It’s not losers who blow themselves up

It’s not the losers who blow themselves up to help jihad. It’s ordinary men who want to take action and help their fellow Muslims, says historian Pieter Nanninga.

For years, Nanninga has studied the videos that suicide bombers leave behind as their message to the world. They explain why they did what they did and what they hope to achieve by it. It’s not the most cheerful subject, but it is extremely relevant.

‘Watching these farewell videos is very confrontational’, Nanninga, a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies, admits. ‘I watched them a lot, and when I watch them they have already committed their attack. That is tough sometimes, but it is my job and I watch them from a professional point of view.’

These days, researching terrorism is trendy. Since 9/11, the research field has been booming and everyone is interested. But when Nanninga started his research six years ago, not much had been written on jihadi media yet, so he had to find out quite a lot for himself.

72 virgins

He soon stumbled upon the suicide attack videos produced by the media arm of Al Qaeda, called Al Sahab, and decided to focus on these.

Nanninga accessed dozens of videos, mainly through forums. Although some of the forums are exclusive, the videos often spread across the internet and sometimes even end up on YouTube.

It’s a huge effort, because they’re no quick clips of several minutes – they can easily be two hours long. In the end, he took twenty of them to analyze in depth.

Nanninga soon discovered that the way we view the Muslim martyrs needs adjustment. We often think these terrorist kill themselves and others because they believe that 72 virgins will tend to all their needs in paradise. ‘That is a profitable means for organisations, because it doesn’t cost a lot’, says Nanninga.

Mujahedeen are your fortress

But his analysis reveals a different story. ‘Themes such as sacrifice, honour, dignity of Islam and the Muslim world are really important when you look at the meaning of these attacks for the perpetrators.’

In the videos, it’s not only the jihadists themselves who appear but also religious leaders explaining the attacks, or clips of victims of Western attacks in the Middle East. ‘The Mujahedeen are your fortified fortress, heavy armor and beating heart’, says one of them in a video about the London attacks in 2005. ‘They delight at your happiness and cry at your sadness. They stay awake at night for you and are protective of you. Their hearts break in pain for your condition.’

The suicide attackers themselves often speak of the oppression and humiliation suffered by Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria: ‘Nobody helps the Muslims.’

As suicide bomber Shezad Tanweer says: ‘Muslim blood has come cheap. Where are those who’ll avenge the blood of our children in Palestine?’

Defend the religion

That’s where he – and other jihadists – come in. They feel that someone has to take action. ‘For them, it is clear that they have to defend their religion, their fellow believers, and the Muslim world’, explains Nanninga.

That paradise wasn’t the main reason for the suicide attacks wasn’t unexpected to Nanninga. He was more surprised by the pivotal role that feelings of humiliation and honour appear to play. ‘I found it’s a prime motivation for their struggle. They’re talking about it almost every minute in the video.’

Finally, Nanninga also took a closer look at the ‘martyrs’ themselves. Again, the concept of who becomes a suicide attacker is more nuanced than the Western public tends to believe. ‘We think it is the losers who are doing it, the failures that want to escape life. But that is not the impression I get from these videos.’

Globalized movement

Instead, they are ordinary men. ‘Not very poor or unemployed, not psychotic. They are guys who are touched by the suffering of their fellow Muslims.’

To Nanninga, after watching them for so many hours – be it on tape – has brought him some understanding of them. ‘They are usually ordinary boys, young too, who believe they are doing the right thing to help their brothers and sisters. That’s tragic. But they’re actions remain horrible of course.’

He is not condoning the actions of the terrorists, but he wants to understand what they are doing. ‘I think that is important and that it should be done.’

People in the West will have to accept that jihadism isn’t as easily explained as they might want it to be. It is not a backward or medieval ideology, but a modern movement. ‘It’s tough to recognize that this is also part of modernity. It’s not only freedom and democracy – modernity can also mean other things to other people that might be confrontational.’

The jihadists Nanninga researched are no misled fools, nor are they people who, given time, will eventually become like ‘us’. ‘That’s not doing justice to who and what they are’, he says. ‘They are part of a globalized movement.’