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Suicide Bombings: Jihad or Terrorism?

A New Book By Yamin Zakaria

Al-Jazeerah,, April 19, 2010

The book's promotional blurb reads: "The primary aim of this book is designed to provoke thought on the subject which is obscured by the propaganda of conflict. It is divided into two parts. The first part analyses the various political arguments around the issue of suicide bombings, and examines corollary subject of terrorism and Jihad. In the second part, it examines the Islamic text with a view to establishing the legality of using suicide bombing as a weapon of conflict. It has been written in a manner that is aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims who are unfamiliar with the mechanism of deriving Islamic opinions. This section makes the book unique. Elaboration in this area has been lacking, the existing material is barely inadequate for Muslims let alone non-Muslims."

Where there is conflict, there is propaganda. As the long-standing adage states, truth is the first casualty of war. Naturally, the adversaries of suicide bombers are constantly demonising this unconventional method of warfare, through their ubiquitous mass media. They label it as an act of terrorism, which is akin to criminal actions. While the proponents of suicide bombing view it as a legitimate response of war, particularly applicable to uneven (asymmetric) conflicts, between states and non-state actors.  
The history of suicide bombing is recent, but suicide attacks in various forms have existed throughout history. Some of the prominent examples are:
·         Samson's suicidal destruction of a Philistine temple as narrated in the Book of Judges1, in the Old Testament.
·         During the crusades, the Muslims sunk their ship2 to prevent the enemy from gaining access to the ammunitions on board; consequently, all the soldiers on the ship drowned.  
·         The Dutch Lieutenant, Jan van Speyk3, blew up his ship in the harbour of Antwerp to prevent capture during the Belgian Revolution of 1831.   
The sole difference between suicide bombings and suicide missions of the past is the way the enactor is killed; the former dies from his weapon, whereas the latter dies from the enemy’s weapon. This distinction merely reflects the indiscriminate nature of explosives; many would question its significance, because the fundamental objective behind the actions are identical, which is to inflict as many casualties as possible, risking everything.
One of the earliest examples of a suicide operation involving explosives was the assassination of Czar Alexander II of Russia4, in 1881. During the Second World War, the Japanese kamikaze pilots introduced suicide bombing to the world, as they drove their own planes loaded with bombs and fuel into American warships. The Viet Minh5 ‘death volunteers’ also used explosives to conduct suicide missions against the French colonial army.
In recent times, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have used suicide bombings against the Singhalese dominated government in Sri Lanka. The Chechens have used it against the Russians, as have the Palestinians against the Israelis, and the Iraqi resistance against the US-led occupational forces. Some of the prominent episodes of suicide bombing are: the 1982 attack on the US base in Lebanon, the spectacular 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, the Bali bombing in 2002, and the 7/7 attack in London.
The suicide bombers in essence are human bombers; they use their body to deliver the explosives, whilst their opponents use tanks and planes. There is no inherent logic to suggest the unconventional method of suicide bombing is immoral or illegal. Therefore, why is it viewed with disdain, rather than acknowledged as a legitimate response in an asymmetric war?
·         Is it because, suicide bombers kill more civilians than conventional armed forces?
·         Is it because, suicide bombers use explosives that are more powerful and indiscriminate than the bombs used by the regular armed forces?
·         Is it because, suicide bombers deliberately target civilians, whereas conventional forces do not?
·         If the suicide bombers used Apache Helicopters or F16 Fighter Planes to conduct their missions, would that make it acceptable for the critics?
The book aims to aid the readers to answer the above questions, and help them to categorise episodes of suicide bombing, as either an act of terrorism or a legitimate act of resistance. Above all, the fundamental objective behind this book is to make a valuable contribution to the debate on suicide bombings, which is clouded by the emotional propaganda of war.
The book consists of two major parts. The first part contains an analytical study of suicide bombing, within the context of the conflict that is raging between, the Muslims and the West. In the second part, the issue is examined from the Islamic legal perspective, with the central objective of establishing the legality of suicide bombing. In relation to the subject, the corollary issues of terrorism, killing innocent civilians, Jihad, and the nature of warfare are also addressed throughout the book.
Any reasonable person would dismiss the crude propaganda that claims suicide bombing is a criminal act. The enactor does not make any personal gains. Indeed, how can the dead benefit from such an action? In fact, suicide bombing always has a political and a historical context; this is the logical point to start the analysis. Therefore, chapter 1 makes a cursory examination of the political and historical factors that has shaped the situation in the current conflict zones, within the Muslim world.
In chapter 2, some of the media tactics are briefly explored, as the war of ideas always accompanies the physical battle. Accordingly, the US-led media operates in war mode; the mission is to sell the war, by winning the hearts and minds of its audiences at home and abroad. Consequentially, the media portrays the suicide bombers as the cause of the conflict, a product of ideological indoctrination, bearing no relation to their circumstances. The message is simple: militant Islam of the Jihadist has replaced communism as the new enemy.
Some of the Muslim opponents of suicide bombing claims, it is an act of suicide, which is categorically prohibited under Islamic law. Hence, chapters 3, 4, and 5 analyses the characteristics of conventional suicide and suicide bombing, to establish if the two types actions belong to the same category; and that would help towards establishing the legal status of suicide bombing in Islamic law which is discussed in part two.
According to the proponents of suicide bombings, it is a means of waging warfare. Chapter 6 addresses the basic characteristics of executing war that is applicable to suicide bombers and to states; consequently, some of the one-sided criticisms of suicide bombing are highlighted.
Because, suicide bombing is usually categorised as an act of terrorism, chapters 7, 8, and 9 are dedicated to that subject. Terrorism is predominantly associated with the actions of non-state actors; however, the analysis takes into consideration, the associated use of force by states (state-terrorism or war), giving a more balanced view on this controversial subject.
Chapter 7 examines the difficulties of acquiring consensus on the definition of terrorism. Despite a lack of consensus, certain common characteristics of terrorism are extracted from the various definitions, and examined. In chapter 8, terrorism of the non-state actors is distinguished from state-terrorism. Chapter 9 suggests ways of measuring various episodes of terrorism and state-terrorism, so that it reflects the facts, rather than emotional propaganda.  
Terrorism is often characterised by the deliberate and random, targeting of civilians. International consensus holds that civilians are innocent as non-combatants. In reality, this is moot, as civilians aid the war effort, particularly for democratic societies, where the civilians have a major role in waging and sustaining a war. Chapter 10 investigates their innocence with respect to their role in war. In practical terms, civilians are not given immunity under their so-called ‘innocent’ status; substantial amount of civilians are always killed in any war, as powerful explosives are used with Air Raids over populated cities. To be realistic and candid about this sensitive issue, the questions to ask are - who can be considered a legitimate target of war? Who can be given immunity in war? Who should be given immunity in war?    
In the final chapter of the first section, the various propaganda myths built around suicide bombers are deconstructed. 
In part two, the book examines the Islamic evidences with a view to answering the central question: is suicide bombing a permissible act of Jihad or an unlawful act? If the act is permitted, then what are its limitations? Is it an effective response in war? What are the cost-benefits of such a response? These central points are discussed in chapters 15, 16 and 17. There is some elaboration on the process of deriving Islamic rules by maintaining consistency and synchronisation of the evidences.
The proponents of suicide bombing consider it as an act of Jihad, and chapter 13 and 14, focuses on that subject. There are at least two sides in any conflict; thus, in chapter 13, Jihad is compared with capitalist wars and some of the propaganda myths regarding Jihad is also addressed. Chapter 14, the contentious issue of targeting civilians in response to enemy action is discussed, and that necessitates examining the Islamic law of retribution.
Throughout the book, the factors behind some of the current asymmetric conflicts have been briefly highlighted. All the evidences indicate suicide bombing is a mere symptom, rather than the cause of the conflict. Chapter 18 argues that by giving justice to the victims, it would end suicide bombing and peace would prevail.
As one proceeds through the book, it is pertinent to remember that there are at least two parties in this conflict. What would be the intellectual merit in criticising suicide bombers, whilst overlooking the conduct of their opponents? That would simply be a one-sided view, of a two-sided conflict.  




Below is an excerpt from Chapter 11:

Popular Myths of Suicide (Human) Bombers

In the West, even the most depraved serial killers are scientifically studied in great depth, yet the suicide bombers from the Muslim world are instantly dismissed as mindless killers. Suddenly the scientific West becomes very unscientific in its approach to the issue. Eventually, the critics have to answer the question: why do they do it? What possible factors can propel someone to sacrifice his or her life, overruling the basic human instinct of survival? Is it an act of vengeance for the loss of their home, land, and family members? Perhaps, they are vulnerable people; thus, easily brainwashed by radical preachers to commit such acts.

Alternatively, they are the product of a desperate situation created by occupation, and subjected to daily humiliation. Maybe they are inspired by the spiritual idea of receiving immense reward in the afterlife. Perhaps a combination of factors produces suicide bombers. Regardless, the motive of the suicide bomber is distorted by the propaganda machine of war. For that reason, various myths have been manufactured and popularised, the most prominent ones are examined here.

a)      Inspired by Islam

Devout Muslims will naturally seek inspiration from Islam. The inspiration is only sought, if the prevalent condition provides the impetus for it. Otherwise, the assertion is that Islam permits the followers to use suicide bombing regardless of the circumstances. If that were the case, suicide operations would have been widespread in all parts of the Islamic world throughout history. In reality, it is predominantly found in places under foreign occupation, and in conflict zones.

Many of the suicide bombers in the past were not deeply religious, and came from ordinary families. Some of them were subscribers to the secular ideology of Arab Socialism. The Syrian Socialist PartyLebanon in the 1980s. It is a fact, that various nations have used suicide bombings, from the Japanese Kamikaze pilots to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is not the reserve of any specific religion, race, or nation. The claim that suicide bombers are exclusively inspired by Islam is simply a myth, manufactured by the hostile media. was one of the first groups to carryout suicide attacks, against the Israeli occupiers in

b)      Promises of Virgins (‘Houris’)

This is a popular spin peddled by the mass media, especially by those elements suffering from Islamophobia. They imply the central motive of the suicide bomber is the lustful desire for the promised virgins in heaven. If a man wants to satisfy his carnal desires, he is more likely to engage in self-indulgence, rather than self-destruction. For a devout Muslim, this means getting married, rather than getting himself fitted with an explosive belt.

There is no shortage of virgins in the Islamic world, where it is seen as a virtue, and not a source of shame! The Muslim youths do not need to become martyrs to find virgins. They would counter argue, by pointing out the scarcity of virgins in liberal West; thus, allegation regarding Houris is in reality driven by envy.

Furthermore, translation of the word Houris is not the virgin women on earth, pleasures of heaven are described in the worldly language, nobody knows how literal or metaphorical these are. These are promised to all who enter paradise, and martyrdom is not the only route to acquire these pleasures. The media projection of such acts in sexual terms shows their sexually obsessed mindset, everything has to be analysed for its sexual utility. Therefore, in describing Islam, they have transformed the Harems into brothels, Houris into lustful virgins. They see the four wives only in terms of sexual pleasures, ignoring the huge legal, social, and economic responsibilities that come with it.

c)      Brainwashed by the Imams or the Media

Most Imams are apolitical; they do not even refer to local matters, let alone international affairs. Nevertheless, some imams and scholars do give legal, political, and moral justification for suicide bombing, but that is only because the situation exists in the first place. Moreover, this does not equate to incitement to carry out such acts. They are simply expressing their opinion on the matter, and far from engaging in the process of brainwashing the youths to undertake suicide missions.

It is difficult for anyone to lecture others to engage in suicide operations, as it is reasonable to suppose that the candidate must ask himself why this person is not leading by example. The sacrificing of life has such a complete finality, it will always be an individual’s decision, and therefore, it can only be conducted by those who volunteer willingly.

What impact the images from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine have on individuals, nobody can accurately predict. Every individual has their own tolerance threshold; once this is crossed, it can drive people to retaliate with suicide bombing. Asif Hanif, the Tel Aviv bomber from the UK, was not known to be involved with any radical group, and had no radical Imam lecturing him. Perhaps, the images from the theatre of conflict that pushed him over the edge. This is corroborated by the video that he left behind to broadcast.

On the contrary, the suicide bombers would argue, it is the masses in the West that are brainwashed by the media, which is constantly inciting much greater level of violence against innocent Muslims. In their eyes, journalists, editors, and commentators in the West are writing with the ‘ink’ drawn from the blood of the innocent women and children of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. They see the media as constantly legitimising state-terrorism against the Muslims, preaching a message of hate, under the toxic influence of militant liberalism.


The author, Yamin Zakaria, is a British Educated Muslim, graduated in Chemistry from Queen Mary College, London University in 1988. He is working as an IT professional, married with four children. He frequently comments on the political issue and events related to the Islamic world at: (,

His articles have appeared in numerous websites, and newspapers, particularly in the Islamic World. He has been involved with the Islamic movements from his University days. In the early years he was active with several Islamic movements prior to joining Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) in the late 80s. He was an active member with the movement until 2002. Since that time, the author has become an independent commentator, regarded as a controversial author by many for expressing his views so candidly.

Those who are interested in purchasing the book can do so online by clicking here.




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