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.