The terrorists and suicide bombers who have killed people from New York to Jerusalem are average people, according to Ariel Merari, director of the program for political violence at Tel-Aviv University in Israel.
“There was no psychopathology to speak of. These were normal guys, just a cross-section of society,” he said. “I came to think that suicide terrorism is not a personal phenomenon it is an organizational phenomenon, an organizational system.”
Merari found that while the media has explained suicide bombings and terrorism as consequences of religious fanaticism, this interpretation is unsupported by evidence.
“There must be something else in addition to religious fanaticism to explain martyrdom,” he said.
Organizations recruit martyrs through personal connections and train them. This organizational support is Merari”s answer to the psychology behind terrorists and suicide bombers.
“Several hours per day are devoted to talking with enthusiastic members of the group. There is a focus on the “glory days of Islam,” and the idea of martyrdom as God”s will,” he said.
Future martyrs become subject to a “group contract,” which builds the martyr”s allegiance to his other group members. They also declare a “formal contract” before a bombing as a final “personal commitment,” Merari said.
But research fellow Mozhgan Savabieasfahani argued that Merari”s hypothesis is not accurate because of the current living situations of many Palestinians in Israel.
“As a former high school teacher in the West Bank, I know the bleak future that Palestinians see for themselves, so it”s very easy for them to recruit people,” Savabieasfahani said. “It is most crucial to go back to the environment and refugee camps.”
Merari began studying suicide terrorism in 1983 after attacks by Islamic fundamentalist groups in Lebanon began.
He “is perhaps the world”s most foremost expert on the psychology of suicide terrorists and political violence,” said psychology Prof. Rowell Huesmann.
Merari”s research is considered invaluable by many of his colleagues.
“This data is terribly hard to come by, and inevitably leaves a lot of questions, but within that, he makes a good argument,” said psychology Prof. Al Cain.
Merari lectured yesterday at the Institute of Social Research in the second session of the psychology of extremism lecture series. He will speak today at noon at the School of Social Work, concerning politically motivated violent groups.