"Suicide Bombers Are Not Psychopaths"

What makes a suicide bomber tick? Thorsten Gerald Schneiders, political scientist and Middle East expert, examined the suicide attacks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the motives behind the attacks. An interview by Inga Gebauer

Thorsten Gerald Schneiders; © Inga Gebauer
In an attack, religious motives are of lesser importance, says Thorsten Gerald Schneiders

​​In your book you examine the suicide attacks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You refer to these bombings as "Selbsttötungsanschläge" ("self-killing" attacks), however. Why do you use this expression? Isn't that tantamount to trivialization?

Thorsten Gerald Schneiders: I don't think so. First of all, it is intended as a signal. When this work originated in 2002, more or less at the beginning of the wave of attacks, there was logically a very one-sided perspective on things. In order to adopt a neutral approach to this extremely emotional and highly charged issue, the idea of eliminating the word "Mord" (murder) evolved.

The word "Selbstmord" (literally, "self-murder") is also avoided by suicidologists. It simply resonates with certain connotations, such as killing for base reasons, and I for one cannot discern that in these attacks.

I am not interested in justifying or defending suicide attacks. I believe I make that very clear through the use of the word "attack." In the final analysis, an attack is a terrorist act and that is what is taking place there.

You published your book under the title "Today I Am Going to Blow Myself Up – Suicide Attacks in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." (German title: "Heute sprenge ich mich in die Luft - Suizidanschläge im israelisch-palästinensischen Konflikt"; not yet translated into English, the ed.) What sort of people blow themselves up? What are their motives?

Schneiders: First of all, it is important to understand that the bombers are not psychopaths but, on the contrary, normal people who make a conscious decision. In fact, they represent a cross-section of society: men, women, older people, but in most cases younger people, the educated, the uneducated, etc. When you think about that, you have to ask what precipitates it.

Thorsten Gerald Schneiders is a political scientist and works as a research assistant at the chair of Islamic Religion in the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Münster, Germany.I am of the opinion that it is first and foremost a political conflict, and thus the motives are particularly political, resulting from the occupation and the miserable living conditions in the occupied territories – at least compared to Israeli living conditions.

Only recently has a religious conflict developed as well, although even now I would not characterize it as religious conflict. When all is said and done, religion is exploited by both sides for their own ends. Religious motives are of lesser importance.

Another trigger is the personal motives of the people, and they are extremely diverse. For example, it can be revenge, if family members have been humiliated or even killed by Israeli soldiers.

It can simply be suicidal tendencies or the chance to provide for the family, since it is rumored that the families of the bombers are financially supported by certain organizations, such as Hamas.

Inconceivable for us, perhaps, but if you have no opportunity to earn money to support your family because of the situation, these conditions can provide a motive for blowing yourself up in order to ensure the support of the survivors with the money that is paid.

When we consider these factors, we have a conglomerate of reasons. In the book I refer to it as a system of motivations, from which a particular motivational model can be assembled for each assassin in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That means there are perpetrators who act to a certain extent for political reasons, to a certain extent from religious motives, and to a certain extent for personal reasons.

Aren't you underestimating the role of Islam in the attacks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Schneiders: Naturally, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is that Islam is the primary trigger. But isn't that what Islamists would have us believe? I wanted to approach the hypothesis critically.

​​It is true that at present most attacks worldwide are carried out against an Islamist background. It is easy to forget that until the Iraq war in 2003 most suicide attacks were committed in Sri Lanka. Islam cannot provide the backdrop there.

By the same token, you must remember that by far the largest number of suicide bombings in history, well over 1,000 to be exact, were carried out by the notorious Japanese kamikaze pilots. That should provide food for thought.

In your book you observe an enormous increase in the wave of attacks in Israel particularly since the beginning of the second Intifada. What caused this sudden, drastic increase?

Schneiders: Before the second Intifada in 2000, there was a period of great euphoria on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides. Despite several setbacks during the 1990s, almost everything pointed to peace, to a Palestinian state. Camp David in the summer of 2000 was to be the critical point in this process. Clinton, Arafat, and Barak were supposed to return home with a peace accord.

As we all know, the negotiations failed. This was accompanied by huge disappointment on both sides. They were in a situation where they no longer knew what to do.

During this period, the first suicide attack was carried out, which actually did not attract much attention. After that, however, the attacks gradually became more frequent, and in the wake of the worldwide Islamic boom the question of the justification for suicide attacks arose.

Is it suicide, which, as everyone knows, is forbidden? Is it permissible to attack women and children? These questions were raised and at that point also answered in such a way that the bombers concluded that attacks against Israel are allowed and that it is not suicide.

Another factor is that the organizations realized that with suicide bombings they could create a public, damage Israel, and prevent certain political developments, such as peace initiatives.

From the Israeli perspective, in 2001, 2002, they were even actually on the verge of giving up because they believed that there were no means of defense against these attacks. Thus the organizations developed a scenario for a way to suddenly appear to be in a position to face their great, powerful adversary Israel at least at eye level.

(photo: AP)
Islam as the sole backdrop for suicide attacks? Until the Iraq war in 2003 most suicide attacks were committed in Sri Lanka

​​Why is there a decrease in suicide attacks today?

Schneiders: For two reasons: First, Israeli countermeasures, such as the construction of the wall, the targeted killings, and the military operations in the refugee camps, have finally been successful.

Second, the Palestinians have also had to realize that they will not succeed or achieve their goal with suicide attacks. On the contrary, the bombings have resulted in a further violation of trust and probably the loss of even more land, if the wall is in fact established as the border.

At the moment the future of the Middle East conflict once again looks quite bleak. Do you believe there is a solution to the conflict, and what does it look like?

Schneiders: Yes, there is a solution, and it is the two-state solution. Nothing else is possible. It will certainly be quite a long time before it reaches that point and the coexistence of both states is guaranteed.

So much trust has been lost as a result of the long years of ongoing violence that it will still take one or more generations. Otherwise, it depends on the politicians on both sides – primarily in Israel, however, since Israel is the more powerful player in the region due to support from abroad and its own economic and military strength. I expect greater flexibility from it than from the weaker side. When they will make up their minds to do it, however, is difficult to say.

Interview: Inga Gebauer

© Qantara.de 2007

Young Muslims in Britain
Is "Eurabia" Inevitable?
What is it that makes young Muslims in the West susceptible to radicalism? What is it about the experience of the West's rising generation of Muslims that leads a small minority to see violence as a solution to their dilemmas? By Mai Yamani

Islamism in the Past and the Present
From Anti-Colonialism to Global Jihad
What are the roots of political Islam and what are the ideological tenets and goals of radical Islamic activists in Muslim countries? Franz Kogelmann provides an historic overview

Interview Khaled Abou El Fadl
Jihad Gone Wrong
Khaled Abou El Fadl is a prominent Islamic scholar and intellectual. In this interview with Novriantoni and Ramy El-Dardiry, El Fadl talks about suicide bombings, misinterpretations of 'jihad' and the humanist tradition of Islam

Interview with Hany Abu-Assad
Shooting "Paradise Now" amid Israeli Rockets
The film "Paradise Now" by Hany Abu-Assad, which was shown in competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival, is the first feature film to take on the theme of suicide bombers. Igal Avidan interviewed the Palestinian filmmaker