Or is it? In Making Sense of Suicide Missions, Diego Gambetta acutely remarks, referring to the classical Islamic distinction between “facing certain death at the hands of the enemy and killing oneself by one’s own hand,” that “as the links between [suicide missions] and their effects becomes tenuous the sacrifice gets murkier.” “Why,” he adds by way of illustration, “should anyone sacrifice his life for killing a couple of retired Israelis? What exactly is the benefit in that? Why not just leave a parcel bomb and leave?” Gambetta goes on to discuss the views of the Shia cleric Sheikh Hussein Fadlallah, who insisted that the only observable proof that the perpetrator of a suicide mission is not taking his life for a suicidal or self-centered purpose is the number of people he kills or the devastation he causes. “This shows,” Gambetta elaborates, “that dying is not itself the purpose but a true sacrifice by a genuine martyr.”
It’s unlikely that we will ever know Abdeslam’s true motives, given how difficult it is to access the dark interior world of another person’s self—even more so if that person is dead. But he would not be the first terrorist to kill himself because he no longer wanted to live, masquerading personal suicide as martyrdom.
According to Adam Lankford, in an article published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, “there are many reasons to think that both event-based and psychological risk factors for suicide may drive the behavior of suicide terrorists.” Lankford bases this assessment on a sample of 75 individual suicide terrorists “who may have exhibited ... classic suicidal traits.” He also draws heavily on an even smaller sample of 15 Palestinian would-be suicide bombers via the work of Ariel Merari, a retired professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University. According to Merari’s findings, 53 percent showed “depressive tendencies” (melancholy, low energy, tearfulness), compared to 21 percent of the organizers of suicide missions and 8 percent of the insurgents who engaged in non-suicide attacks. Merari also found that 40 percent of the would-be suicide bombers displayed suicidal tendencies, whereas none of the terrorist organizers were suicidal.
Lankford’s argument, however, is deeply controversial—and not least because of the limited sample on which it is based. In fact, the balance of the scholarly evidence suggests that suicide terrorists are, for the most part, psychologically normal individuals who kill and die for a cause they regard as sacred and for comrades with whom they share a deep bond.
It is also a well-established research finding that terrorist groups actively screen out depressed or pathological individuals, due to their unreliability. As Rex Hudson explains, discussing the “highly selective” recruitment procedures of most terrorist groups:
Candidates who exhibit signs of psychopathy or other mental illness are deselected in the interest of group survival. Terrorist groups need members whose behaviour appears to be normal and who would not arouse suspicion. A member who exhibits traits of psychopathy or any noticeable degree of mental illness would only be a liability for the group, whatever his or her skills. That individual could not be depended on to carry out the assigned mission.
This, however, doesn’t seem to uniformly apply to ISIS, which on matters of recruitment, and distinctly unlike its jihadist competitor al-Qaeda, shows a striking level of permissiveness, admitting almost anyone to its ranks. And given the widely advertised sadism of the group, it is more than likely that not a few of its recruits are mentally unhinged in some way.