By Adam Lankford, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at The University of Alabama. The views expressed are his own.
The truth matters. For instance, the truth is whether civilians are killed intentionally or as collateral damage, their families and friends suffer the same trauma, the same devastation. As the foundational quote for the website Pakistan Body Count explains, “Whether it is a suicide bombing or an attack by a flying drone, for me it’s the same: a Pakistani got killed.”
This is why we were never going to change perceptions about suicide terrorism worldwide by making an oversimplified moral argument. In the aftermath of 9/11, the White House insisted that “no cause justifies terrorism.” And, as noted in the Middle East Quarterly in 2003, similar arguments were espoused by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Sa’id Tantawi, and Saudi Arabian Sheikh Muhammad bin 'Abdallah as-Sabil, among others. But the claim that suicide attacks are always immoral, while Western military actions are always justified, simply could not stand up to scrutiny. Skeptics could see the truth for themselves: despite some black-and-white differences between the two sides, the conflict between Western powers and Islamic jihadists involves many shades of gray.
Meanwhile, government officials and leading scholars – from Kabul to Cairo to Washington, DC – have spent years overlooking a powerful truth that should help them deter future suicide terrorists. In my new book, I present overwhelming evidence that suicide terrorists are typically committing suicide, not making a sacrifice or engaging in martyrdom, as has been assumed. Because suicide is prohibited by Islamic law – as even the most radical of terrorist leaders acknowledge – this means that the behavior of suicide terrorists constitutes a major crime against God.
When presenting the evidence, Islamic leaders should use the past statements of terrorist spokesmen against them. For instance, in his influential essay, “The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Self-Sacrificial Operations: Suicide or Martyrdom,” former al Qaeda leader Sheik Yusuf ibn Salih Al-‘Uyayri claimed that “martyrdom operations” are driven by the individual’s desire to sacrifice his life for the cause, not suicidal urges “of anger, pain or some other worldly motive.” This assumption has been echoed by moderate commentators all around the world. However, it is increasingly clear that ‘Uyayri’s definition of prohibited suicide is exactly what motivates suicide terrorists.
For example, anger and rage are common risk factors for both conventional suicide and murder-suicide, and they often drive suicide terrorists as well. For instance, a preemptively arrested suicide bomber known as Rafik admitted that he struggled with uncontrollable anger throughout his life. This included throwing hot tea on his father during childhood, beating up people for saying “Hi” to him, and threatening to kill a hospital doctor for delivering him bad news, according to an account in Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism. Rafik also reportedly confessed to being suicidal before volunteering for his suicide attack: “I thought of committing suicide by cutting my veins, and had my mother not come into my room at that time, I might have done it.” Another example, cited in The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers, is a female suicide bomber who admitted that she was driven by anger and despair because “my life wasn’t worth anything and my father wouldn’t let me marry the boy I wanted to, so I found a Fatah operative in Jenin and volunteered, to get back at my father.” There are many more cases just like these.
In addition, just like with typical suicidal people, the pain experienced by numerous suicide terrorists has led them to seek an escape through death. Bryant Neal Vinas acknowledged that he volunteered for a suicide attack in Pakistan because he was “having difficult time with the altitude. I was getting very sick, so I felt that it would be easier.” Umar Abdulmutallab posted online that “i am in a situation where i do not have a friend…i have no one to speak too, no one to consult, no one to support me and i feel depressed and lonely. i do not know what to do,” before ultimately attempting to blow up an airplane over Detroit. Other suicide attackers have been suffering from tuberculosis, seizure disorders, tumors, blindness, HIV, combat injuries, and drug addictions – or more commonly, plagued by a range of psychological problems, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and overwhelming guilt and shame.
In the absence of this evidence, misinformation naturally filled the void. For years, the myth of martyrdom has been built on the lies of terrorist leaders, who covered up their exploitation of vulnerable individuals; the denials of attackers’ families, who wanted to believe that their loved ones were heroes; and the bold rhetoric of suicide terrorists, who wanted to hide their shame and suffering from the world.
But the truth is now available, and it can no longer be denied. Anyone who supports so-called “martyrdom operations” is encouraging desperate people to commit suicide, which is a crime against God. Anyone who considers blowing him- or herself up should think twice, because God will not be fooled by false martyrs. Nor will he be forgiving.
“Do not kill yourselves…whoever does that…We shall burn him in Fire. And that is easy for Allah” (an-Nisā: 29-30).