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

Understanding the rising cult of the suicide bomber: Current threat zones – Europe

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.

This chapter aims to shed light on European suicide bombers, which have become more and more commonplace during the last five years. The rise in the number of suicide bombings taking place within and outside Europe by European-born individuals raises profound questions as to how such operations are able to take place and as to why the incidence of such attacks has increased in recent years.  Such questions are invariably linked to the issue of home-grown terrorism and remote jihadi radicalisation in Europe.

AOAV has gathered information on 13 European suicide bombers and analysed the reasons behind their decisions to become suicide bombers. The analysis shows that out of 13 European-born suicide bombers, four were Belgian, two were French, one was German and six were Britons. However, many of the suicide bombers came from immigrant families. When looking at their origins, it was discovered that five had Moroccan origins, three were Pakistani, one Kosovar, and one half Kenyan. Nine out of 13 were single, two were married with children, whilst one was married with no children and one was divorced.

Paul Devlin, 2005. London suicide bus bombing.

When looking at their educational background it was found that six of the 13 had not completed higher education. Four of the perpetrators had a criminal background. Eleven of the examined individuals had travelled to Syria or Iraq, and some of them even committed their suicide bombings there. The families of six of the suicide bombers said they had not noticed any signs of their sons’ radicalisation.

To understand why these individuals became suicide bombers, one needs to take a look at the major reasons and explanatory factors underlying in Europe. These reasons are predominantly issues of identity within diaspora communities, perceived and real issues relating to socio-economic deprivation, and resentment towards the foreign policies of Western countries with regard to the MENA region.

Identity Politics and Diaspora Community

Radicalisation studies often find that one of the key influences in an individual’s radicalisation process is related to the search for identity. This is especially relevant when it comes to diaspora communities. Throughout history, diaspora communities have been especially susceptible to a variety of forms of radicalisation, and this trend is particularly noticeable in the case of second and third generations of immigrants and refugees. These communities normally suffer from what can be termed ‘cultural marginalisation’, which is the process by which they come to feel they lack a cultural sense of belonging, both to their ‘new’ home society as well as their country or origin. These reasons, combined with marginalisation, racism, xenophobia, perceptions of ‘aggressive’ secularism, and the lingering sensitivity arising from the colonial history of inter-societal relations, have become significant factors in explaining the causes of radicalisation.

In the UK, an MI5 briefing note called Understanding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism identified vulnerabilities which contribute to terrorists’ adoption of extremist ideology, which included migrating to Britain and experiencing a perception of marginalisation and racism once there.

Furthermore, the lack of integration or embeddedness (as described by Jocelyne Cesari) in both the home and the host community, mainly affecting the second or third generation of immigrants or diaspora communities, could drive them to join fundamentalist groups. These groups offer them a sense of belonging, affiliation and acceptance, and provide them with social ties and networks. This has been successfully exploited by IS, which offers young Europeans the opportunity a sense of belonging to a ‘country’ (i.e. the ‘Islamic State’) in which they are vital contributors.

In light of this, the phenomenon of foreign fighters burning their passports has become a significant trend, which has exposed the level to which many IS recruits feel that they don’t belong to the nation where they originate from or reside. As Kabir Ahmed, a British jihadi who detonated himself in Baiji in Iraq on the 7th of November 2014, said: ‘Our citizenship means nothing to us.’

Discrimination against Muslims by non-Muslim communities in Europe (whether the discrimination is real or perceived) is also a source of frustration which heavily contributes to the identity crisis of young Muslims. In the UK for example, a study carried out by Abbas & Siddique (2012) showed that British Muslims from South Asian backgrounds predominantly do not feel a sense of complete belonging to Britain. This was ascribed to the xenophobia and discrimination they face mostly because of their origin.

2005 London bombings. By Francis Tyers, GFDL,, or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kabir Ahmed also said that the media in the UK is contributing to the xenophobia and discrimination against Muslims, claiming that it was creating a fear amongst the public and portrays a negative image of Muslims in the UK. Ahmed also believed that the UK’s political right-wing is pushing people to go to Sham, and that the West will not accept Islam until Muslims accept all of the Western moral values, particularly secularism. His argument shows clearly the perceived feeling of a dichotomy between the Western values and Muslim values, a feeling promoted both by Islamic fundamentalists and by far-right nationalist groups. This does not just apply to the, UK also to all of Western Europe.

In addition to this, the status of Islam as a religion in the host countries brings a sense of alienation among the religious Muslim diaspora communities. In Europe, particularly in France, there is a firm belief in secularisation, which has made the Islamic values, rituals and clothing come to be seen as more and more unacceptable. Controversies over the hijab and the burka and the recent Burkini ban have clearly demonstrated this. Furthermore, the aim to forge a national identity in certain European countries gives the impression of an attempt to minimise cultural or religious differences within society; which some see as depriving diaspora groups from being able to maintain their distinct identities, making them feel threatened, more closed to their own communities, and in a state of defence regarding their customs and traditions. For example, the French jihadi Kevin Chassin, who detonated himself in Iraq on 22 May, 2015 expressed anger with the French notion of laïcité in an IS propaganda film.

Foreign policies

As noted by Abbas & Siddique (2012), the negative effects of Western-led interventions and ongoing world events provides significant motivation for the attraction of disenfranchised young people towards extremist behaviour and organisations. Such events include conflicts in Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the invasion of Iraq 2003. Increasingly, Syria has come to take on this shape of an ‘epic’ battle between good and evil, which has motivated many to joined armed groups and ultimately becoming suicide bombers.

In the UK, the aftermath of the London 7 July 2005 suicide bombing raised the concerns over connection between UK foreign policy in the Middle East – specifically the invasion of Iraq – with the home-grown radicalism and the threat of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist attacks on UK soil. When British suicide-bomber Kabir Ahmed, who went to Syria and detonated himself in Iraq, was asked about his radicalisation in the ‘ISIS show’ podcast he said that is was the British government’s actions that radicalised him.

Also, wills from other suicide bombers who were European-born or who carried out their attacks in Europe, highlight the role of the Western foreign policies into pushing them to conduct these acts, at least as a partial motive. In Germany, the Ansbach suicide attacker, who was a Syrian asylum seeker, left a video-recorded will which highlighted his reasons for making the attack, which included the participation of Germany in the US-led coalition that is bombing IS.

The same argument was used by Khaled El-Bakraoui, the suicide bomber responsible for the explosion on a metro train at Maalbeek station during the March 2015 Brussels attacks, who mentioned Western intervention in Iraq as one of his motivations. Bilal Hadfi, one of the suicide bombers in the November 2015 Paris attacks, mentioned in an IS-produced video how Western governments kill Muslim mothers, fathers and children as well as destroying their homes.

Of course, we should as previously mentioned refrain from taking videotaped wills and declarations at face value. However, frustration over Western foreign policy decisions towards the Middle East, which may definitely merit criticism, does still seem to be a driver and motivation for someone to detonate themselves. For Europeans, this would most likely assert itself as humiliation both in person and by proxy, as they may perceive Western governments to treat them miserably at home and bombing their fellow Muslims overseas.

Socio-economic deprivation and challenges 

Social and economic deprivation that Muslims in Europe have been suffering from was among the motivations the bombers of the Brussels and Paris attacks expressed. Brussels, for example, is as a city described as very segregated, and some of its immigrant neighbourhoods are considered to be no-go areas even for the police.

Such neighbourhoods have become neglected by both state and society, and have become migrant ghettos which suffer from unemployment, drugs, alienation, marginalisation and poverty. As a result, these areas have become a fertile environment for jihadist recruitment. The three suicide bombers that attacked Brussels on the 22 March 2016 were from Moroccan backgrounds and lived in middle class or poor neighbourhoods (occasionally described as ‘Muslim ghettos’) in Brussels.

The same phenomenon is visible in France, which has produced the highest numbers of home-grown terrorists. Such home-grown fighters are often brought up in deprived socio-economic contexts. Brahim Abdeslam, another Paris suicide bomber, was unemployed and living on state benefits for a long time with his ex-wife. In general, Muslim minorities in Europe are ranked amongst the lowest economic levels, and the rate of unemployment is high – sometimes twice the average – among Muslim youth. Most of Europe’s Muslims are employed in low-skills and low-paid jobs. Three of the suicide bombers studied in this report were trained as or working as electricians, whilst the others had personal financial difficulties.

Furthermore, the access to quality education remains a challenge for many European citizens with foreign origins. Although France has focused on integration initiatives which target youth and aim to improve education levels, employment opportunities and social cohesion, recent studies show that primary and secondary schools are still segregated along cultural, ethnic and religious lines. Four out of five of the Paris and Brussels suicide bombers studied for this report did not complete a high level of education. Out of all the 13 European-born suicide bombers profiles profiled, we found that eight of them either did not finish their higher education or did not go to college. Five of them were alternatively interested in studying Sharia and Islam.

Opportunity Factors for Radicalisation

Opportunity factors for radicalisation are identified as the venues or the locations that offer an opportunity to meet like-minded people, or which provide an environment in which to change and become radicalised. The most common of these locations are mosques, prisons and online/offline communities.

Local mosques

The role of mosques in the process of radicalisation and in jihadi recruitment in Europe is controversial. In some European countries, especially in a country such as France, the mosques are seen as a place for radicalisation, mainly because they receive funds from radical overseas benefactors. This prompted former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to call for a temporary ban on foreign funding of French mosques, especially related to funds coming from Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. The concern over the role of the local mosques in radicalisation have increased in France since the killing of a priest at a church in Normandy in July 2016 by two IS supporters, who are believed to have grown sympathies for IS in a mosque in France.  In December 2015, the French authorities shut down 20 mosques across the country for the suspicion of preaching radical Islam and advocating fundamentalist interpretations Islam.

Mosques in the Muslim-majority Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels – the home of many jihadists and Belgium’s biggest jihadi recruiter Khalid Zerkani – were threatened with closure by Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who threatened to shut-down “certain radical mosques” in the district. Many mosques in Belgium are receiving funds from Saudi Arabia, which fosters and promotes strict and occasionally intolerant and hateful interpretations of Islam. After the co-ordinated attacks in Paris and Brussels, the Belgian government expressed concern over the inflammatory sermons of Khalid Alabri – the previous director of the Islamic Centre in Brussels – to the to the Saudi ambassador. Khalid Alabri was later deported back to Saudi Arabia.

CCTV image of Brussels bombing suspects

However, this does not mean that local mosques are the only site of radicalisation, and many of the European jihadis travelling to Syria and Iraq have never visited a mosque. For example, two of the Brussels suicide bombers, Khalid and Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, were never reported as worshippers at any of Brussel’s mosques. Khalid el-Bakraoui was reportedly not interested in religion until he went to prison.

In the UK, the Islamic Tarbiyah Academy, a private school in Dewsbury, has been seen as an interesting case of possible radicalisation of students of Islamic studies. The Islamic Tarbiyah Academy was established by Mufti Zubair Dudha, a Deobandi preacher. The materials that were produced by the school focused on promoting an Islamic way of life and emphasized the disassociation of Islam from ‘Western lifestyle’ and values. Dewsbury has become known for being a centre for the radicalisation of Muslim youth in the UK, and for producing suicide bombers such as Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London 7/7 bombers, and Talha Asmal, who blew himself up in Iraq in 2015.

Criminal Background and time spent in prison

The relationship between criminality and radicalisation is a complex one. The violent aspect of terrorism and jihad attracts some criminals, but also attracts those who have a sense of regret for their previous criminal acts. The aforementioned MI5 briefing note mentions that some radicalised individuals ‘appeared to have turned to violent extremist groups in the misguided belief that participation in jihad might help atone for previous wrongdoing’. Furthermore, for people with criminal backgrounds, a sense of acceptance and tolerance might in some cases only be found among radical communities, perhaps as a result of them already hosting people with similar backgrounds. Four out of the 13 suicide bombers that we have studied had criminal backgrounds and had previously spent time in prison. Two of them were apparently radicalised inside the prison.

Kabir Ahmed, who blew himself up in Iraq in 2014, had for example spent time in prison. According to the interview he made with the ‘ISIS show’ while he was in Syria, being in prison made him embrace jihad. Ahmed said that he spent months in his cell contemplating the struggle of other Sunni Muslims in war-torn countries, whilst he was leading a quite comfortable life. That guilt allegedly led him to join the jihadi cause in Syria and Iraq.

The link between criminality, time spent in prison and engagement in jihadism, can be extended to the whole of Europe, and is connected to several of the cases that we have studied. Khalid el-Bakraoui, one of Brussels suicide bombers, served some time in prison for criminal charges. According to IS publication Dabiq, he was inspired to take up jihad in prison after having had a vivid dream during which he saw the Prophet Muhammad.[i]

Redeeming the self from old sins is often used by IS to promote martyrdom, often in the sense of a suicide attack. In the case of a German ex-military soldier who converted to Islam, joined IS and detonated himself in Iraq, Dabiq claimed that the soldier who once fought against the Muslims in Afghanistan had redeemed himself from his previous life in the eyes of Allah, by becoming carrying out this attack and becoming a martyr.

Inevitably, offering a sense of redemption for people who are stuck on a crime-filled path is a very efficient. Conversely, it may also be useful to entertain the thought of the people with criminal pasts might be more willing to join jihadi organisations since their way of life might actually suit partaking in the massive criminal syndicates that that the largest terror groups in the world have become. Certainly, there is truth in both stances.

The Internet and Online/Offline Communities

The internet and in particular social networks are offering to extremists the capability to communicate, collaborate, convince and recruit. IS has successfully used this tool in order to recruit and communicate with European youth to convince them to join the Islamic State. It is estimated that approximately 4,000 people from the European Union have joined IS in Syria and Iraq, of which around 850 people are from the UK. Talha Asmal, a 17 year-old teenager from Dewsbury and the youngest recorded British suicide bomber, was for example believed to have been recruited by IS online.

In 2015, 59 girls were believed to have left the UK for Syria to join IS. This led the Home Office to launch the Research, Information and Communications Unit, with the aim of countering IS’ online propaganda. The exact number of young people recruited over the internet is unknown, however the use of the internet to recruit and lure is evident in many cases.

It has also been found that family members may provide opportunities for radicalisation.  The vast majority of people joining IS are recruited by family or close friends; four out of the 13 cases that AOAV examined have demonstrated cases of siblings going through a radicalisation process or planning a terrorist attacks together. The UK-born suicide bomber Fatlum Shalaku, who blew himself up in May 2015, was encouraged to go to Syria and join IS by his brother Flamur, who later died on the frontline in Iraq.

A similar scenario occurred in relation to the Brussels attacks which were carried out by Khalid and Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, two brothers. Likewise, Brahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up in the Paris attacks, planned the attack with his brother Salah Abdeslam, who was also supposed to blow himself up that day but ended up not detonating his device.

The support of a terrorist’s wife is also shown in one of the cases: Mohammed Rizwan Awan, who blew himself up on 21 March 2016, had planned his trip to join IS with his wife Sophia, who joined him for the trip and has not returned to the UK since.

Community Responses and Refusal

AOAV analysis of the 13 cases found striking similarities in families’ responses to their sons’ and relatives’ radicalisation and subsequent suicide attacks. In 6 cases of the European-born suicide bombers, the families denied that they had observed any signs of radicalisation. In the case of Bilal Hadfi, who was one of the Paris suicide bombers, his mother denied that she had seen any sign of her son’s radicalisation, although she withheld the information about her son leaving for Syria in 2014. She also denied that her son was acting of his own will. Instead, she accused IS of luring him into carrying out this act. She also remarked that she was relieved her son didn’t kill anyone but himself.

Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of Brahim Abdeslam (a Paris suicide attacker) and Salah Abdeslam, (who was involved in planning the Paris attacks), said that he and his family had no idea that the two brothers were radicalised, and that they were in a state of shock after hearing of the acts that their family members had participated in. According to Mohamed Abdeslam, he and his family found out about his brothers’ radical path through news reporting in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

Both the mother of Bilal Hadfi and the mother of of Brahim Abdeslam believed that their sons did not have any intention to kill people. Whilst the mother of Bilal Hadfi admitted that she missed out her son’s radicalisation signs, the mother of Brahim Abdeslam blamed stress for his behaviour.

In another case of a UK-born suicide bomber, Talha Asmal, the family released a statement where they denied seeing any signs of radicalisation. Rather they blamed IS for using Talha’s vulnerability and innocence. The former MP for Dewsbury and former government minister Shahid Malik, a friend of the Asmal family, expressed similar sentiments.

The same can be seen in the case of Mohammed Rizwan Awan, where the family claimed that they had never noticed any signs of radicalisation and the father was reported as saying that he always encouraged his children into further education and employment and to pursue good professions, which according to him “makes the behaviour of Rizwan even more difficult to understand.”

In the cases examined by AOAV, one in particular stands out as an outlier: the case of British Abdul Waheed Majid. Majid blew himself up in 2014 in order to release the prisoners of Aleppo central prison in Syria, an alleged torture chamber for anti-regime fighters and activists. The brother, Hafeez Majid, showed considerable pride in his brother’s act and said that had it not been for his ethnicity and religion, his brother would have been treated as a hero for having released the prisoners.

Waheed’s radicalisation appears to have occurred through a different process to those involved in the other cases, as he first travelled to Turkey to volunteer in a refugee camp for several months, before learning of the situation regarding torture in Aleppo. The details of this case highlight the varied nature of individual motivations for carrying out a suicide attack, suggesting that although many cases of radicalisation and suicide bomber recruitment have significant similarities, not all appear to fit the same model.

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

[i] Dabiq Magazine: online magazine used by the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham for propaganda and recruitment.