In the days since a group of suicide bombers launched attacks across Sri Lanka, officials have released new information about the nine alleged perpetrators behind the bombings that left at least 359 people dead.
Eight men and one woman carried out the attacks on Sunday, police said. Two of them were a married couple, and they were all Sri Lankan.
The picture that has emerged paints the group as largely coming from upper- and middle-class backgrounds. As Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister for defense, put it, some of them were “quite well-educated people.” One of the attackers studied in Britain and Australia, police said.
That shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.
In large-scale studies of terrorist perpetrators, suicide bombers often come across as “awfully normal,” said Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who researches extremism. “Your average suicide attacker is typically above-average-educated compared to the local society."
Joana Cook, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, said that it’s a common misconception “to view poverty as a sole factor or motivator for political violence.”
While poverty can certainly be a factor in certain extremist contexts, “terrorism is by definition political violence, and there are multiple motivations for becoming involved,” she said. The diverse demographics behind foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State, for example, indicate that people joined the group for a variety of reasons. Some may have been drawn by the social safety net its leaders promised, while others were more ideologically motivated, Cook said.
Cook also said that it shouldn’t be considered unusual that a woman was among the alleged perpetrators in this type of attack.
On Sunday afternoon, shortly after male suicide bombers detonated explosives at a number of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, police honed in on a house in the capital of Colombo. But when they got close to the building, officials said, a woman allegedly self-detonated, killing three police officers and herself.
“Globally it’s still viewed as exceptional when a woman perpetrates violence,” she said. “It should not be surprising anymore that women have interest in or similar motivation to men to join terrorist organizations."
Sri Lanka, in particular, has a long history of women’s involvement in political violence, and particularly in suicide attacks during the country’s decades-long civil war.
Pape said that for observers, the concept of a female suicide bomber may feel more shocking because it challenges the perceived norms of conflict.
In cases of suicide bombings, the attack adds an extra degree of fear for its targets because if the perpetrators have decided they are willing to die, they will not be deterred by threats to their life in the moments leading up to the attack, he said. And when the attacker is a woman, it adds another layer of fear, Pape said, because targets aren’t necessarily expecting someone who fits her profile to launch an attack. “What scares people is this breaking of norms that they see are being broken right before their eyes,” he said.
Many details about what happened on Sunday in Sri Lanka remain murky. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the violence, but investigators are still looking into what those connections really were.
Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University who researches extremism, expressed doubt that the Islamic State would have recruited a female suicide bomber. If a woman was involved in an Islamic State plot, she said, it’s far more likely she “aided and abetted or planned” in another way — and not that she detonated herself in the name of jihad.