An expert's point of view on a current event.

Human Time Bombs

Before the 9/11 pilots were suicide terrorists, they were just suicidal.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There were four terrorists piloting the hijacked airplanes on 9/11. And four sets of personal problems.

Mohamed Atta, who crashed the first plane into the World Trade Center, never wanted to leave his home country in the first place. Marwan al-Shehhi, who flew the second plane, told his family that he had been going through a tough time, but could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Hani Hanjour, who crashed into the Pentagon, was described as meek and timid: "a little mouse around the house … he would pretty much stay holed up in his room." Ziad Jarrah, who intended to strike the Capitol building but crashed outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, spoke repeatedly of suicide long before the planning of 9/11.

A decade after the deadliest attack on the most powerful nation in human history, most people still do not know the whole truth about 9/11. This is not because of a conspiracy. And it is not because they have been lied to. It’s because when it comes to the underlying motives and psychology of the 19 terrorist hijackers, the experts got it wrong.

Most glaringly, they insisted that suicide terrorists are unusual because of their actions, but not psychologically abnormal. Ideologically radical, for sure, but not mentally ill. Willing to die, but not suicidal. As Jerrold Post, a prominent political psychologist and former CIA analyst explained in 2006, "One of the most striking aspects about the psychology of terrorists is that as individuals, this is normal behavior. The terrorists involved in 9/11 had subordinated their individuality to the group. And whatever their destructive, charismatic leader, Osama bin Laden, said was the right thing to do for the sake of the cause was what they would do." By this view, the 9/11 hijackers were just like most ordinary people, whom studies have shown are generally obedient to authority, even when ordered to use violence.

But when it comes to the particular case of suicide terrorists, the academic evidence suggests otherwise. Research increasingly shows that many are motivated far more by personal crises, mental-health problems, and suicidal desires than by ideology or commitment to the cause. It should be little surprise, then, that terrorist recruiters often exploit the vulnerability of these desperate individuals to further their own ideological goals.  

For instance, when clinical psychologists in Israel recently tested 15 preemptively arrested suicide bombers, they found that 53 percent displayed depressive tendencies, 40 percent displayed suicidal tendencies, 20 percent showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 13 percent had previously attempted suicide, unrelated to terrorism. Simple math suggests that if the 19 hijackers who struck on 9/11 were of the same vein, approximately 10 would have likely been diagnosed by experts as clinically depressed, and seven or eight would have been suicidal.

It is important to understand this because the opposing view actually helps terrorist organizations thrive. Their leaders love the propaganda-serving illusion that suicide terrorists were ordinary people who became so inspired by "God and country" that they fearlessly embraced death and selflessly sacrificed their lives for the cause. By portraying the 9/11 hijackers as courageous heroes, rather than as confused and desperate victims, organizations like al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah increase the appeal for future suicidal recruits. There’s no reason why we should help them by promoting these misconceptions. As other scholars have shown, it is both inaccurate and dangerous to give terrorist attackers undeserved credit as being sophisticated operatives.

Anecdotal evidence supports the notion that the 9/11 hijackers were not merely an ideologically committed strike team. For instance, after meeting bin Laden in Afghanistan and agreeing to lead the "planes operation," ringleader Mohamed Atta repeatedly disobeyed him.

Their first disagreement was about the targets. Bin Laden wanted one of the planes to strike the White House, but Atta preferred the Capitol. Twice, bin Laden had a middleman instruct Atta that the White House was their priority. Twice, Atta deflected those orders. In fact, at one point, Atta even considered striking a nuclear facility, though it had never been approved as a target by al Qaeda leadership.

The second disagreement was about the strike date. Bin Laden was concerned about having so many terrorists in the United States at one time, with an ever-increasing risk of exposure, and wanted the attacks to occur as soon as possible — as early as July 2001. As it turns out, his concerns were well-founded. That same summer, potential 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui raised the suspicions of his flight instructor in Florida, was arrested by federal agents, and jeopardized the entire plot. But despite these orders, Atta stubbornly insisted that he wasn’t ready, and did not agree to strike until September. At one point, bin Laden reportedly became so frustrated with the lack of compliance that he exclaimed, "I will make it happen even if I do it by myself!"

If the 9/11 hijackers were really al Qaeda’s version of the Navy SEALs or Green Berets, as some experts have contended, this insubordination would have been unthinkable. Imagine if President Barack Obama, when he ordered the strike that ultimately killed bin Laden, had to argue with the SEALs or threaten to carry it out himself.

The truth is that Atta had his own agenda. By providing funding, documents, reconnaissance, and fellow terrorists, al Qaeda offered him a chance to go out in a spectacular blaze of glory. But as far back as 1996, long before he joined the organization, Atta had already planned to carry out a "martyrdom" attack. Like many suicidal people, he wanted to die on his own terms. In fact, unlike reliable soldiers or ideologically committed operatives, he was willing to jeopardize the mission’s success to meet his own objectives.

Further details from the lives of Atta and the other terrorist pilots help explain why they may have wanted to die.

Since childhood, Atta had been pressured by his overbearing father to meet absurdly high expectations, which eventually resulted in his being forced to move to Germany to pursue a master’s degree. He had never wanted to leave home. During seven painful years in a foreign land, Atta struggled with social isolation, depression, guilt, shame, hopelessness, and rage. He became lonely, bitter, and defensive, criticizing nearly all acts of pleasure and insisting "Joy kills the heart." As late as 1999, he came back to his mother in Egypt and said he was tired of living abroad, tired of being alone, and that he wanted to stay and take care of her. But his mother said no and pushed Atta away, insisting that he follow his father’s wishes and pursue a doctorate in the United States. This was apparently the last straw; a few months later, Atta was in Afghanistan preparing for the attacks. In the suicide note later found in his suitcase, Atta lamented: "How much time have we wasted in our lives?"

Shehhi, the second pilot, had been very close to his father. But when he was studying abroad at age 19, he received the devastating news that his father had unexpectedly died. In the aftermath, he began having major difficulties at school, had to repeat several courses, and then barely passed them. Shehhi also grew distant from the rest of his family, who worried about him, and he became increasingly radical and began considering a "martyrdom" attack. He eventually called home and reportedly told his family that "he had been going through a tough time, but that things were improving…. He could, he said, see a light at the end of the tunnel." Little did they know, but by that point, he was actually looking forward to 9/11 as his suicidal escape.

Hanjour, who crashed into the pentagon, appears to have been the most timid and insecure of the 9/11 pilots. Before he was ever involved in terrorism, Hanjour had actually wanted to become a flight attendant, but his brother pushed him to become a real pilot instead. Taken with the idea, he became obsessed with studying — which may have been a way to escape social interaction. As former roommates explained, "He really didn’t make any friends…. I’d tell him ‘Let’s go see a movie,’ He’d say, ‘No.’ I’d tell him, ‘Let’s go play basketball,’ He’d say, ‘No.’ He just stayed home and studied his books for flight school." Despite this fixation, Hanjour was a terrible student: He was repeatedly rejected from aviation training programs, and when finally admitted, he was failed by his flight instructors and discouraged from continuing. Overall, his shortcomings appear to have depressed him. Hanjour finally got a chance to become a pilot the only way he could: for a suicide mission where he would deliberately crash and burn.

Even more blatant suicidal signs appear in the life of Jarrah, who crashed in Pennsylvania. Most directly, he complained to his girlfriend, Aysel Senguen, about being "dissatisfied with his life" and insisted that he didn’t want to leave Earth "in a natural way." Jarrah had a very stressful and tumultuous relationship with her, and she had previously attempted suicide herself.  He also apparently had dramatic mood swings. As a student in Lebanon, Jarrah had nearly flunked out of high school, and later in Germany, he had dropped out of college. He was also alienated from his family to the point that his father once feigned a heart attack in hopes that it would get his son to come home. It didn’t work.

Jarrah was not simply a terrorist ideologue, motivated by politics or religion. For instance, when filming his own "martyrdom" video, he could not maintain a serious tone and was scolded by terrorist handlers for not displaying any passion. In addition, Jarrah almost backed out of the entire 9/11 plot at the last minute. We’re not exactly sure why: He may have struggled with the type of indecision common to many suicidal people who stand at the precipice of death, he may have had second thoughts about leaving his girlfriend, or he may have been angry at other members of the group. Whatever the reason, Jarrah’s wavering indicates a lack of commitment to the cause.

Whether similar personal problems and suicidal tendencies existed among all of the 9/11 hijackers is unknown. Past research on suicide pacts suggests that every member of a group need not be suicidal for them to all kill themselves. It is thus possible that given Atta’s leadership position and his own suicidal drive — combined with the personal problems and weaknesses of the other pilots and hijackers — helped propel the rest of the group to their deaths.

Of course, extremist ideology and organizational sponsorship did influence the form of the 9/11 hijackers’ suicide and the specific targets for their rage. Without the widespread terrorist propaganda that celebrates suicide attacks as heroic, while condemning conventional suicide as cowardly, some of these individuals may have turned their anger inward and only killed themselves. And without the steering of al Qaeda and bin Laden, at the very least, Atta, Shehhi, and Jarrah would likely have blown themselves up in Chechnya instead.  By 1999, the three men had decided to attack the Russians in that region, but they were later convinced by an al Qaeda operative to change plans and travel to Afghanistan for training. It was there that the plans for striking America took shape. However, the fact remains that ideological and organizational factors were not the underlying cause of their behavior.

As we look back, it appears that the 9/11 attacks were produced by the dangerous interaction of personal problems, suicidal intent, homicidal intent, and organizational sponsorship. As we have seen over the past decade, these factors rarely coalesce.

But the stakes are also getting higher. Technological advancements have ensured that terrorists possess more killing power today than at any previous point in human history — and that’s only going to get worse. As computers and cell phones get cheaper, smaller, more sophisticated, and more effective, so will weapons. It is only through corresponding scientific and technological advancements, whereby we increase our understanding of these suicidal killers and how to identify them, that we have a chance to consistently prevent their attacks.

By recognizing the role suicidal tendencies and personal crises play in the lives of suicide terrorists, we can develop more effective strategies for identifying them before they strike. There has been more than 100 years of research on conventional suicide and murder-suicide, and previous scholars have identified many common risk factors and warning signs. It is time for counterterrorism officials to extend these findings to help them increase their precision and narrow their sights. While scanning jihadi websites, criminal databases, and intelligence files, they should stop just looking for radicalized individuals — and start looking for radicalized individuals who match these specific profiles.

In addition, it is time for leaders around the globe to combat the widespread social approval of suicide terrorism. Labeling suicide terrorists as "killers" is not enough. The key is to expose past suicide attackers for what they really were: afraid. Afraid to go on living; afraid to face the challenges of a brand-new day; afraid to face the shame that comes from admitting that your own failures and pain are not someone else’s fault.


Adam Lankford is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama and the author of Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib.
Read More On Economics | Terrorism

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.