London Bombings: What Makes a Suicide Bomber?

Article excerpt

Abdul Rahman Makdad, the man who organised two bus bombings in Jerusalem that killed 19 people, calmly described how he and the bomber Mohammed Za'ul, 23, had eaten breakfast before Za'ul set out on the first mission in January last year.

In an interview with The Independent in April 2004, he said they had had 'ordinary conversation' as Makdad prepared the explosives the night before the bombing. 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 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 Herzliya International Policy Institute 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 " three books have been published in the past few months " shrinks from providing one simple explanation. 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 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. …