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How extremist groups feed simplistic views into would-be suicide bombers: analysis

This 2015 file photo shows a young man who had escaped the Islamic State militant group, in the south Turkish city of Sanliurfa. (Mainichi/Tomoko Ohji)

TOKYO -- The 20-year war in Afghanistan can be traced back to Sept. 11, 2001 when international terrorist group al-Qaida carried out suicide attacks on the United States. We can place the war's end date at Aug. 26, 2021 when a suicide bombing orchestrated by the Islamic State (IS) extremist militant group left nearly 200 people dead in the Afghan capital Kabul. While suicide terrorism tends to be seen as a classic tactic, experts see it as the most powerful human weapon. The Mainichi Shimbun looks into the mechanism of suicide attacks.

    Bruce Hoffman, a renowned professor studying terrorism at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has dubbed suicide terrorists "the ultimate smart bomb." Weapons equipped with artificial intelligence are still no match for the ability of a human being to make a sound judgement and their flexibility -- needed to carefully close in on a target and wait until the right moment while dealing with the situation at hand on the fly.

    The suicide bomber at Kabul Airport is reported to have gotten past security and closed in on U.S. soldiers to a distance of about 5 meters. According to a study by U.S. thinktank Rand Corp., suicide terrorism on average creates four times more casualties than other forms of terrorism. For terrorist groups, therefore, suicide attacks are the most powerful human weapons, as described by Hoffman.

    So why do people fall under the spell of stone-cold terrorist organizations?

    In January 2015, this Mainichi Shimbun reporter was a correspondent in Jerusalem, and interviewed eight former IS militants separately in Turkey, a neighbor of Syria where the IS group was based. Their reasons for joining the terrorist group -- such as getting paid, receiving weapons to protect their family and wanting to rebuild their home country -- all seemed like a realistic approach. I got the impression that for them it was a job to survive. However, the organization gradually converted the young men into human weapons.

    A young Syrian man, 17 at the time of the interview, was one of the former IS militants who was urged to kill himself in a suicide attack. He was of small build, with strikingly long eyelashes and black eyes. He said he was invited to join the terrorist organization when a Tunisian man in his 30s claiming to be an IS militant came to his house in June 2013. The man told him that they would pay him several hundred U.S. dollars as a monthly salary. The young man's farmer family made roughly $250 a month, but the farm was practically closed due to the ongoing conflict. As he debated whether to join the group, the recruiter handed him a gun, telling him to protect his family with it. The Syrian man eventually decided to join the IS group, saying that he started liking the recruiter's use of words like "trust" and "respect."

    However, the recruiter then started persuading him into taking part in a suicide attack, telling him things like, "You can go to paradise," and, "You're going to be a hero." He was put to grueling training for a suicide bombing mission. His friends started to disappear one by one, and he was told that they died in suicide attacks. The young man was "out of strength to even think because of exhaustion and pressure," he recalled.

    One day, he talked to his mother on his cell phone. While he didn't say anything about the suicide attacks, his mother, out of the blue as if she had sensed something, told him not to die and run. He said the conversation was like a wakeup call and he risked his life to escape the group.

    A research group headed by Ariel Merari, a professor of terrorism at Tel Aviv University in Israel, conducted an interview-based psychological study on incarcerated would-be suicide bombers in the country, in addition to members of terrorist groups that provided lateral support, or so-called handlers, and a control group of those involved in acts of terrorism other than suicide attacks. The results showed that the would-be suicide terrorists had weak egos, and their ability to balance their mental state and actions or to cope with stress was lower than that of those in the control group. The handlers, on the other hand, tended to have stronger egos than members of the control group and exhibited a tendency to tolerate high levels of stress.

    Merari looked into data on suicide terrorism in a separate paper and argued that there were three stages in a process of creating a human weapon -- 1) indoctrination 2) commitment to the group and 3) individual vows. In the initial stage, a new recruit is reinjected with the anger and hope that they already feel after such emotions are verbalized in rhetoric suited for the group's tactics. The group then intensifies peer pressure on the recruits by having members share such feelings. The group video records would-be suicide bombers "last words" and releases the footage to recruit yet more members after the suicide bombing is carried out.

    If there was anything that divided the fate of those who died in suicide attacks and the young Syrian man the Mainichi Shimbun interviewed, it would have been that the latter never gave up on thinking on his own even though he had struggled. He never surrendered the steering wheel of his thoughts to someone else.

    When a person is faced with difficulties or injustice, their sense of victimization is heightened and they tend to seek a convincing story. Extremist groups provide individuals with the simplistic dichotomy of good and evil to take control of an already weary mind and body. Their vision then becomes narrower and it becomes easier for them to fall into violent extremism, or a thought process and a pattern of action to solve everything with violence motivated by a distorted sense of justice.

    Many eyewitnesses have spoken of the smiles that suicide attackers make right before they detonate the bombs. Terrorist groups praise them as the best kind of smile worn by the martyrs. But it must be different from the smile of a person who engages in in-depth debate with themselves regardless of the angst, and eventually paves their own way after inner conflict.

    (Japanese original by Tomoko Ohji, Expert Writer)

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