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The myth of martyrdom: what really drives suicide bombers, rampage-shooters and other self-destructive killers (Adam Lankford)

Adam Lankford

ISBN 978-0-230-34213-2

Palgrave MacMillan, New York, (2013)

Adam Lankford is a Criminal Justice Professor at The University of Alabama. His research has been featured by media outlets, including Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, CNN, NPR, The Atlantic, and The Boston Globe. From 2003 to 2008, Lankford helped coordinate antiterrorism efforts in conjunction with the US State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance program. He has also written for The Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and many peer-reviewed journals and is the author of Human Killing Machines.

The title of the book largely describes what Adam Lankford attempts to do, examining separate incidents of recent times and individuals who take part in creating these atrocities. Lankford deconstructs those individuals to find that they are not particularly like minded, nor do they have similar upbringings. In the majority of the occurrences cited the one thing that Lankford sees as uniting the participants are mental health problems.

Lankford argues that suicide terrorists are not the feared ideological combatants as popularly perceived but in reality are individuals who suffer from depression and have often gone through bad times in their lives. In many ways it gives them a way out. This has to be noted against the fact that suicide is reviled in Islam, resulting in Hell for eternity. However, dying as a martyr ensures that an individual will instead go to Heaven and this is something that terrorist leaders are only too willing to exploit.

Lankford furthers his position by revealing the work of psychologist Ariel Merari at the University of Tel Aviv. Merari conducted research on members of a Palestinian terror group. Members of the group were placed into one of three types: fifteen were failed suicide bombers, twelve were non-suicide terrorists and fourteen were organisers of suicide attacks. All were asked the same question - had they ever considered carrying a suicide attack? The responses revealed that nine of the organising group said no and only one of the non-suicide group, replied yes. On the other hand the suicide bomber group had all agreed to carry out suicide attacks. When delving a little deeper, of this group eight were seen as having depressive tendencies, six with suicidal inclinations and two had actually tried to commit suicide previously. There are fundamental differences between those who will kill themselves and those who will not.

Terrorist organisations take advantage of these damaged individuals using them for their ideological ends and thus Lankford points out that we have also been sucked into their propaganda. He sees them as being not unlike the 34,000 Americans who each year commit suicide as a consequence of mental illness, social loneliness and personal or professional failures. Therefore, he suggests depicting suicide bombers as psychologically normal is not helpful and plays into the hands of their leaders Seeing them as exploited individuals changes the way they should be viewed.

In setting the scene for this book Lankford refers to a failure of imagination. He notes that most people do not know the truth about 9/11, not because of a conspiracy and not due to having been lied to. He writes that it is because the experts got it wrong and because of failures of imagination and divergent thinking. This is something we are good at when young but loose as we get older. He looks to the research carried out by Sir Ken Robinson who highlights the shortcomings of education systems in which being wrong and taking risks is simply not the right way. Lankford points to much of the work and research into suicide terrorism and admits that with just a few exceptions, they came to the wrong conclusions. He then takes a whole chapter to explain the reasons why this is so.

As the title suggests, the book is not just about suicide bombers, it is also about rampage shooters and other selfdestructive killers, underlining the factors that unite them all. He observes that with the exception of 9/11, the suicide attacks in the US between 1990 and 2010 were actually less lethal or potent than rampage, workplace and school shootings involving suicide attempts within this period. Lankford remarks that this directly contradicts conventional wisdom that suicide terrorists are rational and political actors who sacrifice their lives to maximise the destructive effects of their attacks, whilst rampage, workplace and school shooters are mentally unbalanced individuals who carry out atrocities when they ‘snap’.

The book is full of examples supporting his position. For instance he includes a 2011 study published in the Lancet which found that between 2003 and 2010 suicide bombings in Iraq killed 12,284 civilians but only 200 coalition soldiers. He goes on to note that claims that attacks are motivated purely through anger and directed at foreigners are not credible. In his conclusion he suggests the best way to stop suicide terrorists before they strike is to alter the social perceptions of this practice.

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