How bullying helps create suicide bombers

Based on what we know about bullying and suicide, it should have been easy to predict how Balawi would respond to coercion. When pressured by Jordanian interrogators to reveal everything he knew, he gave in. When pressured by CIA officers to travel to Pakistan and spy for them, he gave in. What did we think he would do if pressured by terrorist leaders—stand strong and resist? Balawi’s personal history suggested otherwise, as did some previous cases from Israel where individuals who were beaten by interrogators or forced to spy on terrorist groups ultimately came back as suicide bombers.

Even at his strongest, Balawi was like many Internet trolls, launching fierce attacks from the safety of his own computer, overcompensating for his weaknesses and anxieties in the real world. By the end, he was just a scared and broken man with a suicide vest—hobbling on a crutch, looking for a way out.

He is not the only terrorist to be bullied or coerced until he became suicidal. In Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, young men and women have been kidnapped, beaten, raped, and threatened with decapitation by jihadist handlers attempting to “prepare” them for suicide bombings. The calculus is simple: if you want people who want to die, you either find volunteers who are already depressed or suicidal, or you break the spirits of vulnerable individuals and kill the life force within them. After that, the rest is easy.

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