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September 10, 2008 3:18 am

Suicide bombers may not really be loners

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Evidence from interviews with failed suicide bombers casts further doubt on the perception of terrorists as isolated individuals.

The findings were presented on Tuesday to an audience at the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool. David Canter, professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool, analysed in-depth interviews with failed suicide bombers and other individuals convicted of terrorist offences.

The results, yet to be published, show that individuals’ social networks are an important factor in determining whether they are prepared to commit acts of terrorism.

Interviewers visited 49 convicted jihadi terrorists across India. Almost all of the individuals studied, regardless of their political, religious or criminal motives, belonged to social groups that encouraged violence. The results suggest that political and ideological stance is not enough, in itself, to lead to acts of terror.

Professor Canter stressed that his sample is made up of only those individuals that are prepared to talk openly about their crimes. He said that more studies are needed to test the validity of these results. “We need to draw information from lots of different sources. You have to triangulate that in a variety of different ways, which is always a problem.”

Despite Professor Canter’s multimillion pound funding track record, he has been unable to obtain UK research council funding for this study. The work was privately funded by an anonymous donor.

“There is a concern among many researchers that, if we talk to terrorists and gain some understanding of what their perspective is, this will somehow imply a legitimisation of what they are trying to do,” he said.

Moves to prevent radicalisation in the UK are increasingly focusing on community engagement, rather than framing the problem as a clash of civilisations. Professor Canter welcomed this move, saying, “If we try to understand the psychology of these individuals there is very real potential to ‘deradicalise’ them.”

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