Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group
The Myth of Martyrdom

The Myth of Martyrdom

What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers

Adam Lankford

St. Martin's Press



A startling look at the deepest, darkest secrets that terrorists pray you'll never know

For decades, experts from the most powerful governments and prestigious universities around the world have told us that suicide bombers are psychologically normal men and women driven by a single-minded purpose: self-sacrifice. As it turns out, this claim originated with the terrorist leaders themselves, who insisted that they would never recruit mentally unstable people to carry out suicide attacks. As these strikes have become both increasingly common and increasingly deadly, no one has challenged this conventional wisdom. These are fearless ideological warriors, we're told, who have the same resolve and commitment to their beliefs as our own Navy SEALs, because they're willing to die for the sake of their cause.

In The Myth of Martyrdom, Adam Lankford argues that these so-called experts have it all wrong. The truth is that most suicide terrorists are like any other suicidal person—longing to escape from unbearable pain, be it depression, anxiety, marital strife, or professional failure. Their "martyrdom" is essentially a cover for an underlying death wish. Drawing on an array of primary sources, including suicide notes, love letters, diary entries, and martyrdom videos, Lankford reveals the important parallels that exist between suicide bombers, airplane hijackers, cult members, and rampage shooters. The result is an astonishing account of rage and shame that will transform the way we think of terrorism forever.

We can't hope to stop these deadly attacks, Lankford argues, until we understand what's really behind them. This timely and provocative book flips a decades-old argument on its head—and has huge implications for our future.


Praise for The Myth of Martyrdom

“The book is fascinating for its detailed examinations of a range of suicidal attacks and its syntheses of the motives of a disparate group of killers. Lankford challenges the thinking that has dominated public discussion since 9/11 in a highly readable way...The Myth of Martyrdom is a valuable contribution to America's quest to stop mass killings.” —Financial Times

“Lankford examines the personal stories behind numerous suicide bombers, school shooters, rampage shooters, and workplace shooters…the psychological connections he makes between a terrorist the likes of Atta and alienated high school boys like the Columbine shooters – and his explanations as to why these connections matter – are clear and compelling.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Are suicide bombers psychologically normal? Many psychologists, including experts 'diagnosing' the hijackers responsible for the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, view them as just that, albeit exercised by a powerful sense of justice. Adam Lankford begs to differ. Self-destructive killers, he says, are already primed for suicide -- so depressed, addicted or brutalized that it is relatively easy to tip them over the edge. A criminal-justice specialist, Lankford presents compelling, well-synthesized evidence for his case.” —Nature

“Lankford builds an impressive case … If the courage assumed of suicide terrorism is its most powerful weapon, we can disarm this threat by denying its practitioners the myth of martyrdom.” —Scientific American

“A fierce attack on the view that suicide terrorists are true martyrs to a cause, worthy of respect or honor because of their commitment.” —Kirkus Reviews

“In The Myth of Martyrdom, Adam Lankford demonstrates that suicide-murderers who call themselves martyrs are actually suicidal. Like many important ideas, this one seems utterly obvious once someone presents the overwhelming evidence and makes the compelling argument. As Lankford shows, terrorists are motivated by a lot more than the ideologies they espouse--including their emotions. In short, terrorists are people. A critically important contribution to the literature and, one hopes, to our counter-terrorism.” —Jessica Stern, former Director of Russian Affairs, National Security Council, and author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

“A provocative and eye-opening look at the psychological forces that drive suicide terrorists to seek their own destruction.” —Peter Langman, author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters

“A lively, insightful, and evidence-based analysis of the most disruptive phenomenon in world affairs today. Adam Lankford challenges the conventional wisdom about suicide terrorism in a way that respects the facts, resolves the paradox (with profound implications for many other issues), and not least, de-romanticizes this loathsome practice.” —Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

“Revealing long overlooked truths about suicide terrorists, Adam Lankford offers a compelling and provocative account, profoundly challenging conventional wisdom. Anyone who wants to fully understand the threat we face must read this powerful book.” —Ken Ballen, author of Terrorists in Love: True Life Stories of Islamic Radicals

“At last an insightful book about martyrdom and suicide bombers. Too many so-called experts have dominated the stage without ever examining the life of a suicide bomber. Lankford, in a thorough and in-depth study, has identified the trauma, chronic depression and suicidal behavior that characterize their lives. This is a fascinating book with profound implications.” —David Lester, past president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention

“A coherent, must read for all who would claim to be experts in terrorism--or just curious. Dr. Lankford's analytic rigor and willingness to examine assumptions make this a textbook example of how to do research and analysis. His conclusions? Suicidal martyrs are not heroes to be admired, but sick people to be pitied. Those who direct them are nothing more than evil. As Keynes once wrote: ‘When someone persuades me I am wrong; I change my mind.' What will you do?” —Jim Simon, former Asst. Director of Central Intelligence for Administration, Central Intelligence Agency, and Chair, Homeland Security Intelligence Council

“More than a decade after the 9/11 attack, scholars and commentators are still offering alternative explanations as to why the plotters were willing to commit suicide. Were they heroic martyrs so dedicated to cause of Islamic Jihad that they were willing to die? Or were they so mentally unbalanced that they wanted to die because their lives had become too depressing, too much filled with anxiety and failure? Adam Lankford explores these hypotheses, not only as they apply to the 9/11 plotters, but also to school shooters, airplane hijackers, lone wolf bombers and the like. In a must-read book for those interested in these issues, he makes the case for the second hypothesis. He provides a benchmark that others will have to consider as they seek to reach their own conclusions.” —Donald Daniel, security studies professor, Georgetown University, and former Special Adviser to the Chairman, National Intelligence Council

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Adam Lankford

Adam Lankford is a Criminal Justice professor at The University of Alabama. His research has been featured by media outlets such as Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, CNN, NPR, The Atlantic, and The Boston Globe. From 2003 to 2008, Lankford helped coordinate anti-terrorism efforts in conjunction with the US State Department's Anti-Terrorism Assistance program. Lankford has written for The Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and many peer-reviewed journals, and is the author of Human Killing Machines. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Adam Lankford

The faculty profile of Adam Lankford

From the Publisher

St. Martin's Press

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