Suicide Terrorism: Why?

identity-fusion Jun 06, 2017

I wanted to better understand suicide terrorism and the reaction. It led me to a lot of disturbing questions. But, the first, not terribly disturbing, is why? Why would people commit suicide to kill other people? I want to note: I came into this with few preconceptions. I know enough about terrorism to know that it’s a very complex and nuanced issue. And, I’ll, probably, never fully understand it.

Robert Pape published a paper (PDF) in 2003. His summary from the abstract states:

In contrast to the existing explanations, this study shows that suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic, one specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to make significant territorial concessions. Moreover, over the past two decades, suicide terrorism has been rising largely because terrorists have learned that it pays.

I’m not going to delve much into this paper. I wanted to include it because it’s so early in search results. However, I think it has been refuted, most conclusively by Ashworth, Clinton, Meirowitz, and Ramsay (PDF). One of the key conclusions from that study is that the actual suicide attackers are the dependent variable. So, I wanted to expand my search into what enables the view of suicide attacks.

After reading more, I think that religion is a factor. But, not the key factor. Ginges, Hansen, and Norenzayan (PDF) authored a paper about how religion increases support for suicide attacks. But, it isn’t religious affiliation per se. It’s attendance at a collective religious service.

Compared with attending less frequently, attending a mosque once a day increased the predicted odds of a respondent supporting suicide attacks by a factor of 2.11 (Wald coefficient 5 12.11; 95% confidence interval for the odds ratio 5 1.38–2.20, p < .01), whereas prayer was unrelated to support for suicide attacks (all Wald coefficients < 2.30, ps > .1).

. . .

In summary, Study 1 found (a) that prayer frequency was a significant predictor of religious devotion, but mosque attendance was not, and (b) that mosque attendance was a significant predictor of support for suicide attacks, but prayer was not.

That was the first. The second study showed something interesting, too.

Again, devotion to Islam, measured by prayer frequency, was unrelated to Palestinian support for suicide attacks. In contrast, frequency of mosque attendance strongly predicted support for suicide attacks. The effect of mosque attendance cannot be attributed solely to propaganda by religious clerics or to recruitment efforts at mosques, as it held even when we controlled for identification with organizations carrying out suicide attacks and for dehumanization of Israelis.

According to this study, it’s a group psychology issue. Which makes this, in my opinion, far more fascinating. This leads me to a new term: identity fusion. From Swann, Jetten, Gómez, Whitehouse, and Bastian (PDF):

Identity fusion is a relatively unexplored form of alignment with groups that entails a visceral feeling of oneness with the group.

I want to include one more sentence from that paper.

The porous borders associated with fusion raise the possibility that both the personal and social self will combine synergistically to motivate unusually extreme sacrifices for the group.

Some of you may be familiar with the ideas of identity politics or tribalism. This feels like an extension (better researched, stronger, and more academic) to that idea. Moving into what fusion means, Atran, Sheikh, and Gozem write:

We found that that fusion with family-like groups may drive costly sacrifices expressed, for example, in willingness to use violence and to die. However, such willingness appears likely to increase significantly for those who also hold a sacred value.

It really feels like this is the right path to understanding suicide terrorism. So, if the predictors are identity fusion and sacred values we must define those terms. Unfortunately, those aren’t necessarily well defined terms. I think I’ll put off looking for more later. But, I want to leave one more quote (from an abstract, because, the pdf isn’t available online ????).

Since the borders between the personal and social self are highly permeable for fused persons, they care about the outcomes of the group as much as their own outcomes.