June 13, 2016 | The Weekly Standard

The Orlando Shooter’s Desire for ‘Martyrdom’

After each jihadist attack in the West, our society rehearses the same ritualistic debate over what the terrorists' motivations really are. It is true that “radicalization,” as it is often described, is a complex process. The men who become terrorists may have psychological or other issues that compel them to act.

But ideas matter. And the early reporting on Omar Mateen's life shows that one idea in particular wormed its way into his brain: the supposed glory of jihadist “martyrdom.” 

Earlier today, FBI director James Comey discussed his bureau's investigation into Mateen, the terrorist who killed and wounded dozens at an Orlando nightclub. The FBI first looked into Mateen in 2013, closed its investigation in early 2014, but opened another just a few months later. During the first investigation, Comey said, the FBI found Mateen's comments to be contradictory.

“First, he claimed family connections to Al-Qaeda. He also said that he was a member of Hezbollah, which is a Shiite terrorist organization that is a bitter enemy of the so-called Islamic state, ISIL,” Comey explained. “He said he hoped that law enforcement would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so that he could martyr himself.”

Let those words sink in: Mateen wanted to “martyr” himself. 

It is true that Hezbollah is now pitted against both the Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL) and al Qaeda. But it was Hezbollah, backed by the Iran and the Assad family's regime in Syria, that first introduced the U.S. to suicide attacks in the early 1980s. (Hezbollah even later helped al Qaeda emulate these attacks in the 1990s.)

The FBI's second investigation into Mateen focused on his potential ties to Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, who was also from Florida. Abu Salha blew himself up in a “martyrdom operation” on behalf of Al Nusrah Front (al Qaeda's official branch in Syria) in May 2014. The “investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between” Abu Salha and Mateen, Comey claims.

But one of the FBI's witnesses mentioned Mateen's name when asked if he or she knew of anyone “who might be radicalizing,” according to the Associated Press's summary of Comey's remarks. The AP continues: “The witness said he worried about Mateen because he mentioned videos of Anwar al-Alwaki, an al-Qaida leader killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike.”

Many of Awlaki's lectures focused on why young Muslims should desire “martyrdom.”

One of Awlaki's most infamous students is Army major Nidal Malik Hasan, who emailed Awlaki to ask about the permissibility of a Muslim soldier turning on his fellow Americans. Hasan wanted to know if Awlaki would consider such Muslim soldiers to be martyrs if they died in the act of killing their uniformed comrades. It does not appear that Awlaki personally and directly blessed Hasan's attack, but he did publicly advocate such slayings. Incredibly, the FBI concluded Hasan's emails to Awlaki were “consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center.” The emails weren't consistent with Hasan's research; they were consistent with his desire to launch a shooting spree at Fort Hood in November 2009.

Then there are Mateen's 911 phone calls the night of the massacre in Orlando. Mateen expressed his brotherhood with the Tsarnaev brothers, one whom died in a shootout with police after bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013.

During at least one of the calls, Mateen also told an operator that he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

This is exactly what Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's so-called caliphate tells people to do before they die as a “martyr” or otherwise.

The Islamic State regularly warns believers that they shouldn't die in a state of disobedience. They can avoid the fires of hell by pledging bay'ah (oath of allegiance) to Baghdadi's enterprise, the group's propagandists frequently claim. For instance, the 12th issue of the Islamic State's English-language magazine, Dabiq, includes this passage attributed to the Prophet Mohammed: “Whoever withdraws his hand from obedience will meet Allah on Resurrection Day without having any excuse. And whoever dies without having a bay'ah binding him, dies a death of jahiliyyah [state of ignorance].”

The couple who opened fire on a holiday party in San Bernardino last year did the same thing. They, too, pledged allegiance to Baghdadi's “caliphate” before meeting their fate.

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the martyrdom cult has only grown. Al Qaeda and then the Islamic State have popularized the idea to such an extent that there were more suicide attacks in 2015 (726) than in any previous year. During the first five months of 2016, the Islamic State launched more “martyrdom operations” per month than all terrorist organizations combined last year. That is, 2016 is on pace to surpass 2015.

Not all jihadists achieve “martyrdom” by blowing themselves up. At least one convinced himself that killing a bunch of people at a gay nightclub would earn him this status.

The jihadists' belief in “martyrdom,” as twisted as it is, has only become more prevalent during the past decade and a half. Perhaps the U.S government should be seeking ways to discredit this idea, instead of pretending it is not what motivates men to commit heinous acts. 

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn