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Dismantling the Myth of Martyrdom

By Louisa Shepard


Driving from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Baltimore for the holidays, Adam Lankford '02 was anxiously listening to the radio, catching news of a school shooting in Connecticut as the signal faded in and out in rural areas. With the help of texts from friends, the University of Alabama criminal justice professor started to piece together details of the mass murder in Newtown. It quickly became clear to the terrorism expert that those early reports were speculative and largely inaccurate.


“It was a frustrating feeling,” says Lankford, who analyzed 179 mass shooters in the United States as part of his research for his new book, The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers. His wish: “If only we could share some of this research, maybe we could make significant progress in this area.”


Arriving in his hometown of Baltimore, Lankford was asked by The New York Times to write a piece for the Opinion section. His approach? To write what he knew based on his research. “What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers” was published in the newspaper on Dec. 18, four days after Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.


“For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners,” Lankford wrote in The Times. “But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.”


Lankford listed similarities among the types of shooters, and then wrote: “underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers—including suicide terrorists — in other countries.”


Soon after the op-ed piece was published, Lankford’s email inbox started filling up with messages from reporters and editors from across the country and beyond, asking for comment. He was interviewed on radio programs on stations in London, New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia, and on television for CNN and MSNBC. He wrote a piece for Wired and was quoted in various newspaper stories. The New Yorker included The Myth of Martyrdom in its “Books to Watch Out For: January” list, and Foreign Policy ranked the book seventh on its “What to Read in 2013” list. That coverage gave The Myth of Martyrdom a much broader audience, weeks before it became available for sale on Jan. 22, and the attention has brought Lankford some measure of satisfaction that people are listening to what he has discovered. “It’s been great to be able to share ideas with people who are smart and interested and,

frankly, open-minded to having their opinions changed, because they don’t have any stake in it except understanding,” he says.


The idea for The Myth of Martyrdomgrew out of research Lankford began four years ago, when he was planning a new class. He was trying to answer a question about suicide terrorists: Are they more like typical suicidal people, or are they psychologically normal but willing to commit the ultimate self-sacrifice for their beliefs?

For more than a decade, experts and academics have said that terrorists are relatively normal psychologically but have been indoctrinated by groups and persuaded to sacrifice themselves for the cause. But where was the evidence for this view?


Looking for clues, Lankford read the diary pages, love letters and suicide notes of dozens of terrorists. He watched their martyrdom videos and listened to their recordings. He analyzed interviews with their families, friends and witnesses.


Going into the project, he fully expected the experts and their conventional wisdom to be correct. But as he was conducting his research, Lankford, who had examined violence and terrorism in his first book, Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib, began to formulate a different viewpoint.


So logical, it seems, was his conclusion: Suicide bombers are suicidal. Terrorists who kill others and themselves share characteristics of typical suicidal people, choosing to die to escape unbearable pain, depression, anxiety, crisis and failure in their lives.


Recalls Lankford: “The evidence was jumping out at me and, to my shock, when I looked for what researchers have said to explain these kinds of things, there was almost a total vacuum. In fact, among the experts, that idea that they could be suicidal had been completely rejected.”


In his book, Lankford names those experts, details their assertions and then refutes their conclusions, describing the personal stories of several suicide terrorists and providing his own statistical analysis. He worked on the book for three years, analyzing 130 terrorists that had classic risk factors for suicide. He also completed the study of 179 mass shooters in the United States over a 50-year period, a study he is now working to publish.


An entire chapter of The Myth of Martyrdom is devoted to Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 19 hijackers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. According to Lankford, the analysts and scholars who declared that Atta was “not readily characterized as depressed” were wrong. His own research shows that Atta’s struggles with social isolation, depression, guilt, shame and hopelessness were very similar to the struggles of those who commit conventional suicide and murder-suicide.


Lankford was a Haverford senior when Atta piloted the first of two planes to crash into New York’s World Trade Center towers. An English major, Lankford became interested in criminal psychology after reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. After graduation, he went on to earn his master’s degree and doctorate in justice, law and society at American University.


“I think it was just that 9/11 was so unexpected and provoked so many questions that our need to understand terrorist attackers more accurately became instantly obvious,” he says, explaining why he dedicated his career to studying terrorism.


Lankford is an academic, but with The Myth of Martyrdomhe chose to write for a general audience. The language is plain, conversational, sometimes even amusing. He likes analogies, and he uses several, including one that involves a unicorn and another that involves a Snickers candy bar. “Any time you can draw comparisons to things that people are already comfortable with, and preserve the seriousness of the ideas, I think that is a win,” he says. “My perspective is: Good writing makes sophisticated ideas easily comprehensible. Far too often we have the opposite from academics, which is relatively comprehensible ideas made incredibly hard to understand. I want to be able to communicate with as many people as possible. That is a major priority for me.”


Although other scholars in the field have been professional in their disagreement, Lankford says the book and its assertions have already brought him “a lot of heat, especially from people who consider themselves terrorist experts.”


Scott Atran, a Presidential Scholar at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and an adviser on terrorism to various arms of the federal government, contested Lankford’s op-ed piece in a letter to The New York Times in December. “We must make every effort to understand what motivates mass murder in order to stop it,” he wrote, “but simple and superficial comparisons will not assist.”


Previously, Atran had written elsewhere that “no instances of religious or political suicide terrorism stem from lone actions of cowering or unstable bombers.” In response, Lankford wrote in his book: “This rigidity works in our favor, because when you’re searching for something assumed to be nonexistent, even a few solid cases will do. Ride just one unicorn around your neighborhood and watch what happens. People will start to question their assumptions.”


Another assumption Lankford questions has to do with the methods used by terrorist organizers to recruit potential suicide bombers. The conventional wisdom, according to one expert Lankford quotes, is this: “terrorists do not want emotionally unstable individuals in their groups—they would be a security risk, and attempt to screen them out.”


In the book, Lankford counters that the recruiters of suicide bombers have often “deliberately targeted unstable individuals because they are consistently easier to exploit” and that terrorist leaders will use “any asset that can potentially help their cause.”


Labeling suicide bombers “normal,” “stable,” “sacrificial” or “martyrs” is not only wrong, it is dangerous, Lankford writes. “It plays directly into the hands of terrorist leaders, increasing the power of their propaganda.” Terrorist leaders, Lankford says, do not kill themselves, because they recognize they are worth much more if they continue with their cause. “I asked myself: Would I carry out a suicide attack? The answer I came to very clearly was no, because of self-worth,” Lankford says. “If the mission was my most important priority, I wouldn’t assume that I could accomplish more in a day than I could in 30 years.


“What was exciting was that I started seeing regular terrorists saying the same thing. Most terrorists would say: I am too important. My life is too valuable to blow myself up tomorrow,” he continues. “The fact that a healthy amount of selfworth prohibits people from carrying out suicide attacks is something I was seeing again and again.”


Lankford has reached out to several academics in his field, suggesting that they work together to better understand suicidal terrorists and prevent future attacks.


And amid the “heat,” his work is finding supporters.


“I think Adam’s book is excellent,” says David Lester, a psychology professor at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and former president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Years ago, Lester posed the question whether suicide terrorists could be suicidal, but he didn’t have the hard data to back it up. “Now we have Adam’s book,” he says.


Jessica Stern, an author and former member of the National Security Council, agrees with Lankford’s conclusion that suicide-murderers who call themselves martyrs are actually suicidal, motivated by their emotions. “Like many important ideas, this one seems utterly obvious once someone presents the overwhelming evidence and makes the compelling argument,” she writes.


Lankford plans to continue his work on suicidal terrorists while teaching and publishing, and maybe even working on national policy. And while he says he hopes the book sells well, he is more interested in advancing knowledge that can help prevent future attacks.


“Changing perceptions about suicide terrorism can directly, in my opinion, save lives,” he says. “It’s pretty clear, based on my research, that if we change how suicide terrorism is viewed, that would act as a deterrent for people considering carrying out suicide attacks.”


Louisa Shepard is a freelance writer based in Wayne, Pa.


This story appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Haverford magazine.

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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