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

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Appendix 6 – Suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq

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.

Mohammad Daleel (Ansbach Bombing, Germany, July 2014) 

Description of the suicide attack

On 24 July 2016, a Syrian asylum seeker named Mohammad Daleel blew himself up outside a music festival in southern German town of Ansbach. Daleel detonated his device at a wine bar at approximately 22:00, killing himself and wounding up to 15 others. Daleel had earlier attempted to gain entry to the festival, which had around 2,500 visitors, but was refused as he did not have a ticket. This attack was the last in a series of four separate attacks across Germany within span of a week in July 2016, two of which were later claimed by IS.

Background of suicide bomber

Mohammad Daleel, also known by the name Abu Yusuf al-Karrar, was 27 years old and from Aleppo, Syria. Daleel had fought for Jabhat al-Nusra at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and used to construct explosive devices to be used against the Syrian government forces. Daleel often drifted from being part of one Islamic militia to the next, until he decided to create his own jihadist group.

According to a report published in IS’ weekly magazine, al-Nabaa, after his suicide attack, he left Syria in July 2013 to seek treatment after he was wounded by a mortar. Travelling across Europe, he entered Germany in 2014 and completed an asylum application there. However, his application was eventually rejected.

In Germany, Daleel began to making the bomb that was used in the attack and constructed it with small metal parts to increase the number of casualties; it took him three month to accomplish, according to al-Nabaa. Daleel initially developed his bomb-making skills whilst in Aleppo at his dad’s soap factory, where he was used to working with chemicals. IS described him in the report as a ‘‘soldier of Islamic State’’ and described his attack as a ‘‘martyrdom operation.’’ When the German police raided his home in Germany, storage devices, gasoline, chemicals and numerous other IED precursor materials were discovered.

Influences on Daleel’s decision to become a suicide bomber

Mohammad Daleel was denied asylum in Germany, yet was given the leave to stay temporarily because of the situation in Syria, according to the Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann. It is unclear whether the rejection of his application was due to knowledge of his activities in Syria or due to it being an incomplete or contradictory application. It has since been confirmed that he faced deportation to Bulgaria at the time of the attack, because he had submitted his initial asylum request in the eastern European country.

Daleel was also considered mentally unstable and had attempted to take his own life on more than one occasion. It is possible that the rejection of his asylum claim and increasing desperation therefore may have contributed a further negative impact to his state of mental health, and played a role in his decision to launch the attack.

Daleel had previously declared his support for IS, evidence of which was found in a video on his phone, along with numerous other videos containing Salafist content. The IS-linked media organization Amaq News Agency claimed that he had acted “in response to calls to target nations in the coalition.”  Daleel had also attempted to return to Syria in 2014 from Europe to join IS, but he was unable to reach the country and therefore decided to instead target ‘crusaders’ in their own countries, as recommended by IS.

This picture from Al Naba newspaper describes the suicide attack as the first martyrdom operation in Germany, and it explains Mohammad’s will to commit this act by saying: “it’s not possible for someone who knew monotheism to be able to live peacefully among polytheists, and also a person who knew Jihad can’t be away from circles of it.

In the video of Daleel that was released after the attack, he says that his attack was as a response to Western foreign policy in the Middle East, stating in his words: ‘‘In response to the crimes carried out by the coalition in collaboration with Germany of bombing and killing of men, women and children […] I announce the martyrdom operation in Ansbach in the county of Bavaria.”

He goes on to tell the German people that they “won’t be able to sleep peacefully anymore”, and says that there would be even larger attacks as long as Germany keeps fighting the Islamic state. He also defends the Islamic State, saying that they did not start this war, and that instead ‘‘it is your aircraft that are shelling Muslims indiscriminately’’. To his family, he said that they would meet in heaven, and asks God to accept him as a martyr.

Yusuf Abu Bilal al-Homsi (Homs, Syria, December 2015)

Description of the suicide attack

On 28 December 2015, a suicide bombing took place in the neighbourhood of Zahara – a Syrian government stronghold –  in the city of Homs, which is home to an Alawite majority. A SANA news agency report on the attack described how the bomber activated his suicide belt after first setting off a car bomb at the side of a main road, in an attempt to draw large crowds of people to the scene. He then targeting passers-by and emergency services gathering at the scene of the first explosion. Six people were reported to have been killed, and another 37 injured.

Background of suicide bomber

Abu Bilal was a media consultant with a major presence on social media, and was generally introduced in videos or articles as a member of the Revolutionary Council in Homs. Some media outlets reported him as a commander, but this seems to be a misunderstanding – Abu Bilal never claimed to be any more than a media spokesperson for the fighters in Homs or for those trapped in the Old City.

Before the Syrian uprising in 2011, when he was 23 years-old, he was an IT specialist, which most likely means something along the lines of a computer repairman. He grew up in his family home in Bab Dreib, a neighbourhood of Homs’s extensive Old City. When protests first rocked Syria’s political scene as part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’ movement in 2011, Abu Bilal was among those marching for freedom and calling for the fall of the regime. He soon became a prominent voice on the ground, providing updates on events in the city to journalists based both inside and outside of Syria.

At some point during mid-2012 – just before the first available video of him was filmed – he stopped appearing in front of the Independence Flag used by the FSA, and replaced it with a white tawḥīd flag emblazoned with the Muslim declaration of faith. These flags are commonly associated with Islamist groups, and according to Abu Bilal he was later blacklisted by Al Jazeera as a result.

He was also associated with Hezbut Tahrir, an international Islamist organisation. Over the course of the siege of Homs, he gave several long-form interviews to HiT affiliates, and the first extant video of him is not a standard media appearance but a speech given by video link to Hezbut Tahrir’s conference, entitled ‘The Syrian Revolution for the Islamic State’ (Mahrajān ath-Thawra ash-Shāmiyya min ajli Dawlat al-Islām), where he declared that ‘‘our revolution will bring back all the glory of the Umma, from East to West!’’

In late 2012, he described the war in Syria as jihād – a war which is ‘‘more and more pure a revolution between the right (ḥaqq) and disbelief (kufr) and not solely for dignity or liberty.’’ At the same time, he still identified solidly with the FSA, and denied any division between the mujāhidīn and the revolutionaries in general.

While his family fled to Lebanon, Abu Bilal stayed in Homs in the besieged Old City, where clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the regime had intensified, leaving the Old City in a stranglehold. In the last six months of the siege – with IS, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front all on the rise – he began to publicly issue messages asking for these three groups to stop fighting one another and unite in order to fight the regime, praising their ‘genuine’ dedication to the cause. After the evacuation of the Old city of Homs in 2014, Abu Bilal stopped reporting and disappeared from the scene, just like many others from Old City of Homs.

Shortly after that, Abu Bilal pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi through an announcement on his Facebook page, and said he considered anyone who fights against the Islamic State as a “flagrant Kafer.” He then re-emerged as a full-fledged IS media correspondent, reporting on the battle for the ancient city of Palmyra. After the Syrian presidential elections he became more sectarian than ever, and when the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place in Paris in January 2015, he praised those who carried out the attack and described it as a “blessed operation” that revenged the Muslims of the world.

Abu Bilal quickly turned into a valuable asset to IS as a result of his well-developed and extensive media contacts, and was rewarded with grants and marriage assistance normally only provided to foreign fighters.

Influences on decision to become a suicide bomber

Abu Bilal was not alone among the veterans of Homs in leaving the besieged city and joining Islamic State. Pro-IS (or more accurately pro-Jihadi Salafist) views became increasingly common in Homs as the siege dragged on, especially as disillusionment with the FSA and the broader opposition forces began to set in.  His increasingly stark, conspiratorial view of the world, his desperation and strong desire for revenge were far from unique. Apparently, the siege  affected him greatly, with a close friend of his, Jalal al-Talawy remarking: “He wasn’t an extremist or a fanatic. But his whole attitude changed during the siege.”  Abu Bilal became increasingly embittered with the ‘international community’, the leadership of the FSA and the official opposition (‘‘these foreign agents who sit in hotels and take the money which belongs to the martyrs and speak in the name of the Syrian people’’). Being from Homs – a site of particular sectarian clashes in the early period of the siege – his sectarian feelings towards Alawites grew more and more intense as he became convinced that there was a regime plan to wipe out the non-Alawites from Homs city, which he called ‘‘a war of sectarian extermination’’.

Abu Bilal, similar to many other revolutionaries, felt betrayed by the lack of supplies reaching Homs. In mid-2013 he leaked a document to the al-Ghad news channel which supposedly provided proof that Salim Idris had received a huge sum of money to provide Homs with supplies, but had not passed any of the money on to be used for the purpose intended. This theme recurs again and again in relation to the situation in Homs, with many fighters asking why have the FSA had not sent heavy weapons (asliḥa saqīla or naw‘iyya) and other essential supplies. In an impassioned video from inside a mosque struck by the regime’s MiG planes in 2012, Abu Bilal shouts into the camera: ‘‘For six months we haven’t seen the coalition do anything for these people under siege – they haven’t sent us bread, they haven’t sent us heavy weapons – and they’re coming at us in MiG’s…there are some 800 families, do they want to exterminate us? When are the opposition going to stop sitting around overseas [not doing anything]?’’ An answer comes in another interview, where he exclaims: ‘‘The international community… have made all Syria into a hell, because they don’t want to discuss with you and they don’t want to put in place our foreign agenda, which is the [security of] the Israeli border and protection of minorities, as they call it… Sorry, but Sunnis are being killed and slaughtered in the hundreds, but the Nusayri Alawites who kill hundreds of us every day, we’re not allowed to kill them?’’

One word recurs constantly in all Abu Bilal’s interviews – khazlān, meaning ‘abandonment’. On several different occasions, he makes increasingly desperate condemnations of the FSA battalions in Rif Homs who had failed to break the siege, and also of the leadership, whom he said claimed to be supplying them but had instead left them to die of hunger and lack of ammunition. Repeatedly, he rues the fact that Homs had been abandoned ‘‘by those closest before those further away’’ (al-qarīb qabl al-ba‘īd), and says that the revolutionaries have fragmented into hundreds of tiny brigades willing to sell out for donor money. After some of the rebels left the siege as part of the first negotiated withdrawal, he poured contempt on those who abandoned their ‘‘religion and their dignity… for the worldly life [ḥayāt ad-dunyā, i.e. as opposed to ‘the life to come’] and some cigarettes.’’ When the siege was finally brought to an end through a negotiated withdrawal of the opposition from the Old City, Abu Bilal released one final video before boarding the buses out of Homs, promising that he would return to liberate his home with his ‘‘blood and body parts.’’

Abu Bilal’s sectarianism was clearly pronounced, and he frequently spoke about wanting to hurt Alawites in revenge for their violence against the Sunnis. Therefore, the choice of his target makes sense. However, the exact process by which Abu Bilal himself came to be chosen for and accepted carrying out the suicide mission remains unclear. One contact said that Abu Bilal had stressed his desire to achieve martyrdom, and Zahra seems to be a personally relevant target, raising the question of whether therefore he himself was pushing to be allowed to carry out the attack.

Community and family response to attack

The circumstances of Abu Bilal’s death are murky at best and reflect a general lack of information from inside IS-held territory and from other Syrian activists. Initial reports suggested he had been killed by an airstrike in Palmyra. However, IS released an official statement claiming that he was the perpetrator of the suicide bombing in Zahra. Friends and acquaintances who continued to follow his activities confirmed that as far as they were aware, he had carried out a suicide bombing.  Abu Bilal’s death was greeted with surprise and an outpouring of condolences on social media, mostly from those opposed to Islamic State. ‘‘May God forgive him,’’ said one commenter; ‘‘in spite of what happened later he was one of the heroes of Homs,’’ said another.

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