On November 9, 2005 a Belgian woman in her late 30’s - Liliane Degauque –entered history as the first European woman to blow herself up in Iraq. Countless more from Europe, Asia or Africa have and will follow in Iraq and elsewhere, including in the heart of the Old continent.

If Liliane Degauque launched an attack against a military target, many followers are simply pulling the trigger amongst random civilians. Regardless of their age, gender or social class, some people decide to meet their creator taking along as many lives as possible. Are they criminals suffering from personality disorders as some suggest, or are they devout believers offering the ultimate sacrifice for their faith?

Self-sacrificing zealots: an enduring phenomenon across the ages

Most civilisations and religions have resorted to animal – and sometimes human - sacrifice as an expiatory tradition to appease or please God (-s). Many believers consciously inflict pain upon themselves to test their faith, to showcase the strength of their convictions or to reach a higher level of consciousness. For instance, the mortification of the flesh for Christians is at times translated into flagellation, in imitation of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Islam, Shiites remember the killing of imam Huseyn in Karbala during Ashura celebrations. Similarly, they beat themselves with chains and swords to express their guilt for this killing that marks the division between Shia and Sunni obedience.

These practices often track their roots in the Scriptures, such as when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Although Abraham accepted, God sent Gabriel who ordered Abraham not to do so. For Christians, the sacrificial lamb refers to Jesus’ sacrifice, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Equally, Muslims sacrifice mutton during Eid al-Adha. In essence, Isaac’s sacrifice epitomises the moment when faith and devotion was put to its ultimate test.

Suicide attacks in the animal world

The tactic of suicide is not unknown to the animal world. Ants and termites resort to autothysis (self-sacrifice or altruistic suicide) to repel attackers. In the extremely organised eusocial ant colony, obedient workers, soldiers and male drones are programmed to serve their queen and achieve their tasks without questioning. The Malaysian ant, more specifically, has developed a unique system to defend its colony. Ant warriors have a unique gland on which they can exert internal pressure until it explodes. When an enemy draws near, the ant runs towards him, triggers the internal explosion killing itself and releasing a poison that, in turn, neutralises the assailant.

The defence strategy of some soldier termites is similar. Shall an enemy try to enter the tunnels, termites will blow themselves up.

The main defence objective of those self-organised societies is to preserve their highly regulated society.

Faith-based attacks

What we witness today is far from the termites’ defence mechanism, one that is designed to protect its group. The termites never sought to change others and impose their way of life. On the contrary, human suicide killers launch planned attacks that are carried out after infiltrating a refugee camp or a tourist spot. These suicide attacks do not happen to prevent an enemy from entering, but are carried out against unknown people who simply happen to be at a particular place at a particular moment. To justify such atrocities, the border between attack and defence is blurred. Attacks are presented as acts of defence for survival against the evil or the enemy whose mere existence is a threat that must be annihilated everywhere. For supporters of faith-based suicide attacks, the concept of evil-enemy expands to anyone who is different (aka “all others”).  

Abraham’s sacrifice or the self-inflicted pain by believers is also very different and bears no resemblance to the suicide attacks targeting innocent people. For individual believers, mortification of their own flesh is a voluntary act. By no means, has it been imposed by armed groups commanders or clerics. God has two hands: one to forgive and one to punish. Those calling for suicide bombing only refer to the use of the latter. And polytheisms, considered now as a vestige of by-gone eras, were the first victims of religious radicalism. Today’s religious extremists call upon God’s wrath to turn their violence against all those who veered even slightly from strict observance of their credo. This explains why intra-ISIL punishment is regularly practised.

At the polar opposite, God’s first hand is to forgive, to understand and show compassion. This non-violent hand does not enjoy much popularity in radical rhetoric stemming from very binary views.

An inferno circle: from indoctrination to suicide attacks

To attract new potential radicals, recruiters invite them to believe that they are different and have been elected for a holy mission. Recruiters easily anticipate the negative reaction of the close friends of a person on the path of radicalisation. At an early stage, not to antagonise the young recruit from their circle, recruiters will drive a wedge between the candidates and their inner circle, by claiming the candidate has see the “light”, whilst others remain in the dark and lack the faith to access higher levels of religious consciousness. ISIL has gone one step further with its online recruitment form, asking whether candidates were ready to kill their own “infidel” relatives. Gradually, young recruits accept the fact that their commitment is in the best interest of a cause higher than family ties. The inferno circle starts when candidates for suicide bombing gradually change their perspective and adhere to revisionist interpretations of God’s command. Acts, such as killing themselves and fellow human beings, acquire alternative meaning and are now an acceptable means to achieve ones’ end. Suicide bombers, convinced about the importance, the meaning and the honour of their holy mission, embrace the (ir-) rationality of their act. Human laws and codes that condemn such acts are now part of the very world they must destroy. Therefore, any effort to deter a suicide bomber not to act, merely reinforces his/her conviction about the need to end the unholy world so that a better one will emerge. Suicide bombers see themselves as the frontrunners of the necessary apocalypse to overturn the chaos and the moral corruption dominating today’s world.

In Memoriam

There are today little signs that faith-based suicide attacks are fading away, especially with fighters returning to Europe. Calls for suicide attacks, random stabbing, vehicle-borne attacks or derailing trains are increasing. There is a plethora of individual stories that tells of fast-track induction of recruits who made the turn from sinner to radical convert. What will happen with those kids who have been taught during ISIL-run mathematics classes that one suicide bomber plus one suicide bomber equals two mass casualties?

Regardless of who they are, suicide bombers leave behind thousands of people in pain in what resembles a modern-day Massacre of Innocents. RIP.

Bruno Husquinet

Bruno Husquinet has been working in conflict zones since 2003. Leveraging on his professional experience and his background in Slavic Studies, he provides strategic support to profit and non-profit institutions.

Top