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The Rationale for Suicide Bombings

Suicide attacks by radical Muslims mainly target and harm their co-religionists. Except for a short time during Israel’s Reign of Terror in the 1990s, the victims of suicide bombers are usually other Muslims they labeled as apostates, infidels, or collaborators with foreign powers. The culprits of this carnage are usually radical Sunnis, known as Jihadi Salafis. There are some constraints that they must follow to meet religious justifications. The Qur’an and some hadith are blunt to the point: Muslims must not kill themselves and must not kill non-combatants or fellow Muslims.


In my forthcoming book, Muslim Mechanics, I have identified five different types of players in the hierarchy of the Islamic faith. These players represent groups of people, i.e., constituencies, and their position relative to other players and can be envisioned on a map as a series of circles and ellipses.

Salaf, in Arabic, means “ancestor.” Salafism is a branch of Sunni Islam. Salafis are pious Muslims who want to establish and govern Islamic states based solely on the Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet, as understood by the first generations of Muslims close to Muhammad. This movement is ideologically akin to the early Puritan movement in England and America. To purge their practice of modern influences, they try to emulate the founders of the faith – the Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries and the two generations that came after his death in AD 632.

Salafis reject association with organizations or people willing to compromise religious purity for political objectives. They refuse acceptance from more liberal and inclusive groups willing to recognize some good even in so-called “deviant” teachings. The “purists” categorically reject the Islamists for embracing members who contaminate the religion with discouraged practices (such as democracy or usury).


Jihadis, “holy warriors,” are some of today’s most prominent terrorists. These players can be part of the broader Salafi Movement, but note most Salafis are not jihadis. Jihadi Salafism is a unique ideological combination in Sunni Islam. It involves an international network of scholars, websites, media outlets, and, most recently, many social media supporters.

Jihadis need a totalitarian system of government in which the Qur’an and hadiths are the governing parameters. Anyone who does not share their understanding of Islam will be declared an apostate. If one wants to know what a jihadi state will look like, contemplate the Taliban or ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate – some examples of organizations that jihadis consider legitimately Islamic.

The key points to recognize about jihadis are as follows:

  • Unity of thought – no pluralism and no democracy.

  • Unadulterated sharia in every country in the Middle East.

  • The violence they do to their people and governments is 1) necessary, 2) religiously sanctioned, and 3) the fault of the West, Israel, and apostate regimes.

  • They see their fight as a conflict between Islam and the apostate West. Apostate countries dominate Islamic states, and only the jihadis can break through.

  • Finally, Middle East countries are weak; they do not have the political will to remove tyrants or reform their societies.

Jihadis lose credibility among mainstream Muslims when they attack innocent citizens, damage the sources of a nation’s wealth, such as tourism or oil, kill other Muslims and declare other Muslims as apostates. Criticism from influential religious leaders in the ulama is particularly damaging to their cause, as is criticism from former jihadis and prominent current jihadis. Denunciation from these sources can damage their ability to recruit fighters and funding; thus, a renegade terrorist unit can find itself alone in the field with no resources and no cooperation from other like-minded jihadis. These radical terrorists must anchor their violence in classical Islamic texts and traditions.

An article posted in the Asian Journal of Social Science (vol 38, 2010, 364-378) by Mohammed M. Hafez takes on this very topic. “The Alchemy of Martyrdom” lays a logical road of thought as to why and how radical Muslims rationalize suicidal destruction. Before we look at the rationale, let it be known that the ulama have a role to play here. The ulama (also spelled ulema) are the religious scholars of Islam. This category includes muftis, sheiks, and imams. These scholars impact economic, social, and political change more than any of the other players. For example, Palestinian suicide bombings raised questions of religious legitimacy. The mufti (head of the ulama) in Saudi Arabia said, “such attacks are not a part of the jihad, and I fear that they are just suicides, plain and simple,” and concluded from this that suicide bombings are illegal in Islam. One Muslim Brotherhood leader, a religious scholar, rebutted this fatwa (a legal ruling) and justified the bombings, calling them “martyrdom operations.” Let’s examine his arguments to justify suicide bombings.

First, suicide is strictly prohibited in Islam. However, jihadis point out that the Qur’an recognizes and reveres the martyr category. The most cited verse is 2:154, “And call not those who are slain in the way of Allah ‘dead.’ They are living; only ye perceive not.”

The jihadis believe there is a fundamental difference between the intentions of a person committing suicide to kill oneself and one committing suicide to kill enemies of Islam and Muslims. If the suicide bomber intends to raise God’s word on earth, the suicide is justified. If it is the intention to escape their unhappy lot in life, then suicide would cast the bomber into the fires of eternal damnation.

Second, the permissibility of killing civilians (non-combatants) is prohibited in Islam. Again, Jihadists point to hadith and sunna, which they say permits the killing of civilians in warfare. The jihadists point to two references: one story from the sunna tells of the launching of projectiles from catapults at enemy positions where civilians are likely to be present, and another tale points to a“night raid’ found in Sahih Muslim’s book of hadith. The ‘night raid’ occurred where it was impossible to tell soldiers apart from non-combatants; thus, killing civilians in those conditions was allowed. Also, the “golden rule” verse is found in the Qur’an, verse 16:126. If someone is killing your civilians, then it is permissible to kill theirs. Several notable ulama have argued that the organizations that sponsor suicide bombers must show that they have taken precautions to reduce the deaths of non-combatants. A recent analysis sponsored by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point indicates that al-Qa’ida and their franchises, like al-Shabaab, attempt to avoid unnecessary non-combatant civilian casualties via suicide bombings. The report concludes that al-Qa’ida issued global directives on how to carry out jihad, which aligns with the three guidelines in this article.

Third, the killing of other Muslims is strictly prohibited in Islam. The principal argument for why Muslims can kill their co-religionists assumes that those killed are nominal Muslims, not true believers. Some terrorist groups purposely attack Muslims rather than Christians or representatives from foreign powers. The Islamic State terrorist group was well known for this tactic, as well as its African franchise Boko Haram.

Jihadi Salafists make it clear that not everyone who calls himself a Muslim is one. The test for Islam is of three parts: the utterance of the shahada, a sincere belief in the heart, and the required actions and deeds such as prayers, fasting at Ramadan, and the giving of zakat. It is not uncommon for Muslims to be judged by their actions and deeds. For example, verse 5:51 says not to take Jews and Christians as your friends. If you do, you can be judged an apostate, for which Muslims can kill you for abandoning the faith. To Muslims, fighting against the apostates in your own faith takes precedence over fighting against the infidels.

To Sunnis, the Shia are apostates because they reject the first three caliphs of Islam which are the core of the pious ancestors of Sunnis. Shia also question some of the sunna and hadith that Sunnis proclaim as sacred. It is not a secret that Sunnis declare the Shia as heretics to be killed, as necessary. This opinion partly explains the animosity between Iran, a Shia-majority nation, and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country.

In Summary

Suicide bombing is the “poor man’s” way of fighting against a larger, better-equipped force. A suicide bomb costs about $150 to build, and the person detonating the bomb is supposedly achieving something better for his soul. However, suicide bombs can be defended against, both by better detection methods as used in Israel and having a government that is reflexive to the needs of their people. There is a lack of social justice in undeveloped and underdeveloped nations, and Islam attempts to fill that gap through jihad.

Credit to Wikipedia Commons for the image of a suicide bomber's vest.


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