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Suicide Terrorists: Who Are They? (Part I)

By Ann Wilkens

Suicide terrorism is most likely when the occupying power’s religion differs from the religion of the occupied, for three reasons. A conflict across a religious divide increases fears that the enemy will seek to transform the occupied society; makes demonization, and therefore killing, of enemy civilians easier; and makes it easier to use one’s own religion to re-label suicides that would otherwise be taboo as martyrdom instead

Who are the suicide bombers and why are they used?

Most attempts made to date at profiling suicide bombers and their organizations have been centred around the Middle East. While some aspects of Middle East suicide terrorism appear to be quite different from the situation prevailing in Pakistan and Afghanistan today, there are also many common features. Regarding its background, for instance, suicide terrorism all over the world appears in asymmetrical conflict situations. Ami Pedahzur, in his book Suicide Trrorism, writes: “Suicide terrorism has made its appearance primarily in conflicts where the balance of power has been asymmetrical, meaning a relatively weak organization up against a strong state. This method of action has succeeded, in many cases, in minimizing the advantages of the military superiority of the stronger side of the conflict. The explanation for this is straightforward. The great damage achieved by the suicide action, especially in terms of the number of victims, carries with it considerable psychological impact both on the citizens of the country under attack, as well as on its policy-makers. The anxiety that spreads through the society in cases of a protracted campaign of suicide terrorism has the potential to reduce the faith citizens have in the government’s ability to protect them, and the latter becomes subject to persistent pressures to concede to terrorists’ demands.”]

With regard to the Pakistan/Afghanistan area, it could be added that “the faith citizens have in their government’s ability to protect them” has long been eroded through bad governance. It was already low before suicide bombing emerged as a recurrent phenomenon. By the same token, “pressures to concede to terrorists’ demands” have not taken on the character of a unified campaign. The Pakistani, as well as the Afghan, public remains divided in their attitudes towards organizations using suicide bombing as an instrument to attain their goals – in fact these organizations enjoy a surprising amount of sympathy.[ii] Hence, in these countries, the “protracted campaign of suicide terrorism” seems to have added to the sense of insecurity already permeating the daily lives of their citizens, rather than being the cause of such feelings emerging.

Robert Pape characterizes suicide terrorism as follows: “Modern suicide terrorist groups share a number of features. In general, they are weaker than their opponents; their political goals, if not their tactics, are broadly supported by a distinct national community; the militants have a close bond of loyalty to comrades and a devotion to leaders; and they have a system of initiation and rituals signifying an individual’s level of commitment to the community.”[iii] Later on, he adds: “Suicide terrorism is most likely when the occupying power’s religion differs from the religion of the occupied, for three reasons. A conflict across a religious divide increases fears that the enemy will seek to transform the occupied society;[iv] makes demonization, and therefore killing, of enemy civilians easier; and makes it easier to use one’s own religion to re-label suicides that would otherwise be taboo as martyrdom instead.”[v] Assaf Moghadam explains that, in the Salafi-Jihadist brand of suicide terrorism now prevalent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “[i]t is not longer necessary for foreign troops to be present in a country in order for that country to be perceived as occupied, though such a foreign presence certainly helps. More important is the perception that a given regime is complicit in the attempted subjugation and humiliation of Muslims, which renders the country occupied in a more indirect way.”[vi]

Thus, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the “strong state” referred to by Ami Pedahzur is not synonymous with the actual state where the attacks are carried out – that state in itself is, indeed, perceived as weak. However, it is also perceived as being propped up by the West, in particular the United States, and thus made strong. The “strong state” attacked by suicide bombers is a conglomeration of local government on different levels, seen as corrupt and as being in the hands of the West, and the West itself, the ultimate power, the “Great Satan”.[vii] On the latter level, Pape’s remarks on religious divisions are highly relevant. However, they could also be transposed to refer to intra-religious strife, for example, between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, as well as divides between militant Sunni Islam and other sects, such as the Barelvis or the Ahmediyas.[viii]

Other parts of the rationale behind the use of suicide bombers will remain largely the same, one important reason being that they are effective: “Suicide attacks amount to just 3 percent of all terrorist incidents from 1980 through 2003, but account for 48 percent of all the fatalities, making the average suicide terrorist attack twelve times deadlier than other forms of terrorism – even if the immense losses of September 11 are not counted.”[ix] At the same time, the costs involved are low (if the life of the bomber is not counted, as in fact it is not[x]). Even if reimbursement is paid out to the remaining family,[xi] the technology involved in the attack itself is cheap[xii] and easily manufactured: “The most common modus operandi, and the one preferred by the majority of organizations, is the detonation of an explosives belt directly attached to the militant’s body. So far, this method has been in use in 53.3 per cent of the cases of suicide terrorism in the world.”[xiii] The damage done through this simple technique is very high: “While the average fatality quotient in shooting attacks is 2.1 individuals and in attacks executed by means of delaying mechanisms it is 2.01, the average number of fatalities in a suicide attack committed by a terrorist carrying an explosives belt on his/her body is 8.11.” This impressive output is matched by a minimal input: “in most instances where explosives belts are used, the organization does not lose more than one terrorist /…/ In the detonation of a truck bomb, the average number of suicide attackers is 1.3; when it is a car bomb, the number increases to 1.4, whereas, in the case of a boat bomb, the number is 3.3.”[xiv]

Paradoxically, in spite of the fact that Paradise is what awaits the suicide bomber, the organizations that dispatch suicide bombers want to minimize sacrifices on their own side. This is a lack of logic which casts light on the hypocrisy involved in these operations. Another such slip is that the dispatchers of suicide bombers seldom want to send members of their own family to Paradise in this way, unless it is someone the family wants to get rid of. Anat Berko writes: “In most cases, the dispatcher does not send one of his own close family. There are exceptions, however, and they are the individuals known to have collaborated with Israel or women who have posed ‘problems to the family honor’. Such people, rather than be murdered or bring shame to their families, take the ‘honorable’ way out, what Ahmad Yassin described as ‘an exceptional solution to the problem’. After their deaths no one dares to speak of the real reason why the shaheed or shaheeda[xv] blew themselves up.”[xvi]

Thus, in crude economic terms, the cost-effectiveness of a suicide bomber wearing an explosives belt is extremely high. As the weapon of the underdog, suicide attackers are, indeed, “smart bombs”, not to be equalled by the enemy: “nearly 70 per cent of suicide terrorism occurrences in the world were aimed at democratic countries or at least countries which uphold fundamental democratic properties such as Israel (33.5 per cent of the incidents), Sri Lanka (19.1 per cent), Russia (4.9 per cent), Turkey (4.1 per cent) and India (2.4 per cent). These countries are perceived by terrorist groups as more vulnerable because their public is not willing to endure protracted and relentless security threats and is liable to express its dissatisfaction at the voting booth.”[xvii] The later developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan do not change this picture – both countries are democracies, albeit flawed. Furthermore, as pointed out above, the governments targeted are not only the home governments but, perhaps even more, those which are intervening in the area – all of them democracies. Successful targeting of foreign troops in Afghanistan tends to lead to debates in their countries of origin, questioning the decision to participate in the military effort.

However, as suggested above, the situation in the Middle East during the second intifada, when suicide bombing was at its height, differs in many ways from that in the Pakistan/Afghanistan area today. For one thing, suicide terrorism in the latter area has been prolonged compared to the situation in the Middle East. The observation by Ami Pedahzur that “suicide terrorism generally runs its course in short-term campaigns, mostly lasting up to three years”[xviii] does not hold true in the case of Pakistan/Afghanistan, where suicide attacks became prominent some eight years ago[xix] and have only intensified since then.

Another difference concerns the idolization of the suicide bomber, which has characterized Middle East suicide actions and is deemed to have been an important part of the motivation of the individual bomber. Suicide bombing has served as an instant path to fame, turning anonymity, if not social inferiority, into social prestige.[xx] The suicide bombers were celebrated in the society at large and their families gained a certain kind of fame (as well as money), the funerals became huge political manifestations, and the final words of the bomber were broadcast again and again on TV channels. Places or institutions could be named after suicide bombers and their acts would live on in the mythology of the society.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, on the other hand, suicide bombers remain more or less anonymous, at least in the society at large. In this case, however, given the deep poverty of the lower strata of the society, the monetary compensation given to the family is likely to have been more prominent as a motivation.[xxi] This assumption is corroborated and complemented with other factors in research describing some Afghan suicide bombers as having “been duped, /being/ mentally deranged, or /.../ merely acting due to financial payments promised to their families, which could reach up to $23 000.”[xxii] A failed suicide bomber interviewed in a UNAMA report claimed to have been “given ‘tablets’ that intoxicated him and /.../ been warned that he would be beheaded were he to fail to comply with the request.”[xxiii]

The same report concludes that “at least some suicide bombers in Afghanistan are children, many of whom come from Pakistan. A fair number have been recruited in schools and madrassas situated on the Afghan-Pakistani border.”[xxiv] This trend seems to have continued. In Pakistan, a number of incidents involving very young suicide bombers have been reported in the press, for example, a 13-year-old boy killing 41 people in a market in October 2009[xxv] and a 14-year-old failed suicide bomber interviewed in April 2010.[xxvi] When two alleged Taliban militants were arrested in October 2010, a 16-year-old boy was also found in the house, who the militants said they had “hired” for a suicide mission. The boy explained that he had been told that “becoming a suicide bomber was my ticket to heaven, and on the Day of Judgement, I would have nothing to worry about”.[xxvii]

Furthermore, until recently, women had not been carrying out acts of suicide bombing in the Pakistan/Afghanistan area (even if there may have been a few exceptions), while in the rest of the world they have constituted between 15 and 30 per cent of the known suicide attackers.[xxviii] Only during the last year has this begun to change and, again, the would-be suicide bombers are very young. In January 2010, two girls from the Swat valley, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, were presented to the press, telling how they had volunteered as suicide bombers with a local Taliban unit. They had been made to believe that they would go straight to heaven after carrying out suicide attacks but had changed their minds when they learnt that the Taliban were destroying schools.[xxix] Also in January 2010, a 12-year-old girl from the Bajaur agency told journalists that her Taliban commander brother had trained her as a suicide bomber. She had been told to target a prison in Afghanistan: “The Taleban preached me that I would go to Jannat” (Paradise).[xxx]

As is apparent from the quote above from Anat Berko’s book,[xxxi] compared to male suicide bombers, girls or women may have been driven by different motivations: “females are less inclined than males to draw on the terrorist group as a way to restore collective identity.”[xxxii] They have been more likely to volunteer than their male colleagues: “females were more likely to actively seek involvement, and they showed a slight tendency to be recruited more often through exploitation or peer-persuasion.”[xxxiii] For these women, “exploitation” could be linked to problems connected with the family honour. This was the case of Al-Riashi, the first Hamas female suicide bomber. She “was known to have problems in her marriage and, according to some sources, was sent on a mission by both her husband and lover in order to help avoid the social sanctions which are imposed on an unfaithful woman in a highly conservative society.”[xxxiv] Barbara Victor “links the first four female Palestinian suicide bombers as having been placed in positions where the act of martyrdom was their sole chance to reclaim the family honor that had been lost by their own actions or the actions of other family members.”[xxxv]

Thus, for women subjected to strict honour codes, volunteering as a suicide bomber could be quite an attractive alternative to being murdered by their relatives. If the suicide bombing campaign persists, we may well see a growing number of females appear on the Pakistan/Afghanistan arena, where such codes are particularly pervasive.

As regards the personality of the individual suicide bomber, research to date seems to be more or less unanimous in its conclusion that the act of suicide bombing should be regarded as generically different from an individualistic suicide. While individualistic suicides seem to be more common in the West, the politico-religious act of suicide bombing tends to take place in a Third World country. Ami Pedahzur refers to the comparative research on suicide carried out by the renowned scientist Émile Durkheim towards the end of the 19th century: “According to his view, the phenomenon of individualistic suicide was found to be prevalent at higher rates in Western cultures compared with Eastern cultures. Social scientists who investigated the history of suicide in traditional societies backed up this claim. However, alongside relatively low rates of individualistic suicides in many Asian societies, they also found high rates of altruistic and fatalistic suicide types.”[xxxvi]

Generally, suicide bombers have not been found to suffer from depression or any mental disorder believed to cause suicides. In a more recent study, Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi arrives at the following conclusion: “In fact, not a single identifying characteristic such as affective disorders, traumatic childhood, etc., were found to be prevalent among suicide terrorists.”[xxxvii] Ami Pedahzur writes: “The majority of suicide bombers are not crazy. Furthermore, they generally are not forced into perpetrating the suicide act. In effect, most suicide terrorists can be described as ordinary people. Studies have shown that they exhibited no suicidal tendencies prior to the act and lived normal lives, although many of them came from conflict-ridden areas where a ‘normal life’ is a relative concept. Most of them were not leading figures in their communities or organizations but they also did not come from the fringes of society. Suicide attackers were generally not highly educated, but also not illiterate. They were not very successful, but, at the same time, not complete failures. Attackers were both men and women; some were very religious while others were completely secular. Some were politically active for many years and others became active only in the perpetration of their suicide mission.”[xxxviii]

Others are less certain about the “normality” of the suicide bombers but have not been able to arrive at any clear psychiatric diagnoses applicable to them.[xxxix] Pedahzur explains: “One of the conclusions drawn from the attempts to fathom the personality of the suicide terrorist was that not one single personality trait common (as demonstrated by the literature) among suicides – including affective disorder, alcohol or drug addiction or severe childhood disturbances – was found to be prevalent among suicide terrorists. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that attempts to use conventional psychoanalytical theories to explain suicides in the realm of suicidal terrorism have produced only partial results. For example, Schneidman’s[xl] theory perceiving suicide to be consequent upon feelings of hopelessness and helplessness deriving from ungratified psychological needs, may in fact shed light on certain aspects related to suicide terrorists. Suicides, according to this approach, choose the path of taking their own lives when they perceive this option as the only possible way to put an end to the pain they are enduring. Having said that, the main problem in trying to put this theory into practice when explaining suicide terrorism is that it was primarily intended to account for suicide on an individualistic basis and in the case of suicide terrorists, while many of them have been found to suffer from despair on a community or nationalist level, very few of them were in fact subject to despondency due to purely individualistic causes. Furthermore, in contrast to individualistic suicides, suicide terrorists do not have a history of attempts to harm themselves. /…/ Unlike other suicides, the primary goal of suicide bombers is to kill others; their own death only serves the purpose of attaining this goal.”[xli]

Farhad Khosrokhavar, on the other hand, does not deny the suicidal dimension of modern martyrdom but ties it to the notion of the sacred: “In this form of martyrdom, sacrifice is certainly experienced as an act dictated by Allah, but the sacrifice is made by an individual in despair, who has given up living and therefore feels that his life has no meaning in this world. There is a suicidal dimension to modern martyrdom. But unlike the anomic[xlii] suicide who renounces life but has no connection with the sacred, he expresses his disgust with the world by mobilising the sacred and designating the enemy he wants to kill by getting himself killed.”[xliii] /.../ “The act of martyrdom oscillates between suicide and the killing of the other, between resignation and self-assertion. There is at once a desire for self-assertion and a realisation that it is impossible. The dilemma is resolved through the destruction of both the self and those who are perceived as obstacles to self-realisation. /.../ The act of martyrdom is given a sacred status, and it therefore guarantees a happy end whereas life on earth is profoundly unhappy.”[xliv]

Assaf Moghadam concludes: “The causes of suicide attacks are complex and must be found in the interplay of personal motivations, strategic and tactical objectives of the sponsoring groups, and the larger societal and structural factors affecting the bomber and his group.”[xlv]

Suicide bombers and Islam

Most researchers on the subject of suicide terrorism take care to avoid directly linking suicide terrorism and Islam. Suicide bombers have in fact appeared in many different cultures or societies, the common denominator being that they have found themselves in the position of the underdog in an ongoing conflict. The link which can be observed is that between military weakness, possibly combined with cultural frustration, and suicide bombing. Today, this is a combination which applies to a number of Muslim countries – but this could change over time. Robert A. Pape, for instance, goes as far as to link suicide attacks directly to foreign occupation: “The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any of the world’s religions. /.../ Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”[xlvi]

While Pape calculates that Islamic fundamentalism is associated with only about half of the attacks between 1980 and 2003,[xlvii] this balance has now shifted due to the sharp increase in what Moghadam calls Salafi-Jihadist suicide terrorism, of which Pakistan and Afghanistan is today the major arena. In 2007, 56 suicide attacks took place in Pakistan and 160 attacks were registered in Afghanistan.[xlviii] These figures could be compared to the global number of 315 suicide attacks registered between 1980 and 2003.[xlix]

Moghadam contends that “/e/specially since 9/11, suicide missions by Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups have risen exponentially, far outnumbering the attacks conducted by the previously dominant groups. Suicide attacks by Al Qaeda and its associates also target far more countries than have other groups before, and its attacks are more deadly. For these reasons, suicide attacks by Al Qaeda and its associated movements are the new epicentre of this deadly phenomenon.”[l]

At the same time, the divide between the West, as well as some fast-developing economies in the Third World, on one hand, and stagnated parts of the Muslim world on the other, has deepened. In Pakistan, for instance, India’s rapid economic growth is a source of envy, sharpening people’s impatience with the sluggish development of their country’s own economy. Many Muslims feel that they are now in the position of the world’s underdog and scapegoat, a frustration which is felt even more deeply in the light of the dominance of the Muslim culture only a few centuries ago.

However, suicide is forbidden in Islam. In spite of this, as we have seen, Muslim leaders who have wanted to use suicides strategically, such as Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran,[li] certain Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden, have found ways to bend these rules for their own purposes, in a way that is reminiscent of the methods once used by the Christian Jesuits, who put the end before the means – if the end is “jihad”, suicide attacks are not only permitted, but desirable.[lii] Normally, “jihad” would not be directed towards fellow Muslims. Still, this is the case in most attacks taking place in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here, the practice of “takfir, the labelling of fellow Muslims as kuffar or infidels” comes in as a tool, which “is used to justify scores of suicide bombings against Muslims in places like Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan and Pakistan.”[liii]

Thus, what is important in this context is that, in global terms, the Muslim world finds itself in a weakened position. The grandeur and cultural, as well as scientific, advancement which characterized it not so long ago have been lost and now it is the Western world which spearheads developments in most domains. For young men in many Muslim countries, faced with difficulties in finding jobs, and consequently difficulties in getting married and establishing their adulthood, the West holds tremendous attraction but at the same time it is largely closed to them. Even if you risk your life and savings on precarious human smuggling routes, you are liable to be sent back when you arrive. This inspires anger mixed with envy, an emotion that is notoriously difficult to handle. On top of this, for the select few who actually manage to get to the West, disappointment can be great when marginalization continues, this time without the support of an extended family.

The case often highlighted as an example of a non-Muslim organization using suicide bombers has been that of the Tamil Tigers, the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE), in Sri Lanka. This secular movement, representing mainly Hindus, has been the most spectacular of the non-Muslim organizations which have practised such attacks in recent years. Between 1980 and 2003, the “Tamil tigers have committed 76 of the 315 suicide attacks registered”.[liv] The suicide attackers of the LTTE also contradict the thesis that suicide bombing surfaces primarily as a factor in a struggle between cultures or civilizations. The LTTE attacks have been aimed at the Sri Lankan government as part of an ethnic-nationalist struggle.[lv] (The Basque organization Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, ETA, in Spain would be a similar case but, in line with other Western movements, it has not used suicide terrorists.) Another feature which has distinguished the LTTE from other South Asian organizations using suicide terrorism is the relative prevalence of female suicide bombers, the most famous being Gayatri or Dhanu Rajaratnam who assassinated the Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. Her background shows us that, like suicide tactics, honour culture is not limited to Muslim societies: reportedly, Dhanu had been gang-raped by Indian soldiers,[lvi] who also killed her four brothers.[lvii] Having been raped, she could not marry: “Acting as a human bomb is an understood and accepted offering for a woman who will never be a mother. Family members often encourage rape victims to join the LTTE.”[lviii]

Throughout history, suicide attackers have been instrumental in varying political and religious settings. “The world’s first suicide terrorists were probably two militant Jewish revolutionary groups, the Zealots and the Sicarii. Determined to liberate Judea from Roman occupation, these groups used violence to provoke a popular uprising – which historians credit with precipitating the ‘Jewish War’ of A.D. 66 – committing numerous public assassinations and other audacious acts of violence in Judea from approximately 4 B.C. to A.D. 70.”[lix]

A well-known, spectacular case is provided by the Japanese Kamikaze pilots who attacked the US fleet during the last phase of the Second World War:[lx] “At Okinawa /.../ in 1945, more than one thousand suicide pilots were used to kill nearly five thousand American service personnel.”[lxi] The Kamikaze campaign “lasted for ten months, from October 25, 1944, until Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. In total, some 3,843 pilots gave their lives. These suicide attacks did not stop the Americans but they were four to five times more deadly than conventional strike missions and did impose high costs on the invasion forces. They damaged or sank at least 375 U.S. naval vessels, killed 12,300 American servicemen and wounded another 36,400.”[lxii]

There are also less well-known examples: “During the rule of the Spaniards in the Philippines, there were /.../ episodes of suicidal acts of terrorism. These were carried out by members of Muslim tribes who objected to Christian expansion in the southern part of the Sulu Archipelago. /.../ With the termination of the Spanish rule in the Philippines in 1898, the Americans took control of the country, including the Muslim areas. American attempts to establish direct control over these areas led to the same methods of warfare. Once again, history showed the considerable strategic advantage of a warrior who is willing to sacrifice his life…”[lxiii]


A central concept in the phenomenon of suicide bombing is that of martyrdom. Again, there is obviously no exclusive link to Islam. While the martyrdom of Jesus Christ is the very centrepiece of Christianity, his example has been followed by many, from the early Christians striving to assert themselves in hostile surroundings onwards. Farhad Khosrokhavar writes: “If we define martyrdom as self-sacrifice for a sacred cause, it can be found in most religions and particularly the Abrahamic religions. In both Christianity and Islam, it is associated with the notion of bearing witness,[lxiv] which is itself tied up with the idea of the struggle against injustice and oppression.”[lxv] He distinguishes between “defensive martyrdom”, as expressed by among others early Christian martyrs and the Buddhist monks protesting against the Vietnam war through death by self-immolation, and “offensive martyrdom”, which has inspired Muslim as well as Sikh ideas of martyrdom, and combines self-sacrifice with the struggle against irreligious oppressors.[lxvi] The role of the martyr is dual: “The underlying sense of ‘bearing witness’ makes the martyr both the protagonist of a holy death and a witness to the truth of his faith.”[lxvii] The violence involved in Muslim martyrdom differs from Christian martyrdom in that it is reciprocal and “closely linked to the other seminal notion of jihad or holy war.”[lxviii]

The concept of martyrdom differs also between the different strands of Islam: “In Sunni Islam, martyrdom is associated with, or even subordinate to, holy war. In Shi’ite Islam /.../ we find an affective structure centred upon martyrdom.”[lxix] This makes martyrdom a central pillar in Shi’ite Islam: “Sunni societies do occasionally refer to martyrdom, but it does not have the fundamental significance it has for Shi’ites.”[lxx] “[W]hilst the Sunni world gives jihad a value that is disproportionate to its traditional weight, the characteristic feature of the contemporary Shi’ite world is its overvaluation of martyrdom, interpreted in a new and activist sense.”[lxxi]

The historical background is the death of Hussein, the third Shi’ite imam, in October 680, during the battle at Karbala in today’s Iraq, still celebrated by Shi’ites during the period of Moharram, leading up to processions of flagellants on the day of his death (Ashura). While the proportion of Shi´ites in the total number of Muslims worldwide amounts to around 10 per cent, with a concentration of around 73 million in Shi’ite Iran,[lxxii] the proportions in Pakistan and Afghanistan (15–20 per cent in each country[lxxiii]) are substantial and sectarian conflict has been a recurring feature in both countries.

Consequently, historical examples of Muslim martyrdom are primarily tied to the Shi’ite brand of Islam. The Assassins, whose name is the root of the word “assassinate”,[lxxiv] were a subgroup within the Ismaelis[lxxv] who, in the 11th century, fought “to re-establish the rule of an Islam free of Sunni religious orthodoxy /.../ [W]hen they executed their designated victims, they knew that they were sentencing themselves to death.”[lxxvi] Ariel Glucklich describes them as follows: “The Assassins was an elite terror group within a fragment of Shi’ite Islam. Its members were intensely religious volunteers who undertook suicide missions by assassinating high-profile and well-protected officials while using only a knife.”[lxxvii] Robert A. Pape adds: “What made the Assassins so lethal was that their killers were willing to die to accomplish their missions and often, rather than attempting to escape, reveled in their impending death.”[lxxviii] Thus, the Assassins had a largely positive image of the role which they were playing in establishing a new order. This, according Khosrokhavar, is no longer the case for modern-day suicide martyrs:

“Modern martyrs, in contrast, act out of hatred for a world in which, as they see it, they are being denied access to a life of ‘dignity’, no matter whether they are Iranian, Palestinian or members of a transnational network such as al-Qaeda. Whereas the sectarian martyrs of the Islam of the pre-modern age were convinced that their actions would bring about the advent of a new world and the destruction of the old, the actions of modern Muslim martyrs are intended to destroy a world in which there is no place for them as citizens of a nation or of an Islamic community.”[lxxix]

An intermediary example on the way towards such pessimistic, modern martyrs may be provided by the huge numbers of very young warriors who were dispatched to the front of the war between Iran and Iraq during the period between 1981 and 1988[lxxx] by the revolutionary Khomeini regime established in Iran in 1979. These young boys[lxxxi] were provided with a key around their necks, supposed to be used when they reached the door of Paradise,[lxxxii] and acted as mine clearers (if necessary, by exploding the mines themselves), as well as an avant-garde in military clashes with the much better-equipped, Western-supported Iraqi army. Their fearlessness is well documented; often they strode to their death chanting religious slogans. Christoph Reuter has interviewed a Lebanese journalist who had the opportunity to watch an onslaught of these child soldiers: “/.../ you could hear them first: a high buzzing sound, as if a swarm of locusts were approaching. The sound swelled: thousands of human mouths coming closer, all of them roaring: ‘Ya Karbala! Ya Hussein! Ya Khomeini!’ as they came. As a human wave, they emerged from the trenches and dug-outs, from behind ramparts and hillocks; thousands, tens of thousands of them, coming closer and closer. And almost all of them were children, youths, some of them holding Kalashnikovs with difficulty, others just with clenched fists. Every now and then, you could see an older man among them, egging them on.”[lxxxiii] Every such “human wave” consisted of “tens of thousands of young Iranians /.../. They ran at Iraqi positions until they either won the day or were all dead.”[lxxxiv]

The appearance of these soldiers on the political arena was a new development: “The theme of martyrdom was appropriated by young people from the working classes. They asserted their willingness to die a holy death not only in rituals, but by staging their own deaths. In doing so, they created a version of Islam that was largely unknown to the dominant tradition.”[lxxxv]

Khosrokhavar does not think that this behaviour can be explained simply as a result of indoctrination but, in a reasoning directly applicable to the Pakistan/Afghanistan area, ties the willingness to die of these young recruits to their profound, inner disappointment with political developments: “The Revolution’s failure to meet these aspirations [to emancipate themselves] and the long war launched by Iraq, the brain drain, economic difficulties, and the feeling that the Revolution was in danger of falling apart because of the plotting of evil powers, and the United States in particular, were all factors that inspired a politico-religious attitude that might be described as ‘deadly’ (‘death-dealing’, ‘mortiferous’) religiosity. Given that it was impossible to live in accordance with the aspirations they had cherished at the beginning of the Revolution, these young men concluded that they might as well die and take their enemies with them.”[lxxxvi]

On a psychological level, Khosrokhavar reasons, this type of martyrdom has its place in the process of individuation of young adults: “[M]artyrdom gives individuals who are modern but cannot assert themselves in the way they would like, a formidable ability to assert themselves in death. In the absence of any real individuality or political, economic and cultural autonomy, martyrdom has a remarkable ability to facilitate individuation in death. All the modern aspirations and desires that haunt a disoriented younger generation that is no longer protected by traditional communities and has been abandoned to a purely oneiric[lxxxvii] modernity can be realised through martyrdom. It allows young men to become individuals because it promises them that, when they die, they will have all the things they have been denied in life, namely a paradisiacal existence. /.../ It gives meaning and dignity to those who have been dispossessed of them.”[lxxxviii]