On Tuesday, a Chicago man received a 10-year prison sentence for his plot to kill U.S. soldiers in a suicide attack.
Most accounts of would-be suicide bomber Shaker Masri’s psychology have focused on his ideology, claiming that he was a calm, committed young man who was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of his beliefs.
For instance, the Anti-Defamation League cited Masri’s interest in the radical preachings of deceased al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, claiming that “Masri is part of the growing trend of American Muslim extremists charged with terror-related offenses who are motivated by a hatred of Israel.” And at the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman remarked that Masri appeared “willing to die” for his murderous mission.
But Masri was not just motivated by ideological hatred, and he was not just “willing” to die. In fact, evidence from the FBI complaint against Masri suggests that he was clinically suicidal in the final days before his arrest.
This would come as a shock to most presumed experts, who have insisted that "suicide terrorists are not truly suicidal.”
The last straw for Masri appears to have been a series of devastating phone conversations with his long-distance girlfriend in London. Around 1 a.m. on July 26, 2010, the two “professed their love for one another” mere moments before Masri’s girlfriend told him she thought “things” between them “will not work.” Masri didn’t get the message, and suggested he fly to visit her in London to work things out. The girlfriend repeatedly refused the offer, before finally confessing that she was “in love with another man.”
Less than twenty-four hours later, Masri called back—unwilling to take no for an answer and again insisting that he would fly to see her in London. “I am going to be there, by God, whether you like it or not,” Masri declared. His girlfriend hung up. Masri called back immediately, and they spoke for a few more minutes, and then he called again two days later to “explain everything.”
At that point, Masri tried to sell himself as a noble jihadist about to undertake a sacred mission of martyrdom for God. His girlfriend expressed concern: “Do you know, like, how much this will affect me? Do you even realize?” She chided him for being “selfish” and thinking about the “rewards” he would get in heaven, such as the seventy-two virgins, instead of the costs of the attack.
And then, as FBI records show, Masri broke down.
“I, for myself, I cannot; I cannot; I cannot; I cannot, cannot, cannot. I do not; I do not. Life is not worth living for me. I cannot enjoy life. I have not enjoyed it since I was eighteen. I have not enjoyed life since I was a child. I lost that innocence. I need to regain it back.” Masri later stated, “This is something beyond your control or my control,” expressing a deep sense of helplessness.
A few hours later, they spoke again. “I don’t think I'm going to come online today, tomorrow or the day after,” Masri told her, explaining that this would be the “last time I will ever speak to you in my life.” He had put his affairs in order, having spoken with his family and made sure that everyone was okay. Then Masri apologized to his ex-girlfriend, asked for her forgiveness, and hung up.
Two days later, he told an undercover FBI source that he was interested in becoming a suicide bomber and that he was now ready to die. He made preparations to fly to Somalia to get “martyrdom” training and a suicide vest, but was arrested mere hours before he departed.
Looking back, it’s clear that Masri was indeed influenced by terrorist propaganda. Otherwise, instead of trying to become a suicide bomber, he would have opted to kill himself alone or carry out a murder-suicide attack against others, like NFL player Javon Belcher or the recent mall shooter in Oregon.
But it’s also clear that Masri’s desire to become a suicide bomber was not purely the product of his ideology. Although his interest in Islamic extremism may have been genuine and his hatred for others may have been real, Masri’s beliefs are shared by millions of people around the globe. Most of them would never even consider personally carrying out a suicide attack. In fact, even among active terrorists, the vast majority are unwilling to volunteer for suicide missions.
What made Masri stand out, psychologically, was that he suddenly wanted to die.
Adam Lankford is the author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.