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

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Conclusions

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.

The main findings of this report are that:

  1. Suicide bombings have become a more widespread and pressing form of violence in the past five years. AOAV’s data has, between 2011-2015, a recorded 1,191 SIED attacks, which caused 39,910 deaths and injuries. Although suicide bombings are predominantly found in areas experiencing armed conflict, 79% (31,589) of all casualties were civilians. In 2016, five countries had 84% of all suicide bombings: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey.

  2. The worst current perpetrators of suicide bombings are IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Taliban and Boko Haram. All operate in conflict areas, where they either act as a party in war, armed conflict or in an armed insurgency. Furthermore, they have their ideological base in Salafi-Jihadism. Although suicide bombings are still being carried out by nationalist-separatist groups (such as the PKK), suicide attacks are today almost exclusively used by ‘Islamic’ terrorists.

  3. Conflicts in Syria and Iraq have seen suicide bombings increasingly being employed as a military strategy, where groups like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra occasionally replaces conventional weapons with suicide bombers. The increase use of and the militarisation of the tactic have also led to groups ‘producing’ suicide bombers at alarming rate. IS in Syria has in particular proven effective as both a producer and an ‘exporter’ of suicide bombers. Jabhat al-Nusra is probably the only group that ‘leases’ suicide bombers to other groups, which they have done in order to help other Syrian rebel forces in order to take out Syrian regime fortifications.

  4. Context affects targets. Although most perpetrators of SIEDs predominantly target civilians, there are differences between the ratio of armed or civilian casualties between different groups and different countries. For example, in Yemen, AQAP targets military facilities in 82% of their suicide bombings. In the same country, IS targets military facilities with 69% of their suicide bombings. In Iraq, IS targets armed bases in 37% of all of its attacks, whereas almost half of the groups’ SIED attacks in Syria targets religious minorities. The majority of Jabhat al-Nusra’s suicide bombings in civilian areas target perceived regime supporters. Suicide bombings are indiscriminate in terms of the wide area blast they create, but are discriminate in the sense that they can accurately select targets with relative ease. This is why target locations reflect their perpetrators’ aims and strategies. Moreover, in order to assess the threat of suicide bombings, there needs to be an appreciation of the contextual differences facing each country, region and city.

  5. The cult of the suicide bomber is complex and almost paradoxical. In one sense, the bomber is lionised, eulogised and held up as a hero. In another sense, the bomber is an expendable resource. Suicide attacks carried out by jihadi organisations are often strategically calculated and planned by high commanders, a process in which the bomber does not take part until the very last stage.

  6. The suicide bomber cult born from Salafi-Jihadi movements goes against several prohibitions in Islam, but rationalises the act of suicide and the killing of civilians through a number of ways. Although religion is the filter through which this rationalisation is expressed, most justifications focus on solidarity with the Islamic community, honour, and the virtue of martyrdom. The concept of martyrdom is, of course, framed in a religious manner and has long been present in Islam, but is in itself not unique for religious terrorist groups. Ironically, ‘martyrs’ appear to be becoming less and less lionized martyrs by the groups they give their lives for. IS, the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra, AQAP and Boko Haram today often only release short (if any) statements about a given suicide operation, thus moving away from the traditional iconic hero portraits presented by groups like Hezbollah.

  7. Suicide bombings are portrayed by those who assist their perpetration as being a legitimate defence of the Muslim umma. Such rhetoric is rooted in a paranoid black-and-white world-view that is very present in Salafi-Jihadism. It is a world where everyone not adhering to their views is seen a legitimate target, largely due to their perceived threat to Islam. This is usually how attacks on Shia Muslims and other religious minorities have become justified and commonplace. Sectarian attacks, however, may also have a strategic purpose. Oftentimes, fighting a sectarian war serves the interests of groups like al-Qaeda and IS, with them using it to galvanise support from Sunnis. This has worked in Iraq, where IS’ violence provoked the increased presence of Shia militias, whose own sectarian tendencies have further polarized the two sects. Moreover, in Syria Jabhat al-Nusra has targeted Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shia neighbourhoods due to their perceived support for the Syrian government.

  8. Each suicide bomber is unique. It is impossible to make sweeping statements about suicide bombers. However, certain traits are commonly found. Greater social aspirations, paired with economic woes as a result of governments being unable to provide economic opportunities, inevitably create political malaise. Often, this serves as fertile soil from which a sense of discrimination, humiliation, disenfranchisement, as well as a desire for redemption and status, grow. For foreign fighters, conflicts over identity in their diaspora communities often add another dimension to the mix.

  9. Local suicide bombers are often motivated by personal experience. For example, several suicide bombers experienced harassment by regimes in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Becoming a jihadi, and ultimately a suicide bomber, may be seen by some as the best way to protect one’s home community from the horrors of war. Therefore, one should to some extent refrain from mystifying certain individuals’ radicalisation processes and subsequent decisions to become suicide bombers, as it might be seen as their pragmatic solution to what they see is a hopeless situation.

  10. Foreign fighters often have more ideological reasons for becoming a suicide bomber. Usually, this does not include religion, as many studies point to foreign fighters having a poor understanding of Islam. Instead, there is often a desire among foreign fighters to take part in a clash of civilisations, the reality and importance of which is convincingly presented by jihadi propaganda. To many, jihad is a way to avenge the perceived humiliation experienced by Muslims at the hands of corrupt regimes or what they see is a hawkish Western foreign policy. Humiliation occurs ‘by proxy’, as foreign fighters feel more affiliation to Muslims in the Middle East than to their home countries in the West. This is, in turn, driven by insecurity related to identity, as well as perceived humiliation and discrimination against Muslims in the West. Furthermore, a notable portion of suicide bombers coming from abroad have either been involved in crime or have been unemployed. This makes martyrdom more appealing, as it serves as both atonement and redemption for past crimes as well as status and a sense of purpose.

  11. Regarding those who join jihadi organisations based on religious beliefs, which does occur, these zealots could be divided into two camps: those who have a historical affiliation with jihadi groups or ideology, and those who, after the Arab Spring, have come to the conclusion that the participatory approach promoted by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood has failed and that a violent approach that rejects such participation is the best option.

  12. Recruitment can occur through online platforms, and is increasingly being done in this way. This does not mean that personal connections to jihadi movements are not important. However, even when personal connections are present, online recruitment often plays, at least, an additional role. Prisons and detention centres, both in the Middle East and Europe, have also played a part in many notable suicide bombers’ radicalisation process.

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