Are Terrorists Reverse Outliers?

The first few dispatches about the Mumbai terrorists came out yesterday and there are already some revealing details about the 10 gunmen who opened fired indiscriminately on civilians in the streets and buildings of Mumbai. The gunmen are alleged members of Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistani separatist group located in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

An attack like this shakes the mind. How could human beings carry out such an act of evil?

In a timely journal article this month in Policing, suicide bombing researcher Paul Gill at University College Dublin offers a few insights. Traditional “supply side” profile models of suicide bombers cast a net over such a wide group of people that they are largely ineffectual in explaining why people become suicide bombers. Gill’s “pathway model” details a more complete understanding of who ultimately becomes a suicide bomber. The total number of people who go through with suicide attacks is miniscule compared to those who fit into the same socioeconomic and religious profile, or even those who are supportive of their actions.

The reason for this discrepancy is that the barriers to entry are actually quite high for suicide bombers, because, as Gill argues, “organizational leaders carefully choose who can join … The risk of new recruits becoming state informants or reneging on duties is too great.” The Washington Post reported that the leadership of Lashkar-i-Taiba rigorously selected the final members of the attack, whittling down the team from 25 to 10. It turns out that the “demand side” of the equation is just as important in determining who becomes a suicide bomber.

Recently, David Brooks has been championing the role positive relationships play in producing productive individuals. The opposite is also true for suicide bombers: “A would-be-bomber in the Iraqi insurgency claimed that he had 15 friends who blew themselves up … The 9/11 hijackers consisted of many pre-existing friendship ties, two sets of brothers and three hijackers who shared tribal affiliations. The Madrid bombers consisted of one set of brothers and many sets of pre-existing friendship ties.”

The final element of the equation involves intense small-group socialization wherein the individuals are fully indoctrinated and radicalized. The terrorists who lead suicide cells have figured out that in order to radicalize someone, you have to isolate him or her from almost all other social contacts.

In the coming days, weeks and months we are bound to find out more about the attackers. Gill’s pathway model will be a much more instructive tool to understanding (and preventing) who turns out to be a suicide bomber than the current profiling paradigm.


The views expressed in this blog do not represent the views or opinions of Generations United.