‘Martyrdom, bro.’: A Case Study on How Mark Steven Domingo Went from the US Army to Would-Be Terrorist

On April 26, 2019, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) officials arrested former United States Army Private Mark Steven Domingo. He stood accused of plotting to detonate an explosive device with the intent of causing a mass casualty event. Domingo, who resides in the small neighborhood of Reseda in California’s San Fernando Valley, planned on targeting a reported white nationalist rally in Bluff Park, located in Long Beach on April 28, 2019. But how did the 26-year old veteran end up at this point?

Information about Domingo and his background is preliminary. However, numerous sources, some reportedly close to the accused came forward and made some key statements that may shed some light on the psyche of the would-be terrorist.

Domingo served in the US Army from November of 2011 to February of 2013. Included in this time was a relatively brief stint in Afghanistan from September of 2012 to either January or February of 2013. Domingo’s time in Afghanistan, and the US Army, was cut short due to a behavioral infraction. Officials did not reveal the nature of the incident, but did indicate that it was a serious offense. Unnamed sources state that it was violent in nature and Domingo found himself back in the United States shortly after. He was issued a general discharge within weeks; one-step lower than an honorable discharge.

After his discharge, it is believed Domingo enrolled in some college-level courses at a local college. It is believed that he did not graduate. There is a large gap in the information about Domingo from this point until late in the fall of 2018. From here, his younger brother James and a self-described ex-girlfriend of Domingo provided some insight to reporters. According to his sibling, Domingo converted to Islam in the fall of 2018 or in early 2019 and started to attend prayers at a local mosque which practiced Sufism—a form of Islamic mysticism. Until the time of his arrest, James believed his brother’s sudden focus on religion was a positive development that offered some guidance in his life. James did not elaborate on his choice of words, but one would be led to assume that this referred to some type of turmoil in Domingo’s personal life.

Domingo’s family situation, as described as James, further represents a source of stress. James stated that his brother lived with him, their aunt, and grandmother. The siblings parents do not appear to be in the picture as James stated that he was not sure if they knew of the arrest and charges.

The reported ex-girlfriend of Domingo stated that his conversion to Islam corresponded with her having a miscarriage, indicating that the child was conceived with Domingo. This unnamed female further stated that Domingo worked as a sales representative at a security company where he was unhappy. Additional family members stated in a letter addressed to the media that there was members of the family who were ill and needed their attention, requesting privacy in the wake of these allegations.

Law enforcement officials first became aware of Domingo and his extremist views via online chatrooms. While it was not made immediately clear what exactly Domingo expressed in this chatrooms, officials state that they began surveillance on him almost immediately. Undercover law enforcement officials began conversing with Domingo through various means and captured numerous incriminating statements. Domingo stated that he wanted to engage in “violent jihad against the United States”, listing numerous targets from Jewish religious establishments to police officers. Domingo additionally referenced the New Zealand Mosque shootings as a motivator to launch an attack. Interestingly, Domingo stated that he would pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, but only if the group established a presence in the United States.

Unbeknownst to Domingo, he began to plot his attack with undercover FBI agents. Eventually, one of these agents offered Domingo an inert explosive device which he accepted. Domingo potentially and briefly reconsidered launching an attack. In a series of messages with undercover agents, Domingo considered postponing the attack until he had finished the Quran, also stating that he desired to experience Ramadan. Domingo stated that he would sleep on it, but gave the go ahead for attack preparation to continue the next day. When asked what he wanted to accomplish with his attack, Domingo stated “Martyrdom, bro”. Currently, the facts available are insufficient to produce a full analysis of the radicalization process of Domingo. What is known about Domingo that may have indicated a vulnerability towards radicalization though?

It appears that Domingo had an unstable family situation, at least for some years. It is unclear whether his parents are the ones described as ill by family members, but they have not been living with Domingo for some time. After exhibiting what was described as a serious violent incident, Domingo was discharged from the military. In recent years, Domingo was dissatisfied with his employment, perhaps thinking he deserved a better job and feeling underappreciated. If the unnamed female who identified herself as Domingo’s ex-girlfriend is genuine, Domingo suffered two recent stressors – the miscarriage of a child and, by the designation of ex-girlfriend, a break up.

These accumulated incidents by no means justify Domingo’s actions or beliefs. They do, however, show a potential chipping away at the psyche of an individual who already exhibited violent tendencies. Time will tell further details as his the case moves through legal proceedings. Domingo is facing a maximum of 15-years in prison, thus, unfortunately, this may not be the last we hear of Mark Steven Domingo.

Female Suicide Bombers: Mosul, Boko Haram, and Beyond

The Tragedy of Mosul

As Iraqi soldiers closed in on remaining Islamic State forces in Mosul in early July 2017, they faced a threat previously unemployed by their enemy thus far.  In a mere three days of fighting, from July 2nd to the 4th, the Islamic State deployed up to 20 female suicide bombers against pro-government troops.  The strategy did little to prevent the collapse of IS presence in the city: by July 3rd, the Islamic State controlled less than  a square mile of territory in the city.

However, the presence of female suicide bombers was unprecedented in the conflict. The use of female suicide bombers have evolved for various groups, including the infamous Chechnyan ‘Black Widows’, as well as Palestinian women during the Second Intifada.  But until the fall of Mosul, the Islamic State had refrained from the tactic.  Indeed, since June 15th, the only other uses of female suicide bombers were carried out by Boko Haram, the IS-affiliated extremist operating in West Africa.  The group used female suicide bombers in attacks ten times since June 15th.

Why Women?

In January 2004, after years of resistance to the concept, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin admitted that women were able to reach targets better than men and therefore may act as a useful fallback weapon.  Not only may women not necessarily be seen as much of a threat, but they also may produce a greater psychological effect, utilize the element of surprise, and produce greater publicity.  For instance, an image of a female suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS carrying her child before her attack during the fall of Mosul circulated heavily on news sites and social media.  In regions where more conservative forms of Islamic clothing are more common, the coverings also provide a possible disguise for male suicide bombers.  On July 2nd, 2017, a male suicide bomber targeting an Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camp in Anbar province in Iraq used a conservative female covering to conceal his explosives before detonating the device.  The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 14 people.

For the women themselves, a role as a suicide bomber can be voluntary or forced.  Some rationale include perceived honor and social status of martyrdom, as well as financial gain.  For example, a young woman recruited to be a suicide bomber for Boko Haram noted that they offered her money and her martyrdom for her role as a bomber.  However, it is often threats rather than incentives, as Boko Haram has been similarly documented abducting women and forcing them into marriages as a way to recruit them into acting as suicide bombers.

The Statistics of Female Suicide Bombers

Regardless of the different motivations for female suicide bombers, the question of whether the theoretical advantages of female suicide bombers materialize in real terrorist attacks is statistically unclear.  To evaluate the comparative lethality of female suicide bombers, we use the data from the Rise To Peace Active Intelligence Database since June 15th.  Looking only at suspected Boko Haram suicide bomb attacks which were verified by two different media sources yields a field of 13 attacks: 10 that involved women and 3 that did not.  The 10 attacks involving women killed a total of 77 people and injured a total of 152, for an average of 7.7 killed and 15.2 injured per attack.  Meanwhile, the 3 attacks without women killed a total of 12 and injured a total of 10, for an average of 4 killed and 3.3 injured per attack.

However, there are two reasons this higher lethality rate is misleading.  First, attacks that involved women had a higher average number of attackers to begin with.  Attacks involving women had an average of 3 attackers while attacks without women had an average of 1.7 attackers.  The second reason why this data is misleading is that while these 10 attacks involved women, they often included both genders.  However, merely breaking down the damage by an individual’s respective contribution is also problematic because attackers often impact each other’s effectiveness.  For example, in a July 23rd attack on an IDP camp in Nigeria, a female bomber was chased by security forces while a male attacker detonated his vest.

Calculating the amount of casualties per attacker for each instance and averaging the per-attacker casualty numbers may provide a more accurate picture.  This simultaneous indexes the attacks for the amount of attackers, but doesn’t so in a way that ignores the ability of bombers to impact each other’s effectiveness in an attack.  The results are shown below:

 

Boko Haram Suicide Bombings involving women
Attack LabelNumber KilledNumber InjuredNumber of attackersPer-Attacker KilledPer-Attacker Injured
06.15.06.201727127
04.18.06.201716753.21.4
03.25.06.201791371.31.9
03.28.06.2017211215.5
01.01.07.20171240.30.5
04.11.07.2017152343.85.8
03.12.07.201712422621
01.17.07.20178181818
08.23.07.2017415227.5
04.28.07.2017814247
Average7.715.233.25.7
Boko Haram Suicide Bombings not involving women
Attack LabelNumber KilledNumber InjuredNumber of attackersPer-Attacker KilledPer-Attacker Injured
01.21.06.2017824N/A
04.03.07.2017410225
06.24.07.201700100
Average43.31.731.7
*All data provided by the Rise To Peace Active Intelligence Database

 

Thus, there seems to be at least a slightly higher amount of average killed and injured per attacker in attacks involving women.  However, the small sample size and other confounding factors preclude a conclusion based on these calculations.

What does this mean?

There are a few important implications of even a possible increase in terrorist lethality from using women in suicide attacks.  First and foremost, the security of women in conflict zones is imperative if attackers believe that kidnapping and forcing women into suicide attacks will grant them a combat advantage.  Especially in situations like Mosul where the desperation of extremists combine with the fog of war, aiding civilians might simultaneously prevent even more horrible tactics by terrorists.  And secondly, the study of these perverse forms of the weaponization of civilians requires more study.  Beyond making sure that they can successfully destroy terrorist groups, policy makers should ensure that they form policy and strategies in ways that prevent or reduce the risk of horrible tactics like forced suicide bombing. A civilian-minded approach to conflict resolution can thus produce dividends on efforts to achieve peace in different areas of the world.