THE TERRORIST MENTALITY. THE Shiite suicide bomber who drove her explosive-packed Peugeot into an Israeli Army convoy in South Lebanon last year was 16 years old. The Jordanian who tried to assassinate the vice-consul of the United Arab Emirates in Rome in 1984 was 22. Of the four hijackers of the Achille Lauro, all of whom were sentenced in Genoa, Italy, last November, the oldest was 23; the youngest, 19.
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``I don't see any reason to assume that there is more commonality among those that resort to political violence,'' says Dr. Merari, ``than among those that resort to criminal violence.'' He adds that ``even among terrorists of the same nationality, even among terrorists of the same terrorist group, there is not much reason to assume a common personality.''Skip to next paragraph
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Nevertheless, he says, some common characteristics do emerge from studies of certain well-defined groups. His own research on Palestinian hostage-takers, for example, points to high levels of aggression, a disturbed family background, and early involvement in illegal activity. Religious motivation
The difficulty, and the importance, of trying to define the terrorist mentality are illustrated by one key example: the influence of religion in terrorism.
Much of the recent violence generated in the Middle East is traceable to the brand of Shiite fundamentalism of the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, especially to his approval of those who die for the cause.
Is the West, then, facing a particularly menacing threat in the form of suicidal terrorists? Dr. Merari plays down the threat. ``Contrary to the image created by the media, and by the perpetrators themselves, religious fanaticism does not play a major role [in terrorism].''
Merari argues, and Israeli intelligence officials confirm, that much of the so-called suicide bombing is not carried out by fanatics who believe that by dying for a cause they will go straight to the presence of Allah. Interviews with would-be suicide terrorists who were captured alive indicate they were often tricked into believing they could escape before the bomb exploded or they were blackmailed into accepting the task, on threat of harm to their families.
Was the motive in attacking the US Marine barracks in Lebanon a religious one? In her recent book, ``Sacred Rage: The Crusade of Modern Islam,'' veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright offers one response. In Beirut a month after the bombing, Sheikh Fadlallah, perhaps the most influential Shiite leader outside Iran (and a man often accused of blessing young fanatics about to go forth on suicide missions), told her that ``Suicide in such a way is forbidden in our religion.''
Yet the extent to which religion plays a role remains a puzzle, even among the experts. One problem: inadequate understanding of the Muslim faith among Westerners.
``Don't underestimate the religious content of Islam,'' warns Franco Ferracuti, an Italian scholar and former government antiterrorism official. ``That's the one variable that we seem to be losing sight of all the time.''
Whatever the answer, one thing appears certain: Suicide attacks represent a new and challenging threat. Lord Chalfont, a former British Cabinet minister with antiterrorist experience in Cyprus, Malaya, and Palestine, observes: ``The whole time that I have been involved in terrorist operations, which now goes back to 30 years, my enemy has always been a man who is very worried about his own skin. You can no longer count on that, because the terrorist [today] is not just prepared to get killed, he wants to get killed. Therefore, the whole planning, tactical doctrine, [and] thinking [behind antiterrorism measures] is fundamentally undermined.'' For example: The shootings last December at the Rome and Vienna airports were carried out by terrorists who had little if any thought of escaping. A terrorist mind-set?
Is there, then, a terrorist mind-set? From dozens of interviews over four months with longtime students of terrorist ideology and psychology, certain common characteristics begin to emerge. Not surprisingly, given the typical age of the terrorist, these characteristics are also often attributed to adolescence: