The truth about suicide bombers
Are they religious fanatics? Deluded ideologues? New research suggests something more mundane: They just want to commit suicide.
Qari Sami did something strange the day he killed himself. The university student from Kabul had long since grown a bushy, Taliban-style beard and favored the baggy tunics and trousers of the terrorists he idolized. He had even talked of waging jihad. But on the day in 2005 that he strapped the bomb to his chest and walked into the crowded Kabul Internet cafe, Sami kept walking — between the rows of tables, beyond the crowd, along the back wall, until he was in the bathroom, with the door closed.
And that is where, alone, he set off his bomb.
The blast killed a customer and a United Nations worker, and injured five more. But the carnage could have been far worse. Brian Williams, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was in Afghanistan at the time. One day after the attack, he stood before the cafe’s hollowed-out wreckage and wondered why any suicide bomber would do what Sami had done: deliberately walk away from the target before setting off the explosives. “[Sami] was the one that got me thinking about the state of mind of these guys,” Williams said.
Eventually a fuller portrait emerged. Sami was a young man who kept to himself, a brooder. He was upset by the US forces’ ouster of the Taliban in the months following 9/11 — but mostly Sami was just upset. He took antidepressants daily. One of Sami’s few friends told the media he was “depressed.”
Today Williams thinks that Sami never really cared for martyrdom; more likely, he was suicidal. “That’s why he went to the bathroom,” Williams said.
The traditional view of suicide bombers is well established, and backed by the scholars who study them. The bombers are, in the post-9/11 age, often young, ideologically driven men and women who hate the laissez-faire norms of the West — or at least the occupations and wars of the United States — because they contradict the fundamentalist interpretations that animate the bombers’ worldview. Their deaths are a statement, then, as much as they are the final act of one’s faith; and as a statement they have been quite effective. They propagate future deaths, as terrorist organizers use a bomber’s martyrdom as propaganda for still more suicide terrorism.
But Williams is among a small cadre of scholars from across the world pushing the rather contentious idea that some suicide bombers may in fact be suicidal. At the forefront is the University of Alabama’s Adam Lankford, who recently published an analysis of suicide terrorism in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. Lankford cites Israeli scholars who interviewed would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. These scholars found that 40 percent of the terrorists showed suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had made previous suicide attempts, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford finds Palestinian and Chechen terrorists who are financially insolvent, recently divorced, or in debilitating health in the months prior to their attacks. A 9/11 hijacker, in his final note to his wife, describing how ashamed he is to have never lived up to her expectations. Terrorist recruiters admitting they look for the “sad guys” for martyrdom.
For Lankford and like-minded thinkers, changing the perception of the suicide bomber changes the focus of any mission that roots out terrorism. If the suicide bomber can be viewed as something more than a brainwashed, religiously fervent automaton, anticipating a paradise of virgins in the clouds, then that suicide bomber can be seen as a nuanced person, encouraging a greater curiosity about the terrorist, Lankford thinks. The more the terrorist is understood, the less damage the terrorist can cause.
“Changing perceptions can save lives,” Lankford said.
Islam forbids suicide. Of the world’s three Abrahamic faiths, “The Koran has the only scriptural prohibition against it,” said Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in the causes of suicide terrorism. The phrase suicide bomber itself is a Western conception, and a pretty foul one at that: an egregious misnomer in the eyes of Muslims, especially from the Middle East. For the Koran distinguishes between suicide and, as the book says, “the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah.” The latter is a courageous Fedayeen — a martyr. Suicide is a problem, but martyrdom is not.
For roughly 1,400 years, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, scholars have accepted not only the ubiquity of martyrdom in the Muslim world but the strict adherence to its principles by those who participate in it: A lot of people have died, and keep dying, for a cause. Only recently, and sometimes only reluctantly, has the why of martyrdom been challenged.
Ariel Merari is a retired professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University. After the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983 — in which a terrorist, Ismalal Ascari, drove a truck bomb into a United States Marine barracks, killing 241 American servicemen — Merari began investigating the motives of Ascari, and the terrorist group with which the attack was aligned, Hezbollah. Though the bombing came during the Lebanese Civil War, Merari wondered whether it was less a battle within the conflict so much as a means chosen by one man, Ascari, to end his life. By 1990, Merari had published a paper asking the rest of academia to consider if suicide bombers were actually suicidal. “But this was pretty much speculative, this paper,” Merari said.
In 2002, he approached a group of 15 would-be suicide bombers — Palestinians arrested and detained moments before their attacks — and asked if he could interview them. Remarkably, they agreed. “Nobody” — no scholar — “had ever been able to do something like this,” Merari said. He also approached 14 detained terrorist organizers. Some of the organizers had university degrees and were intrigued by the fact that Merari wanted to understand them. They, too, agreed to be interviewed. Merari was ecstatic.
Fifty-three percent of the would-be bombers showed “depressive tendencies” — melancholy, low energy, tearfulness, the study found — whereas 21 percent of the organizers exhibited the same. Furthermore, 40 percent of the would-be suicide bombers expressed suicidal tendencies; one talked openly of slitting his wrists after his father died. But the study found that none of the terrorist organizers were suicidal.
The paper was published last year in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Adam Lankford read it in his office at the University of Alabama. The results confirmed what he’d been thinking. The criminal justice professor had published a book, “Human Killing Machines,” about the indoctrination of ordinary people as agents for terrorism or genocide. Merari’s paper touched on themes he’d explored in his book, but the paper also gave weight to the airy speculation Lankford had heard a few years earlier in Washington, D.C., while he was earning his PhD from American University. There, Lankford had helped coordinate antiterrorism forums with the State Department for high-ranking military and security personnel. And it was at these forums, from Third World-country delegates, that Lankford first began to hear accounts of suicide bombers who may have had more than martyrdom on their minds. “That’s what sparked my interest,” he said.
He began an analysis of the burgeoning, post-9/11 literature on suicide terrorism, poring over the studies that inform the thinking on the topic. Lankford’s paper was published this July. In it, he found stories similar to Merari’s: bombers who unwittingly revealed suicidal tendencies in, say, their martyrdom videos, recorded moments before the attack; and organizers who valued their lives too much to end it, so they recruited others, often from the poorest, bleakest villages.
But despite the accounts from their own published papers, scholar after scholar had dismissed the idea of suicidality among bombers. Lankford remains incredulous. “This close-mindedness has become a major barrier to scholarly progress,” Lankford said.
Not everyone is swayed by his argument. Mia Bloom is a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State University and the author of the book, “Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.” “I would be hesitant to agree with Mr. Lankford,” she said. “You don’t want to conflate the Western ideas of suicide with something that is, in the Middle East, a religious ceremony.” For her, “being a little bit wistful” during a martyrdom video is not an otherwise hidden window into a bomber’s mind. Besides, most suicide bombers “are almost euphoric” in their videos, she said. “Because they know that before the first drop of blood hits the ground, they’re going to be with Allah.” (Lankford counters that euphoria, moments before one’s death, can also be a symptom of the suicidal person.)
One study in the academic literature directly refutes Lankford’s claim, and that’s the University of Nottingham’s Ellen Townsend’s “Suicide Terrorists: Are They Suicidal?” published in the journal Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior in 2007. (The answer is a resounding “no.”)
Townsend’s paper was an analysis of empirical research on suicide terrorism — the scholars who’d talked with the people who knew the attackers. In Lankford’s own paper a few years after Townsend’s, he attacked her methodology: relying as she did on the accounts of a martyr’s family members and friends, who, Lankford wrote, “may lie to protect the ‘heroic’ reputations of their loved ones.”
When reached by phone, Townsend had a wry chuckle for Lankford’s “strident” criticism of her work. Yes, in the hierarchy of empirical research, the sort of interviews on which her paper is based have weaknesses: A scholar can’t observe everything, can’t control for all biases. “But that’s still stronger evidence than the anecdotes in Lankford’s paper,” Townsend said.
Robert Pape, at the University of Chicago, agrees. “The reason Merari’s view” — and by extension, Lankford’s — “is so widely discredited is that we have a handful of incidents of what looks like suicide and we have over 2,500 suicide attackers. We have literally hundreds and hundreds of stories where religion is a factor — and revenge, too....To put his idea forward, [Lankford] would need to have a 100 or more stories or anecdotes to even get in the game.”
He’s working on that. Lankford’s forthcoming study, to be published early next year, is “far more robust” than his first: a list of more than 75 suicide terrorists and why they were likely suicidal. He cites a Palestinian woman who, five months after lighting herself on fire in her parents’ kitchen, attempted a return to the hospital that saved her life. But this time she approached with a pack of bombs wrapped around her body, working as an “ideologue” in the service of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Lankford writes of al Qaeda-backed terrorists in Iraq who would target and rape local women, and then see to it that the victims were sent to Samira Ahmed Jassim. Jassim would convince these traumatized women that the only way to escape public scorn was martyrdom. She was so successful she became known as the Mother of Believers. “If you just needed true believers, you wouldn’t need them to be raped first,” Lankford said in an interview.
Lankford is also intrigued by the man who in some sense launched the current study of suicide terrorism: Mohammed Atta, the ringleader behind the 9/11 hijacking. “It’s overwhelming, his traits of suicidality,” Lankford said. An isolated, neglected childhood, pathologically ashamed of any sexual expression. “According to the National Institute of Mental Health there are 11 signs, 11 traits and symptoms for a man being depressed,” Lankford said. “Atta exhibited eight of them.”
If Atta were seen as something more than a martyr, or rather something other than one, the next Atta would not have the same effect on the world. That’s Lankford’s hope anyway. But transporting a line of thought from the halls of academia to the chambers of Congress or onto field agents’ dossiers is no easy task. Lankford said he has not heard from anyone in the government regarding his work. And even if the idea does reach a broader audience in the West, there is still the problem of convincing those in the Middle East of its import. Pape, at the University of Chicago, said people in the Muslim world commit suicide at half the rate they do in the Jewish or Christian world. The act is scorned, which makes it all the more difficult to accept any behaviors or recurring thoughts that might lead to it.
Still, there is reason for Lankford to remain hopeful. The Israeli government, for one, has worked closely with Merari and his work on suicidal tendencies among Palestinian terrorists. Then there is Iraq. Iraq is on the verge of autonomy for many reasons, but one of them is the United States’ decision to work with Iraqis instead of against them — and, more fundamentally, to understand them. Lankford thinks that if the same inquisitiveness were applied to suicide bombers and their motives, “the violence should decrease.”
Paul Kix is a senior editor at Boston magazine and a contributing writer for ESPN the Magazine.