Belfast Telegraph

Secret to understanding Jihadi suicide bombers could lie in the IRA hunger strikes at the Maze

Malachi O'Doherty

What makes a suicide bomber? Well, much the same factors as make a hunger striker, it seems. Past theorising by academics about the type of person who was ready to blow himself up on the orders of a cultish paramilitary leader suggested he was unfortunate from the start.

He - mostly he - had little to live for, had low self-esteem and was easily led. He had delinquent tendencies. His violence was a mighty "up yours" to a world that owed him a living and hadn't paid up. But more recent research suggests differently.

An article in the online magazine Aeon assesses research by psychologist Jocelyn Belanger and team at the University of Quebec. Belanger asked: just what sort of person is ready to sacrifice his own life for a cause?

What he came up with credits the suicide bomber with more self-respect than previous social-science theorising. It also overturns some biology.

The great theorist of evolution, Richard Dawkins, argued that self-sacrificing was done in the preservation of the gene. It made sense to lay down your life if your offspring were given a better chance to thrive. It made no sense to die for someone you weren't related to.

The suicide bomber will happily die for a jihadist ideal that will make no immediate difference to his children, apart from depriving them of a parent.

And what is more interesting in the Northern Irish context, the model of the personal experience of the suicide bomber fits that of the IRA hunger strikers, who queued up to die in the Maze in 1981.

The hunger strikers' supporters don't like the word "suicide". Neither do jihadis, who use the word "martyr". Neither gave up their lives in despair, but they did give them up.

What Belanger found was that the suicide bombers bonded into groups of people who were so committed to each other that they cared more for each other and for their cause than they did for their families.

He finds that being willing to die for your family is relatively normal, but these men had supplanted their natural genetic families with another group that meant more to them.

And we see over and over again that the parents of suicide bombers are amazed and appalled that their children should have thrown away their lives and tried to kill others. They no longer know their own children.

That is because their children have come to be more powerfully attached to their group and their cause than to their siblings and parents. This is what the hunger strikers did.

Just over half the IRA men in the Maze prison in the late 1970s joined a protest against the removal of special category status, or political status, as they saw it. They refused to wear the prison uniform, asserting that they were not criminals and would not be treated as such.

They dug themselves into a deadlocked protest, refusing to relent, while the prison authorities and the government refused to give way. In that situation, the protest could only either collapse, or grow stronger.

The men ratcheted it up for years, going beyond refusing to wear prison clothes to refusing to wash, or to allow prison warders to escort them to the toilets to slop out in the mornings.

None can have imagined at the beginning how bad it would get. Men smeared their faeces on the walls, sponging it on with pieces torn from their mattresses. They emptied uneaten food into the corner of the cell where, one morning, they woke to find that all over the prison, maggots had hatched out.

You don't have to endorse the IRA to imagine how horrific this was. These were men who cheered on the IRA campaign on the outside and were eager to get back to participating in it.

But something was happening between them that was unlike anything they had experienced before and it appears to be so like the experience of the jihadis who commit themselves to dying that it might be worthwhile studying the hunger strike to understand the suicide bomber.

These men came to love each other. Brendan Hughes, who led the first hunger strike in 1980, was a committed IRA leader with a lot of blood on his hands, but he later spoke, with some difficulty, of the love between the men, unique in his experience.

"There was an almost loving comradeship developed over a period of years among them, something that to me is unique, that deep solid comradeship. They are all ordinary people, but that comradeship, that suffering, that unity, brought about something in those people, in us, that we felt so tied, so committed to each other.

"Some people would refer to them as saints. I think that's sloppy; they weren't saints. They were just ordinary. They missed ordinary things. We talked about sex. We used to talk about how you missed freedom. Then at night we'd have talked about the stars; we'd have talked about God - is there one? We'd have talked about the beauty of the stars and the moon. And that whole period, coming through all that, enabled 10 people just to walk to their deaths."

That's a quote from a documentary called Behind the Mask that Hughes gave an interview to in 1991.

There has been much discussion in recent years about whether they were used for political advantage by Sinn Fein. And Sinn Fein's rebuttal is to say they were not dupes.

They did, however, feel that they owed it to each other to keep up the train of death once it had started.

And, as evidence that would surely interest the students of jihadism, the succession of suicides in the Maze failed when the families of the men intervened, insisting, as next of kin, on having the men fed when they slid into coma.

One of the last hunger strikers actually suggested that IRA women should marry them so that they would become next of kin and could permit them to die.

Some have reacted badly to the Aeon article, that explores the psychology of the suicide bomber and finds the creation of a new family to be an essential part of the experience. They want no consideration of the possibility that these men are in any sense humane.

And for years it was hard for most of us to see through the callousness of the IRA to the awesome change that came over the men in the Maze.

Now it looks as if revisiting that experience and understanding it may be one of the most important and valuable pieces of research we could do if we are to tackle jihad.

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