Convincing suicide-bombers that God says no

The dominant perception of suicide-attackers has paid too much attention to the unchallenged assumptions of past experts and too little to the clinical evidence, says Adam Lankford.

Imagine that Islamist suicide-terrorists could be convinced that God disapproves of their actions. Would that matter; would it even change the world?

Surely, it would. But it is only worth discussing if it's a realistic goal. Otherwise, it's just a fantasy - one that global leaders and counterterrorism officials seem to have given up on years ago.

Perhaps understandably so. The horrors of 11 September 2001 were widely condemned, yet the ten years that followed saw over 1,800 suicide-attacks - nearly nine times more than the previous decade. Moreover, Pew Research Center surveys from 2011 indicate that millions of Muslims around the world believe that suicide-bombings are justified. True, most respondents are simply expressing their opinions; they pose no direct threat to anyone. But if many non-violent Muslims are still not convinced that God disapproves of suicide-attacks, sceptics may reasonably conclude that changing the minds of Islamist terrorists is simply not possible.

However, a closer look suggests that the failure of the argument that God disapproves of suicide-attacks was not because the goal itself was unachievable, but because the wrong approach was pursued. The sheer complexities involved meant that the argument was never going to be won on the basis of, for example, "just war" theory or the moral distinctions between intentionally and unintentionally killing civilians.

Instead, those responsible for prosecuting the case against suicide-terrorism should have capitalised on a much simpler and more powerful belief that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all agree on: God disapproves of suicide. This should have been the launching point for changing perceptions about suicide-terrorism worldwide. And it still can be.

The wrong track

In the past, Islamic scholars have carefully examined the practice of “martyrdom” operations and determined that they were not acts of suicide, because the individual attackers did not seek death due to psychological pain. One of the key documents to stake out this claim was “The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Self-Sacrificial Operations: Suicide or Martyrdom?” written by Sheikh Yusuf ibn Salih Al-'Uyayri, an al-Qaida leader in Saudi Arabia. Uyayri insisted that “martyrdom” attacks were motivated by the desire to sacrifice one's life for Allah, and thus did not constitute suicide.

Remarkably, rather than challenge this contention, government experts and leading scholars all around the world have spent the last decade agreeing with it. For instance, a University of Chicago professor and former adviser for two presidential campaigns has been insisting that suicide-terrorists are driven by “a strong sense of duty and a willingness to sacrifice all for the common good.” A University of Nottingham psychology professor has declared, “Suicide terrorists are not truly suicidal.” And the head of psychiatry at Ain Shams University in Cairo has asserted: “The psychological make-up [of a suicide bomber] is that of a person who loves life.” Similar statements have been made repeatedly by western experts and Islamic scholars. Unfortunately, they lend credence to the claims of Uyayri and other terrorist leaders. They send the message to future suicide-bombers that although God has prohibited suicide, that does not mean he would disapprove of “martyrdom” attacks.

The good news is that these commentators have been completely wrong, and the evidence that proves it is quickly reaching the tipping-point. In my forthcoming book The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, I present more than 130 cases of suicide-terrorists who displayed risk factors for suicide, and provide undeniable documentation that many of them were clearly suicidal, in the clinical sense. In a number of cases, they openly admitted their psychological pain and deep despair in their suicide notes or “martyrdom” videos, or in the statements they made to those around them.

For instance, a pre-emptively arrested suicide-bomber known as Zuheir told interviewers that “I reached such a state of despair that I wanted to kill myself…I wanted to get rid of my life in this world. That's it.” Similarly, Umar Abdulmutallab, the so-called “Underwear Bomber” who tried to blow himself up on an airplane over Detroit, had posted online that “i am in a situation where i do not have a friend…i have no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support me and i feel depressed and lonely. i do not know what to do.”

When confronted with this evidence, even radical terrorist leaders like Uyayri would have to acknowledge that at least some suicide-bombers have been clinically suicidal, and thus were committing crimes against God. After all, in his own ruling on the permissibility of self-sacrificial operations, Uyayri defined suicide as “killing oneself on account of anger, pain or some other worldly motive.” When facing attackers' direct quotes, it is simply impossible to deny that some of them have met this description.

Furthermore, the al-Qaida leader also asserted that “martyrdom operations should not be carried out unless…one's intention is sincere and pure - to raise the Word of Allah.” He specifically warned that if this condition is not met, “the deed is worthless.”

But Uyayri is dead - he took his misconceptions to the grave when he was killed by security forces in 2003. Fortunately, there are many others who share his views and can be called on to acknowledge the religious crimes of at least some suicide-bombers.

The first step

For instance, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric with anti-western sentiments and an Al Jazeera television programme that reaches approximately 60 million viewers worldwide, should be asked to publicly comment on these new findings. In the past, Qaradawi has insisted that the phrase “suicide operations” is “an unjust and misleading name because these are heroic commando and martyrdom attacks and should not be called suicide operations or be attributed to suicide under any circumstances.” Like Uyayri, Qaradawi “clarified that the term 'suicide' applies to someone who kills himself for personal reasons and is therefore a coward.” But now it's time for him to read the quotes - to see these attackers' cowardice and despair - and then decide if he still wants to defend them, in violation of the Qu'ran.

It's possible - indeed, likely - that leaders such as Qaradawi would be reluctant to completely reverse their position on so-called “martyrdom” operations. There's a better chance that they would condemn Zuheir and Abdulmutallab as aberrations or flukes. But even that would be the first major step in the right direction - a public acknowledgment that some suicide-bombers are suicidal - and God disapproves of their actions.

This could spark an inquiry, led by public demand, to know how many past "martyrdom" operations have been founded on deception. Once this door is opened a crack by popular Islamic leaders, the motives of many past suicide-bombers would immediately be called into question.

The process would also plant a seed a doubt in the minds of many who would consider volunteering as suicide-bombers in the future. They would have to wonder: despite my fierce rhetoric, my bold claims - does God know that I am one of those “flukes” as well? Does he see that deep inside, I desperately want to die?

Of course he does. He sees all. And if you throw away his gift, he will not be pleased. As Allah said: “My servant has hastened the ending of his life, so I have prohibited Paradise to him.”

About the author

Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and the author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). His website is here

More On

Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama and the author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). His website is here