What Makes a Human Bomb Tick?

On Christmas Day, 2009, as a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam prepared to land in Detroit, passengers smelled smoke and heard a series of bangs or popping noises. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old man from a prominent Nigerian family, was attempting to ignite an explosive device sewn into his underwear. He succeeded only in igniting himself—after his arrest, he had to be treated for second-degree burns on his hands and crotch.

Instead of martyrdom, Abdulmutallab received four consecutive life sentences plus 50 years. He also earned the less-than-terrifying nickname of “underwear bomber.” At first glance, Abdulmutallab’s story fits the conventional narrative about suicide bombers: devoutness, then radicalization, and finally the culminating al-Qaeda training camp. Indeed, at his sentencing last year, Abdulmutallab’s address to the court can be read as a string of jihadic clichés. He claimed that his goal was to avenge “the attacks of the United States on Muslims” and that Islam will “drive the Jews out of Palestine.”

However, as Adam Lankford points out in The Myth of Martyrdom, Abdulmutallab’s story is more complicated. Between 2005 and 2007, Abdulmutallab uploaded hundreds of messages to an Islamic web forum. His posts reveal that often he felt isolated and lonely: “i am in a situation where i do not have a friend… i have no one to speak too [sic].” He also professed shame about his sexual urges.

Lankford suggests that “this was not just a bad moment” for a young student. The posts are “indicative of the problems he struggled with for years.” Abdulmutallab was depressed, separated from his family, and socially marginalized. In short, the young Nigerian was not on the path to becoming a suicide bomber—he was on the path to suicide.

Lankford believes that the suicidal impulse is a drastically overlooked aspect of suicide terrorism. Instead, experts cling to the conventional wisdom that suicide terrorists are not deranged fanatics but (as political scientist Robert Pape put it) “far more normal than many of us would like to believe.” Thus the myth of the book’s title is that suicide terrorists are stable individuals, exceptional only for their willingness to sacrifice themselves for a cause.

How could so many experts be wrong? According to Lankford, they are in thrall to a half-dozen “shaky misconceptions,” the most important of which is that “consistent sources are automatically reliable.” The people directly connected to suicide terrorists frequently ascribe ideological motives to their loved one’s act of simultaneous self-destruction and homicide. Friends and family do it, perhaps due to the stigma against suicide. Terrorist leaders make the same claims for propaganda purposes. Even the bombers themselves, in their final videos (another cliché) speak of their delight in martyrdom—which Lankford sees as an attempt to mask the “shame and disgrace” of suicide.

Western experts, looking for a comprehensible narrative, mistake consistency for fact. The misconceptions are further compounded by how difficult it is to identify a potential suicide—even mental health professionals can get it wrong—and how easy it is to conflate suicide terrorists with regular terrorists, the vast majority of whom don’t strap on bombs, preferring to stay alive and fight.

One of the more interesting aspects of Lankford’s study is that it is not limited to religiopolitical violence. Lankford cites a number of American suicide terrorists that exhibited “classic suicidal traits.” Like Joseph Stack, a divorced software engineer with tax problems. In 2010, Stack crashed his single-engine plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, killing himself and an IRS manager; “There isn’t enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken [with me],” Stack wrote in the suicide note that he published on his website.

Lankford also forges intriguing connections between different types of murder-suicide. In an illuminating passage, Lankford compares two mass shootings in 2009: that of Nidal Hasan, the US Army psychiatrist who killed 13 servicemen and women and wounded 29 at Fort Hood, Texas, and George Sodini, who killed 3 women and wounded 12 at a Pennsylvania fitness club. Both men had no friends, work issues, difficulties meeting women, and felt victimized—Sodini by women and Hasan by his fellow soldiers for being a Muslim. And both men intended to die. Sodini shot himself before he could be stopped; Hasan seems to have been attempting “suicide by cop.” Unfortunately for him, he was shot by a civilian police officer and merely paralyzed.

Overall, Lankford makes a compelling case against the myth of martyrdom—the idea that “suicide attackers are psychologically stable, ideologically committed, selfless ‘martyrs.’” But one serious lapse is that Lankford doesn’t give us a basis of comparison. Robert Pape’s database of suicide terror statistics has a total of 2,297 attacks globally between 1981 and 2011. So how many of these attackers were, in the classic sense, suicidal? Of course it would we be impossible to investigate all them, and Lankford quite reasonably confines his study to the United States for reasons of statistical accuracy. But he never presents any examples of suicide terrorism that don’t fit is model, and I don’t think it’s because they don’t exist. A more disinterested scholar would not be reluctant to provide some perspective.

The tone of this book is a puzzling combination of defensiveness and bluster. Lankford mentions three times that his findings have been vetted by the peer-review process. It’s strange that Lankford feels the need to reinforce this fact, especially when the researchers that he criticizes, like Pape and Jerrold Post, also publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals.

A bigger misstep is that The Myth of Martyrdom is filled with uneasy pop culture references. In a passage about two desperate Palestinian girls who turned to terrorism when they became pregnant, Lankford makes a baffling comparison to Oprah Winfrey. She too struggled with depression and an early pregnancy, but it seems tasteless to write that “if a teenage Oprah had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, she may have snuck out of her house, filmed a martyrdom video, cursed the infidels, strapped explosives to her chest, and blown herself up.” And if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a bus.

And there is no explanation or excuse for what Lankford writes of Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in Norway last year, most of them teenagers:

Instead of trying to prevent Europe’s “cultural and demographical suicide,” Breivik should have listened to the King of Pop. As Michael Jackson explained in his critically acclaimed song “Man in the Mirror,” sometimes the best way you can help others is to “take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”

The upshot is that The Myth of Martyrdom has a smart premise but some serious flaws. But I think we should listen to Lankford. Suicide terror is growing while conventional terrorism declines. So whatever gives us insight into the phenomenon is worthy of our attention. Especially if it might one day stop people from murdering strangers while killing themselves.