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17 December 2001

What turns a man into a terrorist?

The people who carry out suicide attacks suffer low self-esteem

By Oliver James

As a psychologist, I keep being asked whether the 11 September “Islamikaze” bombers were psychotic. This was the term that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, used to describe Osama Bin Laden and his suicidal acolytes. I conversed a good deal with Straw when he was home secretary, and I can testify that he is admirably emotionally literate. So I can only suppose that he’d simply not had the time, in the midst of his jet-lagging, peripatetic international schedule, to check his psychiatric lexicon.

If Bin Laden were psychotic, the twin towers would still be standing. Psychotics are given to hallucinations, and could not plan and execute the kind of attack we saw on 11 September. They share a sense of fractured identities that makes them liable to believe they are someone or something other than the person named on their birth certificate. As P G Wodehouse would put it: “They think they are a poached egg.” It is extremely unlikely that any of the Islami-kazes thought they were poached eggs.

If Straw was wide of the mark, so were those who suggested that the hijackers were driven by religiously ordained sexual abstinence. Frustrated and testosterone-fuelled, the argument went, the men were conned into believing that, on completing their suicidal mission, they would be presented with a lavish supply of virgins.

Yet studies based on interviews with aspirant suicide bombers from the Middle East, reported in the Psychologist last month, shed a different light on the terrorists’ motives. One study, carried out by Ariel Merari, concluded that terrorist suicide is “done by people who wish to die for personal reasons. The terrorist framework simply offers the excuse [rather than the real drive] for doing it . . .” A study of al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, carried out by Raphael Israeli in 1997, found that the trainees were aged between 16 and 25. Each course lasted a few months and cost about $3,000. Most of the trainees came from Islamic nations, but a number were from oppressed Muslim minorities in France, Germany, Bosnia and Chechnya.

Nearly all Islamikazes have had at least one relative or close friend killed, maimed or abused by their enemies. Many come from broken homes. Raphael Israeli concluded that, in becoming Islamikazes, the trainees joined a group that gave “them the opportunity to expand their own ego, and the newly acquired comradeship sustains their self-esteem and self-importance. They may be somewhat depressed and in search of easy solutions to their problems. Unsuccessful, perhaps self-despising, they find solace in becoming martyrs, thus almost instantly and mythically transforming frustration into glory, failure into victory and self-deprecation into public adoration.”

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The transformative power of suicide has a long history. The first visual record of a suicide was that of Ajax, in 700BC: the paintings and sculptures of his demise suggested an honourable act, motivated by the desire either to evade capture or to express his shame at losing in battle. In a new book, The Art of Suicide, Ron Brown shows that, although the meaning of suicide has changed considerably over time, the earliest uncovered image of the act showed it as “gladiatorial”.

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There is definitely something gladia- torial about the 11 September attackers. These men were prepared to kill and die spectacularly, as a Roman gladiator would have done. And just like the gladiators, who were the slaves of wealthy Romans, they saw themselves occupying a lowly status. In their eyes, heroic self-destruction was a way of altering that rank.

The gladiators of Rome were forced into their killer role; the terrorist suicide bombers chose their violent end – and, in so doing, showed symptoms of both aggression and depression. The aggression-depression link is clear. If you are feeling angry and frustrated, the aggression can turn against the self, as in the “I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m stupid” of depression. Alternatively, the aggression can turn outwards: you blame others and attack them. Suicides are more likely to have lost a job or become divorced shortly before they end their lives, and their sense of loss overrides any urge to attack. By contrast, the homicidal come from deprived, abusive backgrounds, and risk little in the way of social status, so they are less constrained in directing aggression outwards.

The two states of mind tend to overlap. Emil Durkheim, in his landmark study Suicide (1897), showed strong correlations between national rates of homicide and suicide. In France, Prussia, England, Italy and Austria, between 1826 and 1880, the number of homicides fell when that of suicides rose, and vice versa. During times of war, when aggression was directed outwards on a national level, suicide rates fell.

The 11 September terrorists personified Durkheim’s linking of homicide and suicide. Jack Straw was wrong about their psychotic nature: these men were fuelled by an overwhelming desire to regain their self-esteem, transforming failure into victory through their spectacular end.

Oliver James’s Britain on the Couch is published by Arrow