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What You Don’t Understand about Suicide Attacks


July 27, 2015


He was a Muslim man with a longbeard, a desire to kill, and no plans to survive his attack. He rapidlyapproached his target: a military building. There was yelling and running andan attempt to stop him, but it happened too fast. Minutes later four servicemembers lay dead, along with the suicide attacker. A fifth victim would succumbto his injuries and perish two days later.

But what if this recent shooting hadnot occurred in Chattanooga, Tennessee? What if Mohamad Youssef Abdulazeez hadgrown up in Palestine, Iraq, or Afghanistan, and committed a suicide attackthere instead? Would he have been hailed as a “holy martyr” by terroristsympathizers? Would he have been described in the news as a man solely drivenby ideology, and considered by Western scholars to be “psychologically normal”?

There is still widespread confusionabout the psychology of Islamic suicide attackers, whether they strike at homeor abroad. Are they attempting to sacrifice their lives for an ideologicalcause, or do they actually want to die? The answer to this question could helpredefine the concept of “martyrdom,” with global repercussions. And it may bethe key to reducing the number of people who commit these deadly attacks.

According to the conventional wisdom,suicide terrorists are not mentally ill or suicidal—they are psychologicallystable individuals who sacrifice themselves for altruistic reasons. As a 2009article in Psychiatry concluded, “Stressing the importance of socialpsychology, [our research] emphasizes the ‘normality’ and absence of individualpsychopathology of the suicide bombers.” From this perspective, those who carryout “martyrdom operations” in service of radical Islamic ideologies are theproduct of their contexts. They become the psychological equivalent of theAmerican Marines who were killed in Chattanooga: both sides are willing to risktheir lives—and die, if necessary—for a cause they passionately believe in. Notsurprisingly, terrorist leaders love this perspective, and they use it toglorify the next wave of suicide attackers.

However, a growing number of scholarsare now challenging these assumptions. Ariel Merari’s research team conductedpsychological tests of preemptively arrested suicide bombers and found evidenceof suicidal tendencies, depressive tendencies, and previous (non-terrorist)suicide attempts. David Lester found that many female suicide bombers seemdriven, at least in part, by post-traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, anddespair. And in several recent articles, I summarize evidence of psychologicalsimilarities between suicide terrorists and people who commit nonviolentsuicides, coerced suicides, and mass-murder-suicides.

At first glance, the Chattanoogashooter might have seemed like a violent but psychologically normal young man.He had been researching martyrdom for at least two years, which could beinterpreted as ideological commitment. And he was not a social outcast: heapparently fit in as an “Arab redneck.” One friend who spent time with him justtwo weeks before the attack explained that “He was always the most cheerfulguy. If you were having a bad day, he would brighten your day.” Similarly, aprofessor who was with him just six days before the killings recalled “I justsaw the same friendly guy.”

But that is not the whole story. Forthose who care about accurately understanding suicide attackers, we arefortunate that this offender grew up in the United States. Investigators haveaccess to many of his acquaintances and friends, and his family has not triedto conceal their son’s personal problems, as is common in other cultures.

Far from being a blind supporter ofall radical Islamicist causes, Abdulazeez actually told a friend that ISIS “wasa stupid group and it was completely against Islam.” And far from beingpsychologically healthy, he reportedly struggled with bipolar disorder,depression, and substance abuse, and expressed suicidal thoughts in hiswritings.

Once Abdulazeez made the decision toend his life, his options were immediately limited. In the Islamic religion,there are powerful prohibitions against conventional suicide, and shootingoneself in the head—which many mass murderers do—would be considered an unforgivable crime against god.

Unfortunately, “martyrdom” has becomea dangerous loophole: it is the only way Islamic suicide attackers believe theycan guarantee their own death, and yet go to heaven instead of hell. In theMiddle East and Asia, they typically commit suicide bombings. In the UnitedStates, they tend to use firearms instead of bombs, and plan on dying via“suicide by cop.” In both cases, these attack methods help disguise theirsuicidal motives. It is commonly claimed that they do not want to die, theyjust care more about harming the enemy than they do about their own survival.

But the disguise is wearing thin. AsI have argued elsewhere, the key to deterring Islamic suicide attackers—both inthe United States and around the world—is to expose their suicidal motives andclose the “martyrdom” loophole, once and for all. Until suicide attackers arewidely seen for the desperate, traumatized, and mentally ill people they reallyare—instead of “psychologically normal” altruists—America will continue tosuffer Islamic mass shooters who seek glory and heavenly rewards throughdeath. 

Because we know so much about him,Abdulazeez is an important case for changing perceptions worldwide. In fact,behaviorally, he appears similar to other suicidal mass murderers. In a recentstudy, I found that offenders who carry out public mass killings in the UnitedStates are 12.3 times more likely to die than those who commit other types ofattack. Those who strike alone are more prone to die as well. I have alsofoundthat for each additional weapon rampage shooters arm themselves with,their likelihood of dying is 1.7 times higher. With Abdulazeez we can mark eachof these boxes: he was a (1) public mass killer (2) who attacked alone (3)after arming himself with three weapons. His death was almost assured.

Once we recognize Abdulazeez’ssuicidal motives, the irony becomes that the first responders who killed himgave him exactly what he wanted. By contrast, in an odd twist of fate, FortHood shooter Nidal Hasan was shot in the spine, paralyzed, and ultimatelysurvived his attack. Stymied, Hasan has spent the last few years tryingto sabotage his legal defense so he could get himself executed.

Along with broad efforts to changeglobal perceptions of suicide attackers, it is thus worth considering whetherthere is some less lethal method we could employ to more often keep theseindividuals alive. For those who desperately want to be killed in action, thismight actually make them reconsider.


Adam Lankford is an associate professorof Criminal Justice at The University of Alabama and the author of The Myth ofMartyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and OtherSelf-Destructive Killers, which was recognized as a “Book to Watch Out For” byThe New Yorker and named to Foreign Policy’s annual list of “What to Read.”


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