Combating the Ideology of Suicide Terrorism in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 21

Although there was no record of Afghan suicide attacks during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the pursuant civil war, suicide attacks in the country have steadily increased since the fall of the Taliban. Since January, more than 85 suicide attacks in Afghanistan have killed or injured 700 people (BBC Persian, October 13). Recently, on September 30, a suicide bomber blew himself up in an entryway to the Afghan Interior Ministry, killing more than 12 people and injuring 42 others (Radio Farda, September 30). Since the September 30 attack, Kabul has suffered from at least one suicide bombing per week. Statistics show that this year alone, Afghanistan was hit by more suicide attacks than in all past years combined. With the absence of a historical tradition of suicide attacks, important cultural and sociological questions must be addressed. For example, what has convinced Afghans to adopt suicide attacks as a military tactic? When was this tactic adopted? Were there outside influences or examples that influenced Afghans? Most importantly, can this ideology of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan be combated?

Suicide Attacks: Low-Cost and High Profile

After the fall of the Taliban, there was a large-scale campaign to bolster the support of the Afghan government through the strengthening of the Afghan army and the presence of coalition forces. Initially, this made ground operations for the Taliban difficult. In recent months, however, the Taliban insurgency has adapted and has changed tactics to fit the new situation on the ground. Kabul-based Afghan analyst Fahim Dashti, the editor of Kabul Weekly, argued that the current surge in suicide attacks marks a “change in tactics by the Taliban.” He stated that “suicide attacks have been executed to decrease the Taliban’s causalities” and “to create fear” among the Afghan people. Dashti explained that by “killing civilians and causing insecurity, the Taliban want to motivate people against the foreigners in Afghanistan” (Radio Dari, May 12). The rationale behind this strategy rests on the assumption that the population will blame the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government, rather than the Taliban, for the lack of security in the country.

Mukhtar Pidran, an Afghan political analyst, told The Jamestown Foundation on October 2 that the Taliban needed to have an instrument for imposing their religious influence on people who resisted their position. “Insurgents brought suicide terrorism to Afghanistan since it had worked in Iraq. Mostly here [Afghanistan], people are illiterate and know less about the complicated issues of Islam like jihad [amaliyat istishhadi] or martyrdom and can therefore be easily duped into adopting them. Through their use of suicide attacks, insurgents have reaped great benefits. For example, a suicide attack that claims the lives of many people can put a group in the headlines of the international media.” Pidram added, “This tactic is working in Afghanistan and is giving the Taliban and other insurgents a high-profile identity.”

The “Islamic Theory” Behind Suicide Attacks

Abdullah Azzam, one of the masterminds behind Hamas, theorized suicide attacks and spent part of the 1980s in Peshawar supporting Afghan mujahideen who were fighting against the Soviet invasion. He found religious and Islamic justifications for using suicide attacks against Israel and in the greater Muslim world (Payam-e-Mujahid, September 27). The first suicide attacker in Afghanistan was in 1992 when an Egyptian fighter for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Kunar killed Maulvi Jamil Rahman, a Salafi leader who was against Hekmatyar and headed the Jamaat al-Dawat w’al-Quran wa Sunna group (Payam-e-Mujahid, September 27). Suicide attacks, however, increased in Afghanistan after the September 9, 2001 assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance who fought against the Taliban. It is believed that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ordered the assassination. In the first years of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, the Taliban rarely used Afghans as suicide bombers. Yet, since the end of 2005, suicide bombings have been widely exercised by Taliban insurgents.

Al-Qaeda and their allies in the Taliban have published books for their followers in which they call upon men to join the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami—groups that are based on Sharia law. A series of books in which they argue for the legitimacy of their actions is called “Zad al-Salam,” or the “Muslim Provision.” These books are used in military training centers and give justifications for every military tactic based on statements from the Quran, Hadith and the Sunna. The fourth series of the “Muslim Provision,” titled “Al-Amaliyat al-Istishhadiya Fil Islam Wa Hukm Aawan al-Tawaghiet Wa Junudahum,” specifically focuses on suicide attacks. The 158-page book bases the legitimacy of suicide attacks in Buruj, a chapter of the Quran, which focuses on jihad, bravery and the toleration of difficulties. The author references suicide attacks to a part of Buruj which states that Allah prefers those Muslims who fight against threats to their religion. The author additionally links encouragement for joining jihad to committing suicide attacks. For example, he quotes a story about one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions who asked the Prophet whether a person would be martyred if he was slain fighting infidels. The Prophet answered, “He would enter Paradise.” In response, his companion went to the scene of the war and fought until his death (Payam-e-Mujahid, September 27).

These factors make clear that there are religious reasons driving the attackers to sacrifice themselves for the “benefits of others.” The majority of Afghans who have attended religious schools in Pakistan or in other Muslim countries are easily indoctrinated by the religious propaganda issued in these madrassas. Unfortunately, many begin their studies at a young age and therefore their knowledge of Islam is confined to the often misguided teachings they receive.

Sociological Landscape of Afghan Suicide Attacks

Motivating an Afghan to perform a suicide attack is no simple task. The leaders of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami motivate insurgents in the name of “Afghanistan’s occupation” and the obligation to perform jihad (Terrorism Focus, October 10). The creation of a Sharia-based Islamic government is the motivation that extremists use to rally the support of insurgents. They argue that infidels dominate the secular government of Karzai and are not properly pursuing Sharia (Afghan National Security Intelligence Report, October 4). One such way that insurgent leaders recruit fighters is by saying that the West is decadent and completely opposed to the implementation of Sharia. One Afghan intelligence agent reported that in many madrassas for Afghan students, videotapes are played that show women in the West wearing bikinis while walking in public and going to nightclubs (Azadi Radio, October 4). Students at these seminaries are taught that Afghan girls employed by NGOs are sexual bait for the Western male employees. By pushing these views about the United States and European countries, extremist groups motivate Afghans to engage in conflict against the coalition. Many of the people in the seminaries want to see Sharia implemented, at least outwardly such as in the national dress code (, September 29).

Yet the main unresolved question is that of the domestic makeup of the suicide attackers. Since its formation in late 2001, the Afghan government has yet to create active diplomatic channels with other Islamic countries. It is alleged in other Muslim societies that Afghanistan is an “occupied country” and therefore it is necessary for Muslims to engage in jihad against the “occupation.” These sentiments encourage Muslims to fight Western and government forces in Afghanistan.

Afghan MP and political scholar Qayum Sajjadi, in an interview with The Jamestown Foundation on October 7, said that there should be a difference between a country under “occupation” and a country that has “invited” foreign forces to help maintain stability. “The foreign diplomacy system in Afghanistan acts passively,” said Sajjadi. “The diplomats should contact the Islamic countries to define their position about what is taking place in Afghanistan. Afghan diplomats should contact the people, media and governments of Islamic countries to explain the conditions in Afghanistan in order to prevent fighters from these outside countries from joining the Taliban. Afghan diplomats should argue that their constitution is Islamic and that their law is Islamic. This will remove the perception held in other Muslim countries that Afghanistan is a country under occupation.” Unfortunately, Afghan elites and moderate clerics are not taking active roles in promoting the image of their country abroad. In Afghanistan’s media and elite circles, for example, there is a lack of scientific discussion on the use of suicide tactics (, September 29).


The main question that remains is how to curb suicide attacks in Afghanistan, which has increasingly become both a tactical ideology and a popular fear that may change the face of traditional Afghan culture. It is critical to propose methods for curbing suicide attacks so that they do not become culturally inured into Afghan culture.

The leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not experts in Islamic jurisprudence nor well-respected Islamic scholars, but rather a group that have the potential to resist even Islamic Sharia if it is necessitated by their political ambitions. Since Afghanistan was subjected to the rule of extremism for nearly the past three decades, it is very difficult to purify the Islamic jurisprudence from the extremists’ ideology. Yet it is the essential need of Afghanistan to purify Islam of this ideology. The work of countering extremist ideology has been started in other Islamic countries by some scholars.

Aside from the purification of extremist Islamic ideology, the role of politics in the development of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan runs deep. The existence of madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan—a country that has used Islamism for its political objectives in Afghanistan and Kashmir—shows that a significant number of seminaries are used to indoctrinate and radicalize students. These seminaries are specifically operated for political objectives. The practical way to counter this is to open moderate seminaries in Afghanistan.

Another practical way to curb violence and suicide attacks is an active foreign policy that engages other Islamic countries in the Arab world. Good ties with Islamic governments will help connect people and will encourage them to share radio and television programs from their respective countries. This will also reduce the validity of the argument that Afghanistan is under occupation. Moreover, it is important to act upon a coherent strategy that introduces Afghanistan to the world as an Islamic and democratic country.

Finally, in domestic affairs, forming committees with the participation of real Islamic scholars is the only way to prevent Afghan citizens from joining extremist groups. Academic institutions, mosques and the media could be a great help in curbing suicide terrorism. Acting upon such a strategy, the Ministry of Haj and Awqaf could lead the mosques and clerics in the campaign against this violent ideology.