SURVIVAL is the most fundamental directive hard-wired into the DNA of every species. So what makes young men — and, increasingly, young women — become suicide bombers?
Clearly, it takes very powerful conditioning to overcome this Darwinian imperative that is reinforced by all major religions as well as by human laws. A desire for revenge is a strong motivation, as is hatred. A sense of personal and national humiliation can drive some to lash out in a suicidal rage.
A combination of these factors has been used by cynical people to indoctrinate others to lay down their lives. Perhaps Samson was the first historical figure to kill himself while bringing down the temple on the heads of his tormentors.
The Japanese trained kamikaze pilots to fly their bombers into American ships after the tide of the war turned against their country. The Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing in the modern era; the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was one of their many victims.
But we need to go further back in time to examine the death cult that systematically brainwashed young men to assassinate Christian and Arab princes and generals across much of the Middle East in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Established by Hassan al-Sabbah at Alamut, high in Iran’s Alborz mountains, the castle was virtually impregnable.
Here, legend has it, he created a small version of paradise populated by a number of beautiful girls. Young men would be drugged with hashish — and hence, hashashin, or assassins — and when they regained consciousness, they would find themselves in a heavenly garden, surrounded by nubile beauties. After spending the night in their company, they would wake up back in the real world.
They would then be told by the sheikh that if they wanted to return to paradise forever, they would have to obey his orders without fail. Desperate to seek re-entry into what they thought was heaven, these simple young men would eagerly agree to do Al Sabbah’s bidding, and went forth to kill designated targets, never to return. For years, the Old Man of the Mountain was feared by rulers from Baghdad to Cairo, and beyond.
It is this model of mind-control that is today used by many jihadi groups. Lacking tanks, jet fighters and other modern weapons, they use suicide bombers to even the odds. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban until he was mercifully killed by an American drone, once boasted of his band of young suicide bombers as his “atom bombs”.
Training young men and even boys to blow themselves up on command became a cottage industry in Pakistan’s tribal areas at the height of the extremist insurgency. Once completely brainwashed, they would be sold off to different jihadi groups to use against targets of their choice.
Army units liberating these areas have found at least one such training centre where scenes of a heavenly abode were painted on walls. Although less sophisticated than Al Sabbah’s evocation of paradise, these pictures were used to show simple young men what awaited them after they completed their missions.
After a suicide vest failed to explode, a young bomber was wounded by security forces and brought to a hospital in Rawalpindi. When asked why he had tried to kill himself and others, he replied, pointing towards a young nurse: “The ustad told me that as soon as I pulled the cord on my vest, I would be propelled to heaven in a rocket where I would get houris like this lady.”
This kind of quasi-religious indoctrination takes place against a general background of hatred against the West and all its perceived allies in the Muslim world. Feelings of humiliation over the loss of power and prestige by the Islamic world over the last four centuries, and the rise of the West, are ascribed to dark conspiracies, and our deviation from the true path taught by the Holy Book.
Together with this sense of historical injustice are the potent images of Muslims being oppressed from Palestine to Chechnya. Local wrongs and struggles are added to this potent mix. Muslim schoolchildren from Jakarta to Jerusalem absorb this poisonous narrative that is further reinforced by the media.
The term used by jihadi groups to describe suicide attacks is ‘martyrdom operations’. And for those engaged in asymmetrical warfare against vastly superior conventional forces, this becomes a viable option. For the adversary, the prospect of fighting those eager to die is a scary prospect.
But in the end, much of the motivation relies on the fixation with a sensual afterlife reserved for ‘martyrs’. Even in Syria, many of the young men joining the militant Islamic State group have been promised ‘wives’. These, of course, are women captured by the so-called caliphate, and handed to fighters to rape. Clearly, those seeking to impose Sharia across the world are not above using hormone-crazed men and captive women to further their cause.
Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2015