Psychology of suicide bombers

The reality shows that suicide bombers have become its integral part. Many theories have tried to understand the way they behave and what motivates them at committing suicide for some common goal. Suicide bombers have become one of the greatest threats for the present society; they are able to penetrate into the most crowded places causing innumerous deaths and injuries. However, the question here is whether they are as dangerous to the society as they are dangerous to themselves? What drives them and in what way are they influenced – what makes them forget about pain and fear and lose their lives for some common aim? The two different perspectives should be taken here in order to identify the extent to which suicide bombers are dangerous to the society and dangerous to themselves. One of these perspectives is social identity – through the use of this psychological theory it will be possible to analyze the danger which suicide bombers represent for the environment; social identity is the way to explain the personality’s ‘self’, and it appears that a person usually has ‘several selves’ – each of them acts according to the environment and environment becomes a trigger for any of these selves to act and display itself. (Henriques ; Hollway, 1998)

The other perspective through which it is essential to look at suicide bombers, is social influence. It should be understood that suicide bombers are not only dangerous to the society but also dangerous to themselves; social influence is the ‘process by which group members influence one another’s opinions’. (Turner, 1982) Many scientists also view this process as transformation, and this is how the danger which potential suicide bombers create for themselves, can be explained – the process of social influence is often seen by psychologists as the way the group comes to the one single general decision through influencing each other, and in this case it can be suggested that a potentially weak person is socially influenced by other group members pushing this person towards suicide bombing.

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Social influence

Social influence is defined as the regulation of one’s behavior by direct, indirect or imagined control by another. (Turner, 1982) It will be more beneficial to concentrate and apply the notions created and researched by Sherif in 1935. Sherif was able to show and to connect the creation of norms to the group behavior of people, and the results of his research are valuable in the present work because they show how people are socially influenced and how new norms are formed which become usual for the objects under influence. Sherif’s theory of social influence works in the following way:

–          first of all, he states that the social world is ambiguous and uncertain;

–          second, the norms which emerge in groups are the shared frames of reference;

–          these norms emerge as a result of social interaction;

–          interdependence which is shown by Sherif as social interdependence, is seen by him based on the reduction of uncertainty. (Cohen, 1978)

Thus, through the knowledge given by Sherif it is possible to see how the group members (especially in terms of suicide bombers) are driven together – through their social interaction it becomes possible to create new norms, in which they then exist. It means, that suicide is shown to them as a norm, moreover, based on the understanding that self-sacrifice has always been a part of history, especially in many religions. (Sherif, 1972)

In relation to the explanation of the social influence and the obedience theory, it will be appropriate to base the discussion on the Milgram’s works (1974). He was the researcher and the founder of the knowledge, showing the line which drives the group towards obedience. However, in this work it is essential to see the connection of the obedience theory and the authority of God which is proclaimed by the group leaders, and who also create the norms of behavior and self-sacrifice for the sake of God. The theory of obedience and the creation of norms are the two different approaches which are connected and cannot be considered here separately. As it has been seen, the norms which are created for the suicide bombers put them under danger of being socially influenced and accept the necessity for self-murder as one of the ways of saving their souls and following the will of the nation (or any other force used as equivalent). According to Milgram (1974) obedience depends on the variety of socially created norms of behavior. These norms are created through group interaction. As soon as potential suicide bombers positively react to the request ‘to sign up’ to the group meeting (or similar event) they make a contract and disagreeing or refusing to sign it according to Milgram meant to be immoral. In terms of Muslim religion, martyrdom was always one of the integral parts of the people’s striving towards better life after death (Brooks, 2002), and thus being called immoral towards Muslims religion as soon as the potential bomber has accepted the invitation cannot be accepted on the basis of the social norms existing in the Muslim society. The cult of self-sacrifice was always essential for Muslims, and this is why their obedience to the authority of religion and God is inseparable from their desire to prove their devotion to this God through killing themselves and many others around.

Obedience theory is also an instrument of minority to influence the majority. The research (Milgram, 1974) suggests, that ‘most people have moderate views than what they consider their group norm to be. Inciting and empowering moderates from within to confront inadequacies and inconsistencies in their own knowledge (of others as evil), values (respect for life) and behavior (support for killing) and other members of their group can produce emotional dissatisfaction leading to lasting change and influence on the part of these individuals’. What is meant here is that the minority group uses inconsistencies in the knowledge of the majority, especially in the sphere of religion, interpreting it in the desired way and making potential suicide bombers accept the norms which are spread by the leader. These people are under threat of accepting these norms as common, thus committing the murder of themselves and of other people without any need and any positive outcome. Obedience to God as the prevalent authority is seen through the interview which has been given to one of the bombers in Times: ‘First I will ask Allah to bless my mission with a high rate of casualties among the Americans. […] The most important thing is that he should let me kill many Americans’ (Ghosh, 2005) This expression both shows obedience to religion and moves the discussion towards the prejudice theory, on which this intolerable attitude towards other outer groups (in this case Americans) is based and developed.

In order to see the way potential suicide bombers are influenced inside the group, it will be useful to look at the theories of prejudice, in-group favoritism, and the tendency towards becoming negative identity. At first, prejudice theory has been created by Allport (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2000), and it is stated that ‘prejudice is an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have an objectionable qualities ascribed to this group’. On this basis, suicide bombers are socially influenced by assuring them in the differences which exist between various groups (especially in ethnic conflicts) and growing hostility towards these different groups is one of the primary aims of the suicide bombers’ group leaders. Though they seem to proclaim death as one of the best means to ‘save soul’, but they themselves never give away their lives, devoting themselves to social influence and attracting new group members. Moreover, as soon as the person appears within the group, this person ‘shows in-group favoritism, that is, favor the in-group more than out-group,’ (Stephan ; Stephan, 2000) which means that the norms which are developed within this group are accepted by the potential suicide bombers as prevailing over all other outside norms, which ultimately leads them to the change of their identity under social influence towards negative image. The norms developed inside tend to develop stereotypes in attitudes towards other groups, which is also a considerable threat for those who sign up for the membership.

Social identity

As we go in this work through the line that not only society is under threat of suicide bombers, but they themselves are under threat of becoming that, it is essential to look at the problem from another viewpoint – this viewpoint is mainly based on the social identity theory – how suicide bombers come to thinking they are to commit suicide for the name of their God and how their group socialization and group decision making makes them obedient to the authority of leader.

First of all, social identity is the theory which was developed in 1979. ‘Social identity is the individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership of social groups; in other words, it is an individual based perception of what defines ‘us’ associated with any internalized group membership.’ (Knippenberg, 2002) According to the theory of social identity, suicide bombers are seen to create the relationships and categorization within the group which favor in-group relations for the expense of the out-group. This is seen through the situation when people, having signed up to the group and having become obedient to the authority of the leader, become closed from the outer environment and stop any communication with the members of the out group. As we have already spoken about in group favoritism, it is also suitable to mention it here; because it is one of the three principal dimensions in which social identity theory is seen. Social identity is the means for the group member to understand that group membership is a part of his self-concept, and the leaders of these groups use this tendency in those who want to join the circle of suicide bombers. ‘Marwan asked his commander to consider him for a suicide mission last fall but had to wait until the beginning of April for his name to be put on the list of volunteers. – When he finally agreed it was the happiest day of my life, Marwan recalls’. (Ghosh, 2005) Thus, for this 20 year old young man, being a member of that group meant to have integral self-conception and integral social identity.

The theories of social creativity should be also involved in the present discussion, it is essential to distinguish that the way of thinking and the social creativity of the members of terrorist groups are different from those who represent out-group. ‘Social creativity arises from the activities which take place in a social context in which interactions with other people and the shared artifacts are important contributors to the process. Shared understanding that supports collaborative learning and working requires the active construction of a knowledge system in which the meanings of concepts and objects can be debated and resolved’. (Taifel & Turner, 1986) Looking at the groups and in-group situation within the terrorist organizations, it becomes clear that their model of social creativity is much different from the one to which we are used in normal life and surrounding. What is meant here is that ‘volunteers have to go through a program to discipline the mind and cleanse the soul. The training, supervised by the field commanders and Sunni clerics sympathetic to the insurgency, is mainly psychological and spiritual.’ (Ghosh, 2005) Social creativity here is exercised through the peculiar interrelations between the group members.

Another important aspect is that social creativity cannot exist without or versus individual creativity. Thus, the development of the social identity of the suicide bomber through the obedience theory and assuring him of the benefits he will receive after death, goes simultaneously with the development of the social creativity, and in the same line with it. The participants of the terrorist groups not only ‘cleanse their souls’; (Ghosh, 2005) they not only listen to the speeches of their spiritual mentors, but even visit the sites of the previous bombings and suicides for inspiration – this also supports the development of both social identity and social creativity of the suicide bomber, because he is being influenced by the surrounding in his strivings and implied desires to save the country through self-murder, which in its turn becomes the pushing factor for the development of his social creativity. (Fisher, 2005)

The process of group socialization is integral here for the understanding why suicide bombers are in danger for being impacted and made commit suicide. This process goes in several stages, and some of them give more clarification to the obedience theory. First of all, the process of group socialization begins with the members of group getting to know each other. This is the first contact of the group and individual. (Davis & Witte, 1996) In terrorist groups this contact is made through the first visit; while the individual evaluates whether the group can fulfill his needs for self-expression and in this case, for self murdering, the group itself evaluates the individual, whether it can trust him and whether he is able to be obedient to the group discipline. The stage of commitment is the period of socialization when the new member of the group agrees to obey to the norms of the organization (and as we have seen, norms created in terrorist groups are very different from those which are created in the out group; moreover, these norms are created on the basis of uncertainties, which exist in the mind of the potential suicide bomber). ‘Marwan says the occasional bomber may ask to be chained to the wheel to make sure he does not flinch at the last moment’. (Ghosh, 2005) This is one of the stages in which members of the group try to show their commitment as one of the parts of group socialization.

While the member of the group and the group itself tries to establish close relationships, the process of socialization goes to its final stage, and here the decision making of the group exercises itself; moreover, this is also a stage at which obedience theory comes into play. As soon as the group member (suicide bomber) has shown his (her) commitment to the goals common with that of the group, the group has the right to finally accept the member or to make him leave. The fact of departure from the group is the proof that the member of the group has not been obedient and that his social identity is negative for this very group. This is why trying not to be excluded from the group, members tend for the highest level of obedience to rules, authority of the leader and positive evaluation in in-group environment. (Riddle & Anderson, 2000)


We have become used to the thought that suicide bombers are extremely dangerous to the society. But has anyone ever thought how dangerous is the terrorist society towards these bombers and under what influences they appear as soon as they sign up with any terrorist organization. The present work has been designed to show these dangers, under which suicide bombers appear themselves, from the different viewpoints – as far as suicide bombers are rarely seen as having any psychiatric pathologies, the two psychological perspectives, namely of social identity and social influence, are the most appropriate for showing that suicide bombers are the victims of their own social impulses and are used for the participation in terrorist acts often against their real desires but with the use of wise strategies.

Suicide bombers are under the threat of committing a serious crime, because their social identity is developed through the obedience to the God and religious assumptions and regulations; their in group interests are made prevail over those of the out group; moreover they are developed prejudices towards other outer groups which make them commit crimes against these other groups. This is especially seen through the war in Iraq, in which young people, whose parents used to be very successful, still devote themselves to the preparation and socialization inside the terrorist groups, considering all Americans to be guilty in this war without any distinction between them (prejudice), and making the achievement of the common group goals the goal of their own life, as becoming an integral terrorist group member becomes the proof of the self obedience, obedience to discipline and positive self social identity.