It has long been argued by psychologists and political scientists that most suicide bombers are not mentally ill and most aren’t inherently suicidal. Rather they are indoctrinated or brain-washed by terrorist organizations to perform high-profile attacks with a political or religious motive. Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, seeks to dramatically revise our understanding of this phenomenon with a new book which he adapted into a New York Times op-ed today. He argues: “For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.”
His arguments would radically revise our understanding of terrorists and their motivations–if they were true. But his evidence is, to put it charitably, less than convincing.
He mentions only four terrorists: Mir Aimal Kasi (not “Kansi,” as Lankford has it), a Pakistani man living in the U.S. who in 1993 killed two employees and wounded three more outside CIA headquarters before escaping to Pakistan; Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, a Palestinian-American teacher who in 1997 opened fire on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, killing one person and wounding six others before taking his own life; Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian-American limousine driver who in 2002 opened fire in front of the El Al counter at Los Angeles Airport, killing two Israelis before himself being killed by security guards; and Nidal Malik Hasan, a Palestinian-American army officer who in 2009 went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, killing 13 people and wounding 29 before being captured.
Lankford may well be right that these attackers have something in common with rampage killers such as Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza, who shot up a high school, a university and an elementary school, respectively, but there is one crucial difference. Most of the terrorists he cites cites were not, contrary to his claims, suicidal–Kansi actually escaped after his attack and Hasan was captured; only Kamal killed himself. Whereas all four of the rampage killers he describes committed suicide before police closed in. This suggests some pretty significant differences between the terrorists and the rampage killers.
More significantly, the four domestic terrorists Lankford cites have significant differences from suicide bombers who are to be found in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West Bank, Syria, and Iraq. None of the four was part of an established terrorist network in this country. They were “lone wolves” who acted on their own initiative although they were no doubt influenced by terrorist propaganda; Hasan, for example, had even communicated with Anwar al-Awlaki, the former imam of his mosque in northern Virginia who became a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But that is a far cry from the kind of rigorous indoctrination and planning that goes into suicide-bomber attacks in the Middle East.
Just yesterday there was a suicide bombing in Kabul: “A suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives targeted the compound of a private military contractor on the eastern outskirts of Kabul on Monday, killing at least one person and injuring at least 15 others.”
Does anyone imagine that the perpetrator of this attack just got up in the morning and, enflamed by mental illness, decided to go out on a whim to attack a security compound in Kabul? The very thought is ludicrous. Such attacks are planned weeks, even months, in advance by sophisticated networks such as the Haqqanis who procure a vehicle and explosives, indoctrinate a driver, survey and identify a target, and infiltrate the driver and vehicle into a heavily guarded city such as Kabul. They are using suicide bombers much the way the U.S. military uses precision-guided munitions.
The acts in question are supremely rational and strategic. Not all of the suicide bombers are even aware that they are on a one-way mission; sometimes a terrorist controller hundreds of yards away detonates the vehicles by remote control. Sometimes the driver has been coerced into carrying out the mission by threats against his family. Whatever the case, these attacks do not involve crazy loners like the examples Lankford mentions. Until he analyzes these types of attacks, which are far more common and far more destructive, his arguments will not gain much credence among terrorism analysts.