ in turn justifies the murder of the ‘other’ as an act of purification of this Earth from evil, consecrates the violent act as sacred – even in secular terms – and allows the perpetrators to separate themselves morally and emotionally from an act that would otherwise be condemned by the social, religious or political group they intend to represent. However it is framed, be it a sacrifice in the name of a deity, a nation, a society, fame, revenge or family prestige and financial support, a suicide terrorist offers his life for what s/he perceives to be a cause.

Strong Social Bonds

Dr. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and eminent terrorism scholar who has conducted extensive research on terrorist networks, has found that social bonds precede ideological commitment. He contends that, “[p]eople engage in political violence not for personal motives, but for group motives”. The individual who becomes radicalised may find solace in a completely new shared identity. To first- and second-generation immigrants, the search for identity is vital. They are caught between cultures, and often fall into gaps between them. Finding a unique identity that does not bind them to either one culture – and in fact separates them from both – holds a special value to them. In-group identity becomes essential and all that threatens it or any individual within the in-group becomes something – or someone – that needs to be destroyed. Terrorist organisations know this and exploit it and hence resort to peer-to-peer recruitment.

Ibrahim el-Bakraoui believed he was being hunted down by the police. He had allegedly rented the apartment where Salah Abdeslam, alleged co-author of the Paris attacks of 2015, was thought to have been in hiding (incidentally, Salah and his brother Ibrahim were another pair of Belgian brothers who formed part of a terrorist cell targeting Western Europe). When Ibrahim’s laptop was seized by police after he successfully blew himself up at the airport, it was discovered to contain the following message: “I’m in a hurry. I don’t know what to do anymore, they’re looking for me everywhere. I’m not safe anymore. If I give myself up they’ll put me in a cell.” Radicalised and cornered, being on the radar of Europe’s security agencies after having been deported from Turkey while en route to Syria, and for having links with the Abdeslam brothers, it may be speculated that he preferred to go ahead with the plans to attack Brussels rather than be caught again. On the other hand, his accomplice, Mohamed Abrini, a childhood friend of the Abdeslam brothers, decided to flee the airport rather than kill himself (and others).

Suicide Bombers:Is There a Profile?

Why did Ibrahim el-Bakraoui detonate his explosives while Mohamed Abrini decided otherwise and ran away? Are there psychological characteristics that differentiate suicide bombers from others? Do suicide bombers share personality traits? Do they possess suicide risk factors? These questions are the subject of a heated debate within an academic sub-field termed ‘psychology of terrorism’.

A study conducted in Israel led by renowned psychologist and terrorism expert Ariel Merari compared the psychological profiles of jailed Palestinian failed suicide bombers to non-suicide terrorists and to organisers of suicide attacks. Admittedly, the study cannot be said to be universally applicable to all suicide bombers considering the Palestinian background is unique, the would-be terrorists did not or could not accomplish their missions, and the prison environment, coupled with the fact that the interviewers were Israeli, may have affected their responses. With this in mind, the study concluded that although “there is no single personality profile of Palestinian would-be suicide bombers […] most of them do have distinctive personality characteristics”, including being susceptible to social influence and authoritative personalities, with a significant number of them displaying suicidal tendencies which comprise depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“…there is no single personality profile of Palestinian would-be suicide bombers. Most of them do have distinctive personality characteristics, including being susceptible to social influence and authoritative personalities, with a significant number of them displaying suicidal tendencies which comprise depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder…”

A common criticism among those who oppose the general view that there is not one common profile for suicide bombers is that no psychological autopsy study has ever been conducted on any suicide bomber. The term psychological autopsy was coined by Edwin Schneidman, director LA Suicide Prevention Center, whose initial definition of it was “a thorough retrospective investigation of the intention of the decedent.” The methodology, also loosely defined as a ‘post-mortem suicide risk assessment’ involves a detailed investigation of the deceased’s life from birth, collecting and analysing all relevant information, including interviews with relatives, friends and other people who knew the deceased, with special attention being paid to recent events, stressors and behaviours. In a paper published in a prominent journal on terrorism, the authors contend that should such information be collected and analysed on suicide bombers, “evidence might well be found of a high frequency of risk factors for suicide”. Nonetheless, this assertion is widely contested by others who argue that such terrorists are not truly suicidal and should not be viewed as a subgroup of the general suicide population.

There are those who prefer to see religious fundamentalism as the main motivator behind suicide attacks. However this does not serve to explain why secular, Marxist-Leninist group such as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the PKK could persuade individuals to give up their lives and take others with them into oblivion. Neither can it explain why operatives from the Japanese Red Army chose to go on a suicide mission on behalf of the PFLP when they attacked Israel’s Lod airport in 1972. As previously stated, the concept of ‘martyrdom’ or ‘dying for a cause’ is not exclusively religious, although undeniably those terrorist groups that use religion as a framing for their discourse find it handy to resort to theological justifications for suicide and murder. For the suicide terrorist, finding a higher cause elevates them from other human beings and consecrates their act.

Despite the fact that suicide terrorism as we know it today began in the early 1980s, we are still far from achieving a comprehensive understanding of the mind of a suicide bomber. Roots and causes have been explored, however, more importantly, the interplay between psychological stressors and socio-political contexts has not been adequately investigated and may indeed provide a better explanation for the phenomenon. Dedicated scientific studies of the subject have the potential to unravel important information that may lead to concerted efforts by governments to address the foundational elements of the phenomenon of suicide terrorism. We should nevertheless be wary of theories that intend to simplify what is inherently complex. As Martha Crenshaw, one of the most renowned terrorism scholars, once declared, “[t]he search for a profile of the suicide attacker seems to be as hopeless as the search for a typical terrorist.”


Alejandra Gentil
Alejandra Gentil

Alejandra Gentil has over twenty-two years of experience in AVSEC, working with different stakeholders within the industry, both at operational and management levels. She has established and managed aviation security operations at various locations and has assisted in the implementation of ICAO Annex 17 and Annex 9 standards and recommended practices at several locations around the world. In her role as Key AVSEC Expert in the ACP Group/EU Commission Project for the Improvement of Aviation Security in Africa, she provided AVSEC training and technical assistance to support the Appropriate Authorities of the beneficiary states in the implementation of Annex 17 SARPs and appropriate AVSEC oversight systems. She specialises in the development of AVSEC regulatory frameworks programmes. She is currently pursuing a MLitt in Terrorism and Political Violence.