AOAV: all our reportsUnderstanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber

Does the cult work? The wills of suicide bombers

This article is part of AOAV’s report, Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber, to read the whole report, please see here. To see the other sections of the report, please go here.

Information on Arab suicide bombers is very limited and can primarily be gathered from wills that some of them film before they carry out their attacks, as well as from propaganda material made by the armed group to which they belong. AOAV has analysed 20 video-recorded wills of suicide bombers. 12 of these committed their attacks in Syria, seven in Iraq, one in Yemen, and one in Libya.

When explaining why they had decided to carry out a suicide bombing, the three most commonly found reasons among the 20 suicide bombers were religious fulfilment, a desire to exert revenge or punish enemies for past armed aggression or because their religious beliefs, as well as a call for jihadi mobilisation.

It is very important to recognise that video-recorded wills are in no way an entirely reliable source in terms of understanding individual motivations behind suicide bombings. Given the obvious similarity in many of these wills, it is natural to suspect that they do not fully reflect the reasons and motivations for each individual’s attack. These messages almost always include slogan-like statements praising God; condemning disbelievers; assertions that the bomber is blessed to be able to die for Islam; that the bomber is committing this act to end the humiliation of Muslims; and, that this attack will eventually lead to the redress of relatively abstract grievances of the umma. Rather, it would not be overstated to assume that such messages are primarily meant to perpetuate the cult of the suicide bomber. In other words, wills may explain the reasons behind the act itself, but probably does not fully explain the decision to go through with it.

Syrian man pass next to a damaged house after a suicide bomber blew up a vehicle in the Syrian city of Daraa 2012. Freedom House

That being said, we should not disregard such messages completely. What these wills do provide an insight to is the rhetoric used to create the cult of the suicide bomber, whether that rhetoric is individually shaped or sanctioned by jihadi groups. Therefore, they deserve our attention. Furthermore, given the explicit religious references and justifications for the attacks, this highlights how groups sacralise their mass violence and elevate suicide bombers to hero status.

The findings, briefly presented below and presented in full in the appendix, show that such wills very much perpetuate the cult of the suicide bomber through attaching the act of martyrdom to grandiose statements of defending Islam, avenging historical injustices, and righteousness.

Religious fulfilment

The most common reasons mentioned by suicide bombers in their filmed wills concern religious fulfilment, which was expressed by 18 of the 20 suicide bombers. Two specific reasons were frequently mentioned: rewards in heaven and proximity to God, as well as bringing victory to God and establishing the Islamic sharia.

Afterlife rewards: closer to God and paradise

Out of the 18 suicide bombers who mentioned religious fulfilment as a reason for carrying out their attacks, 11 spoke about being rewarded in paradise and being closer to God as a desired result of their operation. The sentences and words suicide bombers used on the rewards in the afterlife were told in a matter-of-fact manner without any apparent doubt that they could be wrong or had any uncertainties of what would happen after their death.

Some cited the specific rewards they expected in heaven, such as Omar al-Jazrawi, a Jund al-Aqsa-affiliated bomber who carried out his attack in Hama, Syria in August 2015. Al-Jazrawi cited suicide bombing as “the path to the houriyas” (virgin women believed to become the companions of the martyr in paradise). An IS suicide bomber, Abu Talha al-Tunisi, who carried out his attack in Benghazi, Libya in March 2015, recited a verse of Qur’an that refers to martyrs as being alive with Allah. Similarly, others saw suicide bombing as the best way to meet God himself.

However, out of the 11 suicide bombers who spoke about the afterlife rewards, only one suicide bomber considered that as the sole motivation for his decision to carry out a suicide attack. Abu Omar al-Shami, who carried out his attack for IS in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in July 2016 said in his will: “This deed is only for Allah.  It does not have any goal for reputation or for nationalism. My deed is only for the Glorified and Exalted so that he would say to me, ‘I approve of you.’”

Bring victory to God and establishing sharia

Out of the 18 suicide bombers who mentioned religious fulfilment as a motivation to carry out the attacks, eight said they wanted to bring victory to God and to establish sharia. The language used by suicide bombers in their video-recorded wills stuck to a few slogans. They included: ‘I only fight to bring victory to Allah,’ ‘to establish Allah’s sharia,’ and ‘we will not rest until Allah’s sharia is established on earth.’ For example, Abu Talha al-Tunisi, said in his filmed message to his mother before carrying out his operation: “Be patient… I swear by Allah the Great, I fight only to bring victory for this religion. If I sit back, who will bring victory to Islam?”

Retaliation and punishment

14 out of the 20 suicide bombers analysed for this report mentioned revenge and/or punishment in their wills. These were desired for two different reasons. One was to pay back for the crimes committed by enemies against fellow Sunni Muslims. The other was meant to punish the enemy for their religious beliefs, likely a result of the militarisation of religious identity that jihadi groups employ. Whilst the language used by suicide bombers when speaking about religious fulfilment were quite similar, the way suicide bombers expressed their desire for revenge varied noticeably..

Revenge against the Syrian regime

Eight bombers said they wanted to avenge the alleged crimes committed by their enemy. In turn, seven claimed to avenge the crimes committed in Syria by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. For example, Abu Mus’ab al-Jazrawi said in his will: “How many children have died and women widowed while the traitors and world leaders are watching and listening and have not done a thing.” Similar sentiments were expressed by others, who referred to the Syrian regime and its allies as traitors and tyrants.

Punishment for the enemy’s religious beliefs

12 of the 14 used a range of derogatory terms to describe their enemies’ religious beliefs, even whilst targeting the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and although his supporters include people from all of Syria’s sects, his regime has throughout the war come to be seen by jihadi groups as Shia apostates hostile to Sunni Islam. In jihadi vernacular, the term rawafidh, meaning ‘rejectionist’ and a derogatory word for Shia, is often used to describe the Syrian regime and army. The bombers thus saw the target as an enemy not only for representing the regime, but also because of their enemies’ religious beliefs. Many expressed hatred for Syrian soldiers or regime-loyalists because of their religion. Some compared them to animals and many used other derogatory terms.

For example, Abu Dujanah al-Shami, a Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated bomber who carried out his attack in al-Mallah in Aleppo in July 2016, said in his will: “My message to the rawafidh in the al-Mallah area, hear what will please you: by Allah, we have prepared explosive cars for you to destroy your thrones. By Allah, we will rub your noses in the soil and rip you to pieces.”

Revenge on Sunnis perceived as traitors or apostates

Only one suicide bomber of those analysed carried out an attack against fellow Sunni Muslims. According to a documentary produced by IS, The Seekers of Life,  Abu al-Farouq al-Shami targeted fellow Sunni Muslims in armed groups labelled by IS as Sahawat al-Radda in Syria to liken them to the Sunni tribal alliance, Sahwa, that evicted al-Qaeda from the Anbar province in Iraq in 2007.

In the documentary, Abu al-Farouq, who was disabled, said:

“We have brothers who are thirsty for your blood and they are in same situation as me; they are disabled but eager to meet you, enemies of Allah, with explosive cars.”

The words the suicide bomber used, enemy of Allah, usually refers to “infidels” and is most predominantly used against Shia Muslims, Christians, and Jews, which highlights the hostility of IS against other Sunni Islamist groups in Syria.

Call to arms and establishment and expansion of an Islamic state

15 bombers spoke about military and recruitment reasons, which included a call on others to join the jihad and carry out suicide attacks and a call on various Islamic groups to unite. IS suicide bombers mentioned the expansion of IS as one of their reasons.

Calls to arms

13 out of the 15 suicide bombers used their wills to prompt recruitment of others for suicide attacks. They used several methods of persuasion, often using religious reasoning backed up by Qur’anic verses and hadiths on jihad. They told of deserts in the afterlife for admonishing those who had not joined jihad, and promoted suicide attacks to be the only effective way to achieve justice. Abu Foz al-Ansari, a Jabhat al-Nusra suicide bomber who carried out his attack in al-Yarmouk in Syria in August 2013, said in his will:

“To the sons of the nations who are absent from jihad and from bringing victory to the religion, fear Allah and help your sisters who are being raped. Fear Allah for the blood that is spilled day and night in the land al-Sham. Did you forget what Allah the Almighty has said: ‘If you do not go forth He shall punish you with a painful punishment and will replace you with another people.’”

Many others also used this form of coercive and scaremongering form of creating solidarity with fellow Sunni Muslims.

Calling on jihadis to unite

Five bombers urged jihadis from various groups to unite in their war against their common enemy. Abu al-Rawi al-Sairi, an IS suicide bomber who carried out his suicide attack in Yemen in December 2015, encouraged jihadis from different groups in Syria to unite and fight their common enemy, most likely referring to the Assad regime and its allies. He called for an end to infighting, which he saw as useful to their enemies. Several other wills expressed similar sentiments.

This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.