Martyrdom or Suicide? Dying for the Jihadi Cause

Martyrdom or Suicide? Dying for the Jihadi Cause

Martyrdom or Suicide? Dying for the Jihadi Cause

Martyrdom or Suicide? Dying for the Jihadi Cause


5 min read

Mubaraz Ahmed Analyst, Co-Existence

Posted on: 27th January 2017

On this year's anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack, a man wielding a knife and wearing a fake suicide vest was shot dead by security forces outside a Paris police station. The man, identified by officials as Sallah Ali, was believed to have "pledged allegiance" to ISIS and sought to exact revenge for French "attacks in Syria." Far from bearing the hallmarks of the centrally commanded ISIS attacks that the French capital suffered in November, this latest incident appeared to be the work of a lone wolf looking to ride the crest of ISIS' international notoriety.

In no uncertain terms, this 'operation' was a complete failure. No civilians or security personnel were harmed. There was no damage to infrastructure. Parisians carried on as normal, and even the media quickly relegated the story to make way for more pressing matters. But, though Ali's actions may have been futile in operational terms, for him they may not necessarily have been pointless.

"Salafi-jihadis conflate the concepts of martyrdom and suicide."

Foiled, or failed, attacks are viewed as testimony to the effectiveness of security apparatus and, to a lesser degree, the incompetence of some would-be attackers. However, viewing foiled attacks as 'a failure' of extremists obscures the value such groups place on the concept of martyrdom itself. There has been a longstanding debate in jihadi circles about the nature and virtues of suicide compared to martyrdom. Does one need to achieve an operational victory during a suicide mission for it to be considered martyrdom? Or is the act of suicide itself sufficient to warrant the title of martyr? Martyrdom, as taken from the Prophetic tradition, can be applied to those killed while protecting their wealth and families; those who have drowned; those crushed by falling buildings; and yes, those killed protecting their faith. However, every instance is passive: being killed, not killing oneself.

Salafi-jihadi groups, however, deliberately conflate the concepts of martyrdom and suicide. While suicide is unequivocally condemned in Islamic scripture, martyrdom is seen as an honour. Jihadis today have taken the elements of risk and reward in ancient warfare and transposed them onto suicide. Death at the hands of the enemy was a result of ancient warfare, but today' tactics use suicide as a basis for attack.

The fact that conversations about the nature, permissibility, and merit of suicide attacks are taking place suggests jihadis are engaging in this topic in a somewhat rational manner, rather than acting illogically. These efforts to rationalise suicide within a perceived Islamic framework emphasise the role of jihadi thoughtin suicide attacks; they are not simply the actions of a 'death cult.' In order to provide robust narratives that counter the allure of radical ones there is a pressing need to understand that jihadis are having this moral debate.

Fighter, martyr, or inghimaasi

Fighter, martyr, or inghimaasi

Abu Musab al-Tunisi, an ISIS fighter reported to have carried out a suicide mission in Ramadi in May 2015, revealed in an interview published online in February 2014 that when he joined ISIS he was asked what position he preferred to take - fighter, martyrdom seeker, or inghimaasi. The latter term inghimaasi is a new one that has emerged during the course of the Syrian conflict. It does not have a direct translation into English, but jihadis apply it in the context of martyrdom, where it means to submerge or 'plunge' oneself into the ranks of the enemy. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, has regularly used the term when referring to the operations of its 'martyrdom seekers' so as to avoid using the word 'suicide.' Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)included an article solely on the concept of inghimaasiya in an issue of its magazine Inspire in December 2014.

"Islamic traditions prohibit suicide unequivocally."

Jihadi groups never mention the word suicide. Why would they? The very traditions of Islam that they seek to manipulate prohibit the act of suicide unequivocally. As such, in order to circumnavigate the undesirable act of killing oneself while retaining the tactic of carrying out suicide attacks, the groups frame their actions within the discussion of actively seeking martyrdom.

The introduction of the term inghimaasi is an attempt to rebrand the negativity around suicide in Islamic tradition. With this term, jihadis replace pejorative connotations with attributes of honour and bravery that offer a sense of sacrifice. This makes suicide attacks not only permissible, but noble. Exploring the military conduct of the Prophet Mohammed's companions and other anecdotal references found in Hadith literature, Salafi-jihadi groups conclude that a Muslim is not only permitted to, but rewarded for, the virtuous act of "throwing himself into the enemy's army alone even if he knows that he would be killed," as described in Inspire.

Placing importance on the suicidal act rather than the results it achieves may lead to attacks becoming more widespread. This is because the individuals conducting such operations view the act itself as one of bravery and religious piety, whether or not there is any strategic impact on the 'enemy.'

The Inspire article quotes prominent 11th century Muslim theologian and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali who suggested it is permissible for an individual to attack enemy lines while knowing he is certain to be killed. Ghazzali also said that if such action is certain to have no impact, physical or psychological, it is completely forbidden. However, he opened a Pandora's box by suggesting these tactics, which may have a detrimental effect on the morale of the enemy, weakening their resolve, are acceptable. It is a highly subjective exercise to determine whether or not the enemy has been affected by such actions, however. Further, it rather confuses the ground between proactively killing oneself and the concept of martyrdom.

Suicide as a virtuous act

Suicide as a virtuous act

For jihadi ideologues, the promotion of suicide as a virtuous act that bestows the merits of martyrdom serves nothing but an operational objective. It uses these radicalised redemption seekers as cannon fodder. For those carrying out suicide attacks, or presenting themselves on a plate to be killed, the attainment of martyrdom is the sole priority, not the operational impact.

The coining of inghimaasi serves as a rebranding exercise. It attempts to mask the obvious Islamic prohibition of suicide with a more palatable concept that results in martyrdom. In order to form a robust counter to this Islamist extremist narrative, exploiting the inconsistencies of jihadi groups regarding suicide is key. While they claim to be ardent adherents of God and the Prophet Mohammed, their rhetoric when it comes to encouraging suicide operations ignores the will of both as expressed in the Quran and the Hadith. In order to dismantle this positive jihadi image of suicide, it is essential to point out that it contradicts the fundamental sources of knowledge in Islam.

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