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Mike Boettcher: Inside the mind of a suicide bomber

Mike Boettcher is a national correspondent for CNN. He previously worked for NBC, covering such stories as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Persian Gulf War. He was CNN's national security correspondent from 1981-1984. Boettcher is the recipient of numerous awards, including two national Emmys, two National Headliner awards and the highest honor from the National Society of Professional Journalists. He joined the chat room from Atlanta, GA.

CNN: Welcome to, Mike Boettcher. We're pleased to have you with us today.

BOETTCHER: Greetings, and thanks for taking an interest in this, the most important issue facing our nation right now.

CNN: Mike, you've done some research on suicide bombers. What motivates these individuals to give up their lives in such violent ways?

BOETTCHER: There are two reasons that suicide bombers take the action they take. One is for religious reasons, the other is for what is called ethnonationalistic reasons. The first category, Hezbollah could fall into that. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka would fit the second category.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mike Boettcher, aren't the suicide bombers brainwashed? None of them are allowed on the Internet, or have access to the news.

BOETTCHER: I would not say that they have no access to what is going on in the world around them. For example, the families of suicide bombers I spoke to in Lebanon had frequent contact with their husbands or fathers in the time leading up to their actions. As far as brainwashing, there is an argument to be made that they are, but Hezbollah, for example, maintain that these attackers make their decision to do this on their own, fully conscious of the consequences.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What factors are taken into account when recruiting someone for a terrorist organization?

BOETTCHER: It depends on the organization, but it is almost total commitment to a cause, usually sparked by events in their lives that support that total commitment.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the radical form of Islam fuel the making of such terrorists?

BOETTCHER: Well, certainly there are different interpretations of what the words in the Koran mean, just as there are different interpretations of the words in the Bible. There are many in Islam who would argue that terrorism is in no way supported in the Koran, and the same with martyrdom. However, those who take a more extreme view of the words in the Koran believe their actions are supported. Those who follow that line of reasoning are those who support more radical or extreme militant groups.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mike, once their mission is determined, is there anything that can be done to change their mind and make them want to live?

BOETTCHER: It has happened before. The suicide bomber is guided by the most sophisticated computer of all, the brain. These people are not without reason, and sometimes the will to live does prevail.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mike, up until about a month ago, the FBI had a profile for what a suicide bomber was like. That profile was false. How old is your data?

BOETTCHER: Well, my data is gathered from experience on the ground, as late as this summer. I don't pretend to be an expert on suicide bombers, but I have studied terrorism for the past 25 years. It's impossible to put all of them in the same box. Also, be aware that investigators in the U.S. are working under the theory that not all of the hijackers knew that they were on a suicide mission.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mike, most U.S. news always reports the suicide attacks as cowardly attacks, yet wouldn't it be true that in their own ethnic environment they are considered as heroic as we would any decorated U.S. soldier?

BOETTCHER: Absolutely. That is the case. They are revered in their population as martyrs, as heroes. In Beirut, for example, their photographs are plastered everywhere. But when you're the victim of that attack, you take a much different view. One man's coward is another man's hero. One man's terrorist is another one's freedom fighter.

CNN: Any final thoughts for us today?

BOETTCHER: I think that in the West, we do not comprehend the level of commitment of those who launch these attacks. If the anti-terrorism alliance hopes to prevail, the public is going to need to be better educated about the opposition they face, and what motivates them.

CNN: Thanks for joining us today, Mike Boettcher.

BOETTCHER: Goodbye and good luck, and let's talk again soon. I'm happy to answer your questions as best I can. They were very good questions, by the way.

Mike Boettcher joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Friday, September 28, 2001.


• American Liberty Partnership

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