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Explosive Growth of Suicide Terrorism Brings Psychological Scientists to the Table

Psychopathology is not a necessary precondition or correlate of suicidal behavior and examining that behavior in context is revealing. In every war there are stories of self-sacrifice involving "suicide" missions in which death was a near certainty.

By Geoff Mumford

Trying to understand and prevent suicidal behavior has been a core goal of mental health researchers for the past one hundred years. For most, self-preservation is deemed so primal that we just can't fathom the depth of despair or depression that would lead an individual to take his own life. But psychopathology is not a necessary precondition or correlate of suicidal behavior and examining that behavior in context is revealing. As PSA goes to press we have just commemorated Veterans Day. In every war there are stories of self-sacrifice involving "suicide" missions in which death was a near certainty because of the risk associated with the battlefield circumstances. But in some wars death was an absolute certainty because it was the goal of the mission. In the latter, suicide was purposely coupled to homicide as a vehicle to inflict massive harm to the enemy. So for example, Kamikaze pilots in World War II inflicted some 15,000 casualties, but whether the pilots were viewed as heroes or villains depended very much on whose side you were on.

For decades the kamikaze campaign appeared to represent an isolated historical epoch and one in which virtually everyone involved was a military combatant. But over the last twenty plus years we've born witness to a resurgence of suicide coupled to homicide as a terrorist tactic perpetrated by such groups as the Tamil Black Tigers, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Chechen "Black Widows," and Al Qaeda. Following the events of 9/11, questions about suicide bombings have continued to mount and now the government is turning to the behavioral science community for answers. Last month, the National Institute on Justice convened a Suicide Terrorism Research Conference in which several prominent APA member scientists examined case studies of suicide bombings and participated in the development of a research agenda.

Psychology was well represented both in the planning and execution of the conference. Susan Brandon (Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral, and Educational Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) was a co-organizer and helped gain multi-agency endorsements for an effort that began while she was on staff at the National Institute of Mental Health. Robert Kinscherff served as moderator for the general discussions and will help synthesize the collective input into a coherent research agenda (a role Kinscherff had filled with great success at our Intuitive Policing Workshop this past July). Other psychologists who participated included Jim Breckenridge, Naval Post Graduate School; Andrew Silke, University of East London; John Horgan from University College, Cork, Ireland; Ariel Merari, Tel Aviv University; and many more who are on staff with the Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Department of Defense.

Andrew Silke provided a historical chronology on the use of politically motivated suicide ending with Bobby Sand's suicide by starvation, which eventually led the UK to concede to the demands of Sinn Fein. Allison Smith, a social psychologist who is an AAAS/DHS Fellow, provided an overview of methodological approaches to suicide terrorism research including problems raised by virtue of the fact that, except for failed bombers, the main actor is no longer available for study. Other presentations compared and contrasted three different lines of suicide terrorism perpetrated by different groups separated by geography, ideology, and motivation including examples from Sri Lanka, Israel and Palestine, and the Al Queda network. Discussions were spirited on issues related to the validity of "psychological autopsies" of successful bombers and when and how religion played a role in the recruitment and retention of bombers. But there was striking agreement, as alluded to above, that there was little, if any, evidence that bombers were mentally ill or unstable.

Recommendations for research ranged from the theoretical (e.g., understanding why and how people become radicalized) to the practical (e.g., are there behavioral signs currently being missed to detect would-be bombers at the point of attack). There was consensus in the group that a centralized database including standardized definitions and forensic information about each incident would be very helpful to the research community. Others wondered whether it would be possible for classified data (e.g., wiretap data) to be made available to researchers with security clearances to help examine motivation and social networking retrospectively. There was broad concern about the use of the Internet as the new vehicle for recruitment and suggestions that studying chat room dynamics might inform our understanding of how terrorist social networks evolve.

It is likely that recommendations from this workshop will augment the current National Institute on Justice research solicitation on "Terrorism and Transnational Crime Research." The majority of the presentations are available along with commissioned papers and background readings on the NIJ website.