The recourse to suicide operations for Islamist militant currents has become part of the current culture of fundamentalism. If we want to discuss the current era, secular groups were the first to adopt this phenomenon, especially in the operations of the Communist Party or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in Lebanon against the Israelis or other foreign forces. The most famous operation was carried out by Sanaa Mehaydali, a Shia Lebanese woman and member of the SSNP, when she detonated herself against an Israeli target in April 1985, in South Lebanon.
Observers point out that the Iraqi Shia Dawa Party, as part of its operations against Saddam Hussein’s regime, used to carry out what could be referred to as suicide operations, the most famous being an attack in the Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad in 1981. A member of the Iraqi Shia Dawa Party who was in possession of a bomb, thrust himself into a hall where the then Minister Tariq Aziz was holding a conference. Nevertheless, suicide operations using belts or cars have become a more recent phenomenon. Perhaps it owes its infamy to the attacks carried out by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah members in the Occupied Territories. These operations have provoked huge controversy between Muslim scholars with some allowing them and supporting them whilst others prohibited them and considered them haram (religiously forbidden).
Scholars have disagreed upon the consideration that suicide is haram or even extremely prohibited in Islam however, a group of Muslim scholars in Jordan produced a fatwa on the legitimacy of suicide operations and the Ulema of Al Azhar issued a fatwa in the same direction. Dr. Youssef al Qardawi says, “These operations are considered one of the greatest types of jihad in the name of God. They are part of legitimate terrorism.” He demonstrated that the designation of “suicide” was erroneous, preferring instead to define them as “martyrdom operations by freedom fighters”. For his part, Said Ramadan Al Bouti, a faqih (Islamic scholar) in Syria, underlined the legitimacy of these acts saying, “These operations are 100% valid.” The sheikh of Al Azhar held different views in this respect; he was cautious about these operations in Sharia but then supported them in reply to Jewish religious leaders who had asked him to intervene to stop these operations by Palestinians.
In Saudi Arabia, some of the most prominent scholars rejected the legitimacy of suicide operations. Sheikh Mohammad bin Uthaymeen, one of the most well-known faqihs in Saudi Arabia, who died prior to the September 11 attacks said, “My opinion is that the subject is killing himself and that he will suffer in hell with what he killed himself with… It is extraordinary that these [men] kill themselves despite God forbidding this. Many of them simply seek revenge from the enemy, irrespective of it being haram or not. He seeks only to alleviate his anger.” This was also the opinion of Saudi Arabia’s Mufti Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh. In one of the most infamous suicide bombings, the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan was targeted in November 1995. A bomber believed to be a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad rammed his car into the building.
Yet, the attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 remain the most well known and biggest suicide operation in recent years. Nineteen hijackers took control of four internal US flights and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in the capital. The fourth flight crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Saudi Arabia has been rocked by several suicide bombings over the past few years, including the bombing of the Al Hamra and Granada complexes in Riyadh in May 2003 and the bombing of Al Mahya complex in November of the same year, which was carried out by two Saudi nationals. The General Security offices were also targeted in the Saudi capital in Al Washm neighborhood in April 2004 by a young and newly religious Saudi man. Suicide operations are a recent phenomenon in Saudi Arabia and a new facet of terrorism in the Kingdom. The first attack took place in November 1995 when a National Guards building was targeted but no people were involved in the operation as a car exploded by the building.
One of the least effective operations in Saudi Arabia, given that the only casualties were those executing it, was the operation that targeted the Ministry of Interior and the training buildings that are annexed to it in 2005. Five organizers were killed when their car bomb detonated.
However, suicide bombings are not exclusive to Saudi Arabia, as they have recently hit Midan Al Tahrir and Khan Al Khalili, historical landmarks in Cairo, Egypt as well as other important locations in the city in April and May 2005. Unusually, women took part in these operations and detonated their explosives after being surrounded by security forces. The two women were the fiancée and sister of bomber Raafat Bashandi. This highlights the issue of suicide bombers detonating their explosives and killing themselves before causing harm to others out of fear being caught.
One of the most famous operations of this kind took place in Suwayr mosque in Al Jawf, in northern Saudi Arabia in July 2003, when a number of terrorists were killed, most prominent of which was Turki Al Dandani, after security forces besieged them. Strangely, this was a suicide attack without an explicit target/enemy. However, it later became evident that there is a religious justification for these types of actions. One of the preachers of terrorism (who is currently in jail following the wave of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia) issued a fatwa that allows these acts by basing precedents in Islamic jurisprudence that he believed could be applied to similar situations. For example, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Ibrahim Al Shiekh, a former Saudi Mufti who died in 1969, issued a fatwa that allows a prisoner to kill himself in order not to divulge secrets under torture. This came in response to the queries of some muhajideen in Algeria during the liberation war against France about whether it is legitimate for prisoners to kill themselves instead of revealing secrets to the enemy. “Algerian Muslims asked whether it was valid for an individual to commit suicide out of fear of being tortured. I said to them: If the situation is as you say, then it is permitted.” Nevertheless, the Mufti is quick to add his reservations about the issue and to qualify his reply.
This argument was included in a book entitled “selected passages on suicide out of fear of revealing secrets,” published on numerous extremist websites. The writer appears not to have found a jurist opinion that would permit him outright to commit suicide if about to fall into enemy hands. He said, “On this matter, I say we do not need to ask the Ulema to give their legal opinion on issues that might occur.” However, he continues in his discussion and divides prisoners into two categories saying that those who carry relatively valuable and minor secrets should suffer and that it would not be permitted for him to kill himself. Nevertheless, those who carry valuable secrets and are the leaders of movements should not surrender themselves if they believe that they would divulge their secrets. Instead, he should commit suicide and become a martyr, according to this justification.
In conclusion, suicide operations that have now become synonymous with Islamic extremism have been linked to Islamic jurisprudence and past operations.