Parsing Terrorism

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Science  18 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6083, pp. 820-823
DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6083.820

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In recent times, many terrorist attacks have been carried out by young men who knew they would die in the attack. This disturbing form of violence became a global concern after 9/11. The U.S. government has spent millions of dollars since then on the study of terrorism, and a new cadre of investigators is striving for quantitative rigor and testable theories. The study of suicide terrorism in particular has been a growth area. The work has challenged some long-accepted notions—for example, that terrorists are pathological, driven by religious fanaticism, or spurred by poverty. It's now clear that many terrorists are well-educated and seemingly rational. Economists have explored a disturbing notion, probing terrorism as a form of "altruism" and comparing it to exclusive churches and social aid groups. The studies of cultlike groups are fascinating but don't answer the deepest questions about what makes terrorists tick.