Guest Author: Pieter Nanninga

From Bali to Bagdad and from Nairobi to New York: jihadis have carried out hundreds of suicide attacks over the last one and a half decade. Young people from dozens of countries, including the Netherlands according to the AIVD, have sought martyrdom by blowing themselves up, killing thousands of people on their way.

The common perception is that it must psychopaths or chanceless dropouts who commit these acts. Sane persons would not do such a thing, so they must be mentally disturbed, brainwashed by manipulative organisations or tired of earthly life and attracted by the pleasures of Paradise. However, scholars have convincingly refuted these ideas over the last one and a half decade. Most suicide bombers are not psychopaths. They are not poor, uneducated or unemployed as compared to their surrounding societies, and their motivations cannot be compared to ordinary suicides. The label “suicide attacks” is highly misleading: the actions are not merely a spectacular way to escape life. Instead, jihadi supporters of the practice label them as “martyrdom operations” (amaliyyat istishhadiyya) – the insiders’ term I will use for the purpose of this article. But why, then, do these rather ordinary people commit these acts? What do martyrdom operations mean to them?

In this post, I will explore the meanings of martyrdom operations for the perpetrators themselves. I will focus on the martyrdom operations carried out by al-Qaeda, by which I mean the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, often dubbed “al-Qaeda Central”. More precisely, I will focus on the meanings that are given to al-Qaeda’s attacks in the martyrdom videos of its media group al-Sahab (“The Clouds”). These videos, the first of which was released in 2001, have been among the most extensive and professional media releases of jihadis until today. They typically include a martyr’s farewell message, his biography, statements by al-Qaeda leaders, Qur’an recitations, anasheed and scenes in which voice-overs comment on the state of the umma and the importance of jihad and martyrdom. These elements are sophisticatedly edited together, resulting in lengthy, documentary-like productions about al-Qaeda’s martyrdom operations.

These sources shed light on the meanings of al-Qaeda’s violence for the perpetrators and their sympathisers. They show that martyrdom operations are not senseless acts of terror. Instead, I argue, they can be better understood as meaningful social practices, as actions that are meaningful and therefore reasonable for the actors involved. Let me be clear, I do not justify, let alone condone, these actions. Yet I believe that, in addition to studying the profiles of the perpetrators, insights into the meanings of martyrdom operations for the actors involved is crucial to understand the phenomenon.

The state of the umma

The picture that emerges from al-Sahab’s videos is that there is a global conflict going on between the worldwide community of Muslims (umma) and an alliance of enemies including “crusaders and Jews”, “apostate” regimes in the Muslim world and supposed heretics such as Shia Muslims. In the eyes of jihadis, these enemies have been able to gain the upper hand in the struggle because Muslims have neglected God’s commands. They have become too attached to their earthly lives to fulfil the duty of jihad and make sacrifices for their brothers and sisters. As a result, the umma has become weak. Islam is disgraced, Muslims are oppressed and humiliated and their lands are defiled by infidel forces.

Whereas most Muslims have turned their backs to their suffering brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria and elsewhere, jihadis see themselves as the ones standing up for the umma. They recurrently indicate in al-Sahab’s videos that, at one point in their lives, they became touched by the fate of their fellow believers and decided to take action. In contrast to others, they were prepared to abandon their luxurious lives, revive the obligation of jihad and devote themselves to the struggle for the sake of the umma. In their view, martyrdom is the ultimate expression of their struggles and sacrifices. As such, it provides the solution for today’s problems. Once, the umma embraces the message of jihad through martyrdom, victory will be achieved, they believe.

Introduction of al-Sahab’s film Jihad wa-istishhad (Jihad and martyrdom) from 2008 about Abu al-Hasan who carried out a martyrdom operation in Afghanistan.

Why is martyrdom considered so important in this respect? To answer this question, I will provide three clusters of meanings that are given to martyrdom operations in al-Sahab’s videos: raids in the way of God; honour and dignity; and sacrifice and purity.

Raids in the way of God

According to jihadis, the solution to today’s problems is returning to the “pure Islam” of the righteous predecessors (al-salaf al-salih): the first three generations of Muslims that should be followed as closely as possible in all spheres of life. Just as Muhammad and his companions had done when they left Mecca for Medina in 622, Muslims should not resign themselves to oppression, jihadis claim. They should migrate to places where they can prepare for battle, practice ribat (guarding the borders of the Muslim lands) and wage jihad after the example of the Prophet. Then, they too, will return victoriously in the end, just as Muhammad did by conquering Mecca some eight years after he had left.

Martyrdom operations are perceived along the same lines, as becomes apparent from al-Sahab’s releases. After the example of the salaf, martyrdom seekers do not “cling heavily to the earth” (Q. 9:38), but renounce earthly life while longing for the hereafter. They desire martyrdom just as Muhammad had done, as is described in a frequently quoted hadith in which he says that he wished to be martyred and then made alive again, so that he could be martyred once more. Hence, despite the controversial character of martyrdom operations in the Muslim world, the actions are perceived as a continuation of the practices of the Prophet. They are designated as “raids” (ghazawat, sg. ghazwa), just like the raids of the Muhammad and his companions, and can be understood as re-enactments of the battles of the salaf. When Muslims will awake from their slumber and follow the example of the Prophet like jihadis do, victory will be achieved, they believe. Jihad through martyrdom will bring about triumph, just as it has done in the first century after the hijra.

Honour and dignity

It is not just by appropriating and reinterpreting early-Islamic traditions that the meanings of martyrdom operations are shaped. Another theme central to the discourse of the martyrs and their supporters is honour and dignity. They are far from exceptional in this case. Research on violence has shown that feelings of humiliation and shame (i.e. the violation of honour) have often fuelled violence. These feelings can be caused by direct personal insult, but also by the (perceived) dishonouring of the group or community the individual identifies him- or herself with, such as the family or the religious community (i.e. “humiliation by proxy”). In these instances, violence can be experienced as redeeming the honour of the insulted individual or community.

As noted above, the protagonists of al-Sahab’s videos perceive the umma as weak and humiliated. They appear to be personally affected by the suffering of their brothers and sisters and indicate that they see themselves as the ones standing up for the umma. In his farewell message, one of the 9/11 bombers points at the suffering of the Palestinians and Iraqis, the “American rule in the Land of the Two Holy Places” (Saudi Arabia) and the atrocities committed against Muslims in Chechnya and Kashmir. He continues: “I take no pleasure in a life of humiliation, and my heart has demanded from me that I live honourably (‘aziza) in compliance with my Lord’s religion.” Therefore, he states, he left his family “to avenge my brothers blood” and “to die with honour.” Along these lines, martyrdom operations are regularly associated with terms such as ‘izza (“honour”, “power”) and karama (“dignity”, “honour”, “respect”). The attacks are seen as honourable as they express that jihadists do not acquiesce in the humiliating situation of the umma, but are willing to make sacrifices to revenge its disgrace. The martyrdom operations humiliate the enemy just as the enemy has humiliated the Muslim community, and therefore they redeem the honour of the umma. They “bring an end to the age of cowardice and weakness” and “restore the dignity of the umma”, the perpetrators believe.

Sacrifice and purity

A third cluster of terms frequently associated with martyrdom operations is sacrifice and purity. These terms too, are often connected to religiously motivated violence. As several scholars have noted, fundamentalist movements usually uphold strong boundaries between “good” and “evil”, between the own group and the “polluted” outside world. This typically implies the view that the purity of the own group should be safeguarded. The impure should be avoided and, once it has penetrated the group, removed. Such a desire for purification can result in violence to eradicate the source of pollution. More precisely, it often results in sacrificial violence. Ritualised bloodshed is experienced as removing pollution and cleansing the community from defilement, thus restoring the boundaries between “good” and “evil”.

These insights can also be applied to al-Qaeda’s martyrdom operations. The umma is perceived as defiled. The “crusader forces” roaming the Muslim world have desecrated the lands of Islam, which are in need of purification. The ritualised self-sacrifice of the bombers accomplishes this. According to early-Islamic traditions, those who are martyred in the way of God are inherently pure. Their blood symbolised this status, which is why the bodies of martyrs, in contrast to those of other deceased, should not be ritually cleansed. Along these lines, martyrdom seekers too, become emblems of purity through their actions, their supporters believe. Yet it is not just the men themselves who are considered pure from their moment of their death, they also purify their surroundings: the umma and the lands of Islam. For instance, about an attack in Saudi Arabia is said that the blood of the martyrs “purifies the Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries from the defilement of the crusader and Zionist occupation.” Hence, the sacrificial blood of the martyrs cleanses the community and restores the umma’s purity by washing away the pollution caused by the “infidels” and “apostates”.

The meanings of martyrdom

The meanings given to martyrdom operations vary in each context. The videos of al-Sahab therefore not represent the meanings of martyrdom operations for jihadis. Yet the themes we have encountered in al-Sahab’s videos also frequently appear in other sources. Terms such as honour, dignity and sacrifice also often return in blogs, posts and videos in which fighters in Syria and Iraq celebrate the martyrdom of their comrades. The above discussed meanings given to martyrdom therefore also tell us something about other cases.

They learn us that, for the perpetrators, martyrdom operations are not in the first place a means towards victory on the battlefield. Rather, they are considered crucial as they embody victory in terms of honour, dignity and purity. In addition, they learn us that the message of jihad through martyrdom as expressed in al-Sahab’s videos can be attractive for young people who have become touched by the fate of their brothers and sisters. The message offers them a framework to make sense of the world around them and to cope with feelings of humiliation and shame. It provides them with a sense of agency, a way to assist their fellow believers and to contribute to the restoration the glory of the umma. And it offers them empowerment, a crucial role as the defenders of the umma who redeem its honour, restore its dignity and purify its lands in the footsteps of the Prophet.

Therefore, martyrdom operations should not be seen as “senseless violence” performed by dropouts who are brainwashed by a barbaric, medieval ideology. They can better be seen as meaningful social practices for the actors involved. Searching for martyrdom in Syria, Iraq and other arenas of jihad can be an attractive and thoroughly modern way for young people to give meaning to their lives and deaths.


Pieter Nanninga carried out his PhD research at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Since 2011, he is attached to the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the same university, where he will occupy a position as Assistant Professor from August 2014. He teaches on politics, culture and religion in de modern Middle East and conducts research on jihadism, violence and media. Pieter Nanninga defended his PhD: Jihadism and Suicide Attacks: al-Qaeda, al-Sahab and the Meanings of Martyrdom. This post is based upon his research.