(Psychology) Understanding the 9/11 Perpetrators: Crazy, Lost in Hate, or Martyred

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(Psychology) Understanding the 9/11 Perpetrators: Crazy, Lost in Hate, or Martyred?

The Conflict

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, many people have asked the question "why?" Why did those who hijacked four passenger airliners with the intent to fly them into buildings, killing thousands—including themselves—do what they did? The question of what motivated these men to willingly, determinedly, and violently give up their lives is an important one for many seeking to understand what happened.


• Prior to September 11, few people could imagine that such a shocking and large-scale terrorist attack could occur on U.S. soil. After September 11, few could comprehend what motivated the attackers. With responsibility linked to the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda, possible religious motivations or hatred for the West were considered by those surviving the chaos. A manual used by the attackers reveals that hate was not a driving force behind the terrorists' actions. Rather, the hijackers focused on their belief and devotion to their cause as they carried out their plan.

Foreign Policy

• What motivated the hijackers may not be the same as what motivated their leader, Osama bin Laden, head of the al-Qaeda network. Bin Laden has a history of anti-Western, and particularly anti-American, statements and actions. In a taped video after September 11, bin Laden acknowledged that the attacks were a success. It can be guessed that causing a large number of deaths and instilling chaos and fear in the United States was part of his goal.


• Most people can not fathom an environment or belief system that would support a person's desire to participate in a suicide attack. Suicide is not condoned by any of the world's major religions, including Islam. Under extremist beliefs and interpretations, however, suicide attacks—or martyrdom operations—have become increasingly common.

Four groups of Muslim Arabs hijacked four commercial aircraft on the morning of September 11, 2001. Two of these groups succeeded in flying their planes into the World Trade Center in New York City; one group succeeded in flying its plane into the Pentagon near Washington, DC; and the fourth group crashed its plane in western Pennsylvania when the passengers tried to take control of the plane back from the hijackers. About three thousand lives were lost, including the lives of nineteen hijackers.

Americans were shocked that nineteen men were willing to give their lives to kill Americans. Why did they do it? No terrorist group took credit for the attack or issued any demands. The mystery only deepened when it was learned that fifteen of the nineteen attackers had Saudi passports. Saudi Arabia has been a long-time ally of the United States; indeed the Gulf War (1991) can be seen as a response not only to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait but to the threat this invasion represented to Kuwait's neighbor Saudi Arabia. When Osama bin Laden was seen on videotape admitting that the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11 (9/11) was more than he had hoped for, Americans finally had a clear enemy but still no clear explanation of the behavior of the nineteen attackers.

These were not men who had lost all sense of self in a cult that occupied their every waking moment; before the attack the men were dispersed, living in separate apartments in different towns. They were not living under the political power of a regime that controlled their lives; before 9/11 they spent months, even years breathing the free air of the United States. It cannot be maintained that they attacked what they did not know; their extended experience living in the United States means that they did know the country and its people. Yet they chose to die in order to kill thousands of Americans. A variety of explanations for this puzzle have been offered since 9/11: They were crazy. They were suicidal. They hated Americans. These explanations, and the attackers' view of themselves as martyrs for Islam, will be explored here from a psychological perspective.

Are They Crazy?

It is difficult to see the 9/11 attacks as an expression of mental disorder. The attacks were brilliantly planned and executed with striking coordination, and the quality of planning and execution offer a strong argument that the attackers could not be crazy in any serious sense. Crazy in a serious sense means suffering from some form of psychopathology represented in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). Psychopathology, however, is associated with unrealistic appraisal of the world, including disturbed perceptions of self and others. In other words, psychopathology is pathology, a disease or disorder, and pathology gets in the way of effective performance rather than explaining it.

A particular kind of psychopathology might at first glance seem a more promising explanation. Sociopaths, sometimes called psychopaths, are people who do not feel guilt or shame. They do not feel normal social attachments; they use and manipulate others as means for their own ends. Such people, one might think, can kill civilians—including women, children, and the elderly—without remorse. Perhaps this kind of pathology is what makes terrorists able to do the terrible things they do. Unfortunately for this explanation, the hallmark of sociopathy or psychopathy is selfishness. No one studying this kind of pathology has ever suggested that it can be expressed in self-sacrifice or suicide. Even if the self-sacrifice is risk-taking short of self-destruction, a pathology of selfishness cannot account for the group cohesion and trust which are the essential foundations of terrorist groups.

A third kind of pathology that can be invoked to explain 9/11 is the pathology that leads to suicide. Were the attackers suicidal? Certainly they were in the sense that at least some of them, in particular the pilots who flew the planes into buildings, intended to die. But if "suicidal" is to be an explanation of their behavior, then describing the 9/11 attackers as suicidal again implies that there was something wrong with them. Suicide is usually associated with depression, a form of psychopathology recognized in the DSM-IV. Again, however, there is no reason to believe that the attackers were suffering from depression and good reason, in their success, to believe that they were normal by any psychiatric standard.

Mohammed Atta is thought to have been the leader of the 9/11 attacks and his background has been extensively investigated. His middle-class parents have been interviewed in Egypt, his school-mates and acquaintances have been interviewed, and his German employers in Hamburg have been interviewed. None suggested that Atta showed any signs of depression or any other form of psycho-pathology.

In short, explanation of 9/11 as the work of nineteen crazy individuals cannot be taken seriously. Any attempt to translate this kind of talk into specific psychiatric diagnoses quickly runs into the fundamental inconsistency between disorder—any kind of mental disorder—and the demonstrated organization and effectiveness of the 9/11 attackers.

Was 9/11 a Hate Crime?

Did the attackers hate America and Americans? Osama bin Laden has issued numerous statements justifying violence against Americans, and he has consistently leveled three accusations. First, American troops have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War against Iraq; the presence of these "infidels" is a desecration of the Muslim holy land that includes the cities of Mecca and Medina. Second, the U.S.-led boycott of Iraq since the Gulf War has resulted in half a million Iraqis, mostly children, dying from lack of food and medicine. Third, Americans have armed and supported Israel in its domination of the Palestinians, who were forced from their lands in the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. These are grounds for anger and hatred, and many have explained the 9/11 attacks as an expression of hatred.

In a speech to his nation on September 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush (2001-) asked the question, "Why do they hate us?" His answer: "They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government … They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

A new organization, "Americans for Victory over Terrorism" (AVOT), has offered the same interpretation. The AVOT, chaired by William Bennett (former U.S. secretary of education), offers ten Fundamental Principles. The second principle is a confident statement of the hate-crime hypothesis: "The radical Islamists who attacked us did so because of our democratic ideals, our belief in, and practice of, liberty and equality. AVOT will take to task those who blame America first and who do not understand—or who are unwilling to defend—our fundamental principles" ("Americans for Victory over Terrorism," 2002).

A quick search of the Lexis-Nexus database of newspaper articles indicates that literally thousands of news stories since 9/11 have linked "terrorism" and "hate." Unfortunately for this kind of explanation, polling data from Muslim countries do not indicate widespread hatred of the United States. Fifteen of the nineteen men who attacked on 9/11 had Saudi passports. To the extent that these fifteen represent or draw inspiration from the opinions of other Saudis, we can learn something about their motivations from polls in Saudi Arabia.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

A much-misunderstood Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries, released February 26, 2002, offers further evidence that Muslim views of the United States have more to do with politics than hatred. The nine countries polled were Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The headline results of the poll were that 53 percent of Muslims had unfavorable views of the United States; 58 percent had unfavorable views of President Bush; 61 percent did not believe that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs; and 77 percent believe that U.S. military action in Afghanistan is morally unjustified. It is worth noting, however, that these results are not as negative as many of the headlines led readers to believe; they imply, after all, that more than 40 percent of Muslims are not negative towards the United States and President Bush.

By way of context, Gallup polling in the United States between March 1-3, 2002, found 41 percent of Americans unfavorable toward "Muslim countries in general." Thus Americans are nearly as unfavorable toward Muslim countries as Muslim countries are toward the United States. (41 percent of Americans unfavorable toward Muslim countries; 53 percent of Muslims unfavorable towards the United States). Asked about specific Muslim countries, Americans were most unfavorable towards Iran (72 percent) and least unfavorable towards Morocco (21 percent).

In the Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries, perhaps most important for judging hatred of the United States is the question about the 9/11 attacks. A surprisingly large 67 percent of Muslims said the 9/11 attacks were morally unjustified. That is, for two-thirds of respondents in nine Muslim countries, hatred of the United States does not rise to the level of justifying the attacks of 9/11.

Even if hatred of the United States is not widespread among Muslims, it might yet be the case that hatred motivates the few hundreds or thousands of Muslims who are members of al-Qaeda. In particular it may have been what motivated the 9/11 terrorists. To evaluate this possibility, it is necessary to be a little more specific about how hatred can explain suicide terrorism.

As an explanation of 9/11, hatred has to be stronger than fear. Hatred is a strong emotion and can perhaps be strong enough to drive out fear of death. Most of us have had the experience of being so angry that we did something stupid, something that cost us heavily. Taking a swing at someone bigger and stronger than we are, for instance. Anger and hatred are strong emotions and can overwhelm good sense and even self-interest. Anger and hatred over perceived wrongs by the United States could conceivably lead men to give up their lives for revenge. With this possibility in mind, we are fortunate to have a document that gives access to the minds and motives of the 9/11 attackers.

Historical Background

"Atta's Manual"

Found in the personal belongings of several of the 9/11 attackers were copies of the same handwritten document, a kind of manual for the attack. The author of the document is not known with certainty, although it has sometimes been attributed to Mohammed Atta as the presumed leader of the 9/11 operation. As published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), this document has four pages. The first page of the document does not begin with the usual Muslim invocation or prayer, however, and the first line of this page seems to refer to something earlier. Thus the published document appears to be pages two through five of an original from which the first page has either not been found or has not been released by the FBI.

The "manual" has been independently translated by two scholars, Hassan Mneimneh and David Cook, each of whom has offered a discussion and interpretation of his translation (Mneimneh, 2002; Cook, in press). The discussion here is based on the work of both scholars, to whom this author owes many thanks for providing access to their work before publication.

The manual is divided into three sections: "The last night" in an apartment before the attack, "the second phase" from the taxi to the airport until boarding the plane, and "the third phase" from boarding the plane to welcoming death and the end of the mission. In each of these sections, by far the greatest attention is given to prayer; much smaller attention is given to group solidarity among the attackers and to practical details of carrying out the plan of attack; and almost no attention to the enemy or justification for the attack.


The first and perhaps most surprising aspect of the manual is that it does not incite or even approve of hatred of the enemy. There is no list of outrages to justify the mission. There is no mention of infidels in Saudi Arabia, or children dying in Iraq, or U.S. support for Israel.

On the contrary, the manual argues explicitly against individual motivation based on personal feelings: "Do not act out of a desire for vengeance for yourself. Let your action instead be for the sake of God." The manual reinforces this injunction with the example of Ali ibn Abi Talib, as described in Muslim sacred writings from the seventh century. Ali was fighting with an infidel who spat on him. Rather than strike the infidel in anger, Ali held his sword until he could master himself and strike for Allah rather than for himself. The importance of this example is increased by the paraphrase that follows. "He might have said it differently. When he became sure of his intention, he struck and killed him." This reference to intention resonates with the first line of the first section, which asks for a mutual pledge to die and a renewal of intent. The intention of the attackers is crucial and is an issue that will be explored later in this essay.

Here it suffices to note that, not only does the manual not encourage hatred of the enemy, it actually warns against acting out of hatred or vengeance. Indeed the manual does not identify any specific enemy. There are a few general references to the "enemy" (e.g. second point in first phase), but no direct reference to the United States or to any other country. Perhaps most explicit is the reference, in the second phase, to "the followers of Satan"—"These are the admirers of Western civilization." More allusive are references to the enemy as "the factions" or "the confederates," using a term, ahzab, that appears in the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, and in the Hadith, the secondary literature of sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and his Companions, to refer to Mohammed's enemies. This historical term is more specific than it may appear, however, because the term is commonly used among radical Muslims to refer to the United States and the West. Beyond these indirect references are phrases even less direct: "we seek refuge from their evil, "place a bar in front of them," "blind them," "all their technology does not do benefit or harm."

The manual's references to the enemy thus do not support the idea that the 9/11 attackers were motivated by hatred of the enemy; indeed references to the enemy are relatively few, general, and indirect. Overall, the emotional quality of the manual is positive, rather than negative. Hate, anger, and vengeance are discouraged while submission to God and sacrifice in accord with God's will are encouraged. The nature of this encouragement becomes clearer in considering the importance of prayer in the manual.


Prayer is generally understood as lifting up one's heart and mind to God, and at least ninety percent of the lines in the manual fit this description. Simply counting lines, however, will underestimate the consistency of content and style. There are many direct quotations from the Qur'an, which Muslims believe to be the word of God, and from the Hadith. There are also many paraphrases and allusions to the Qur'an and the Hadith that are easily recognized by most Muslims. Finally, there are repeated injunctions to recite "invocations" or "devotionals" in the situation of travel, entry of town or building, facing enemies, and so forth. These are formulas of brief prayer for various occasions that are widely published in Muslim countries. Likewise prayer is enjoined at every point in the manual, including the instruction to stay awake the night before the attack to spend the whole night in prayer.

In style as well as in content, the manual is a prayer and is written almost entirely in the vocabulary of the seventh century. References to modern nouns such as airport, or airplane, are given only as the first initial of the relevant modern word in Arabic. The result is that the document conveys a feeling of connection to the roots of the Muslim faith, in the same way that some Christians find the language of the King James version of the Bible more powerful than versions that use modern English.

The manual, however, is more than spiritual encouragement. It describes a contract, or at least a compact, between the attackers and their God. The attackers will be martyrs in the Muslim tradition of martyrs; one who dies with the correct intention, that is, doing the will of Allah, is brought immediately to paradise. The manual refers to this paradise in three different aspects (here this author depends particularly on Mneimneh's insight and discussion). The first aspect is social: "to start the happy God-pleasing life with the prophets, saints, and martyrs, who are the best of companions." The second aspect is a physical paradise: the beautiful garden in which "heavenly brides" await. This is the most common representation of paradise in Islamic literature. Finally, a third aspect is the meeting with God in "the highest paradise."

The alternative to paradise is hell and human weakness and sinfulness will lead to this punishment. A martyr, however, is purified of his sins and enters paradise without impediment or punishment. This may be the explanation of reports that some of the 9/11 attackers had frequented lap-dance bars and other impure places during their sojourn in the U.S. A man on his way to martyrdom need have no fear of punishment for sins. On the other hand, frequenting bars rather than mosques could be a part of the "tradecraft" by which the 9/11 attackers avoided FBI attention to pious Muslims when seeking radical Muslims. Of course it is also possible that "tradecraft" and a pass to paradise came together in the barroom.

In sum, the contract advanced in the manual is this: a man who gives his life in the path of Allah is a martyr who trades the pain and disappointments of human existence for release from sin and glory in heaven. Considered strictly as a contract, this is an attractive proposition. Life can be more difficult than death; " … to Some, Not to be martyrs, is a martyrdom" (John Donne). Death in the flash of impact and explosion can be easier than withstanding torture in an enemy's prison and easier than watching loved ones suffering pain, shame, or disease.

Group Cohesion

In addition to encouraging prayer, the manual aims to build group solidarity and unity among the attackers. The first line of the first section calls for a mutual oath to the death on the last night. Later the manual asks its reader to remember to pray and to remind others in the group to pray, and, at the end of the first section, directs its readers to pray the morning prayer as a group. The second section, instructions for the trip to the airport, and preparing to board the airplane, contains no explicit reference to the group. This should not be surprising because the attackers needed to avoid giving any clues to their relationship at the airport; conversation among them, mutual recognition, or even physical proximity could create the perception of a suspicious group of young Arabs. The third section, however, which dealt with taking over the plane, returns to building group solidarity and unity. The manual warns against disagreement at the point where passengers may have to be killed; rather the injunction is to "listen and obey." This warning indicates a predetermined ranking of the attackers, as to who would command and who would obey, and the ranking would need to be complete enough that loss of one or more individuals would not leave authority uncertain.

Once in control of the plane, the attackers are asked to be glad with their brothers, to make them feel secure, and to encourage them. In order to appreciate the need for this encouragement, consider the situation of the attackers at this point. For example, they are few in relation to the number of passengers and crew. They are likely to have killed in taking over the plane, probably by cutting the throat of one or more passengers, resulting in great volumes of blood around them and on them. The bodies of their victims are before them. Normal reactions to this situation might include feelings of disgust and guilt, and, in looking at the lifeless bodies of their victims, fear at the fast approach of their own deaths. In this situation some encouragement is called for, and the manual suggests something not unlike the "infield chatter" of a baseball team: praying, talking, supporting, and caring.

The manual specifically suggests that the mutual encouragement should include sharing some food or water. "Do not forget to take some of the spoils, even if only a cup of water, to drink from it and offer it to your brothers to drink, if possible." This seems at first a bizarre idea. If you are to die in a few minutes, why do you need a drink of water? As noted, however, particularly by Mneimneh in his discussion of the manual, this injunction has been prepared for in an earlier part of the third section: "If you slaughter you should plunder." This injunction appears in a context of preparing the reader to do his part in slaughtering passengers.

Despite the non-sequitur quality of sharing a drink of water while racing toward death, it is worth considering how this advice may be very practical. As the sharing of water occurs in the context of mutual encouragement, the most obvious possibility is that the sharing is a contribution to group cohesion. Sharing of food and drink is one of the strongest rituals of relationship. Another possibility is the value of distraction. Getting and sharing food or even a glass of water during the minutes approaching death offers a concrete group activity, a gesture of normalcy in an extreme situation, and a distraction from thinking about oncoming death. A third possibility is the value of decreasing fear by focusing on nurture. Psychological research indicates the incompatibility of appetitive motives and fear. Many have noticed how fear gets in the way of feeling hunger and thirst, but the reverse is also true; motives of hunger and thirst can suppress fear in the presence of the food and drink. This is an old idea, at least as old as the antidote to fear in the twenty-third Psalm: "You prepare a table before me, under the eyes of my enemies." In short, the manual's injunction to try to share at least a glass of water in the last minutes of the mission may not be so bizarre after all. Whether by building cohesion, distracting from fear or actively inhibiting fear, this sharing can be very practical advice.


In comparison with praying and supporting the group, the manual contains only a few references to the practical requirements of the plan of attack. The first section enjoins some basics for the night before the attack: knowing the plan well, checking clothes, knife, ticket, passport and other papers, and dressing neatly. The second section suggests reassuringly that, at the airport, prayer will lead to a smile and to feeling secure. This suggestion is psychologically sophisticated: the best way to look relaxed and unsuspicious is to feel secure. Trying to look relaxed is less likely to succeed. The third section contains a reminder that the critical moment in the plan is to take control of the plane after takeoff; they should strike as heroes, and shout the name of God in order to instill terror in the infidels. This last can have the practical effect of multiplying the surprise of the attack with disconcerting noise in the same way that soldiers are taught to scream through a bayonet charge. And that, surprisingly enough, is the extent to which action is discussed. Physical action of the plan is represented only in outline and in no more than a dozen lines, whereas the action and varieties of prayer appear in nearly every line.

It is possible that the lack of action detail was intended as a security precaution, in case the document were uncovered before the attack. This possibility is made less likely, however, by noting that the references to suitcase, knife, ticket, and passport should alone be enough to give away the plan if the document were found by U.S. security personnel. Having said as much as it does, why does the document not have any clue to such key pieces of coordination as what the signal will be to get out of their seats to take the plane, and who will give this signal? Why no warning against proximity or mutual recognition while waiting to board at the airport? Why nothing about whether the attack should begin with taking over from the pilots in the cockpit, or the passengers in the cabin? Why nothing about what to do with the passengers after takeover, whether to keep them in their seats or move them to the back of the plane? The most natural interpretation of this document is that it is not a manual

for action but a manual for motivation and control. The author of the manual is not concerned with security and coordination among the attackers, but with strengthening their resolve when it comes to killing passengers first and then themselves.

In brief, the manual is more a manual of prayer than a manual of action. It offers several kinds of mind-control mechanisms, notably a focus of attention in prayer and the promise of martyrdom. It aims to maintain a martyr's intention, not for vengeance or hatred, but for satisfaction of God's will. These same goals and many of the same mechanisms are found in the preparation of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Palestinian Martyrs

Nasra Hassan, a Pakistani woman and a Muslim, has interviewed over 200 Palestinians involved in "martyrdom operations" against Israel ("An Arsenal of Believers," New Yorker, November 19, 2001). Interviewees included young men who had volunteered as suicide bombers, organizers and trainers of the bombers, and the families of successful bombers. Young men are not so much recruited for martyrdom as selected from a flood of applicants that rises with every Israeli military incursion against Palestinians and with every Mossad (Israeli secret service) assassination of Palestinian militant leaders. Those selected must be over eighteen, unmarried, and without family responsibilities. Until recently the bombers were all male, but this barrier fell in January 2002 with the first suicide bombing carried out by a female, Wafa Idris, a 27-year-old nursing-aide from a refugee camp near Ramallah in the West Bank.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Each Palestinian martyr is prepared for his mission by a 'trainer' and accompanied everywhere during his last week by two 'assistants' to support his resolve. A member of HAMAS described the preparation to Hassan.

We focus his attention on Paradise, on being in the presence of Allah, on meeting the Prophet Mohammad, on interceding for his loved ones so that they, too, can be saved from the agonies of Hell, on the houris, and on fighting the Israel occupation and removing it from the Islamic trust that is Palestine.

With the exception of specific reference to Israel and Palestine, this might equally be a summary of the content of Atta's manual. Thus the motivation of Palestinian volunteers is very similar to that represented in the "manual": a promise of immediate reward in heaven and remission of punishment for sin.

Again as in Atta's manual, intention is crucial. Hassan quotes the spiritual leader of HAMAS, Sheikh Ahmen Yassin, as follows: "But these rewards are not in themselves the goal of the martyr. The only aim is to win Allah's satisfaction. That can be done in the simplest and speediest manner by dying in the cause of Allah. And it is Allah who selects the martyrs." When Hassan asked whether martyrs might act from feelings of personal revenge, a trainer responded that if personal feelings alone motivate the candidate, "his martyrdom will not be acceptable to Allah." This response is consistent with the lesson of Ali ibn Abi Talib: the martyr must strike, not from personal feelings, but for Allah.

The similarities linking Atta's manual to the preparation of Palestinian martyrs suggest a reconsideration of the origin of the manual. In its combination of religious and psychological sophistication, the manual points, not to Muhammad Atta, an architecture student, but to someone with considerable experience in preparing young martyrs. If not from among the trainers of Palestinian martyrs, the writer is likely to have come from a similar background in preparing martyrs in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir, Lebanon, Pakistan, or Yemen. Although little noted in the Western press, all of these countries have seen martyrdom operations organized by radical Islamic groups since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989. Perhaps best known is the suicide bombing in Afghanistan that assassinated the leader of the Northern Alliance, Amad Shah Masud, just prior to 9/11.

Perpetrators Versus Supporters

Our discussion of the manual began with the question of whether the 9/11 attacks can be understood as a result of hatred, in particular hatred for the United States. Close examination of the manual does not support this interpretation, and neither does Hassan's description of the preparation of Palestinian martyrs. The martyr is not encouraged toward anger and hatred and indeed is explicitly warned against these feelings as incorrect intention. Although it seems plausible that one emotion can overwhelm another, that anger or hatred can be so strong as to overwhelm fear of death, the evidence suggests that this popular interpretation is simply not correct. It is not hatred of the enemy that conquers fear, it is love of God and the promise of paradise.

A paradox still remains in this understanding. There is no doubt that many Muslims feel shamed and humiliated by Western policies, including not only Western actions in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel but also support for corrupt governments in the band of mostly Muslim states that extend from Morocco to Indonesia. After every Israeli provocation, for instance, Palestinian militants in HAMAS and Islamic Jihad are pressured for action. Hassan (2001) quotes a militant leader: "Fending off the crowds who demand revenge and retaliation and insist on a human bombing operation—that becomes our biggest problem!" The paradox therefore is that there is great anger in the street but not in the hearts of the martyrs.

This statement of the paradox is already the key to its resolution. The motivation of the martyrs is not the same as the motivation of the people they come from. The anger of Muslims against the West is the background that brings martyrs forward and remembers them as heroes, but anger does not suffice to drive out fear. The peculiar result is that the Muslim in the street feels more anger than the Muslim giving his life.

This interpretation is consistent with what is known about men who risk their lives as combat soldiers. Interviews with men directly from the front lines of World War II (WWII, 1939-45) found that only about 20 percent mentioned hatred of the enemy as helping them "when things got tough." Most often mentioned as helping were "thoughts of God" and "not wanting to let my buddies down."

Sentiments of civilians at home during WWII seem to have been much more blood oriented. From her reading of memoirs and letters from WWII, Bourke (An Intimate History of Killing, 1999, p. 148) argues that, compared with those in combat, "Civilians were more prone to articulate virulent hatred toward the enemy, leading many commentators to conclude that reading or writing about killing was more likely to stimulate hateful feelings than actual participation in the slaughter." Bourke offers examples of civilians who wrote to their friends and relatives in combat about 'brutal Huns' and enemy 'devils,' only to be rebuked by return mail from soldiers who found patriotic talk and hatred of the enemy to be a naïve glorification of the depressing realities of combat. Similarly, surveys in England during the blitz found that reprisal bombing of German cities was more popular in un-bombed rural areas than in London and other cities that actually suffered the bombing.

The psychology of this negative correlation between sacrifice and hatred must await a different essay than this one. Here it is only important to note that there is evidence to support the idea, however paradoxical, that those sacrificing the most for a cause are least motivated by hatred. The attacks of 9/11 are not to be understood, at least for the attackers, as a form of hate crime.

Islamic Martyrdom

The critical concern with intention, both for the martyrs and their trainers, requires explication. The issue at the bottom of this concern is the distinction between martyrdom and suicide. Suicide is forbidden to Muslims, and Hassan's interviewees in Palestine would speak with her only on condition that she did not refer to suicide bombers. The partisan nature of the term, suicide bomber, is apparent in the fact that Europeans, who generally sympathize more with the Palestinians than Americans do, more often refer to Palestinian bombers as kamikaze bombers. A suicide bomber is linked to the psychopathology of suicide, whereas a kamikaze-bomber is linked to the desperation of World War II Japanese attacks on U.S. forces in the Pacific.

Both Mneimneh and Cook, in their discussion of Atta's manual, show that suicide—taking one's own life—is if anything more discouraged in Islamic texts than in Christian texts. A Muslim martyr does not take his own life, but loses his life in fighting and trying to kill the enemy. Although massacres of prisoners and civilians can be found in the early history of Islam, even under the direction of the Prophet Muhammad, later commentaries and interpretations developed Islamic prohibitions against killing prisoners or civilians.

Mneimneh (in press) cites a reaffirmation of these prohibitions, issued by the Islamic Research Council at the Al Azhar University in Cairo on 4 November 2001. "Islam provides clear rules and ethical norms that forbid the killing of non-combatants, as well as women, children, and the elderly, and also forbids the pursuit of the enemy in defeat, the execution of those who surrender, the infliction of harm on prisoners of war, and the destruction of property that is not being used in the hostilities." More recently, however, Arab reactions to Israeli operations in the West Bank have begun to undermine the prohibitions of the Islamic Research Council. Sheikh Tantawi, the leading cleric of Al Azhar University, changed his mind to support martyrdom operations against Israeli children, women, and teenagers until the people of Palestine regain their land.

The Islamic Research Council in Cairo is often considered to be the highest moral authority in Sunni Islam, but Muslims, like Protestants, recognize no central teaching authority such as the pope provides for Catholics. As Protestant authority is the Bible, Muslim authority is the Qur'an. As Protestant church leaders influence their followers by their scholarly status in interpreting the Bible, so Muslim leaders influence their followers by their scholarly status in interpreting the Qur'an and the Hadith. This status is subject to challenge, and the interpretation offered by the Islamic Research Council is challenged by an interpretation published by anonymous Muslim scholars under the title of "The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Martyrdom Operations" (www.minna.com/html/aarticlesmartyrops.htm). Cook (in press) translates the key passage as follows.

"These examples, all based upon the hadith 'Verily, actions are only according to intentions … ' clearly support the notion that the verdict concerning the shahid [martyr] does not differ based upon who the killing party is, provided the intention is pure. So, one who has a bad intention and is killed by the enemy is deserving of the Fire, as would be the case if he kills himself out of pain. And one who has a sincere intention will be in Heaven, whether he is killed by the enemy or kills himself in error. And, one who helps in killing himself for the good of the religion will be in heaven.

In the end, the authors of the Permissibility Ruling conclude that classical Islamic texts imply approval for martyrdom operations so long as the act is based in correct intention and will inflict losses and fear on the enemy while strengthening the hearts of Muslims. The key to martyrdom is intention, and the emphasis on correct intention in Atta's manual is consistent with and likely flows directly from the Permissibility Ruling.

Comparison of Islamic and Christian Understandings of Martyrdom

The Ruling justifies suicidal attacks, including attacks on civilians, in a way that is likely to seem strained and illogical to non-Muslims, as indeed it seems to the majority of Muslims whose views are represented by the Islamic Research Council. In fairness, however, it must be recognized that Christianity has had its own problems and divisions in defining martyrdom.

Jesus put himself in harm's way by going to Jerusalem at the Passover holiday and challenging the Jewish authorities by calling the Pharisees and scribes "blind guides" and "whitened sepulchres" and by driving the moneychangers from the temple. The account, however, of his last night has him sweating and praying "Father, save me from this hour." Betrayed and accused before the Sanhedrin, Jesus is asked whether he is the Son of God and answers only elliptically: "You have said so." Pilate asks him if he is a king and he answers that his kingship is not of this world.

Although the original meaning of martyr is "witness," Jesus is surprisingly unassertive as a witness. Instead he makes his enemies work to convict him.

In the first few centuries after Jesus's death, some of his followers showed more enthusiasm for suffering than Jesus had. St. Ignatius, on his way to Rome to be executed (117 CE), wrote Roman friends to ask them not to intercede for him. St. Perpetua (203 CE) is described guiding the sword to her throat. St. Euphus (304 CE) rushed into the Roman prefect to declare that he was a Christian and wanted to die. Whether these stories are literally true is less important than the attitude toward death that they convey; the early Christian martyrs were not just indifferent to death, they reached for it. The understanding behind their enthusiasm was much like the compact described in Atta's manual: although others might be saved, only the martyr could be sure of Paradise. According to Tertullian, the early third century Christian theologian, "The only key that unlocks the gates of Paradise is your own blood."

Christian enthusiasm for martyrdom was later seen to need tempering with recognition that death should be God's call rather than human pride; martyrdom had to be better distinguished from the pride and sin of suicide. According to St. Cyprian (257 CE), "Since our discipline forbids anyone to surrender voluntarily," Christians "may not give themselves up. But if they are sought out by you, they will be found." Clement of Alexandria, an early third century bishop, found it necessary to teach actively against volunteering: "who does not avoid persecution, but out of daring presents himself for capture, becomes an accomplice in the crime of the persecution."

Perhaps the clearest expression of the Christian balance was the martyrdom of St. Thomas More at the hands of Henry VIII. Henry wanted an annulment of his childless marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but the pope wouldn't agree. Henry proclaimed himself supreme head of the English church, and an obliging Parliament declared Henry's marriage annulled. All English subjects were required to swear an Oath of Succession that recognized the annulment. Thomas More, Henry's friend, ghostwriter, and Lord Chancellor, refused the oath and was subsequently beheaded.

In the manner of his refusal, however, More did everything he could to avoid death. His was a silent witness. He did not argue the oath was wrong, or immoral, or indeed tell anyone that he rejected the oath. He only refused to sign it. He argued that in the law, silence is construed as consent. In the end, his lawyerly defense was not enough to save him, but his effort to make his enemies work to convict him was notable. In his reluctant approach to death, he was more Christ-like than the eager martyrs described in the centuries immediately after Jesus.

In sum, the Christian idea of martyrdom has undergone some fluctuation over the centuries, and the distinction between martyrdom and suicide has sometimes been not very different from that urged in the Permissibility Ruling. Similarly, Christian warfare has not always distinguished civilians from enemy warriors; examples go back at least to the massacre that accompanied the crusaders' capture of Jerusalem in 1099, and extend into the twentieth century with the deaths of millions in city bombing during WWII. Even today, the primacy of intent over effect is invoked for military actions that kill civilians; the current description of such casualties, as in the bombing of Slobodan Milosovec's Serbia or the Taliban's Afghanistan, is "collateral damage."

Recent History and the Future

The 9/11 attacks are not to be understood as the product of individual pathology or pathological hatred. Polls suggest that only relatively few Muslims may hate the United States, but even if the 9/11 attackers came from among those few, the attackers themselves, as judged by Atta's manual, did not act out of hate. Rather they understood themselves to be doing God's will; they gave their lives in a rush for paradise rather than for the satisfaction of punishing their enemies. This may be a common pattern, in which those not personally at risk feel more animosity toward the enemy than those actually fighting and dying against the enemy. Finally, the crucial difference between suicide and martyrdom is, for both Muslims and Christians, a matter of intent. Most Muslims do not agree that intent can justify taking one's own life or killing civilians, but, for both Christians and Muslims, it is an old and difficult question as to when good intention can justify killing one's self or others.

This question signals what is usually understood as a sophisticated level of moral judgment, in which actions are judged by intention rather than by effect. Most adults would agree that mistakes and accidents do not deserve punishment or reward, or at least deserve less punishment or reward than choices made on the basis of foreseeable consequences. The difficult case is one in which a choice, such as the choice made by the 9/11 attackers, has multiple foreseeable results, some evil and some good. Gaining paradise is positive, as is discouraging the enemy and heartening one's friends. Killing women, children, and the elderly is negative, as is taking one's own life.

The success of the 9/11 attacks reinforces the justification of suicide terrorism. Quite simply terrorism works. It does hurt the enemy and it does encourage the terrorists' friends. The increase in Palestinian suicide bombings against the Israelis, including in early 2002 the novelty of female suicide bombers, indicates how widely this justification is appreciated. Even this novelty is only local. The Tamil Tigers, in their fight for an independent Tamil state carved out of Sri Lanka, have for years been famous for their female suicide bombers. One of whom killed Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister of India and another of whom nearly killed the prime minister of Sri Lanka.

There is no mystery about why and how people kill others for political causes; the mystery is to understand how people can be ready to kill themselves for such causes. Most of us who are living comfortable lives cannot take the first step in being ready: we cannot imagine killing ourselves. Recent examples, however, make this kind of imagination easier. All of us are going to die; 9/11 means that more will be willing to die sooner for a cause that can give meaning to life. As the strong get stronger, the warfare of the weak will try to match high-tech weapon systems with more human weapons.


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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Clark McCauley


August 1996 Osama bin Laden issues a "Declaration ofWar" against the United States.

February 1998 Bin Laden announces the creation of theWorld Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, an alliance of terrorist groups intent on attacking the United States, its allies, and civilians, wherever they can be found.

May 2000 During an investigation into Osama binLaden, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation uncover a terrorist manual, "Military Studies in the Jihad Against Tyrants," in Manchester, England. Among its instructions, the manual details how to blend in while awaiting the time of attack.

September 11, 2001 Nineteen men hijack four passenger airliners. In a suicidal mission, two of the planes are flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and a third plane is flown into the Pentagon near Washington, DC; the fourth plane crashes in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers revolt against the hijackers.

September 12, 2001 A car hired by Mohammed Atta and left in the parking lot of Boston's Logan airport is found. It contains a flight manual in Arabic and a copy of the Qur'an.

September 28, 2001 Mohammed Atta's suicide letter is found; it contains a reference to shine your shoes before meeting your maker.

December 22, 2001 Richard Reid boards an AmericanAirlines flight from Paris to Miami. He is overpowered by passengers and crew when he tries to light an explosive hidden within his shoe.

Manual for a Raid

The handwritten manual found in the belongings of several of the September 11 attackers is not, as many may suppose, filled with talk of hate, vengeance, and death. To the contrary, the manual consistently focuses on devotion to God as it leads the reader through three phases: (1) preparations on the last night before the raid; (2) on the way to the airport; and (3) boarding the plane.

The first phase, as translated by Hassan Mniemneh in "Manual for a 'Raid'" (New York Review of Books, January 17, 2002) details fifteen steps discussing attitude, focus, and faith. From its first step—a mutual pledge to die and a renewal of intent—to its last—morning prayer—the manual offers encouragement to remain positive and optimistic. "God is with those who persevere." One's remaining hours should be devoted to forgetting earthly amusements and making oneself closer to God. In the face of the adversity to come, trust in God and remain steadfast. At the end of this preparation, one should make sure that everything is in order, including passports, plane tickets, clothing, and weapons. After morning prayer, phase two begins.

The manual's second phase offers spiritual encouragement and more prayer on the way to the airport. "Smile and feel secure, God is with the believers." Assurances in God, dedication and invocations to Him, and phrases supporting group cohesion are stressed throughout phase two. "[D]o not show signs of confusion or tension. Be happy and cheerful, be relaxed and feel secure because you are engaged in an action that God loves and is satisfied by it."

The third and final phase of the manual continues to focus on group cohesion, as well as the action of the attack itself. Be mindful and purposeful, it says, in taking action not for vengeance, but for the sake of God. Once the plane has boarded and taken off, the manual encourages the attackers to act against the non-believers. "Defeat them and cause them to tremble. Recite supplications that you and all your brothers be granted victory, triumph, and the hitting of the target. Do not be afraid … When the moment of truth comes near, and zero hour is upon you, open your chest welcoming death on the path of God." In the final seconds before hitting the target, the attackers are advised that their last words be an invocation to God.