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Islamic State, Heroism, and Explosive Weapons

The perpetrators of suicide bombing, like those of mass shootings, are almost always men.  According to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), for instance, 92% of suicide bombers between 1974 and 2016 have been perpetrated by men. Furthermore, between 1881 (the first use of a suicide bomber against the Tsar of Russia) and 1974 almost 100% of suicide bombers were men.

This figure may surprise many who have read or written about female suicide bombers. Certainly, there is a library of work that focuses on this exceptional form of horror. However, the fact that almost all suicide bombers in history have been men – not women – raises important questions surrounding issues of heroism, martyrdom and masculinity among non-state perpetrators of explosive violence.

The rise and spread of the Islamic State (ISIS) makes the scrutiny of these connections even more pertinent. In particular, the media have latched onto stories of young men born in the West travelling to Syria to perpetrate acts of explosive violence. While ISIS’ propaganda has valorised and held up the men who carry out these acts.

Critical engagement with gender and ISIS has produced a number of in-depth studies. These include the group’s use of rape as a weapon of war, the role of women within IS, and the crimes committed against Yazidi women. But, despite the widespread use of explosive weapons by ISIS, there has been little-to-no discussion about the gendered nature of the use of these weapons. Given explosive weapons play a significant role in ISIS’s strategy, it is necessary to examine their relationship to gender as well.

ISIS have been responsible for a significant number of incidents and casualties from explosive weapons. Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) Explosive Violence Monitor has recorded 1,039 explosive incidents by ISIS between 2019 and 2019, as reported in English language media, resulting in 20,876 civilian casualties. A quarter (257) of these incidents were suicide attacks, reflecting a recent study by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism that suggests ISIS have militarised suicide attacks more than any other non-state actor in history.  ISIS’ use of suicide attacks peaked in 2016, following a series of significant territorial losses, with 106 suicide attacks globally, causing 5,082 civilian casualties.

And, while CPOST estimates that 92% of all suicide bombers globally have been male, it is likely that that proportion is even higher for ISIS. There has been critical debate whether ISIS has ever deployed female suicide bombers; some scholars argue there has been a shift in ISIS’ attitudes to deploying female suicide bombers, others write that this is misinformed. But even if media reports are correct in claiming some women have become suicide bombers for ISIS, they remain a rare exception to the norm.

In other explosive weapons incidents, the gender of the perpetrator is rarely recorded. This makes it almost impossible to assess the gendered breakdown of perpetrators of explosive weapons such as rockets or mortars. However, ISIS’ violent enforcement of gender roles and social media films of ISIS soldiers on the front-line using such weapons, means we can safely assume such attacks are overwhelmingly carried out by male attackers.

So – if men are the ones almost exclusively behind the explosive violence perpetrated by one of the deadliest non-state actors of the modern age, what does ISIS’ use of explosive weapons tell us about their conceptions of martyrdom, heroism, and masculinity? And how have these shifted over time?

Martyrdom and Propaganda

ISIS have a multifaceted approach to propaganda that varies significantly depending on the platform, audience, geography, aim, and branch of the group. The main outlets have historically been ISIS’ magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, and its social media output on platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. Indeed, ISIS online jihadist materials have significantly outpaced all other Salafi-jihadist groups. Their ability to produce such a high quantity of effective content has been key in their recruitment of members and solicitation of funds. This online material also provides an insight into how ISIS conceptualise heroism and martyrdom, and allows us to begin exploring how these concepts are linked to masculinity.

Promoting shahadah (martyrdom) has long been a key component of jihadist propaganda. The nature of this martyrdom has shifted between groups, conflicts, and periods. Al-Qaeda, the predecessor of ISIS, have frequently posted battlefield videos online to encourage martyrdom. However, for ISIS, martyrdom became the group’s most significant theme in their online jihad.

In 2014, ISIS placed a lot of emphasis on the glorious heroism of territorial aims in their propaganda. Heroism in these early stages was attached to advancing the caliphate into Europe and Africa. A report by Tyler Welch notes that early issues of Dabiq (1 – 6) feature lengthy descriptions of the prowess and bravery of male fighters in ISIS’ territorial expansion into Iraq and Syria. References to shahadah here are tied to these expansions, calling upon male recruits to heroically become martyrs in pursuit of the caliphate. Here, the end goal was not paradise but was rather a more literal military aim.

ISIS’s rhetoric, though, began to shift as they increasingly suffered significant territorial losses. Miron Lakomy has examined how adept ISIS were in transposing military losses into heroic tales in their early propaganda. The scale of these losses from 2015 was such that it required ISIS’ propaganda magazines to shift in how they portrayed heroism and martyrdom. This notably coincides with the proliferation of suicide attacks in 2016.

When Rumiyah replaced Daqib as ISIS’ main online magazine in 2016, shahadah became increasingly less aimed towards territorial gain. Yasser Abuelmakarem A. Abdelrahim (2019) argues this shift is typified by the first issue of Rumiyah. A large section of this issue was devoted to an article demanding ISIS fighters ‘Stand and Die’ in a hyper-masculine defiance. The image accompanying this of a male ISIS fighter standing boldly, gun in hand, against a backdrop of foreign fighter planes. There is no longer a focus on martyrdom in relation to advancing territorially. Instead, the command becomes to ‘Stand and Die’ for the sake of death itself. The masculine, heroic act is no longer earthly territory gains, but is instead framed by the allure of paradise through sacrifice.

The shift towards a more pessimistic and fatalistic conception of martyrdom in ISIS propaganda aligns with the increase of suicide attacks as a strategy in 2016. Hyper-masculinity here is weaponised by ISIS to encourage a change in tactics.

These constructions of masculinity and heroism are further facilitated by articles in Daqib and Rumiyah which are aimed at female readers. Such articles overwhelmingly emphasise the importance of looking after the home and children while the male ISIS fighters are off fighting on the battlefield.

Social media has also been key for ISIS’ conceptualisation of heroism and martyrdom. Tweeted images are typically edited, touched up, and posed in order to make the goal of shahadah more appealing; martyrs are made to look peaceful in death. The care taken to present the state of martyrdom in an attractive light in these images reflects its importance to ISIS.

ISIS accounts also regularly post images of IS’ victims. These victims may include opposing military forces, civilians, or depicting retributive attacks. However, they are usually made to look as gruesome and violent as possible. The level of unadulterated violence in these images poses a stark contrast to the images of martyrs’ deaths. It appears to send a signal of the supremacy and dominance of ISIS over their victims. These images construct a narrative which seems strongly tied to ISIS’ conceptions of masculinity. The ISIS fighter becomes the all-powerful, all-conquering hero and the victim is utterly helpless.

The links between ISIS’ social media, heroism, and gender are further elucidated by the female Twitter accounts who support ISIS. A study of Western foreign fighters’ Twitter accounts by Jytte Klausen found that those claiming to be run by ISIS women were more likely to emphasise the lifestyle ‘benefits’ of living in the caliphate. They post images of children dressed in outfits decorated with ISIS flags and provide tips for other women considering joining ISIS. This is in keeping with the manifestos published by ISIS on the role of women. For example, the al-Khansaa Brigade, ISIS’ all female religious enforcement police, published a manifesto in 2015. Here, they claim the role of women is ‘the divine duty of motherhood’, to enable male ISIS members to be heroic fighters.

Claiming Terrorist Incidents

To begin to understand how ISIS construct heroism, masculinity, and martyrdom, it is also useful to look at how they claim terror attacks. Research into why terrorist groups claim particular attacks and not others is still an under-theorised. However, recent studies go some way to explain the connections between heroism and claiming terrorist attacks.

ISIS claim terror incidents usually through the Amaq News Agency. Amaq releases a statement claiming ISIS responsibility for an attack. Often, they will publish a rigorous verification process as well to increase the perceived reliability of their sources.

A recent study by Erin Kearns analysed The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. Kearns found that although claiming attacks was a cheap and easy means of gaining publicity, only 16% of terror attacks between 1998 and 2016 were actually claimed globally.

This report found that, on average, incidents which caused either an exceptionally low or high number of casualties were less likely to be claimed. The precise decision-making processes that terrorist groups use to claim attacks are often secretive and difficult to discern. ISIS are similarly unlikely to claim small-scale events, especially ones which are failed suicide attacks or result in no casualties. This reluctance to claim these attacks may be due to shame. The heavy emphasis placed on hyper-masculine, bold action by ISIS leaves little room for failure. Indeed, this is especially true for suicide attacks, a key technique used by the group.

Successful suicide attacks, according to Kearns’ study, are, on average, 252% more likely to be claimed than other terrorist incidents. This suggests that while these attacks are less common, the valorisation of the martyr in Salafi-jihadist literature is reflected in decision-making about when to claim attacks.

ISIS, however, have been willing to claim large attacks that occurred in Western countries. For example, ISIS issued claims for the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017. ISIS have also claimed large-scale attacks which they have little connection to, such as the 2016 Bastille Day attacks in Nice and the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas. In these instances, it appears that ISIS were not concerned with their public image when claiming these attacks.

This is perhaps surprising given the large number of civilian casualties caused by these incidents. Indeed, Kearns found that attacks against military or diplomatic targets were 53% more likely to be claimed than those targeting civilians. This figure is not disaggregated by weapons type so it is difficult to assess how this varies for explosive weapons. However, AOAV’s data has demonstrated the significant impact of explosive weapons on civilians; in 2018, 70% of casualties were reported to be civilians. Thus, Kearns’ findings may suggest that, other than suicide attacks, explosive weapons incidents are less claimed, given the level of civilian deaths involved.


From the edited photos of martyred fighters on Twitter to the articles depicting their brave advances in magazines, it is clear that heroism is influential for ISIS. This conception of heroism is deeply gendered, with women looking after the children and home so that their husbands may fight for ISIS.

In ISIS propaganda, heroism and martyrdom were tied to the earthly goals of territorial advancement in the early stages of their rise. However, once ISIS suffered heavy territorial losses, suicide attacks became an increased tactic for the group. This led them to shift their emphasis in heroism towards a more fatalistic approach. In these magazines, hyper-masculine notions of bravery became more deeply linked to suicide attacks. Indeed, the increased likelihood of claiming suicide attacks demonstrates the unique position they hold in Salafi-jihadist thinking.

While it is difficult to quantify the precise nature of the relationship between these concepts, it is clear that the hyper-masculine ‘heroism’ of the ISIS fighter, especially in regard to their use of explosive weapons, continues to have devastating consequences globally.