Islam and Suicide Terrorism: Separating Fact from Fiction

By Reid Hutchins, RSIS Counter Terrorist Trends and AnalysesVolume 9, Issue 11 | November 2017


A voice message by Osama Bin Laden, stating „We love death as you love life‟ in the aftermath of 9/11, set the tone for radicalisation and spurred the use of suicide terrorism as a predominant tactic employed by Al-Qaeda and presently, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group as well. As such, Bin Laden‟s death slogan for Al-Qaeda has also become a rallying cry for other radical Islamist terrorists to kill and die. In recent times, a diverse range of terrorist and militant organizations with nationalist, separatist and religious inclinations, have

adopted suicide terrorism as a tactic of psychological warfare and violent resistance.

These included the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Hezbollah during the civil
wars in Sri Lanka and Lebanon respectively. The LTTE has been credited with using suicide belts and incorporating female suicide squads. Yet, commentators and policy-makers have generally stereotyped suicide bombers as young, religiously radicalised religiously radicalised males with violent tendencies and a fanatical devotion to Islam. In this regard, the most important characteristic of this suicide bomber is the willingness to kill civilians, security forces and government personnel and die. The media has created an inaccurate link between Islam and terrorism. „Martyrdom‟ and „jihad‟ (struggle) are terms regularly associated with suicide terrorism with a lack of discussion on their true meaning and significance within the Islamic tradition. 
This link has existed because terrorist organisations such as IS and Al-Qaeda profess strict adherence to their perverse understanding of Islamic doctrine and falsely claim that suicide bombings (described as „martyrdom‟ operations) in pursuit of strategic goals are permissible. An analysis of the Islamic concept of sacrifice, martyrdom and jihad demonstrates how terrorist organisations have misconstrued and exploited the intended usages and true meanings of these Islamic concepts for recruitment purposes. Their erroneous claims and propaganda have misled their followers into believing that suicide terrorism is morally permitted and justified.

Martyrdom and Suicide Terrorism

The willingness of a terrorist to die for the group‟s cause is a common characteristic of IS recruits. IS recruits believe that suicide attacks represent the highest form of sacrifice to achieve the group‟s political goals and enforce its religious ideology.1 Suicide has become a basic yet lethally effective strategy among radical jihadists to inflict maximum casualties and damage to increase the shock value. Radical jihadists wrongly believe that they adhere to a moral logic grounded in religion. This belief has religious significance as sacred values and practices have been a basis for Islam that radical jihadists feel morally obliged to protect. „Martyrdom‟ is driven by this wrongly perceived moral obligation to defend the sanctity of Islam, which supersedes basic self-interests, such as protecting one‟s life.

Given that the Quran forbids suicide, terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and IS reframe suicide as „martyrdom‟. These groups conflate martyrdom with jihad to create a violent narrative of suffering, struggle and redemption. In addition, these groups have hijacked sacred moral practices in Islam by distorting them to create „real enemies‟ such  as US occupying forces and „existential enemies‟ such as Western values. The „us‟ (jihadists) against „them‟ (kafir) narrative has also facilitated followers of extremist ideologies to kill oneself, other Muslims and non-Muslims under the pretext of religious adherence.

There has been a significant rise in suicide terrorism as a response to the increase in violent civil and military conflict in the post-9/11 world. There is little surprise that victims or refugees of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria facing war-torn realities are lured by terrorist promises of divine reward. In such a situation when one is facing a constant threat of death, religiously justifying suicide for the sake of one‟s community could become the most desirable or the only option to die with a sense of meaning.3 Suicide operations undertaken by IS terrorists have been a lethal defensive tactic during IS‟ insurgency in Iraq.

Extremists‟ willingness to become suicide bombers can be attributed to their status as powerless individuals and the empowered feeling derived from challenging their oppressors. Terrorist organisations distort Islamic teachings under the guise of religious authority to construct human life as an expendable resource. Suicide terrorists, particularly those living in conflict zones, are more vulnerable to promises made to change their communities‟ political and social circumstances. It may also help the „martyr‟ attain recognition in their community and elevate the social status of his or her family.

A study of „self-martyrs‟ who failed in their respective suicide attacks in Palestine showed that they depicted „sub-clinical suicidal tendencies‟ and also suffered from depression.4 Other studies on suicide terrorism have found that the personal lives of these individuals were often unstable. Suicide attackers tend to have histories of recent divorces, financial troubles, emotional breakdowns, health issues and social or cultural isolation.5 Some of these factors, including social isolation, depression, hopelessness, guilt and shame, were also seen in 9/11 hijacker and pilot, Mohamed Atta.

While the goals of terrorist organisations include strategic, ideological or territorial considerations, the motivations of suicide terrorists can be based on strong emotive reasons.6 Another critical factor that acts as a motivation is the view that Western aggression and oppression of Muslims are directly responsible for the social and cultural degradation of Islamic values and communities.

Sacrifice and Violence 

To understand the motivations of suicide terrorists from jihadist terror organisations, there needs to be an understanding of how  Violent self-sacrifice as an act propagated by terrorist groups has multiple, overlapping motivations. At the basic level, suicide terrorism is voluntary death intended to kill and maim others for a religious or political goal. Suicide terrorists can come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and can include individuals who are educated, uneducated, and rich or poor. But they are united by a shared sense of humiliation.. The humiliation suffered by Muslims due to Western „occupation‟ and „domination‟ within the Middle East provides a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment in areas such as Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Yemen and Lebanon.

In politically and economically fractured societies, which are suffering under conditions of social trauma and humiliation, sacrificing one‟s life for the community has a heroic appeal. In Palestine for instance, the first and second intifadas (1985-2005) were viewed heroically within local Palestinian communities, despite the resulting violence and destruction from frequent suicide bombings.

Detangling Islamic Jihad

„Sacrifice‟ is used in the Quran to mean „giving up‟ one‟s immoral desires, but not „giving up‟ oneself. Allah requires Muslims to demonstrate submission, but does not require the destruction of oneself or others.However, the term ‟sacrifice‟ is inseparable from jihad, which has a long and complicated history with divergent meanings. The mainstream practice of jihad in Islam is nonviolent. One interpretation is that it is a practice in selflessness. This implies the charitable nature of jihad by imploring Muslims to have greater social responsibility towards others and work towards the greater good. Jihad involves the „struggle against one‟s self‟, an „internal struggle‟ undertaken individually by Muslims to overcome selfish desires and temptations.

The extremists however give emphasis on „jihad of the sword‟. Violent jihad has come to define the overall concept of jihad, as radical Islamist terrorists use it in a reductionist way. The relationship between jihad and violence is difficult to discern. But the Quran does not command or condone illegitimate violence and terrorism.Various sections of the Quran provide an account on conduct during war. Violence, according to the Quran, must be proportional and defensive in nature as it states: 2:194: […] whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you. 2:190: Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors.

However, interpretations vary regarding what is justifiable and permissible violence. The interpretive range within Islamic theology on the use of violence is lengthy and has evolved across time and space. These various understandings are based on historical and contemporary accounts of early Arabic conquests, foreign invasions, colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East.19 Although the changing impacts of these events on the Middle East remain contested, there is greater certainty that they led to significant political and social changes in the region. These modern political and social changes in the Middle East have strained relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and violent jihad has thrived.

In Iraq alone, more successful suicide terrorist attacks have been carried out since 2003 compared to other countries with a U.S military presence in the last 25 years. Although exact figures remain unclear, a February 2017 report suggests 140 IS attacks in 29 countries outside of Iraq and Syria has so far killed 2,043 people since 2014. Recent terrorist attacks in Paris and London have also contributed to a shift from localised suicide attacks in the Middle East, to globalised terrorist attacks in Europe.

In this regard, the IS brand of terrorism linked to militant fanaticism is a continuing cause for

serious concern. IS members and supporters, especially home-grown terrorists born and raised in the West, are at odds with their societies. They believe these societies exist in total ignorance of a true, higher divinity in service of God. A societal ignorance and rejection of Islam, paired with Western military campaigns in the Middle East, have exacerbated animosities against the non-believers and spurred a cultish devotion to the caliphate. This devotion partly accounts for the rise in foreign terrorist fighters joining IS in Syria and Iraq in 2014-2016 and a subsequent involvement in suicide bombings. The rejection of the West,with its real and imagined antitheses to Islam, is a retreat from modernity, as the IS jihadist yearns to reinstate the ideal „Islamic community‟ based on a radical interpretation of Islamic doctrine.


It is evident that suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic that has provided several tactical benefits to terrorist organisations. Despite the various personal motivations for suicide terrorists to engage in self-sacrifice, it is used as a tool to achieve strategic aims at an organisational level. In the case of IS, its tactics of establishing a caliphate remains persistent and dangerous. Although IS has lost most of its territories in Iraq and Syria,including its de facto capital Raqqa, and thousands of its combatants have surrendered or escaped, the threat remains. Besides the small pockets of territories in the Levant and wilayats (outside Iraq and Syria), the rhetoric of suicide terrorism and self sacrifice still persists. In this regard, groups such as IS among others, primarily resort to social media as a medium of communication with supporters and for recruitment efforts. Thus, even though the terrorist groups might be on the defensive on the ground, virtually they still manage to spread their ideology and instill fear through their supporters perpetrating minor and major attacks.Thus, it is evident that efforts should be dedicated towards debunking IS manipulation of religious doctrines to justify suicide terrorism and armed jihad and the exploitation of technology to sustain itself in the virtual
About the author

Reid Hutchins holds a B.A (Hons) in International Relations and Masters of Strategic Studies degree. He works for state government in Australia

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