Bullying led 11-year-old Thomas Thompson to intentionally overdose on pills. It led 15-year-old Amanda Todd to post a heartbreaking YouTube farewell and then hang herself at home. And, although no one has recognized it until now, bullying led to the deadliest attack on the Central Intelligence Agency in more than two decades. And worse yet, it could have been predicted.
The suicide bomber who struck three years ago today (Dec. 30), killing seven American intelligence officers outside Khost, Afghanistan, was lauded by his wife as a brave martyr and praised by jihadists as the man who outsmarted the CIA. But the truth is that Humam al-Balawi’s actions were driven by the same forces that lead countless teenage boys and girls to kill themselves in less sensational ways each year.
Like millions of similarly minded people, the 31-year-old Jordanian pediatrician had a fervent interest in Islamic fundamentalism, but no history of violent behavior. However, even before Balawi’s world fell apart, his vulnerabilities were easy to predict. He was 5-foot-7, with a narrow waist and delicate skin. He was scolded by his mother for avoiding social occasions, and his wife worried that he did not go out enough. He became a computer nerd—obsessed with Internet chat rooms and blogs, where he could hide safely behind his keyboard, spread terrorist propaganda, and pretend to be a bigger man.
The young doctor’s sense of security was destroyed in January 2009, when Jordanian authorities crashed through his door and hauled him away to a local prison known for its history of abusive methods. Bullying would be the nice word for how he was treated during the three-day interrogation, which including prolonged hooding and threats against him and his family. Predictably, Balawi came out a broken man: “They humiliated me,” he told his father, and his family recalls that he was never the same. In the days that followed, Balawi lost so much weight that people thought he must be sick—a classic sign of depression. He sold his beloved car, resigned from his respectable job, and agreed to spy for the Jordanian intelligence service and the CIA on a terrorist group in Pakistan.
If the Jordanian interrogators had seemed like bullies, that paled in comparison to the thuggish warriors he encountered in Pakistan, who favored decapitation as a hobby and viewed him with resentment and suspicion. Balawi was forced into combat training, but he was so ill-suited for the task that he crashed a motorcycle and severely broke his leg. At that point, the injured young man’s only value to the terrorists was as bait, but when their attempts to lure Americans to an ambush failed, they had him agree to a meeting at the CIA base in Afghanistan. Once the time and place were set, the terrorist leaders’ minds were made up: Balawi would become a suicide bomber.
Although the vast majority of people who are harassed or persecuted do not seek to escape through death, a recent meta-analysis of 37 independent studies showed that bullying greatly increases victims’ likelihood of suicidal behavior. The determining factor is usually the interaction between victims’ personal psychological vulnerabilities and the types of trauma they experience. Some people can stand up to the worst forms of cruelty without losing their will to live, while others struggle to ever recover from being victimized. In the cases of suicide, these individuals’ sense of violation and humiliation is so deep and overwhelming that it permanently shatters their worldview, and they become convinced that they will never be happy again.
Like Amanda Todd, Thomas Thompson, and other teenage victims of bullying around the world, Balawi had been broken and humiliated. Todd and Thompson tried changing schools, but their torment continued: Todd was continuously plagued by a topless picture of her that was being circulated online, and Thompson was constantly harassed by other boys after school because he was a smart kid who didn’t like sports. Similarly, Balawi tried moving to Pakistan, but his life went from bad to worse: he was trapped between deadly foes who would seemingly do anything to make him obey their commands. All three individuals lost their sense of security; all three lost hope. But only Balawi’s persecutors insisted that he die—and that he wouldn’t be dying alone.
In retrospect, perhaps the biggest tragedy is that this was all preventable. The seven men and women who worked for the CIA should still be alive today. 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.
In the aftermath of the horrific attack on the CIA in Afghanistan, we could have learned a valuable lesson about the psychological vulnerabilities and suicide-provoking pressures that really drive these attackers.
Instead, some security officials rushed to re-affirm their insistence that suicide bombers such as Balawi are primarily motivated by ideology. The lesson they appeared to be promoting was that the CIA should never trust an Islamic fundamentalist again.
However, when assessing individuals who may pose a threat—or ensuring that we don’t create new ones—our intelligence officials should pay much closer attention to the role of mental health. If they are about to meet with a broken and bullied person in the midst of a deep psychological crisis, they should arm themselves and prepare for the worst. If they are greeting a committed ideologue with something to live for—like most people with strong views—they need only prepare to talk.