The Myth of Martyrdom

What really drives suicide bombers, rampage shooters, and other self-destructive killers

U.S. Embassy Suicide Bomber Driven By Suicide, Not Sacrifice

His brain disorder may have led to hallucinations and lost memories

Yet another suicide bomber--this time attacking the United States Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, leaving one victim dead and another wounded.

Yet another absurd claim that the perpetrator was a rational political actor, an ideologically committed martyr, a courageous true believer carrying out an act of self-sacrifice for the cause.

And yet another case where the evidence suggests otherwise.

For decades, leading scholars and government experts from around the world have asserted that "Most suicide bombers are psychologically normal" (Dr. Riaz Hassan, Australian Research Council fellow, former visiting professor at Yale University) and that "Virtually all suicide bombers are psychologically stable" (Dr. Robert Brym, Royal Society of Canada fellow, professor at the University of Toronto).

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In fact, Dr. Jerrold Post, founder of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior and chair of the American Psychiatric Association's Task Force for National and International Terrorism and Violence, has gone so far as to insist, "terrorist groups make it a point to expel, or not to admit, emotionally unstable people. After all, they'd be a security risk. You wouldn't want an emotionally unstable person in the Green Berets; you wouldn't want an emotionally unstable person in a terrorist operation or cell. So, the issue is not individual psychology."

Tell that to Ecevit Sanli, the 40-year old man who reportedly blew himself up at the embassy's security checkpoint. Sanli had radical views and was affiliated with the DHKP-C terrorist organization, but what made him different from most terrorists is that while in prison in 2002, he had participated in a severe hunger strike and been diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernicke-Korsakoff is essentially a brain disorder that begins with Wernicke's encephalopathy--characterized by confusion, loss of muscle coordination, leg tremors, and vision changes--and then leads to Korsakoff syndrome, characterized by hallucinations, confabulation, loss of memory, and the inability to form new memories.


Ecevit Sanli

Suicide bomber Ecevit Sanli

The prognosis is hardly encouraging: "Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome gets steadily worse and can be life threatening. With treatment, you can control symptoms (such as uncoordinated movement and vision difficulties), and slow or stop the disorder from getting worse." It's hard to imagine that Sanli got much medical treatment; he was reportedly wanted by Turkish authorities and was in hiding.

I've recently uncovered more than 130 cases of suicide terrorists who displayed risk factors for conventional suicide. Not surprisingly, some of them were plagued by serious medical problems, including tuberculosis, seizure disorders, tumors, blindness, HIV, combat injuries, and drug addictions.

Now we can add Sanli to the list. If he had been healthy in mind, body, and spirit--and truly inspired--surely he could have accomplished more for the cause by continuing to live, work, and fight. Instead, because he was crippled by pain and ready to die, he blew himself up in an attack that killed just one Turkish security guard.

By giving up on his future, Sanli didn't alter the political landscape or change the world. But when the time came to press the detonator, he probably didn't care anymore.

Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at The University of Alabama and author of two books and many journal articles on violence and indoctrination. more...

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