What turned Mohammad Sidique Khan, a softly spoken youth worker, into the mastermind of 7/7? I spent months in a Leeds suburb getting to know Khan’s brother. A complex and disturbing story of the bomber’s radicalisation emerged.
Suicide bombing is not just a religious phenomenon. It is employed by many secular organisations, including the Kurdish PKK and the Marxist Tamil Tigers. In fact, until 2000, the Tamil Tigers had carried out more suicide attacks than all other groups put together. Over the years, the profiles of individual bombers have also varied, from young boys to, more recently, women. Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University psychologist, has profiled 50 suicide bombers and found that there were hardly any common factors. None were deranged or schizophrenic. Few had problems like depression. Merari concluded that the only factor linking all forms of suicide terrorism was the way bombers were recruited and trained. It is the psychology of the group, not the individual, that is key.
This was something that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified nearly 100 years ago in Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Durkheim contrasted “egotistical” suicide—caused by a person feeling disconnected from society—with “altruistic” suicide, which occurs when “integration is too strong.”
For my BBC research team, our first month in Leeds was a write-off because no one would talk. This silence was the first sign that Beeston’s Pakistani community might harbour the kind of cohesive group in which an “altruistic” mentality could flourish.