Israeli terrorism expert Ariel Merari told GW students Thursday the organization of Middle Eastern terrorist groups, not religious fanaticism, was the key to executing the Sept. 11 attacks.
Merari, head of Tel Aviv University’s political violence studies department, discussed the dangerous nature of suicide terrorists in a lecture at Hillel with about 60 students, including professor Bernard Reich’s Israeli Politics and Foreign Policy class.
“Suicide terrorism is a particularly dangerous form of terrorism,” he said, adding that there is no impenetrable physical defense against it.
Merari said media coverage of the Shiite attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983 may have caused misconceptions that religion was the only motivation for recent attacks.
After a member of a secular organization drove his car containing a bomb into the embassy, killing 63, the bomber’s supporters staged rallies in Lebanon that received substantial news coverage in the United States, Merari explained.
He said the images of Shiite extremists celebrating the attack led the world to believe that other terrorist attacks are acts of religious fanaticism, a theory he said is untrue.
He also discounted another common belief that all suicide terrorists are depressed and choose to take others with them. Merari said terrorists are not typical suicide cases, because their willingness to die is associated with their own ideals of martyrdom.
“If you wanted to die, you wouldn’t just jump from a tall building,” he said, explaining suicide terrorists’ mentality. “Instead, you would strap explosives to your body and blow up the enemy as well, and you would be a hero, and your family would get benefits because you died a martyr.”
Suicide terrorists often lack drug or alcohol addictions common of suicidal people because their religion forbids the use of controlled substances, Merari said. He said many are not depressed, come from middle class families and are engaged to be married.
Merari contrasted these terrorists with the stereotypical view of terrorists as lower-class introverts.
He also said religion would not be a strong enough motivation for the suicide attacks.
“Not many people would be willing to kill themselves in the name of Allah,” Merari said.
He cited conflicts in Sri Lanka and Chechnya and those that involve the Kurdish as secular suicide terrorism.
Since suicide or religious beliefs do not motivate the terrorists, he said, it proves the execution of these attacks is due to the painstaking organization in the preparation process.
“In all cases of Middle Eastern suicide terrorist attacks, there has been an organization to choose the targets, train the terrorists, determine the time and encourage them to complete their mission,” Merari said.
Merari said the most crucial role of the organization is to strengthen the terrorists’ ideological motivation in preparation for the attack. Groups also assure terrorists they are living martyrs and their planned actions will be considered heroic, he said.
Students at the lecture said the psychological condition of suicide terrorists – who are often otherwise normal people – makes them dangerous.
“This is a dangerous psychological phenomenon the world has come to grips with,” freshman Alex Berger said after the lecture. “The terrorists have no fear of death, and society falls victim to the fear associated with anticipating the next attack.”
Hillel Director Simon Amiel, who organized Merari’s appearance, said he welcomed the professor to speak after being contacted by the Israeli Embassy. Merari is the second of three panelists in an educational series that will conclude in November with a dialogue between Muslim-American and Jewish-American students.
-Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.