Suicide Terrorism: Are ISIS’ Martyrs Really Martyrs?

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An ISIS terrorist (Photo: screenshot from ISIS propaganda video)
An ISIS terrorist (Photo: screenshot from ISIS propaganda video)

Acts of suicidal-terrorism are determinedly gory and extremist. But they are oftentimes mythologized as heroic acts or defined with terms which, although used by the mass media, are absolutely erroneous and inappropriate.

They induce in their message a media mystification of the truth that often confuses the public, “fueling” the campaigns of death. One such term is “martyrdom.”

The word “martyrdom,” since the first appearance of the term, means something substantially different in the three monotheistic religions. Specifically, in the framework of Islamism, the causes and effects of martyrdom are reversed, i.e. death in battle becomes the door to gain access to heaven.

In Christianity, the term martyrdom derives from Greek word martyrion (a testament to faith). The theme recurs in commentaries of the Old and New Testament, but what is highlighted in the Judeo-Christian concept of martyrdom is the sacrifice of a person to help or save the lives of others, a noble act of oblation without committing any violence acts. There is not an “a priori” project or proclamation to the fulfillment of that sacrifice.

In Christianity as well as Judaism, there are no “shortcuts” to achieving eternal happiness. In Christian theology, one’s eschatological future draws deeply from the actions of one’s life in this world — including the possibility of failure (which can result in dramatic consequences).

Jewish religious law, halacha, was founded to consecrate God and sanctify daily life by observing all the precepts of Jewish law, the Shabbat (Sabbath) being one central part of the Jewish faith. Putting “the principle” ahead of life itself is something that Judaism finds eschews (with a few exceptions).

Contrast these attitudes to the concept of martyrdom as promoted by ISIS. Violence is exalted and linked to a paradigmatic purity. In “jihad,”  the roles and causes of martyrdom are reversed. Death in battle becomes the door to gain access to Heaven. It offers a single, exclusive chance of redemption and is an act that can trigger forgiveness, salvation and heroism. It is this regard that the jihadi has an absolute certainty that the Christian or Jew does not.

The way Islamist extremists advertise jihad and promote martyrdom is constantly evolving. Professionally-made magazines and films are published by ISIS’ global network, continually perfecting their message. Such propaganda aims to trigger “psychological movements” to entice the listener to become a “martyr” for the cause of Islam.

Historical Precedent

The efficacy of such recruitment paths has both historical precedent and support from psycho-sociological evidence. These “paths” have been used in other socio-political realities, for example by the Japanese government to train the tokkotai (kamikazes) and by the Nazi regime to form death squads and support scientific research to justify one of the greatest tragedies of humanity, the Holocaust.

These examples of violent fanaticism are interconnected. The submission, illusion and enslavement of the individual who participates has nothing to do with justice, science or even real martyrdom.

Although the manipulators of this terror would have us believe that these acts are done voluntarily and freely, in most cases, jihadists are drawn in by a sophisticated psychological process used to destabilize their existing interpersonal relationships. In addition, they are often used on people who are already in a state of social exclusion and psychological instability.

History provides some context: It shows that these acts do not occur in a random repetitive circle, but rather in “linear time,” based on a legacy that goes back to previous experiences of human conduct.

These acts can remain dormant for some time, then resurface in generational transfer. Thus, the historical evolution of political terrorism in Italy, for example, follows leftist groups (the heritage of “betrayal” of the struggle of the partisans) but ideologically and symbolically is bound to the “red wire” of the rationalist Enlightenment and French revolution.

In contrast, terrorism perpetrated by right-wing groups has as its deeps roots national-socialist politics. In Germany, its roots go back to the studies of Heinrich Himmler and the occultism of the Third Reich’s Deutsches Ahnenerbe (the “scientific” institute dedicated to researching the superiority of the Ayran race).

Another example can be found in the Islamized conflicts in the Balkan region. Even though the conflict dates back 90 years, it was suddenly transformed into an active scene played out by the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) fighting to affirm the caliphate alongside ISIS.



G.S. MELA,  Islam, nascita, espansione, involuzione, Armando editore, Roma 2005, p.167

 –  Cfr. AA.VV.,  La predicazione dell’inferno oggi, La Civiltà Cattolica editrice, Roma 1992, quaderno 3404 – II  p. 111.

 –  A.Orsini, I terroristi più fortunati del mondo e tutto ciò che è stato fatto per favorirli, Rizzoli editore, Milano 2016, p. 43.

  –   A. Lepre, La storia della Repubblica di Mussolini: Salò il tempo dell’odio e della violenza, Mondadori editore, Milano 1999, p.268.

 –  Cfr.  E. Ohnuki-Tierney, La Vera Storia dei Kamikaze giapponesi, la militarizzazione dell’estetica nell’Impero del Sol Levante, Mondadori editori,  Torino 2004, p. 316.

–   Cfr. AA.VV.  La radicalizzazione del terrorismo islamico Elementi per uno studio del fenomeno di proselitismo in carcere, Istituto Superiore di Studi Penitenziari, Ministero della Giustizia, Dipart. Amministrazione Penitenziaria, Roma Giugno 2012, n°9, p. 22.

–   J.J Sanguineti, Il tempo tra scienza e filosofia, a cura di G. Giorello, E. Sindoni, Corrado Sinigaglia, Edizioni Unicopli, Milano 2002, pp. 223-231.

–   Cfr. M. Zagni, Archeologici di Himmler, Ricerche, spedizioni e misteri della Deutsches Ahnenerbe, Ritter editore,  Milano 2004, pp.17-18.

–   Dati che risultano in linea con quanto esposto recentemente dal Kosovar Center for Security Studies (Kcss), secondo cui il Kosovo sarebbe il paese che avrebbe fornito il maggior numero di foreign fighters in rapporto alla popolazione.



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