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A Terrorist's Mind

Suicide attacks motivated by beliefs, brainwashing, say experts

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 12, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Terrorists who kill themselves along with hundreds -- or thousands -- of others may be acting out of the extremes of self-destructiveness, but they may also view mass murder as a way to spiritual happiness, experts say.

Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., says some experts think suicide bombers might be given to self-destructive impulses even without brainwashing.

However, other experts have argued that the suicidal urge is a product of the message. In the case of extreme Islam, terrorists convince themselves that killing themselves along with others in the name of religion is a path to paradise.

Intelligence officials in Washington have pointed a tentative finger of blame for yesterday's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington at the militant Islamic organization headed by Osama bin Laden. A millionaire Saudi expatriate who has proclaimed holy war on the United States and all Americans, Bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, has denied involvement in the attacks.

Fundamentalist extremists have adopted suicidal attacks -- renaming them acts of martyrdom to skirt conflict with the Koran, which forbids suicide -- as a weapon of choice, particularly in Israel. But the approach is rare in the armory of world terrorism, says Crenshaw, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of World Terrorism. Only the Tamil Tigers rebel group in Sri Lanka use suicide bombers regularly, but their struggle is political, not religious.

However, Crenshaw says she sees connections between the Tamil Tigers and the violence practiced by some in the Middle East. "There may be very real similarities in terms of the type of indoctrination involved," she says.

Another expert sees yesterday's attack as an exception to the usual terrorist psychology.

"The vast majority of people that engage in terrorist attacks and carry them out are not suicidal," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA official who helped guide the State Department's counter-terrorism operations between 1989 and 1993. "What we saw yesterday was an aberration."

Johnson also says that bin Laden is the most likely ringleader of the attacks, not only because he has the resources to train foot soldiers but because he has so thoroughly demonized the United States and its people.

"This is not an issue of a political disagreement or policy difference. There is no room for compromise; there is no room for agreement. It is the U.S. [as] a symbol and source of evil, and within [bin Laden's] world view, he's acting rationally," Johnson says.

But he adds that bin Laden, his followers and others like him are typically so isolated from the target of their aggression, living in a black-and-white "fantasy" that they develop delusions of grandeur.

"There is this belief that you can do something so heinous that it will cause the U.S. to collapse and its policy to change. That's a miscalculation," Johnson says.

Bryan Byers, a hate crimes expert at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., says that figuring out how terrorists think could help investigators track down the ultimate masterminds of the aggression. "It can help to pinpoint some of the more radical elements who might have knowledge about the attacks," he says.

The aerial attacks, in which hijackers turned commercial U.S. jetliners into bombs, began at 8:45 a.m. yesterday, when an American Airlines 767 rammed into one of the 110-story World Trade Center towers in New York City. Another 767, this one from United Airlines, struck the second tower 18 minutes later. Then the Pentagon was hit by a hijacked American Airlines 757, and a hijacked United jet went down near Pittsburgh, its destination unclear. The death toll is expected to be in the thousands.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday that teams of three to five terrorists were believed to have commandeered the planes, apparently with knives smuggled through airport security in Boston, Newark and Dulles Airport, where all four flights originated.

What To Do

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Try CNN for news updates on the rescue operations underway and the investigation into the attacks.

SOURCES: Interviews with Martha Crenshaw, Ph.D., professor of government, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.; Bryan Byers, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice and criminology, Muncie, Ind.; Larry C. Johnson, terrorism expert and consultant, Berg Associates, Alexandria, Va.
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