Middle East Notes and Comment: Suicide and Heroism

It is one thing to be indifferent to death; it is another thing to seek it out. Suicide is taboo in many societies, but martyrdom turns despair into heroism. The last month’s worth of events in the United States and Europe are a vivid demonstration of how blurry the line between suicide and heroism has become. It seems obvious, but it’s worth remembering how different the two are.

Suicidal individuals seeking the cleansing mantle of heroism have become oddly numerous in recent months. Since June 2016, Omar Mateen in Orlando, Micah Johnson in Dallas, Gavin Long in Baton Rouge, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel in Nice, and others have died at the hands of law enforcement officers after committing murder.

To varying degrees, all of these murderers saw themselves as soldiers of one kind or another. Soldiers are surely as old as human history—individuals willing to risk their life to further the interests of their city, state, or group. Soldiering entails some risk, which societies reward by according honor and respect to the practitioners. But soldiers reward each other, too. Being a soldier means building solidarity with one’s peers, through both training and indoctrination. It also means building a link with those who have gone before. It is overwhelmingly a group activity.

Risking one’s life is one thing; to sacrifice it willingly is quite another. The certain death awaiting the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, or the human waves of child soldiers that the Islamic Republic of Iran sent against the Iraqi army in the 1980s draws our attention because the phenomenon of promoting the death of one’s own soldiers has been so rare. 

In the last 25 years or so, terrorist groups began to build on this tactic through using suicide bombers. First pioneered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, the tactic was adopted by Islamist groups in the 1990s and 2000s. Groups dangled the same psychic benefits, group solidarity, and indoctrination tools of militaries, but the nature of their act did not require the large numbers that fielding a conventional army would require. Sharp-eyed recruiters could identify a small number of individuals who, out of weakness, illness, or passion, sought a release from the current world.

For all of its simplicity, suicide bombing still demands an intricate infrastructure. Bombmakers, recruiters, and trainers must all work together in great sophistication. Chemicals must be procured and safe houses established, all despite the heavy surveillance of police and intelligence services. Making a bomb is no casual affair, and it is not a normal daily activity. It takes a real team.
The sorts of attacks we are now seeing are different. They need only very small teams, or no teams at all. They require little technical preparation and no workspace. They don’t need a group to support them, or a group to indoctrinate them, or even a discrete group whose interests are advanced by the attack. 

These attacks are also strikingly easier in the area of recruitment. The hands-on effort to find, motivate, and train suicide bombers is fraught with danger and threats of security breaches. The mere act of finding volunteers risks exposure of the network. The “suicide by cop” efforts are far easier to carry out, in part because they don’t demand hands-on contact, or even require direction. They simply require suicidal individuals inspired by a message of rage and calling for retribution.

Looking at the backgrounds of many of the new suicidal terrorists, it is striking just how many of them include manifestations of mental illness, abiding anger, and a sense of shame. These are, to a remarkable degree, small people who seek to be larger than life. By feeling that they are ennobling their end, they not only find the empowerment that eluded them in life, but also believe they escape the humiliation that hung over them.

Armies prepare to fight other armies, and counterterrorism efforts have become accustomed to looking for the larger footprint that suicide bombers provide. When it comes to potentially isolated individuals—angry, radicalized, and suicidal—differentiating mere alienation from murderous intent is agonizingly hard.

While these individuals pose a physical threat to themselves and others, it is important to remember that, by virtue of their isolation, they pose little political threat to those around them. Unlike states and more integrated terrorist organizations, they are not part of a well-orchestrated plan. The rise of such attacks, increasingly attributed to the Islamic State group, but also with ties to Black nationalists, white supremacists, and others, is not a sign that these groups are rising in power or influence. In fact, in the case of the Islamic State group, it is the opposite. Its momentum has reversed, its territory is shrinking swiftly, and its luster has gone. 

While these actions create a mood of polarization and impending threat, they cannot advance a political agenda. Intentional brutality inspires revulsion rather than respect among most of the intended audience.

Most of the intended audience is not all that matters, though. As these events cascade, they appear to fit into patterns. Individual events receive global attention, as experts and publics alike seek to understand the shape of what they are facing. The reality is that these threats don’t have much shape. But for those contemplating “suicide by cop,” going down in a blaze of glory, the news coverage is most of what matters. In this fantasy of efficacy, notoriety is its own reward. 

It is a mistake to see these acts as manifestations of coordinated political ambition rather than scattered episodes of mental illness. The more we do, the more we pave the way for other suicidal individuals to cleanse themselves of their pain and their shame through similar acts. In so doing, we ensure that the cycle will continue. 
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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program