For years, scholars have claimed that suicide terrorists are not suicidal, but rather psychologically normal individuals inspired to sacrifice their lives for an ideological cause, due to a range of social and situational factors. I agree that suicide terrorists are shaped by their contexts, as we all are. However, I argue that these scholars went too far. In The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, I take the opposing view, based on my in-depth analyses of suicide attackers from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and North America; attackers who were male, female, young, old, Islamic, and Christian; attackers who carried out the most deadly and the least deadly strikes. I present evidence that in terms of their behavior and psychology, suicide terrorists are much like others who commit conventional suicides, murder-suicides, or unconventional suicides where mental health problems, personal crises, coercion, fear of an approaching enemy, or hidden self-destructive urges play a major role. I also identify critical differences between suicide terrorists and those who have genuinely sacrificed their lives for a greater good. By better understanding suicide terrorists, experts in the behavioral and brain sciences may be able to pioneer exciting new breakthroughs in security countermeasures and suicide prevention. And even more ambitiously, by examining these profound extremes of the human condition, perhaps we can more accurately grasp the power of the human survival instinct among those who are actually psychologically healthy.
Adam Lankford is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at The University of Alabama. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles and two books on criminal and terrorist behavior, including The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which was recognized as a “Book to Watch Out For” by The New Yorker and named to Foreign Policy's list of “What to Read in 2013.” From 2003 to 2008, he helped coordinate Senior Executive Anti-Terrorism Forums for high-ranking security personnel in conjunction with the U. S. State Department.