Understanding the Mindset of a Suicide Bomber: a systematic review of the research evidence about radicalisation and suicide bombers

by Dr. Mir Sadaat Baloch

The suicide attacks since early 2000s have brought recognition from many government, academic and security sources that the world now confronts a qualitatively different kind of ‘terrorism’. Researchers in UK arrest that what has been described as the ‘new terrorism’ appears to function across a global dimension, while being more fluid, dispersed and unpredictable than previous terrorist threats. Research indicate that ‘New terrorism’ is conducted by largely autonomous groups which operate in the absence of institutional training and recruitment but share an ideological affinity with a certain network and are defined ethnically and racially. It has been argued that the emergence of these networked ‘self-starter cells’ represents a distinct and novel phenomenon and a dramatic departure from previous activity.

Pakistan felt this transition when The Majeed Brigade, the BLA wing charged with organising suicide attacks, said it was their first-ever operation carried out by a woman. Shari Baloch is a case study of how the separatist movement, once run by tribal chiefs, has come to be dominated by Balochistan’s often highly educated, middle-class professionals.

The curiosity of people to understand her motivations are generating different narratives and explanation to her actions. While explaining her motivation to an audience of Twitter I explained that her alias Bramsh indicates that the triggering event for her radicalization can be the incident in Turbat city where the baby girl was shot and hurt by a local gang of robbers and her mother Maliknaz was killed by the attackers. Like the meaning of her name, Bramsh has sparked a fire into people to resist and rebel against abusers of power. She has reminded the people of Kech that they are in peril no matter where and who they are: women, men or even infants. Scores of people across Balochistan, participated in protest and asked government authorities to intervene. After the government’s inaction and silence for the weeks, people in different cities of Balochistan took to the streets demanding justice – the arrest of the alleged head of the gang and hanging all the culprits involved in the assault.

However, to understand her actions better it is prudent to have a systematic review of the research evidence about radicalisation and suicide bombers. Literature indicates that radicalisation is best viewed as a process of change, a personal and political transformation from one condition to another. Recent scholars argue that becoming radicalised is, for most people, a gradual process and one that requires a progression through distinct stages and happens neither quickly nor easily. In case of Shari, it took almost two years as par the statement of BLA.

A number of studies in the literature identified that the process of radicalisation is composed of distinct and identifiable phases, charting the transition from early involvement to becoming operationally active.

Gill’s pathway model offers a pathway model which charts the trajectory of individuals who become suicide bombers. The model proposes that individuals experience four key stages on their path to a suicide bombing:

1. A broad socialisation process and exposure to propaganda which tends to predispose the audience towards violence.

2. The experience of a ‘catalyst event’ which can motivate joining a terrorist organisation in case of Shari it can be shotting of Bramsh and killing of her mother Maliknaz.

3. Some pre-existing familial or friendship ties which facilitate the recruitment process, and finally

4. In-group radicalisation through internalisation and polarisation of the group’s norms and values.

These four stages are considered prerequisites that all suicide bombers experience, although Gill argues that the order with which different suicide bombers experience these stages changes from bomber to bomber. Together, the stages mutually reinforce one another.

Moghaddam research provides a more sophisticated ‘multi-causal approach’ to understanding suicide terrorism, one which forgoes the pathway metaphor in favour of the analogy of a narrowing “staircase to terrorism”. This involves three levels at the individual (dispositional factors), organisational (situational factors) and environmental (socio-cultural, economic, and political forces). Moghaddam’s metaphor is of a staircase housed in a building where everyone lives on the ground floor, but where an increasingly small number of people ascend up the higher floors, and a very few reach the top of the building, being the point, at which one is led to carry out a terrorist act. Movement up each floor is characterised by a particular psychological process and as one ascends the staircase, so it narrows, reflecting one’s narrowing choices thereby making it that much more difficult to disengage and descend.

Moghaddam agrees with the general consensus in the literature that many suicide bombers are motivated by a desire for revenge (for example, loss of a loved one or perceived social injustice). However, suicide bombing may also be motivated from a duty to follow one’s own values, family, community, or religion, with failure to act being perceived as betraying one’s ideals or loved ones, God, or country. Other situational circumstances are also influential, notably the social and organisational levels that both equip and influence the bomber. Finally, the environmental level provides the more general conditions that can give rise to political and religious violence including cultural, religious, and political forces. While Moghaddam’s explanation has as its focus suicide bombing, it is a metaphor that charts the first concrete steps of radicalisation of people who are searching for improved upward social mobility and trying out opportunities for advancement on the first floor, yet do not view themselves as radicals. Moghaddam findings can be resonating to the actions of Shari to a limited extent as the research was more focused to religious group.

Despite the identification of differing stages in the radicalisation process, all studies agree that there is a stage of individual change (for example, increase in religiosity, search for identity) that is enhanced through external aspects (for example, experienced discrimination or racism, or a perceived attack against group), and a move to violent radicalisation, usually taking place when the individual socialises with likeminded people. These stages are not necessarily sequential, and they can also overlap, meaning that a person may skip a stage in reaching militant action or alternatively may become disillusioned at any given point and abandon the process altogether. We need to understand there is an interplay of agency and structure in radicalisation, such that the central theoretical task is explaining the dynamics of this linkage.

For Balochistan most young people, the search for their own personal identity involves defining their relationship to the state, exploring, and experimenting with issues of empowerment, loyalty, patriotism, peace & conflict resolution, heritage, and their peer group, without necessarily leading to radicalisation. However, some young people choose to adopt a radical identity which can be the outcome of an earlier ‘identity crisis’ or ‘identity confusion’. This can be intensified by perceptions or experiences of discrimination, a sense of blocked social mobility, and a lack of confidence in the political system. This can spur a search for a Baloch identity at a moment of crisis, leaving that person vulnerable to radicalising influences or embracing violence as an antidote to these unresolved inner conflicts, one which offers a highly structured ritual and practice. This sense of contradiction or conflict between a Baloch identity and a sense of patriotism, is not inherent for all young Baloch but many disengaged youngsters are vulnerable. It seems that at best, experiencing relative deprivation may play some facilitative role rather than a causative one. The experience of discrimination and hostility can also be formative; support for this comes from both a range of polling data and qualitative research, including one of the few ethnographic studies of radical Muslim groups conducted in Europe. This does provide some evidence that the intensity of feeling experienced in cases of discrimination, hostility and blocked mobility can underlie a change in identity formation, prompting a ‘cognitive opening’ and change in previous belief systems which may lead the individual to alternative discourses, such as radical actions, that provide ideological explanations and repertoires of action to overcome it. In turn, this may lead the individual to socialise with radicalised groups whose attachment and group loyalty provides an antidote to the sense of alienation from wider society. However, it should be stressed that these findings cannot be generalised as those studies are on small scale. For Balochistan we need to do primary research to understand the causes better.

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