Baltimore-born terrorism expert explores 'The Myth of Martyrdom'

Adam Lankford thinks there's an oft-repeated misconception about suicide attackers that isn't merely wrong. It's potentially deadly.

Lankford is the Baltimore-born terrorism expert who has just published a book titled "The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers." The book, parts of which were written in Baltimore, deflates common assumptions about the psychology of those who claim they murder strangers to advance political goals.


"The myth is that suicide terrorists are making a sacrifice for a cause they believe in," says Lankford, 33, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama.

"In the future, more desperate people might be willing to commit acts of terrorism because the myth makes them appear more heroic than they actually are. I'm saying we can close that loophole simply by describing accurately what their behavior is."


According to Lankford's research, suicide terrorists aren't "psychologically normal," as other criminal justice experts claim. Instead, those who carry out terrorist attacks — as opposed to those who just organize them — are unhappy and depressed and searching for a socially acceptable way to end their pain.

"In the Islamic world, there's a strong stigma against conventional suicide," Lankford says. "Suicide terrorism has essentially become the only way for someone to kill himself without committing a crime against God and going to hell."

In the two weeks since "The Myth of Martyrdom" was published, Lankford has appeared on radio broadcasts in the U.S. and Spain. He has debated his ideas in magazines including The New Yorker, Foreign Policy and Psychology Today, and in a newspaper in Brazil.

I'm guessing you don't much care for "Homeland."

I admit that I've not been watching the show. I get so frustrated at suicide bombers being portrayed as the heroic political actors that conventional wisdom suggests. But when the filmmakers tried to give him [the character of soldier-turned-terrorist Sgt. Nicholas Brody] a dramatic back story and show what how he was traumatized during the eight years he was a prisoner of war, they may have gotten things more right than they knew.

How many suicide terrorist attacks are there annually?

Between 2009 and 2011, there were about 11,000 terrorist attacks annually worldwide. About 300 of them each year were suicide attacks.

In Chapter 3, you analyze 130 terrorists who committed suicide attacks worldwide and detect "classic risk factors for suicide" in all of them. But if you stopped 130 people at random, wouldn't you find classic risk factors for suicide in all of us, as well?


It's a matter of degree. I'm still waiting to find the suicide terrorist for whom things were going really well, who had just gotten a promotion and was really happy. I'm still waiting to find the suicide terrorist who loved life. I've yet to find even one case of that person existing.

In your book, you perform what you describe as a "psychological autopsy" of Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta. Your conclusion that he was clearly suicidal contradicts the findings of other experts, who have described him as relatively normal.

Isn't diagnosing someone after his death fraught with peril? Don't researchers generally find the mental malady that supports their hypotheses?

You have to be careful to have a critical eye. You can't cherry-pick facts just to make your case. But my book includes big chunks of direct quotes. The readers can make up their own minds.

To me, there's nothing more convincing than direct quotes from either the terrorists or the people who knew them well. And some things you just can't make up. You could go through my entire life, and you'd never hear me say, as Atta did, "Joy kills the heart" or "I'm tired of eating."

You conclude that people who were coerced into killing themselves by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid at Jonestown in Guyana — or those who end their own lives to escape a painful death at the hands of others — committed suicide "as an expression of personal weakness."


What's the difference between them and the passengers who attacked the hijackers and crashed United Flight 93 into the ground so it wouldn't hit the Pentagon? Were the people who jumped from the Twin Towers before waiting for the roof to collapse suicidal?

No, because those people wanted to live. If they could have rushed the cockpit and guided that plane to safety, they would have.

I'm also not making a moral judgment about the people who died at Jonestown; I'm drawing a conclusion about their behavior. A lot of people fled into the forest outside the compound during the days before the mass suicide. I'm saying, "Let's not pretend that the ones who stayed didn't have a choice."

In the book, you recommend that potential gun buyers be required to submit to a five-minute test devised by Michael Nock that detects suicidal tendencies. Doesn't that involve major civil liberties issues?

We do have forced institutionalization in this country. That's something we have to be aware of and an area where we have to proceed cautiously.

But look: Attackers are getting increasingly sophisticated. They're sewing bombs inside their bodies to avoid getting caught. If we can design a test that detects intent, that's another potential asset we can use to protect ourselves.

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And the test wouldn't just be used for suicide terrorism. The vast majority of people who are suicidal never harm anyone other than themselves.

My point is that the families and friends of people who are suicidal are desperate to know what's going on in their loved ones' heads. We shouldn't have to wait for someone to attempt suicide and fail before we get them help.

If you go

Adam Lankford will read from his book at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at American University's School of Public Affairs, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. Free. Call 202-885-1000 or go to

About the book


"The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers" was published Jan. 22 by Palgrave Macmillan. 272 pages; $27.