Motives for Martyrdom Al-Qaida, Salaª Jihad, and the Spread of Suicide Attacks Assaf Moghadam

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Assaf Moghadam is Assistant Professor and Senior Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center at West

Point, and Research Fellow at the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at Harvard University’s

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This article is drawn from his book The Globalization

of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salaª Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks (Baltimore, Md.: Johns

Hopkins University Press, 2008), but it analyzes a larger, more up-to-date set of data.

The author would like to thank participants at Ph.D. colloquia and research seminars at the

Fletcher School at Tufts University, the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Belfer

Center for Science and International Affairs, both at Harvard University. He is especially grateful

to the anonymous reviewers for their valuable insights.

1. I use the terms “suicide missions,” “suicide attacks,” and “suicide operations” interchangeably.

The term “suicide missions” is drawn from Diego Gambetta, ed., Making Sense of Suicide Missions

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

International Security, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Winter 2008/09), pp. 46–78

© 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Suicide missions—or

attacks whose success is dependent on the death of their perpetrator/s—are

one of the most lethal tactics employed by terrorist and insurgent groups today.

Moreover, they have demonstrated great potential to create turbulence in

international affairs.1 The four suicide attacks of September 11, 2001, and the

war in Iraq—where suicide operations have become the signature mode of

attack—have highlighted how this tactic can lead to considerable losses of human

life and physical infrastructure while inºuencing the course of global

events in their wake.

During the 1980s and 1990s, suicide missions wreaked considerable havoc

on their targets; yet these targets were relatively few in number. The vast majority

of attacks took place in only a handful of countries, namely, Israel,

Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

More than thirty-ªve countries on every continent save for Antarctica and

Australia have experienced the wanton violence brought on by suicide attacks.

In the past decade, suicide bombings have not only occurred in a growing

number of countries, but these attacks have been planned and executed by an

even greater number of organizations and have killed larger numbers of people

every year. The targets of these attacks have also undergone some shifts.

More suicide bombings have occurred in Iraq since 2003 than in all other countries

in the twenty-ªve years preceding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Suicide

missions have increasingly targeted Muslims and have been adopted as part of

Motives for Martyrdom


a strategy not only to gain a national homeland, but also to depose regimes regarded

as un-Islamic. In recent years, suicide missions have been launched in

countries with little or no prior history of such attacks, including Afghanistan,

Pakistan, Somalia, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.2 Perhaps most important for the

West, suicide attacks are no longer a distant threat, having targeted cities such

as London, Madrid, and New York.3

This article examines the causes and characteristics of the phenomenon of

the “globalization of martyrdom.”4 Two interrelated factors explain the proliferation

of suicide missions: the evolution of al-Qaida into a global terrorist actor

and the growing appeal of Salaª jihad, the guiding ideology of al-Qaida

and its associated movements. Discussion of these factors is largely missing

from scholarly work on suicide attacks.5 Although a few scholars have claimed

that most contemporary suicide attacks can be attributed to jihadist groups,6

this article is the ªrst to test this argument empirically.

In the ªrst section, I present my data set on suicide missions from December

Motives for Martyrdom 47

2. Only a small number of suicide attacks occurred in some of these countries before the turn of

the millennium. In Pakistan there were just three such attacks. On November 19, 1995, a truck

bomb rocked the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. On December 21, 1995, a car bomb exploded in

a crowded street in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 30 and wounding more

than 100; and on April 29, 1996, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a passenger-ªlled bus returning

from a religious festival in Punjab, killing 52. A handful of attacks occurred in 2000 and

2002, but suicide attacks in Pakistan were widely adopted only after 2003.

3. Although the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004, were not a suicide mission, seven of

the suspects detonated themselves weeks later in the Madrid suburb of Leganes, as Spanish special

forces were about to storm their apartment. See Rogelio Alonso and Fernando Reinares,

“Maghreb Immigrants Becoming Suicide Terrorists: ACase Study on Religious Radicalization Processes

in Spain,” in Amy Pedahzur, ed., Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism: The Globalization of Martyrdom

(New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 179–198.

4. See Assaf Moghadam, “The New Martyrs Go Global,” Boston Globe, November 18, 2005.

5. Some exceptions exist. Yoram Schweitzer and Sari Goldstein Ferber highlight the role of al-

Qaida in internationalizing suicide attacks, but they do not emphasize the role of Salaª jihadist

ideology. Schweitzer and Goldstein Ferber, “Al-Qaida and the Internationalization of Suicide Terrorism,”

Jaffee Center Memorandum, No. 78 (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv

University, November 2005). Mohammed M. Hafez discusses the appeal of Salaª jihadist ideology,

but he limits his analysis to the case of Iraq. Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology

of Martyrdom (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007).

6. Bruce Hoffman, citing data from the RAND Terrorism Incident Database, said that 78 percent of

all suicide attacks since 1968 occurred after September 11, 2001, adding that 31 out of the 35 groups

employing this tactic were Islamic. He did not, however, speciªcally refer to jihadist groups, nor

did he argue that these groups were ideologically motivated. Hoffman, email correspondence with

author, December 27, 2005. Scott Atran points out that “most suicide terrorists today are inspired

by a global Jihadism,” but he does not provide empirical support for his claim. See Atran, “The

Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Spring 2006),

p. 139. In an earlier study, I, too, suggested that contemporary patterns of suicide attacks are dominated

by Salaª jihadists without offering any empirical data. See Assaf Moghadam, “Suicide Terrorism,

Occupation, and the Globalization of Martyrdom: A Critique of ‘Dying to Win,’” Studies in

Conºict and Terrorism, Vol. 29, No. 8 (December 2006), pp. 707–729.

1981 through March 2008. In the second section, I review existing studies of

suicide attacks and discuss their limitations. In the third section, I present the

main argument of this study. In the fourth section, I discuss the theoretical implications

of my ªndings. The conclusion offers practical implications of these

ªndings for efforts to confront the challenges posed by suicide operations.

The Global Rise of Suicide Attacks

According to most indicators, suicide missions have been on the rise since

1981, but they have grown at an unprecedented pace since the turn of the millennium.

7 According to my data set, 1,857 suicide attacks were perpetrated

from December 1981 through March 2008.8 Throughout the 1980s and early

1990s, the number of suicide missions remained relatively small, not exceeding

7 attacks per year, with the exception of 1985, when 22 such attacks were carried

out. Beginning in 1994, the number of suicide missions started to increase,

peaking temporarily in 1995, when 27 attacks were launched. The number

dropped slightly in the second half of the 1990s. The year 2000 witnessed 37

attacks—a record number. It also signaled the beginning of an upward trend in

the number of suicide missions that would span most of the ªrst decade of this

century. Thus, between 2000 and 2007, the number of attacks rose steadily each

year, from 54 in 2001 to 71 in 2002, 81 in 2003, 104 in 2004, 348 in 2005, 353 in

2006, and 535 in 2007 (see ªgure 1).9

The global proliferation of suicide missions is reºected in the rise in the

number of organizations that employed them. From 1981 to 1990, an average

of 1.6 organizations perpetrated suicide attacks every year. From 1991 to 2000,

International Security 33:3 48

7. Suicide attacks and their precursors have existed since biblical times. Prior to 1981, however,

these attacks were not generally considered acts of terrorism. The modern phenomenon of suicide

terrorism began in Lebanon with the December 1981 bombing of the Iraqi embassy. For an overview

of modern-day suicide attacks and their historical precursors, see “Introduction,” in Assaf

Moghadam, The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salaª Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks

(Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

8. The data set relies heavily on two sources. The ªrst is the Suicide Terrorism Database collected

by the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa in Israel. For a version of

the database that includes 1,165 suicide attacks conducted until April 17, 2006, see http:// For data since April 18,

2006, as well as for all data related to suicide attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, I used the National

Counterterrorism Center’s (NCTC) Worldwide Incidents Tracking System. The NCTC database is

available at After combining these two databases, eliminating duplicates, and updating

the resulting database with additional information, I arrived at a data set with a total of

1,857 suicide attacks recorded from December 1981 to March 2008. For a copy of the data set,

please contact me at

9. One hundred nine attacks were recorded in the ªrst quarter of 2008.

the average increased to 4.8. And from 2001 to 2007, it rose to an average of


Suicide attacks have exacted an enormous human toll. The 1,857 suicide attacks

recorded in my data set claimed 20,603 lives and left at least 48,209

wounded. Of these, more than 87 percent were killed and more than 80 percent

injured in this decade alone (see ªgure 2). The overall trend in the number

of injured in suicide attacks is comparable to the numbers of people killed, although

in two years—1996 and 1998—the numbers of wounded (2,082 and

4,666) were particularly high.10 The sharp increase in dead and wounded beginning

in 2003 stemmed largely from the war in Iraq.

Based on my data set, the average suicide mission in the period under review

killed 11 people and injured 26. These numbers should be approached

with caution, however, because the range was exceedingly wide, and because

information about casualty rates (especially number of wounded) is often incomplete

or missing altogether. The median of the numbers of people killed

was 3, and that of people wounded was 9.

From 1981 to 2007, the number of countries in which suicide missions were

Motives for Martyrdom 49

10. The 1996 ªgure includes a suicide car bombing on January 31, 1996, by a member of the Liberation

Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in which 19 people died and an estimated 1,400 people were

wounded. The 1998 ªgure includes the August 7, 1998, suicide bombing of the U.S. embassy in

Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 213 people and wounded an estimated 4,000.

Figure 1. Number of Suicide Missions, 1981–2007

launched generally increased. The average number of countries that experienced

a suicide attack from 1981 to 1994 was a relatively low 1.7 per year.

Lebanon and Sri Lanka were the most frequently targeted countries. From

1995 to 2007, an average of 8.6 countries per year experienced a suicide attack.

In both 2005 and 2006, suicide missions were executed in 15 countries—the

highest number of countries recorded.

According to my data, 1,020 suicide missions took place in Iraq (54.9 percent

of all suicide missions worldwide); 235 (12.7 percent) in Afghanistan; 188

(10.1 percent) in Israel (including the West Bank and Gaza Strip); 107 (5.8 percent)

in Sri Lanka; 88 (4.7 percent) in Pakistan; 41 (2.2 percent) in Lebanon; 37

(2.0 percent) in Russia; and 141 (7.5 percent) in 29 other countries.11

Existing Theories on Suicide Attacks

Studies dedicated to explaining the causes of suicide attacks—rare until the

terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—can be divided into at least four gen-

International Security 33:3 50

11. These other countries are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, China, Croatia, Egypt, Finland,

India, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Laos, Moldova, Morocco, Panama, Qatar, Saudi

Arabia, Serbia, Somalia, Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States,

Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

Figure 2. Number of Casualties from Suicide Missions, 1981–2007

eral categories: those that focus on the level of the individual bomber;12 those

stressing the group or organizational factors;13 those emphasizing sociostructural

causes; and those suggesting the need to integrate multiple levels of


At the individual level of analysis, scholars from a variety of disciplines

have concluded that suicide bombers often believe that they are acting for altruistic

reasons.15 Most analysts reject the notion that suicide bombers act irrationally,

arguing that these “martyrs” believe that the beneªts of perpetrating

suicide attacks outweigh the costs.16 In addition, they agree that proªling suicide

bombers is virtually impossible given their diverse backgrounds. Moreover,

they claim that suicide bombers—much like terrorists in general—do not

suffer from a salient psychopathology,17 and thus dismiss mental illness as a

reason for their actions.18

Scholars focused on individual motivations suggest the following: a strong

commitment to a group or cause,19 a desire for revenge,20 an expectation of

Motives for Martyrdom 51

12. See, for example, Joan Lachkar, “The Psychological Make-up of a Suicide Bomber,” Journal of

Psychohistory, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Spring 2002), pp. 349–367; David Lester, Bijou Yang, and Mark

Lindsay, “Suicide Bombers: Are Psychological Proªles Possible?” Studies in Conºict and Terrorism,

Vol. 27, No. 4 (July–August 2004), pp. 283–295; Eyad Sarraj and Linda Butler, “Suicide Bombers:

Dignity, Despair, and the Need of Hope,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Summer 2002),

pp. 71–76; and Anat Berko, The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers

(Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2007).

13. Ehud Sprinzak, “Rational Fanatics,” Foreign Policy, No. 120 (September/October 2000), pp. 67–

73; Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (New York: Columbia University Press,

2005); Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random

House, 2005); and Ami Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).

14. Assaf Moghadam, “The Roots of Suicide Terrorism: A Multi-Causal Approach,” in Pedahzur,

Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism, pp. 81–107; and Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq.

15. See, for example, Ami Pedahzur, Arie Perliger, and Leonard Weinberg, “Altruism and Fatalism:

The Characteristics of Palestinian Suicide Terrorists,” Deviant Behavior, Vol. 24, No. 4 (July

2003), pp. 405–423.

16. Sprinzak, “Rational Fanatics”; Assaf Moghadam, “Palestinian Suicide Terrorism in the Second

Intifada: Motivations and Organizational Aspects,” Studies in Conºict and Terrorism, Vol. 26, No. 2

(March 2003), pp. 65–92; Bloom, Dying to Kill; Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism; and Bruce Hoffman and

Gordon H. McCormick, “Terrorism, Signaling, and Suicide Attack,” Studies in Conºict and Terrorism,

Vol. 27, No. 4 (July 2004), pp. 243–281.

17. Clark R. McCauley and M.E. Segal, “Social Psychology of Terrorist Groups,” in Clyde A.

Hendrick, ed., Group Processes and Intergroup Relations: Review of Personality and Social Psychology

(Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1987).

18. Jeff Victoroff, “The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches,”

Journal of Conºict Resolution, Vol. 49, No. 1 (February 2005), pp. 3–42.

19. According to some researchers, suicide attackers tend to act out of a deep sense of commitment

to a larger cause, to their social network, or to a terrorist organization. See, for example,

Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism, pp. 126–134.

20. A suicide attacker may acquire a thirst for revenge after the death of a family member or

friend, which can be reinforced by a perceived sense of humiliation. For an application of humiliabene

ªts after death,21 and personal crisis.22 No study, however, has identiªed

either necessary or sufªcient conditions for an individual’s resort to suicide

terrorism, that is, why some highly committed individuals become suicide

bombers while others do not, or why revenge leads to suicide terrorism in

some cases and not in others. Nor has any study explained the globalization of

suicide terrorism.

A second category of studies focuses on the organizational-strategic level

of analysis. Building on the theories advanced by Martha Crenshaw, who argues

that terrorist organizations believe that violence is the best means to advance

their political goals,23 several scholars have suggested that terrorist

organizations engage in suicide attacks to fulªll rational objectives, ranging

from basic survival to sophisticated strategic and tactical plans for success.

Suicide terrorism, the argument goes, can weaken an external opponent while

strengthening the organization itself. Internally, suicide attacks can strengthen

the group because they enhance its perceived need to survive.24 They may also

broaden support among the domestic population.25 Externally, suicide attacks

are a proven strategy to weaken the group’s opponent. Robert Pape, for example,

argues that their high degree of lethality makes suicide attacks a rational

or “logical” choice for organizations and states under certain circumstances,

asserting that “the main reason that suicide terrorism is growing is that terrorists

have learned that it works.”26 Pape, however, appears to have exaggerated

the success rate he ascribes to suicide terrorism.27 Moreover, as Robert Brym

and Bader Araj have noted, characterizing suicide missions as strategically ra-

International Security 33:3 52

tion-revenge theory, see Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious

Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

21. Several authors have stressed the expectation of posthumous beneªts as a motive for suicide

attackers, particularly when the perpetrators of the attacks are Muslims. Such beneªts can include

the suicide attacker’s elevated social status after death, rewards for the family, as well as the attainment

of heavenly pleasures in the afterlife.

22. Personal crisis appears to be a particularly common motivation among women suicide bombers

such as the Chechen Black Widows. Anat Berko and Edna Erez, “‘Ordinary People’ and ‘Death

Work’: Palestinian Suicide Bombers as Victimizers and Victims,” Violence and Victims, Vol. 20, No. 6

(December 2005), pp. 603–623.

23. Martha Crenshaw, “An Organizational Approach to the Analysis of Political Terrorism,” Orbis,

Vol. 29, No. 3 (Fall 1985), pp. 465–489; and Martha Crenshaw, “Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental

and Organizational Approaches,” in David C. Rapoport, ed., Inside Terrorist Organizations (London:

Frank Cass, 1988).

24. On the organizational goals of survival and maintenance, see James Q.Wilson, Political Organizations

(New York: Basic Books, 1973); and Crenshaw, “An Organizational Approach to the Analysis

of Political Terrorism.”

25. Mia M. Bloom, “Palestinian Suicide Bombing: Public Support, Market Share, and Outbidding,”

Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 119, No. 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 61–88; and Bloom, Dying to Kill.

26. Pape, Dying to Win, p. 61.

27. See Moghadam, “Suicide Terrorism, Occupation, and the Globalization of Martyrdom.”

tional oversimpliªes the complexity of motivations at the organizational level.

They ªnd that suicide bombings involve mixed rationales, including the urge

for retaliation or the mere existence of opportunities to strike, which can prevail

over purely strategic considerations.28

A consensus among scholars does exist, however, with regard to the tactical

utility of suicide missions. Scholars agree that terrorist groups use suicide attacks

because of the disproportionate amount of fear they create in the target

population;29 their ability to boost the groups’ morale;30 and operational

beneªts, such as their cost efªciency and high precision, as well as the low

security risks they pose to the organization at large.31

Organizational-strategic explanations have several limitations. They do not

explain why, if the beneªts of suicide missions are so numerous, many organizations

avoid their use;32 when a terrorist group is likely to engage in suicide

attacks; or their dramatic rise since the turn of the millennium.

The third major category of studies of suicide attacks argues that individuals

and organizations will employ suicide terrorism if they are likely to enjoy social

support for this tactic. This explanation appears to account for the widespread

use of suicide attacks in places such as Israel and Lebanon, where a cult

of martyrdom has manifested itself in the veneration of suicide bombers; in the

prominent use of heroic and euphemistic labels for suicide attacks and their

perpetrators; and in the penetration of the suicide bomber into popular culture,

including movies, comics, and plays. Some researchers claim that sustained

levels of suicide terrorism depend entirely on strong support among the

Motives for Martyrdom 53

28. Robert J. Brym and Bader Araj, “Suicide Bombing as Strategy and Interaction: The Case of the

Second Intifada,” Social Forces, Vol. 84, No. 4 (June 2006), pp. 1969–1986.

29. Although this is a key feature of all terrorist attacks, suicide attacks further demonstrate the

inefªcacy of the targeted government, given in part the demoralization of the public and of law

enforcement agencies. In addition, the effect of a suicide attack can be particularly traumatizing

and long-lasting. See, for example, Keith B. Richburg, “Suicide Bomb Survivors Face Worlds

Blown Apart,” Washington Post, January 31, 2004; and Amos Harel, “Suicide Attacks Frighten Israelis

More Than Scuds,” Haaretz, February 13, 2003.

30. Suicide attacks often lead to a sense of moral superiority of the groups’ members over their adversaries,

which may result in a group’s perception that it will eventually prevail over its enemies.

See Adam Dolnik, “Die and Let Die: Exploring Links between Suicide Terrorism and Terrorist Use

of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Weapons,” Studies in Conºict and Terrorism, Vol.

26, No. 1 (January 2003), pp. 17–35.

31. See, for example, Sprinzak, “Rational Fanatics”; and Boaz Ganor, “Suicide Attacks in Israel,”

in International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), ed., Countering Suicide Terrorism

(Herzliyya, Israel: ICT, 2001), pp. 140–154.

32. A notable exception to these limitations is found in recent research conducted by Michael

Horowitz, who employs adoption capacity theory to argue that groups with higher levels of organizational

capital are more likely to adopt suicide terrorism than groups with lower levels of capital.

See Michael Horowitz, “Non-State Actors and the Diffusion of Innovations: The Case of

Suicide Bombing,” unpublished manuscript, Harvard University, July 2008.

attacker’s domestic population.33 In recent years, however, an increasing number

of suicide attacks have been carried out in countries where such domestic

support appears to be lacking: examples include Afghanistan, Pakistan, and

even Iraq.34 A culture of martyrdom may inºuence the suicide bombers in

these countries, but increasingly that culture seems to be found in cyberspace

rather than in the streets.35

Another argument put forward by some scholars is that societies are more

inclined to produce suicide bombers when they are subjected to foreign occupation.

In the next section I examine the applicability of this “occupation thesis”

as well as that of another explanation, the “outbidding thesis,” to the

globalization of suicide attacks.


In his book Dying to Win, Pape argues that the “bottom line is that suicide terrorism

is mainly a response to foreign occupation.”36 He deªnes an occupation

as “one in which a foreign power has the ability to control the local government

independent of the wishes of the local community.”37 There are three

reasons, however, why foreign occupation does not explain many contemporary

suicide missions.38 First, these attacks increasingly occur in countries

where there is no discernible occupation, including Bangladesh, Indonesia,

Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, the United

States, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. Second, in foreign-occupied countries such

as Iraq, the attacks are often not directed at the occupiers themselves who,

according to the logic of the occupation thesis, should be the most obvious

targets. Many suicide bombings in Iraq, for example, have targeted Kurds,

Shiites, and Suªs, in an effort to stir ethnic tensions in the country and

delegitimize the Iraqi government in the eyes of Iraqis. Third, even if they do

target the occupation forces, many suicide attacks are not carried out by those

individuals most directly affected by the occupation. In Iraq, for instance, most

attacks against occupation forces are carried out by foreign jihadis from places

International Security 33:3 54

33. Bloom, Dying to Kill.

34. See Moghadam, “Suicide Terrorism, Occupation, and the Globalization of Martyrdom,”

pp. 707–729.

35. See, for example, GabrielWeimann, Terrorism on the Internet: The New Arena, The New Challenges

(Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2006), pp. 64–75; Marc Sageman, Leaderless

Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania

Press, 2008), pp. 109–123; and Moghadam, The Globalization of Martyrdom, chap. 4.

36. Pape, Dying to Win, p. 23.

37. Ibid., p. 46.

38. For a more extensive critique of Pape’s book Dying to Win, see Moghadam, “Suicide Terrorism,

Occupation, and the Globalization of Martyrdom.”

such as Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.39 The perpetrators of the

September 11 attacks were from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab


Pape’s focus on occupation and his dismissal of religion or ideology as important

variables are most striking in his discussion of al-Qaida. “For al-

Qaeda, religion matters,” Pape writes, “but mainly in the context of national

resistance to foreign occupation.”40 The evidence, however, does not support

Pape’s argument. A closer reading of statements issued by al-Qaida leaders

suggests that religion plays a more central role in the organization’s ideology

and mission than Pape would ascribe to it. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida are

engaged in a defensive jihad against what they portray as the “Crusader-

Zionist alliance” because they believe that the United States has made a “clear

declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims.”41 In a statement

from November 2001, bin Laden declared, “This war is fundamentally religious.

. . . Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us

and the inªdels. For, the enmity is based on creed.”42 In another message, bin

Laden went as far as urging Americans to convert to Islam: “A message to the

American people: Peace be upon those who follow the right path. . . . I urge

you to become Muslims, for Islam calls for the principle of ‘there is no God but


Al-Qaida’s understanding of occupation differs from that of Pape. Whereas

Pape suggests that foreign occupation consists of “boots on the ground”—or,

as he puts it, the ability of a foreign power “to control the local government independent

of the wishes of the local community”44—al-Qaida’s understanding

Motives for Martyrdom 55

39. In February 2006, for example, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte conªrmed

that “extreme Sunni jihadist elements, a subset of which are foreign ªghters, constitute a small minority

of the overall insurgency, but their use of high-proªle suicide attacks gives them a disproportionate

impact.” See Negroponte, “Statement by the Director of National Intelligence to the

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” 109th Cong., 2d sess., February 2, 2006. As recently as

May 2007, for instance, Gen. David Petraeus stated that “80 to 90 percent of the suicide bombers

come from outside Iraq.” Quoted in Joshua Partlow, “An Uphill Battle to Stop Fighters at Border,”

Washington Post, May 5, 2007.

40. Pape, Dying to Win, p. 104.

41. Osama bin Laden, “Text of Fatwa Urging Jihad against Americans,” Al-Quds al-Arabi (London),

February 23, 1998, quoted in Christopher M. Blanchard, “Al-Qaida: Statements and Evolving

Ideology,” CRS Report for Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library

of Congress, November 16, 2004), Order Code RS21973, p. 3.

42. Osama bin Laden, speech broadcast on Al-Jazeera satellite channel television, November 3,

2001. Quoted in “Bin Laden Rails against Crusaders and UN,” BBC News, November 3, 2001.

43. “Statement by Usama bin Ladin,” Waqiaah, October 26, 2002, quoted in Anonymous [Michael

Scheuer], Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s,

2004), p. 154.

44. Pape, Dying to Win, p. 46.

of occupation is much broader. It includes a long history of injustices manifested

today in the military, religious, political, economic, and cultural humiliation

of the larger Muslim world by the “Crusader-Zionist alliance.” It is this

ideologically inspired deªnition of occupation that matters most for al-Qaida

but that is absent from Pape’s analysis.

Pape also does not explain why most suicide missions are perpetrated by

groups claiming to act in the name of religion, while attacks by secular organizations

have declined in recent years. Although he correctly notes that

“modern suicide terrorism is not limited to Islamic fundamentalism,”45 he

does not acknowledge that most such attacks are perpetrated by radical

Islamist groups. “Overall,” Pape calculates, “Islamic fundamentalism is associated

with about half of the suicide terrorist attacks that have occurred from

1980 to 2003.”46 Not included in Pape’s count, however, is the high tally of suicide

attacks that have occurred in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion—a total of

1,020 such attacks by March 2008. According to my data set, Salaª-jihadist

groups were the most dominant perpetrators of suicide missions in Iraq in the

ªve years since the U.S.-led invasion.47


Mia Bloom posits that terrorist groups may engage in suicide missions because

they are trying to compete against other groups for the support of the local

population. This tactic, known as “outbidding,” is designed to increase the

group’s “market share” among that community. The thesis thus assumes that

suicide bombing campaigns depend on the support of the local population.

“In the war for public support,” Bloom writes, “when the bombings resonate

positively with the population that insurgent groups purport to represent,

they help the organization mobilize support. If suicide bombing does not resonate

among the larger population, the tactic will fail.”48

The outbidding thesis appears plausible as an explanation for the adoption

of suicide missions by several organizations, including the Popular Front for

International Security 33:3 56

45. Ibid., p. 16.

46. Ibid., p. 17.

47. Of the 1,020 suicide attacks in Iraq recorded in the data set, 208 were claimed by Salaª jihadist

groups. The next most popular were nationalist-separatist groups, with 11 claimed attacks. Although

the perpetrators of 794 attacks in Iraq are still unknown, anecdotal accounts suggest that

the overwhelming number of all suicide attacks in Iraq are conducted by Salaª jihadist groups.

See, for example, Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq; and International Crisis Group, “In Their Own

Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency,” Middle East Report, No. 50 (Brussels: International Crisis

Group, February 15, 2006).

48. Bloom, Dying to Kill, p. 78.

the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP),49 the Fatah al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades,50 and

Amal in Lebanon.51 The outbidding thesis, however, falls short of providing a

satisfactory explanation for the adoption of this tactic in many other cases, including

some noted by Bloom in Dying to Kill. For instance, it cannot explain

why Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) adopted this tactic

only in 1987, at a time when the internal rivalry between radical Tamil organizations

had reached its pinnacle with the May 1986 massacre of the Tamil

Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and the killing of its leader.52 By that

time, the LTTE had eliminated not only the TELO but all of its other rivals as


Moreover, Bloom’s own ªndings appear to contradict one of the central assumptions

of the outbidding thesis, namely, that groups are vying for the support

of the local population. Her own survey data suggest that suicide

missions in Sri Lanka are not condoned among the Tamil population. Based on

her interviews and polls of “hundreds of Tamils all over Sri Lanka,” she found

that “there was virtually no support for attacking civilians, regardless of

whether they were in Sinhalese territory or in the Tamil regions.”53 Despite

this lack of support, the LTTE continued its relentless suicide bombing campaign

(including attacks against civilians), apparently undeterred.

The outbidding thesis ªts within the traditional paradigm that sees suicide

attacks as occurring in the context of long-standing historical conºicts in

which a large segment of the population supports the actions of suicide attackers

as a legitimate form of resistance designed to achieve self-determination, or

at least some degree of autonomy. That paradigm, however, is incompatible

with the global jihad being waged by transnational groups such as al-Qaida

that are seeking to achieve less deªned goals and that are unwilling to compromise.

It is for that reason that the notion that suicide attackers are vying for domestic

popular support is most problematic with regard to al-Qaida and the

global jihad movement.

The London bombers of July 2005, for example, targeted their own fellow

citizens. Similarly, a growing number of suicide missions being conducted in

Iraq target Iraqis rather than the occupying forces. It is hard to argue that Iraqi

Motives for Martyrdom 57

49. Bloom, “Palestinian Suicide Bombing.”

50. See assessment by Ely Karmon, quoted in Christopher Dickey et al., “Inside Suicide, Inc.,”

Newsweek, April 15, 2002, p. 26.

51. Martin Kramer, “Sacriªce and Fratricide in Shiite Lebanon,” Terrorism and Political Violence,

Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn 1991), pp. 30–47.

52. Bloom apparently recognizes this problem and does not argue that outbidding has been a factor

in the adoption of suicide attacks by the LTTE. See Bloom, Dying to Kill, p. 71.

53. Ibid., p. 67.

suicide attackers are trying to gain the sympathy of the very people in whose

midst they are blowing themselves up.

Al-Qaida, Salaª Jihad, and Suicide Attacks

The main reason for the global spread of suicide missions lies in two related

and mutually reinforcing phenomena: al-Qaida’s transition into a global terrorist

actor and the growing appeal of its guiding ideology, Salaª jihad. This

argument requires an explanation of two separate issues: ªrst, why and how

al-Qaida became a global entity in both outlook and practice; and second, al-

Qaida’s emphasis on suicide missions as the primary method of terrorist


al-qaida’s global outlook

Three key factors inºuenced al-Qaida’s decision to globalize its operations,

the ªrst being the group’s core doctrine. As envisioned by Abdullah Azzam,

bin Laden’s mentor, al-Qaida was designed as the vanguard of an Islamic

army similar to an international rapid reaction force that would come to the

rescue of Muslims wherever and whenever they were in need. This Muslim

legion would be self-perpetuating, generating new waves of Islamic warriors

who would ªght and defeat inªdel and apostate countries the world over.

The second reason for the globalization of al-Qaida was the spread of the

“Afghan Arabs,” the foreign ªghters who ºocked to Afghanistan after the

Soviet invasion, to other countries beginning in 1988. After the Red Army’s

withdrawal from Afghanistan, many Afghan Arabs returned to their home

countries, where they participated in local jihads against entrenched regimes

in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Others moved to third

countries, including some inWestern Europe. Realizing Azzam’s dream, many

of these Afghan Arabs radicalized and mobilized Muslims in their countries.

They regarded themselves as the vanguard that Azzam had foreseen, and

many chose violence as their preferred tactic.54

Third, al-Qaida based its decision to globalize on a deliberate shift in strategy.

Between 1995 and 1996, after heated internal discussions, al-Qaida decided

not to attack the “near enemy” (i.e., the local Arab regimes it regarded as

apostate), but the “far enemy” (i.e., Western “inªdel” countries, above all the

United States).55 This shift in strategy was epitomized when, in 1996, al-Qaida

International Security 33:3 58

54. Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 290.

55. Marc Sageman, “Global Salaª Jihad,” statement to the National Commission on Terrorist Atdeclared

war on the United States, and again, two years later, when it announced

the formation of a global alliance to defeat the “Crusader-Zionist” enemy.

Al-Qaida’s ªrst major suicide attack, the August 1998 bombings of the

U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, embodied

that strategic shift.

al-qaida and the primacy of suicide attacks

In al-Qaida’s tactical arsenal, suicide attacks play a pivotal role. No other tactic

symbolizes al-Qaida’s tenaciousness and ability to inspire a large number of

Muslims worldwide as much as “martyrdom operations,” to use the group’s

euphemistic labeling. Al-Qaida has all but perfected this tactic and institutionalized

it to an extent not seen in other terrorist groups. It instilled the spirit of

self-sacriªce in the collective psyche of virtually all of its ªghters, thus creating

a cult of martyrdom that far exceeds the Palestinian and Lebanese cult of death

in both scope and depth.

Abdullah Azzam was the ªrst theoretician to succeed in turning martyrdom

and self-sacriªce into a formative ethos of future al-Qaida members. It is

largely because of him that self-sacriªce has become a moral code that al-

Qaida has used to justify suicide missions against its enemies.56 More than any

other individual, Azzam persuaded jihadis in Afghanistan and beyond that

those who die for the sake of God (ª sabil Allah) will be rewarded in paradise.

Ironically, Azzam understood martyrdom not as involving suicide missions

per se, but as the death of any “true” Muslim waging jihad. Such martyrdom

would wash away the jihadi’s sins and bestow glory upon him.

Death-obsessed Afghan Arabs were so deeply affected by Azzam’s thinking

that they became a “curious sideshow to the real ªghting in Afghanistan,”

Lawrence Wright observed. “When a ªghter fell, his comrades would congratulate

him and weep because they were not also slain in battle. These scenes

struck other Muslims as bizarre. The Afghans were ªghting for their country,

not for Paradise or an idealized Islamic community.”57

Al-Qaida’s decision to engage in suicide attacks was also inºuenced by the

Egyptian group al-Jihad and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Years before

Zawahiri and al-Jihad formally joined al-Qaida in 2001, the Egyptian organization

had employed suicide missions as a terrorist tactic. In August 1993 a sui-

Motives for Martyrdom 59

tacks upon the United States, July 9, 2003; and Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went

Global (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

56. Reuven Paz, interview by author, Washington, D.C., July 17, 2006.

57. Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Vintage, 2007),

p. 125.

cide bomber smashed his explosives-laden motorcycle into the car of Egypt’s

interior minister, Hassan al-Alª, who nevertheless survived the attack.58 On

November 19, 1995, al-Jihad staged another attack, this one at the Egyptian

embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, involving two assailants, including one suicide

bomber. Sixteen people were killed.

In interviews with Fawaz Gerges, former jihadis conªrmed that Zawahiri’s

advocacy of suicide bombings fundamentally inºuenced bin Laden’s adoption

of this tactic. The spectacular nature of al-Qaida’s suicide attacks, they told

him, were adopted from al-Jihad, which had always used extremely lethal and

psychologically damaging attacks to differentiate itself from its jihadist rival in

Egypt, the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya.59

When pressed to explain the use of suicide bombers—a tactic still considered

taboo, especially when used against fellow Muslims—Zawahiri stated

that these martyrs represented a “generation of mujahideen that has decided

to sacriªce itself and its property in the cause of God. That is because the way

of death and martyrdom is a weapon that tyrants and their helpers, who worship

their salaries instead of God, do not have.”60 Zawahiri made a claim that

many other supporters of suicide attacks would repeat: the suicide attacker

does not kill himself for personal reasons, but sacriªces himself for God. He is

therefore not committing suicide, but achieving martyrdom. It was a game of

words, but it provided justiªcation for hundreds of future suicide bombers to

emulate these early shuhada.

In August 1996, bin Laden formally declared war against the United States,

imploring Muslim youths to sacriªce themselves. Seeking religious justiªcation,

bin Laden ties the longing for martyrdom to verses from the Quran,

hadith, and poems. According to bin Laden, “Our youths believe in paradise

after death. They believe that taking part in ªghting will not bring their day

nearer, and staying behind will not postpone their day either. Exalted be to

Allah who said: ‘And a soul will not die but with the permission of Allah, the

term is ªxed’ (Aal Imraan: 3:145). . . . Our youths took note of the meaning of

the poetic verse: ‘If death is a predetermined must, then it is a shame to die

cowardly.’” Bin Laden then highlights a number of sayings that together describe

the rewards of the martyr in Paradise:

Allah, the Exalted, also said: “And do not speak of those who are slain in

Allah’s way as dead; nay, they are alive, but you do not perceive” (Bagarah;

International Security 33:3 60

58. The group al-Jihad is also known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Some authors dispute that al-

Jihad was responsible for the attempt on al-Alª’s life and blame the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya


59. Gerges, The Far Enemy, pp. 142–143.

60. Quoted in Wright, The Looming Tower, pp. 248–249.

2:154). . . . And: “A martyr will not feel the pain of death except like how

you feel when you are pinched” (Saheeh Al-Jame’ As-Sagheer). He also

said: “A martyr’s privileges are guaranteed by Allah; forgiveness with the

ªrst gush of his blood, he will be shown his seat in paradise, he will be decorated

with the jewels of belief (Imaan), married off to the beautiful ones, protected

from the test in the grave, assured security in the day of judgement,

crowned with the crown of dignity, a ruby of which is better than this whole

world (Duniah) and its entire content, wedded to seventy-two of the pure

Houries (beautiful ones of Paradise) and his intercession on the behalf of seventy

of his relatives will be accepted.”

Bin Laden goes on to praise the courage of youths willing to sacriªce themselves,

suggesting that through death, young Muslims will prevail in the

struggle against the “Crusaders”: “Those youths know that their rewards in

ªghting you, the USA, is double than their rewards in ªghting someone else

not from the people of the book. They have no intention except to enter paradise

by killing you.”61

Al-Qaida’s emphasis on suicide missions was on display in its Afghan training

camps. A document found in an al-Qaida safe house in Afghanistan titled

“Goals and Objectives of Jihad,” for example, ranked the goal of “attaining

martyrdom in the cause of God” second only to “establishing the rule of God

on earth.” Another document listed two “illegitimate excuses” for leaving jihad

as “love of the world” and “hatred of death.”62

Bin Laden sought to spread the virtues of martyrdom through videotapes

and statements on the internet. In 2004, for instance, he urged his followers to

“become diligent in carrying out martyrdom operations; these operations,

praise be to God, have become a great source of terror for the enemy. . . . These

are the most important operations.”63

The use of suicide attacks is also a logical outcome of al-Qaida’s desire to

maximize the pain and suffering of its enemies in a protracted struggle. In his

2001 book, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, Zawahiri writes, “If our goal is

comprehensive change and if our path, as the Koran and our history have

shown us, is a long road of jihad and sacriªces, we must not despair of repeated

strikes and recurring calamities.”64 He adds that there is a need within

Motives for Martyrdom 61

61. “Bin Laden’s Fatwa,” PBS Online Newshour, August 8, 1996,


62. C.J. Chivers and David Rhode, “Turning Out Guerrillas and Terrorists to Wage a Holy War,”

New York Times, March 18, 2002.

63. Quoted in Blanchard, “Al-Qaida: Statements and Evolving Ideology,” p. 10.

64. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner (London: Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 2001), part

11. The book was serialized in the London-based magazine Al-Sharq al-Awsat between December 2

and December 10, 2001, and translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), FBISNES-


the jihadist movement to offset the power of the Muslims’ enemies, whose

numbers and capabilities have risen tremendously, as did “the quality of their

weapons, their destructive powers, their disregard for all taboos, and disrespect

for the customs of wars and conºict.”65 To address this asymmetry,

Zawahiri suggests a number of steps, including “concentrat[ing] on the

method of martyrdom operations as the most successful way of inºicting damage

against the opponent and the least costly to the mujahidin in terms of


salaª jihad and suicide attacks

The Salaª jihad is a radical offshoot movement with roots in a broader Islamist

trend known as Salaªsm, as well as in Wahhabism and Qutbist factions of the

Muslim Brotherhood.67 Salaªs have adopted a strict interpretation of Islamic

religious law, and their doctrine centers around a more literal understanding

of the concept of tawhid (the unity of God) than does that of ordinary Muslims.

For Salaªs, the unity of God—a concept adhered to by all Muslims—extends

to the belief that all man-made laws must be rejected because they interfere

with the word and will of God. Salaªs reject the division of religion and state

and believe that only the salaf—the Prophet himself and his companions—led

lives in accordance with God’s will. Only by emulating that lifestyle can

Muslims reverse the decline of Islam.

Whereas ordinary Salaªs believe that God’s word should be spread by dawa

alone—the nonviolent call to Islam by proselytizing—Salaª jihadists advocate

waging violent jihad. This advocacy of violence leads to four main points of

contention between the two groups: unlike Salaªs, Salaª jihadists elevate jihad

to the same level as the ªve pillars of Islam; they engage in takªr, the process of

labeling fellow Muslims as inªdels (kufr), thus justifying violence against

them; they condone the targeting of civilians; and they support the use of suicide


Salaª jihadists believe that suicide operations against “inªdels” and “apostates”

(i.e., non-Muslim heretics and nominally Muslim “traitors”) represent

the ultimate form of devotion to God and the optimal way to wage jihad. They

present jihad and self-sacriªce as the antithesis to everything the West stands

International Security 33:3 62

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Wahhabism is a puritanical strand of Islam closely related to Salaªsm, which is common in

Saudi Arabia.

68. Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salaª Movement,” Studies in Conºict and Terrorism,

Vol. 29, No. 3 (May 2006), pp. 207–239.

for—hence the mantra, “The West loves life, while true Muslims love death.”

In the words of Abu Ayman al-Hilali, a key interpreter of bin Laden’s ideas on

Salaª jihadist websites, “First we have to acknowledge a basic fact, proved by

experience and reality, already acknowledged by the enemy, which is that the

vital contradiction to the Zionist and American enemy is the doctrine of Jihad

and Martyrdom (Istishhad).”69

In certain mosques, Salaª jihadist preachers such as Abu Hamza al-Mazri

and Omar Bakri Muhammed led thousands of Muslim youths to develop a

cult-like fascination with martyrdom. Other preachers are active mainly on the

internet, providing legitimation for “martyrdom operations.” Because Islam

forbids the taking of one’s own life, Salaª jihadists draw a conceptual distinction

between suicide and martyrdom, arguing that those committing ordinary

suicide do so for personal reasons, such as distress or depression; in contrast,

martyrs die primarily for the sake of God, but also for the greater good of the

Muslim community.

Although statistical evidence for the growth of Salaª jihad is scant, there is

ample anecdotal evidence of its increasing popularity among both men and

women70 in general,71 and in Europe,72 the Middle East,73 Central Asia,74

Southeast Asia,75 and Africa76 in particular.

In this study, the rise of the Salaª jihad and its growing inºuence on suicide

missions are examined through a coding of the ªfty groups that employed

them from December 1981 through March 2008 as part of their guiding ideol-

Motives for Martyrdom 63

69. Cited in Reuven Paz, “Qa’idat Al-Jihad: A New Name on the Road to Palestine” (International

Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, May 7, 2002),


70. On women, see, for example, Sebastian Rotella, “European Women Join Ranks of Jihadis,” Los

Angeles Times, January 10, 2006; and Katharina von Knop, “The Female Jihad: Al-Qaida’sWomen,”

Studies in Conºict and Terrorism, Vol. 30, No. 5 (May 2007), pp. 397–414.

71. See, for example, Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard

University Press, 2002); and Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York:

Columbia University Press, 2004).

72. Kathryn Haahr, “Emerging Terrorist Trends in Spain’s Moroccan Communities,” Terrorism

Monitor, Vol. 4, No. 9 (May 4, 2006), pp. 1–2; Pascale Combelles Siegel, “Radical Islam and the

French Muslim Prison Population,” Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 4, No. 15 (July 27, 2006), pp. 1–2; and

Lorenzo Vidino, “The Danger of Homegrown Terrorism to Scandinavia,” Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 4,

No. 20 (October 19, 2006), pp. 5–6.

73. On the Middle East, see, for example, Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

74. See, for example, Anar Valiyev, “The Rise of Salaª Islam in Azerbaijan,” Terrorism Monitor, Vol.

3, No. 13 (July 1, 2005), pp. 6–7.

75. See International Crisis Group, “Indonesia Backgrounder: Why Salaªsm and Terrorism Mostly

Don’t Mix,” Asia Report, No. 83 (Brussels: International Crisis Group, September 13, 2004).

76. Douglas Farah, “Salaªsts, China, andWest Africa’s Growing Anarchy” (Alexandria, Va.: International

Assessment and Strategy Center, December 7, 2004).

ogy or doctrine (see table 1). In all, 1,857 such attacks took place. To be coded

as Salaª jihadist, a group must be a Sunni Islamic group to which at least one

of the following characteristics must also apply: (1) afªliation with and/or adherence

to al-Qaida was reºected in the group’s name;77 (2) the group had “internalized

the worldview of al-Qaida and global jihad”;78 (3) the group

engaged in violence to overthrow an Islamic regime and create a transnational

caliphate in its stead;79 or (4) the group engaged in the labeling of some other

Muslims as heretics.80

My analysis of the data yields the following ªndings: of the 788 suicide attacks

from December 1981 to March 2008 in which the identity of the group

could be identiªed, Salaª jihadist groups carried out 37.7 percent—more than

any other group. They were followed by nationalist-separatist groups with

18.5 percent and hybrid groups with 17.8 percent. One thousand sixty-nine

attacks (57.6 percent) were perpetrated by organizations whose identities remain

unknown. Of these, however, 795 (74.4 percent) occurred in Iraq, where

the vast majority of organizations conducting suicide bombings are known to

be Salaª jihadist.81 The bulk of suicide missions in the “unknown” category

were therefore likely carried out by Salaª jihadist groups, too.

More important, according to the following criteria, Salaª jihadist groups

have assumed the leadership among groups that employ this modus operandi:

number of suicide attacks, number of organizations engaged in suicide attacks,

total number of fatalities, and average number killed per attack. In 1997, for

example, none of the groups that undertook suicide missions were Salaª

jihadist. In 1998 a quarter of the groups that employed this tactic adhered to

Salaª jihadist ideology. After 2004, at least half of all groups conducting suicide

missions adhered to Salaª jihadist ideology in every given year.

The growing ascendancy of Salaª jihadist groups among groups employing

suicide attacks is paralleled by the relative decline in the importance of groups

International Security 33:3 64

77. An example would be the group al-Qaida in Iraq.

78. This assessment is based on the best judgment of a group of eight terrorism experts at the

RAND Corporation. See Angel Rabasa, Peter Chalk, Kim Cragin, Sara A. Daly, Heather Gregg,

Theodore W. Krasik, Kevin A. O’Brien, and William Rosenau, Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 1: The Global

Jihadist Movement, and Part 2: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND,


79. This excludes groups such as Hamas, which engages primarily in violence against Israel, a

non-Muslim state, but has generally avoided systematic attacks against the Palestinian Authority

(prior to Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006) for fear of sparking a civil war.

80. Takªr is not generally practiced by mainstream Islamist groups and not even by all Salaª

jihadists. Those groups and individuals who do practice this form of excommunication, however,

are exclusively Salaª jihadist.

81. See International Crisis Group, “In Their Own Words”; and Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq.

Motives for Martyrdom 65

Table 1. Ideological Affiliation of Groups Conducting Suicide Attacks, December 1981

through March 2008

Organizations Ideology

Al Dawa1 SH

Al Jihad2 SJ

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya3 SJ

Al-Qaida SJ

Al-Qaida in Iraq4 SJ

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb5 SJ

Amal SH

Ansar al-Islam6 SJ

Ansar Allah SH

Ansar al-Sunnah7 SJ

Armed Islamic Group8 SJ

As-Sirat al-Moustaquim9 SJ

Chechen Separatists H

Chechen Separatists—Arbi



Chechen Separatists—Karachaev



Chechen Separatists—Ramzan



Fatah NS

Hamas13 MI/NS

Hezballah SH

Hizb-i-Islami14 SJ

Hizb-ul Mujahideen15 SJ

Hizb-ut-Tahrir16 SJ

Islamic Army in Iraq17 MI/NS

Islamic Courts Union18 H

Islamic Jihad of Uzbekistan19 SJ

Islamic Movement of



Islamic State of Iraq21 SJ

Jaish-e-Muhammad22 SJ

Jamatul Mujahedin



Organizations Ideology

Jemaah Islamiyya24 SJ

Jund al-Sham (Army of the



Kashmir Separatists26 H

Kurdistan Workers Party M/NS

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi27 SJ

Lashkar-e-Taibeh28 SJ

Lebanese Liberation



Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam NS

Mujahideen Army30 H

Mujahideen Shura Council31 SJ

Mujahideen Youth Movement32 SJ

Palestinian Islamic Jihad MI/NS

Partisans of the Sunni U

Popular Front for the Liberation

of Palestine


Popular Resistance Committees MI/NS

Qari Zafar Group33 SJ

Revolutionary People’s

Liberation Party


Riyad us-Saliheyn Martyrs’



Saddam Loyalists NS

Shields of Islam U

Soldiers of the Prophet’s



Syrian Baath Organization NS

Syrian Social Nationalist Party M/NS

Taliban H

Tawhid wal Jihad35 SJ

Tehrik-i-Taliban36 H

Victory and Jihad in Greater



SOURCES: The following sources were used to ascertain the ideological or doctrinal orientation

of groups that employ suicide terrorism: The Terrorism Knowledge Base (TKB) of the Memorial

Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT); the 2005 Country Reports on Terrorism,

published by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Coordinator for

Counterterrorism; Angel Rabasa, Peter Chalk, Kim Cragin, Sara A. Daly, Heather Gregg,

Theodore W. Krasik, Kevin A. O’Brien, and William Rosenau, Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 1: The

Global Jihadist Movement, and Part 2: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe (Santa

Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2006); and anecdotal information, when the first three sources did

not provide sufficient information to establish ideological identity. The TKB integrates data

from the RAND Terrorism Chronology and RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident databases; the

Terrorism Indictment database; and DFI International’s research on terrorist organizations.

On March 21, 2008, the MIPT announced via email to subscribers of the TKB newsletter

that the TKB would “cease operations on March 31, 2008, and elements of the system will

be merged with the Global Terrorism Database, managed by the National Consortium for

the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of MaryInternational

Security 33:3 66

land.” The TKB website ( is not longer accessible. The RAND studies

detail information on the ideological affiliation of jihadist groups. The assessments made in

the two RAND studies are based on the consensus agreement of eight RAND terrorism


NOTE: Groups are coded as hybrid (H), Marxist (M), mainstream Islamist (MI), nationalistseparatist

(NS), Shiite (SH), Salafi jihadist (SJ), unknown (U) groups, as well as in combinations

(e.g., MI/NS or M/NS). Hybrid organizations comprise members who have adopted a

Salafi jihadist ideology as well as those who seem to be motivated primarily by ethnonationalist

and separatist concerns. Groups coded as mainstream Islamist groups, such as

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, differ from Salafi jihadist groups in that they participate

in the political process—something that Salafi jihadist groups consider heretical, given

that all power must derive from God, not from the electorate. In addition, mainstream

Islamist groups do not engage in takfir—the labeling of other Muslims as kufr, or heretics.

Salafi jihadists, all of whom are Sunnis, consider the Shiite stream of Islam to be heretical.

1Al-Dawa conducted at least three suicide attacks in Kuwait between 1983 and 1985. According

to the Terrorism Knowledge Base (TKB), al-Dawa is a Shiite organization.

2Al-Jihad was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. The group formally merged with al-Qaida in June


3Although the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya has recently distanced itself from al-Qaida, it was one

of the prominent Salafi jihadist groups during the 1990s and a major influence on al-Qaida.

4Al-Qaida in Iraq is a franchise of al-Qaida. The group was formerly known as Tawhid wal


5Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is a franchise of al-Qaida. The group was formerly known as

the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.

6Ansar al-Islam seeks the violent overthrow of Iraqi Kurdistan and conversion of the province

into an Islamist state. A faction of Ansar al-Islam split off and established Tawhid wal Jihad.

According to, Ansar al-Islam “has close links to and support from

al-Qaida. Al-Qaida and Usama Bin Laden participated in the formation and funding of the

group, which has provided safe haven to al-Qaida in northeastern Iraq.” See “Ansar al Islam

(Supporters of Islam),”,


7According to the TKB, Ansar al-Sunnah (Followers of the Tradition) is an Iraqi jihadist group

dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq based on sharia law. It seeks to

achieve this objective by defeating coalition forces and the foreign occupation. Taken from

“Group Profile: Ansar Al-Sunnah Army,” Terrorism Knowledge Base. On Ansar al-Sunnah’s

Salafi roots, see also Mohammed M. Hafez, “Suicide Terrorism in Iraq: A Preliminary Assessment

of the Quantitative Data and Documentary Evidence,” Studies in Conflict and

Terrorism, Vol. 29, No. 6 (September 2006), pp. 591–619; International Crisis Group, “In

Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency,” Middle East Report, No. 50 (Brussels: International

Crisis Group, February 15, 2006); and Michael Eisenstadt and Jeffrey White,

“Assessing Iraq’s Sunni Arab Insurgency,” Policy Focus, No. 50 (Washington, D.C.: Washington

Institute for Near East Policy, December 2005), pp. 1–39.

8The Armed Islamic Group engages in takfir. See Rabasa et al., Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 2,

p. 28.

9As-Sirat al-Moustaquim is the cell responsible for the 2003 Casablanca bombings. It is

sometimes referred to as Salafia Jihadiya. A panel of eight experts at the RAND Corporation

concluded that Salafia Jihadiya has “internalized the Al-Qaida worldview of Global Jihad.”

See Rabasa et al., Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 1, pp. xxii, 2, 79. Information also taken

from “Group Profile: Salafia Jihadia,” Terrorism Knowledge Base. There are persistent reports

that As-Sirat al-Moustaquim/Salafia Jihadiya does not exist as a group, but is a term

Table 1. (Continued)

Motives for Martyrdom 67

invented by Moroccan authorities. There is little doubt, however, that the cell responsible

for the bombings was driven by Salafi jihadist ideology. For a discussion of the controversy

over the existence of Salafia Jihadiya, see Thomas Renard, “Moroccan Crackdown on

Salafiya Jihadiya Recruitment of Foreign Fighters for Iraq,” Terrorism Focus, Vol. 5, No. 27

(July 23, 2008), p. 5.

10According to the Haifa database, on June 7, 2000, a truck bomb driven by two Chechen

suicide bombers (one male and one female) exploded in Alkhan Yurt, targeting an OMON

(Special Forces Police) unit. Chechen separatists under the leadership of Arbi Barayev, who

are also known as the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR), claimed responsibility. According

to the Terrorism Knowledge Base, the primary objective of SPIR is the liberation of

Chechnya and the formation of an independent Chechen state. However, the Islamic fighters

also promoted a more radical strain of Islam and a desire to install a fundamentalist Islamic

republic governed by Sharia law in Chechnya. Taken from “Group Profile: Special

Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR),” Terrorism Knowledge Base.

11Chechen separatists under the leadership of Karachaev sent three suicide bombers to detonate

themselves in coordinated attacks near the Russian border with Chechnya. They killed

20 and wounded about 140. The purpose of the attacks remains unknown. No additional

information was available about the group.

12The Chechen separatist group led by Ramzan Akhmadov was responsible for six suicide attacks

in June and July 2000. Although information is to determine whether the group is

Salafi jihadist in character is insufficient, Akhmadov was known as a radical Islamist and

was likely influenced by Wahhabism. Like other Chechen terrorist groups, this group likely

comprised both Salafi jihadists as well as more nationalist elements.

13Although Hamas’s origins extend to the Muslim Brotherhood, its primary goal is the elimination

of Israel. Hamas has resisted the adoption of al-Qaida’s doctrine of global jihad, and it

does not engage in takfir. Its unwillingness to adopt al-Qaida’s worldview of global jihad

has elicited several heated exchanges between al-Qaida’s deputy leader, Ayman al-

Zawahiri, and the Hamas leadership. Zawahiri has appealed to Hamas—and to the Muslim

Brotherhood at large—not to participate in the democratic process because he and other

Salafi jihadists believe that power derived from the electorate rather than from God is heretical.

For additional information, see Reuven Paz, “The Islamic Debate over Democracy:

Jihadi-Salafi Responses to Hamas’ Victory in the Palestinian Elections,” Project for the Research

of Islamist Movements (PRISM), Occasional Papers, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Herzliya, Israel:

PRISM, January 2006); and Stephen Ulph, “Al Zawahiri Takes Hamas to Task,” Terrorism

Focus, Vol. 3, No. 9 (March 7, 2006), p. 1.

14Hizb-i-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is believed to be allied with Osama bin

Laden. Its goal is the end of occupation in Afghanistan and the establishment of an Islamist

state there. See “Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin,”, http://www.globalsecurity


15Although Hizb-ul Mujahideen has ties with Salafi jihadist groups, including Lashkar-e-

Taibeh, its primary focus is the liberation of Kashmir and its accession to Pakistan. Taken

from “Group Profile: Hizbul Mujahideen (HM),” Terrorism Knowledge Base. It is also tied to

Jamaat-i-Islami, the mainstream Islamist party, and the equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood

in Pakistan.

16Hizb ut-Tahrir was responsible for a suicide attack at the entrance to a children’s clothing

store in the local market in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on March, 29, 2004. According to, Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) is “a radical Islamic

political movement that seeks ‘implementation of pure Islamic doctrine’ and the creation of

an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. . . . Its basic aim was struggle with infidels and the

organization of a universal caliphate embracing all Islamic countries. . . . The political struggle

is manifested in the struggle against the disbelieving imperialists, to deliver the Ummah

from their domination and to liberate her from their influence by uprooting their intellectual,

Table 1. (Continued)

International Security 33:3 68

cultural, political, economic and military roots from all of the Muslim countries.” See “Hizb

ut-Tahrir Al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation),”, http://www

17The TKB does not provide sufficient information to determine whether the Islamic Army in

Iraq is a Salafi jihadist organization. According to Mohammed Hafez, the Islamic Army in

Iraq is both nationalist and Islamist. Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology

of Martyrdom (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007).

18The Somali Islamic Courts Union consists of members with a mainstream Islamist orientation

as well as Salafi jihadists with suspected ties to al-Qaida. “The Supreme Islamic Courts

Union/al-Ittihad Mahakem al-Islamiya (ICU),”, http://www.globalsecurity


19The Islamic Jihad of Uzbekistan openly declared its participation in the “global jihad” and is

a splinter group of the Salafi jihadist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. See “Islamic Jihad

Group of Uzbekistan,”,


20The Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan has “internalized the Al-Qaida worldview of Global Jihad.”

Rabasa et al., Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 1, pp. xxii, 2, 79.

21The Islamic State of Iraq is the successor organization to the Salafi jihadist Mujahideen

Shura Council and is dominated by al-Qaida in Iraq.

22Jaish-e-Muhammad has “internalized the al-Qaida worldview of Global Jihad.” Rabasa et

al., Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 1, pp. xxii, 2, 79.

23According to the TKB, “Jamatul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB) is a terrorist group dedicated

to removing the country’s secular government and imposing a Taliban-inspired Islamic theocracy

in its place. In addition to calling for an Islamic state based on Sharia law, JMB has

denounced the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, warning President [George W.] Bush and British

Prime Minister [Tony] Blair to leave all Muslim countries.” Taken from “Group Profile:

Jamatul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB),” Terrorism Knowledge Base.

24Jemaah Islamiyya has “internalized the Al-Qaida worldview of Global Jihad.” Rabasa et al.,

Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 1, pp. xxii, 2, 79.

25A group named the Army of the Levant (Jund al-Sham) took responsibility for the March

19, 2005, bombing of a theater in Doha, Qatar, near a British school and popular among

Westerners. The name has been claimed by several Sunni Islamic extremist entities, all or

none of which may be linked. According to TKB, all of the Jund al-Sham entities desire to

“achieve the unified purpose of replacing what they view as misguided forms of Islam and

governmental rule with their vision of a traditional Islamic caliphate extending across the

Levant. . . . Like many second- and third-tier Islamic extremist entities, the Jund al-Sham

organizations are believed to be incorporated, however loosely, under the greater al-Qaeda

umbrella.” Taken from “Group Profile: Jund Al-Sham,” Terrorism Knowledge Base.

26Lashkar-e-Taibeh, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the three major Kashmir

separatist groups, have “internalized the Al-Qaida worldview of Global Jihad.” Rabasa et al,

Beyond Al-Qaeda, Part 1, pp. xxii, 2, 79.

27Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has “internalized the Al-Qaida worldview of Global Jihad.” Ibid.

28Lashkar-e-Taibeh has “internalized the Al-Qaida worldview of Global Jihad.” Ibid.

29On November 11, 1987, a female suicide bomber detonated 12 pounds of explosives

packed in a briefcase at Beirut airport. On November 14, 1987, a female suicide bomber

detonated 2 pounds of explosives connected to a nail-filled grenade concealed in a box of

chocolates in the lobby of the American University Hospital in West Beirut. The Lebanese

Liberation Army claimed responsibility, but no solid information on the ideology of this

group is available. Given the use of female suicide bombers, however, it is unlikely that this

was a Salafi jihadist group.

Table 1. (Continued)

Motives for Martyrdom 69

30The Mujahideen Army, or Jaish-e Mujahideen, is “associated with Al-Qaida” but has recently

distanced itself from al-Qaida’s indiscriminatory killing. See “Jaysh al-Mujahideen

Terrorist Lieutenant and Propaganda Chief Captured,”, http://www According to

Evan F. Kohlmann, the Mujahideen Army has “wavered back and forth in its stated jihadist

political platform.” See Evan F. Kohlmann, “State of the Sunni Insurgency in Iraq: August

2007” (Washington, D.C.: NEFA Foundation, July 20, 2008), http://www.nefafoundation


31The Mujahideen Shura Council was the primary Salafi jihadist grouping in Iraq until it was

renamed the Islamic State of Iraq on October 15, 2006. Its stated goal was to manage “the

struggle in the battle of confrontation to ward off the invading infidels and their apostate

stooges.” Taken from “Group Profile: Mujahideen Shura Council,” Terrorism Knowledge


32There is a high likelihood that the Mujahideen Youth Movement is directly influenced by al-

Qaida. See Andrew Black, “Somalia’s Mujahideen Youth Movement,” Terrorism Focus, Vol.

4, No. 19 (June 19, 2007), p. 2. The group’s founder and leader, Adan Hashi Ayro, has

close al-Qaida connections. See Alisha Ryu, “Youth Mujahideen Group Leading Attacks in

Somalia,”, June 19, 2007,


33Qari Zafar is a splinter group of the Salafi jihadist Lashkar-e Jhangvi and affiliated with al-

Qaida. See Abbas Naqvi, “They Were Targeting Pakistan and Its Leaders,” Daily Times,

February 18, 2007.

34According to the TKB, “The Riyad us-Saliheyn Martyrs’ Brigade is a relatively young terrorist

organization, dedicated to the creation of an independent Islamic republic in Chechnya

(and other primarily Muslim parts of Russia such as Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria,

Ingushetia, Ossetia, and Tataria).” The group, whose name translates to “Requirements for

Getting into Paradise,” espouses radical Islamic doctrine (Wahabbism) and is believed to

have strong ties to al-Qaida. Most experts, however, agree that the primary inspiration behind

Riyad’s activities is a desire for the independence of “Chechen lands,” rather than religious

zealotry. Taken from “Group Profile: Riyad Us-Saliheyn Martyrs’ Brigade,” Terrorism

Knowledge Base.

35Tawhid wal Jihad is the forerunner of al-Qaida in Iraq.

36Led by Beitullah Mehsud, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, is dedicated

to enforcing sharia law, fighting NATO, and conducting “defensive jihad” against the

Pakistani government. Its leader is said to have close ties to al-Qaida. See Hassan Abbas,

“A Profile of Tehrik-i Taliban,” CTC Sentinel, Vol. 1, No. 2 (January 2008), pp. 1–4.

37This previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister

Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005. At the time of this writing, no additional information

about this group was available. The investigation into the killing of Hariri was ongoing.

For information on the attack being most likely a suicide attack, see “UN Probe into Murder

of Former Lebanese Leader Nears Sensitive Stage—Inquiry Chief,” United Nations News

Centre, December 18, 2006.

Table 1. (Continued)

adhering to other ideologies. Figure 3 illustrates the rise in the number of attacks

by Salaª jihadist groups and the concomitant decline of attacks by

groups guided by other ideologies.82 During the 1980s, Shiite groups were the

main perpetrators of suicide missions,83 followed by groups with a nationalistseparatist

agenda. During the 1990s, nationalist-separatist groups were the

most frequent users of suicide attacks, followed by groups with a combination

of a mainstream Islamist and nationalist-separatist agenda. Since the turn of

the millennium, suicide attacks by Salaª jihadist groups have become more

common than attacks by all other groups. The steep rise in this number is par-

International Security 33:3 70

82. Attacks by unknown groups, whose ideology could not be ascertained, are omitted from this


83. According to other databases, Shiite groups such as Hezbollah and Amal conducted fewer attacks

in Lebanon than secular or Sunni groups. See, for example, Pape, Dying to Win. Indeed, the

identity of many groups that conducted suicide attacks in Lebanon during the 1980s were not

identiªed in the data set used here. It is therefore possible that Shiite groups may not have been

the dominant perpetrators of suicide attacks during the 1980s.

Figure 3. Number of Attacks by Ideology, December 1981–March 2008

*Includes Marxist/nationalist-separatist groups.

**Includes hybrid groups.

ticularly worrisome given that their attacks were much more lethal than those

by non-Salaª jihadist groups (see ªgure 4).

From Localized to Globalized Patterns of Suicide Attacks

Al-Qaida and its Salaª jihadist ideology have produced an altogether new pattern

of suicide attacks, namely, “globalized suicide missions,” which can be

distinguished from “localized” suicide missions, the more traditional pattern

of suicide attacks. Localized and globalized patterns of suicide missions differ

in ªve key areas: the types of conºicts in which these attacks are used; group

ideology; the geographic scope of these actors; their target deªnition; and their

goals (see table 2).

localized suicide attacks

The overwhelming majority of suicide missions during the 1980s and 1990s occurred

in relatively localized settings.

conºict type. Suicide missions have traditionally occurred in the context

of relatively localized conºicts between two belligerents. Examples include

conºicts between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel and the Palestinians, Tamils and

Sinhalese, and Turks and Kurds. These conºicts have generally endured for

many years, and often decades, between ethnic/religious groups.

Motives for Martyrdom 71

Figure 4. Lethality of Suicide Missions by Ideology, December 1981–March 2008

ideology. Suicide attacks that fall into the traditional, localized pattern

have been planned and executed by religious, secular, Marxist, ethnonationalist,

and nationalist groups. Examples of religious groups include Hamas, Palestinian

Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Hezbollah. Secular or nationalist groups

include the LTTE, the PFLP, Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Kurdistan

Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party.

geographic scope of actors. Traditionally, suicide missions have been

planned and executed by subnational terrorist or insurgent actors such as

Hezbollah, the LTTE, Hamas, PIJ, and the PKK. Palestinian organizations employing

suicide missions, for example, have largely conducted the operational

planning of these missions locally, although they may have been receptive to

the strategic message and direction of an exile leadership.84 The subnational

nature of these groups suggests that they recruited and trained suicide bombers

mostly in or near the conºict area, and have rarely sought them from

abroad. The majority of PKK recruits, for example, come from large, poor families

residing in Turkey.85 Among Palestinian organizations, more than 99 percent

of the bombers between 1993 and 2008 were residents of the area of

conºict—the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper. The only exceptions were

two Britons involved in the attacks on the bar Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv on April

30, 2003.86 As for the LTTE, experts believe that it is unlikely to have drawn its

recruits from outside Sri Lanka because they are chosen from within the ranks

International Security 33:3 72

84. Yoram Schweitzer, email communication with author, November 19, 2006.

85. Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism, pp. 167–168.

86. They were Asif Mohammed Hanif, a 21-year-old student fromWest London who blew himself

up at the Mike’s Place bar in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2003; and 27-year-old Omar Khan Sharif, a married

resident of Derby, England. Sharif also intended to perpetrate a suicide bombing at Mike’s

Place along with Hanif, but Sharif’s explosive device failed to detonate. He ºed the scene and later

Table 2. Patterns of Suicide Missions

Localized Globalized

Conflict Identifiable; long-standing Less identifiable; short-term

Ideology Religious; ethno-nationalist; secular Salafi jihadist

Actors Subnational Transnational

Target definition Narrow Broad

Goals Limited Unlimited

Examples Hezbollah, Liberation Tigers of Tamil

Eelam, Kurdistan Workers’ Party,

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad,

Popular Front for the Liberation of

Palestine, Fatah

Al-Qaida and associated


of the regular LTTE army, where the motivation to serve is high.87 According

to Stephen Hopgood, for example, “The emphasis on commitment to the cause

both for regular cadres and Black Tigers makes non-Sri Lankan or Indian Tamil

recruits highly unlikely. The LTTE seems to have no recruitment problems for

Black Tigers, so looking outside would only be necessary if some ethnic or linguistic

feature of the operative’s identity was necessary to accomplish the


targets. Groups that conducted localized suicide missions mostly targeted

people and assets of the enemy state near or in the conºict area, while largely

refraining from targeting assets of their foes in other locations. The PKK, for

instance, conducted all of its 16 suicide attacks in Turkey. Hamas and other

Palestinian organizations did not execute a suicide mission against Israeli or

Jewish targets outside of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Hezbollah’s suicide

operations against Israel were staged mostly against Israel Defense Forces

troops inside Lebanon—with the exception of two suicide attacks on Israeli

and Jewish targets in Argentina, for which the group declined to assume responsibility.

89 The LTTE staged nearly all of its attacks in Sri Lanka proper—a

notable exception being the killing of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in

the Indian city of Madras in May 1991. Two experts on the LTTE whom I consulted

were unaware of additional suicide missions carried out by the LTTE

outside of Sri Lanka.90 To quote Hopgood, “The LTTE is very careful to make

it clear its target is the Sri Lankan state and its collaborators, rather than

all Sri Lankans. It is conscious of its public image, and escalating to attack on

foreign soil would be counterproductive both to legitimacy and diaspora


goals. The subnational terrorist or insurgent movements that followed a

localized pattern of suicide attacks generally aim to advance limited and wellde

ªned political goals for the community they purport to represent. These

political goals may include an end to foreign occupation or military presence,

increased regional autonomy, and self-determination. The struggle for an inde-

Motives for Martyrdom 73

drowned in the Mediterranean. His body washed ashore on the Tel Aviv beach front on May 12,


87. Michael Roberts, email communication with author, November 20, 2006; and Stephen

Hopgood, email communication with author, November 24, 2006.

88. Hopgood, email communication with author.

89. Hezbollah is believed to have staged two attacks in Argentina: the March 17, 1992, suicide car

bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people and injured more than 250;

and the July 18, 1994, suicide car bombing of the Jewish Community Center building in Buenos

Aires, which killed more than 80 people and wounded some 300.

90. Roberts, email communication with author; and Hopgood, email communication with author.

91. Hopgood, email communication with author.

pendent homeland, whether it is Tamil Eelam, Kurdistan, or Palestine, lies at

the center of the conºicts in which suicide missions have traditionally been


globalized suicide attacks

The localized pattern of suicide missions contrasts sharply with the new globalized

pattern displayed by al-Qaida and its Salaª jihadist associated movements.

Although the localized pattern continues to exist, the globalized

pattern has become increasingly dominant since the millennium.

conºict type. Globalized suicide missions may occur in the context of

clearly identiªable conºicts such as Iraq, but those conºicts need not have a

long history. Suicide attacks in Iraq, for example, occurred less than a week after

the start of the U.S.-led invasion in March 200392—hardly long enough to

produce the types of deep-seated grievances that inºuenced Palestinian,

Tamil, or Kurdish suicide bombers in localized contexts. Nor are the targets of

many globalized suicide bombers aware that they are involved in a conºict

with a bitter enemy who seeks their death along with its own. Unlike traditional

suicide attacks, globalized suicide operations frequently occur in areas

that—by any objective standard—are not identiªed by all parties as zones of

conºict. The September 11 attacks, for instance, did not take place in a region

where a large ethnic group was vying for an independent state while battling

an occupation army. The same is true for the U.S. embassy bombings in

Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in October

2000. Other examples include Djerba (April 2002), Bali (October 2002 and

October 2005), Mombasa (November 2002), Casablanca (May 2003), Istanbul

(November 2003), London (July 2005), and Amman (November 2005).

ideology. Salaª jihadist groups have overwhelmingly planned and executed

the new globalized suicide missions.

geographic scope of actors. Globalized suicide missions tend to be

planned and executed by cells and groups that are connected to a transnational

terrorist or insurgent network or movement. This transnational network

suggests that the planning of suicide missions and their execution may occur

in different places. Examples include the September 11 attacks and the July

2005 London bombings.

Additionally, organizations conducting globalized suicide missions no

longer recruit and train suicide bombers exclusively in the country where the

International Security 33:3 74

92. Steven Lee Myers, “A Nation at War: Suicide Strike; With Bombing, Iraqis Escalate Guerrilla

Tactics and Show New Danger on Front Lines,” New York Times, March 30, 2003.

attacks are to take place. This is true, again, in the case of the September 11 attacks

and the 2005 bombings in Amman, and it is especially evident in the

preponderance of foreigners who volunteer for suicide attacks in Iraq and

Afghanistan.93 The November 2005 bombings in Amman, for example, were

executed by three Iraqis.94

targets. Organizations and cells that stage globalized suicide missions do

not limit their attacks to an identiªable zone of conºict. Due in large part to the

expansive nature of Salaª jihad, many of today’s suicide attackers regard

much of the world as a legitimate target. Hence, even though al-Qaida has declared

the United States its main enemy, it does not limit its suicide attacks to

the U.S. homeland. Instead, it will strike U.S. interests wherever an opportunity

may arise. In addition, it may strike targets of real or perceived allies of

the United States.

goals. Suicide missions that fall within the globalized category are generally

perpetrated by organizations whose goals are more elusive than those in

the localized category. It is unclear, for instance, whether the suicide bombings

in Amman in November 2005 were intended to punish the Hashemite monarchy

for its pro-Western stance, including its relations with Israel; to target foreign

diplomats; to hurt Israeli and Jewish interests in the kingdom; to create

instability and spark an anti-Hashemite backlash; or to extend the jihad in

Iraq to the broader Middle East. Similarly, Western analysts often argue over

al-Qaida’s goals and motivations, although few would disagree that its demands

are maximalist.

implications of ªndings

Distinguishing between localized and globalized patterns of suicide attacks

has several theoretical implications for the study of terrorism. It allows re-

Motives for Martyrdom 75

93. According to a Department of Defense news brieªng with Col. Sean MacFarland, commander

of the First Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, “[Foreign

ªghters] are very few in number, although as far as we can tell, they constitute about 100 percent

of the suicide bombers.” Quoted in Michael O’Hanlon and Nina Kamp, eds., “Iraq Index: Tracking

Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam Iraq” (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution,

November 13, 2006, updated October 1, 2007), p. 18. See also comments by Maj. Gen.

Rick Lynch, who stated on December 1, 2005, that “at least 96 percent of suicide bombers [in Iraq]

are not Iraqis.” Quoted in Chris Tomlinson, “U.S. General: Suicide and Car Bomb Attacks Down in

Iraq,” Associated Press, December 1, 2005. On Afghanistan, a recent report by the United Nations

Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, for instance, suggests that there is little doubt that some perpetrators

in Afghanistan crossed the border from Pakistan, although at least some are Afghan refugees.

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), “Suicide Attacks in

Afghanistan (2001–2007)” (New York: UNAMA, 2007).

94. Craig Whitlock, “Amman Bombings Reºect Zarqawi’s Growing Reach,” Washington Post, November

13, 2005.

searchers to place existing explanations into their proper context, to recognize

their limitations, and to deªne important new avenues for research. For instance,

scholars can better assess the role of occupation, which appears to be a

signiªcant factor in countries whose suicide attacks have a more traditional,

localized pattern. It plays a different role in the globalized pattern associated

with Salaª jihadist ideology, which adopts an extremely loose deªnition

of “occupation,” rendering virtually any perceived offense an example of

Western occupation.95


Most suicide attacks today are perpetrated by terrorist groups that adhere to a

radical Salaª jihadist ideology. Although ideology thus plays an important

role in explaining the global proliferation of suicide attacks, there is no evidence

that it is the cause of suicide attacks per se. The causes of suicide attacks

are complex: they can be found in the interplay of personal motivations, the

strategic and tactical objectives of the sponsoring groups, societal and structural

factors, as well as intergroup dynamics at the level of the terrorist cell.96

In addition, individuals acquire ideology for reasons having to do with emotions

and beliefs—a complex process whose examination exceeds the scope of

this article. Ideology plays an important role, however, in helping reduce the

suicide attacker’s reservations to perpetrate the acts of killing and dying. It

helps the suicide bomber justify his or her actions and to disengage morally

from his act and his victims.

Because ideology is an important—and often neglected—factor in the genesis

and spread of suicide attacks, challenging the appeal of this ideology is a

crucial component of an overall counterterrorism strategy. The task for the

United States in challenging the appeal of Salaª jihad will be particularly

difªcult because of widespread antipathies toward U.S. policies in parts of the

Arab and Muslim world. According to a forty-seven-nation Pew Global Atti-

International Security 33:3 76

95. A theoretical division of suicide attacks into two patterns also helps contextualize the outbidding

thesis. That explanation may account for the adoption of suicide attacks in some cases, but is

less capable of accounting for cases of globalized suicide missions. The perpetrators of the London

bombings of July 2005, for example, hardly vied for the sympathies of the domestic population—

on the contrary, they detested the local population to such an extent that they blew themselves up

in its midst. The outbidding thesis is therefore less relevant to our understanding of globalized

suicide missions because the importance of killing “inªdels” seems to supersede organizational


96. On the importance of small group dynamics, see Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks; and

Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq.

tudes Survey released in the summer of 2007, for example, the “U.S. image remains

abysmal in most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, and

continues to decline among the publics of many of America’s oldest allies.”97

U.S. practices in detention centers such as Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib

and the rush to war in Iraq have aggravated the negative views of the United

States in Arab and Muslim countries and beyond. Partly because of the poor

standing of the United States, and more important, because of the grave danger

Salaª jihad poses to Muslims, nonviolent Salaªsts, Islamists, and moderate

Muslims must begin to challenge this ideology.

The United States and its allies can do little to inºuence what must primarily

be an internal Muslim debate over the future of the Muslim community. They

can, however, discreetly convey to moderate Muslims and nonviolent Salaªsts

why waging this internal battle is so important, thus quietly supporting these

communities without running the risk of exposing them as “subservient” to

the West. As Muslims prepare for this debate, Western states can underscore

what most Muslims already know: the credibility of Salaª jihad suffers from a

fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, Salaª jihadists claim to act for

the beneªt of Muslims. On the other hand, Muslims suffer the consequences of

Salaª jihadist ideology and terrorism more than any other group.

Moderate Muslims can marshal the following three arguments to undermine

Salaª jihadists. First, Muslims are the primary victims of Salaª jihadist

terrorism, including suicide attacks. More Muslims than non-Muslims have

died or been maimed by Salaª jihadist terror in the last three decades. In

Algeria alone, 100,000 or more Muslims have lost their lives to acts of violence

largely committed by the Salaª jihadist Armed Islamic Group. In Iraq, where

more than half of all suicide attacks since 1981 have taken place, suicide missions

have killed more Iraqi civilians than foreign military or foreign civilian

personnel. In Afghanistan, civilians have been the prime victims of the growing

number of suicide attacks, even if these attacks were aimed at members of

the International Security Assistance Force. In Pakistan, too, an increasing

number of suicide attacks have targeted the indigenous population.

Second, Salaª jihadists defend the killing of Muslims by claiming that the

ends justify the means. Innocent Muslims not only die as a by-product of war

and insurgency waged by Salaª jihadists, but Salaª jihadists also seem to

believe that Muslims are expendable. As Abu Musab al-Zarqawi noted, “Admittedly,

the killing of a number of Muslims whom it is forbidden to kill

Motives for Martyrdom 77

97. Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Global Unease with Major World Powers: Rising Environmental

Concern in 47-Nation Survey” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, June 27, 2007), p. 3.

is undoubtedly a grave evil; however, it is permissible to commit this evil—

indeed, it is even required—in order to ward off a greater evil, namely, the evil

of suspending jihad.”98

Third, the use of takªr—the labeling of some Muslims as inªdels—is dividing

the Islamic community and runs the risk of creating a Muslim civil war.

The Algerian civil war of the 1990s offers a devastating example of this practice.

The use of the takªr label has created serious tensions within the Islamic

community, and it is used to justify scores of suicide bombings against Muslims

in countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, and Pakistan. Unless

it is rejected by moderate Muslims, who form the majority of the Islamic

community, such labeling will continue to lead the Islamic nation on a downward

spiral of self-inºicted violence. Moderate Muslims should remind their

coreligionists that wrongly accusing another Muslim of being an inªdel is a

major sin in Islam.

The battle against suicide attacks will not be won by exposing the inconsistencies

of Salaª jihad alone. Like terrorism more generally, suicide missions are

a tactic, and as such cannot be “defeated” entirely. Like war, there are countless

reasons why terrorism occurs—and like war, it is unlikely that terrorism and

suicide attacks will disappear. Governments struggling against terrorism

should therefore conceive their battle not as a war whose goal is victory, but as

a long-term effort that requires commitment, endurance, and ingenuity.

International Security 33:3 78

98. Quoted in Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), “Abu Mus’ab Zarqawi: Collateral

Killing of Muslims is Legitimate,” Special Dispatch Series, No. 917 (Washington, D.C.: Jihad and

Terrorism Project, MEMRI, June 7, 2005).

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