Martyrdom video

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A still from the martyrdom video of Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi (right) before his 2009 suicide bombing, at Khost Afghanistan, which killed 7 CIA officers. With him is Hakimullah Mehsud

Martyrdom videos are video recordings, generally from Islamist jihadists who are about to take part in a suicide attack and expect to die during their intended actions. They typically include a statement by the person preparing to be a martyr for their cause. They can be of amateur or professional quality and often incorporate text, music and sentimental clips.[1] The people in these videos typically sit or stand in front of a black Islamic flag, or other symbol of their allegiance. Suicide bombers considered themselves religiously justified by sharia and consider themselves to be shahid.

Such videos are widely circulated for propaganda purposes following the event by the groups behind them. Martyrdom videos are psychological weapons as their primary purpose is to establish validity for their actions, inspire fear in enemies, or spread their ideology for political or religious ambitions.[2]

Two large groups who dispatch martyrdom videos after operations are Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers.[3] Martyrdom videos differ from other media used by terrorists like operational statements, topical and analytic statements, and inspirational texts.[1]

Religious justification of suicide bombings[edit]

See also: Istishhad

Martyrdom videos base their product on the religious justifiability of their actions; namely suicide attacks or martyrdom operations. Verses from the Qur'an are regularly cited in martyrdom videos to provide religious justification.[4] Suicide is condemned in Islam according to the Qur’an, whereas martyrdom is praised. Also, fellow Muslims are not to be attacked or they commit fitna.

"You shall spend in the cause of Allah; do not throw yourselves with your own hands into destruction. You shall be charitable; Allah loves the charitable." —Qu’ran 2:195
"Let those fight in the way of Allah who sell the life of this world for the other. Whoso fight in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him We shall bestow a vast reward." —Qu’ran 4:74

Suicide bombers do not see their act as an act of suicide but rather of martyrdom. This point is clearly stated in a martyrdom video by Dani Dwi Permana, a suicide bomber in the July 2009 attack in Jakarta, who says, "This is not suicide. This is what our enemies fear. It is an obligation for all (Muslims). Those who do not execute this obligation are sinners."[5] By declaring his action to be obligatory for Muslims, he is using his martyrdom video to present the religious justification for his action. This view is upheld by many radical scholars fatwas.[6] The call against fitna is suspended in radical fatwas as proclaimed by the martyrdom video of Tanvir Hussain, "I don’t hold any person to be innocent for the slaughter of the Muslim. Collateral damage is going to be inevitable. People are going to die."[7]

The term martyrdom operations is preferable for extremists, and is most frequently used in martyrdom videos, as it links the suicide bombing with the Islamic call to jihad and is thus religiously justifiable. The religious justifiability of suicide bombings hinges on its applicability to legitimate jihad, which has changed throughout time.[8] Suicide bombings are outlined as acceptable jihad in extremist fatwas, therefore, are acceptable in Islamic law according to extremists. However, suicide bombings are not considered religiously justified by the great majority of the world's Muslims.[4]

As propaganda[edit]

A type of propaganda by deed though not necessarily a form of anarchism, martyrdom videos have two propaganda purposes; externally (the enemy) and internally (the Islamic community). The language, style, and messages will differ depending on what audience they are trying to reach.[9] The videos are intended to preserve the memory of their subjects, and to justify and glorify their actions. They may also serve the function of committing their makers to their actions, by making a public statement of commitment that they feel they cannot go back on. Martyrdom videos tend to be more elaborate and show different stages of activity than other terrorist media.[2] Subsequently, military personnel and other victims can piece together informants, collaborators, and techniques based on the propaganda element of the videos. Video is not the only propaganda element concerning suicide bombing.[10]


As Robert Pape points out, "Only a community can make a martyr. Using elaborate ceremonies… to identify the death of a suicide attacker with the good of the community, suicide terrorist organizations can promote the idea that their members should be accorded martyr status."[11] In his view, the goal of terrorists employing suicide tactics is to redefine acts of suicide as acts of martyrdom.[11]

Recruitment is a main objective for martyrdom videos.[12] Martyrs videotape themselves giving their reasons for their attack in the hopes of affecting the people of their community or family.[13] Hezbollah is particularly prolific in their production of martyrdom videos to generate support locally.[14] Many U.S. politicians believe martyrdom videos to be the lifeblood of terrorism as a propaganda tool for recruitment.[4]


Martyrdom videos seek to humiliate and demoralize opposition forces. Videos also try to convince would-be martyrs to launch their attacks.[15] Often cited in martyr testimonials is the desire to be freed from the oppression of some external force.[16] Despite massive losses to Al-Qaeda since 2002, they managed to distribute a seven minute, professionally edited martyrdom video in the hopes of seeking recruits and snubbing the American war effort.[17] Many of the sites that distribute anti-Western or anti-Israeli messages are in Arabic, though it is fairly common to find videos in English, or dubbed into English, to reach a Western audience.[17]


Training stage[edit]

Martyrdom operations recruits are filmed throughout their training.[17] These videos have snippet sayings from martyrs-in-training. One such video in Pakistan shows a young man telling the camera, "If I die, do not cry for me. I will be in Heaven waiting for you"; he later died in a suicide attack.[13] Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi had his martyrdom operation postponed for several days in order to get the necessary footage.[18] These early videos show the drive and fidelity of terrorists, as well as the support of their community, before the operations. The training stage is typically immediately before the event, but some suicide bombers are trained from a very young age.[19]

The attack[edit]

A cameraman is usually near the location of the bombing to video tape the attack. Video taped terrorist attacks are distinct from martyrdom videos in they show the action but not the intention. Martyrdom videos are intended to give the justification and reasoning behind the action. It is not always necessary to video tape the actual attack as suicide attacks tend to be in public where there will be witnesses. IED attacks are more likely to be videotaped to prove their success or for propaganda purposes.[20] Cameramen have been killed while documenting the attack. The most famous Tamil Tiger attack, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, was videotaped, though the cameraman got too close and was killed in the process.[21]

Martyr biography[edit]

Videos typically include the name of the insurgent group, a religious message or passage from the Qur’an, a sermon from a notable extremist figurehead or song, followed by the message content.[22] Insurgents firing mortars, exploding IED’s, or other military actions are usually masked, whereas martyrdom videos must show the face of the martyr.[22] Each martyr has different reasons and motivations for their particular attack which are represented in their personal message to family, community, and world. Often, if the attack is not a lone wolf operation, the martyr will appear with a notable extremist.[23][24] The main objective of the video is to present the intentions of the martyr. The quality and depth of the video will depend on the resources and network of the martyr.


Many martyrdom videos are self-produced and of very low quality. However, professional-grade martyrdom videos are becoming more common due to the continued War on terror and on the resources and technology available to the group attempting the suicide attack.[25] Local TV stations may air the martyrdom video though in Pakistan, martyrdom videos are illegal to air.[13] “Filmmaker” has become a necessary job in any major terrorist organization.[5] Al-Jazeera and the Global Islamic Media Forum (GIMF) are known to broadcast martyrdom videos.[2][23]


Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Abdulmutallab case[edit]

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was inspired by Al-Awlaki’s internet writings and traveled to Yemen to meet with Al-Awlaki. After he was deemed to be a suitable suicide bomber, Abdulmutallab was given two weeks of weapons training. He was then taught to use the bomb, which was sewed into his underwear. After the operation was planned, Abdulmutallab was filmed in a 5-minute martyrdom video, which was produced by a professional crew.[24]

Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi case[edit]

Balawi was caught by Jordanian intelligence and used as a double agent against Baitullah Mehsud. He supposedly made contact with Al-Zawahiri and proposed to meet with the CIA at Camp Chapman. He trained for the attack for a few days and was videotaped. Upon meeting the CIA agents in Afghanistan, he detonated his explosive vest, killing seven. After the attack, Hakimullah Mehsud released his martyrdom video where Balawi proclaimed, “We never forget our martyrs, we never forget our prisoners.”[26]

Arshad Ali case[edit]

His martyrdom video is straightforward. He cradles an AK-47, stares into the camera and proclaims that, “some hypocrites say that we are doing this for money- or because of brainwashing- but we are told by Allah to target these pagans,” in order to disprove the belief that the families of suicide bombers were paid after the attacks. He then pleads with his father to quit working at the bank as it practices usury, which is against Islam. He finishes by saying, “I invite my fellows to sacrifice themselves.” The film switches to the devastation caused by his attack on a polling station in Pakistan. He was 15 years old.[13]



Eliciting a reaction is the primary ambition for a suicide bombing; videos make the mission objective. Many Islamic scholars refuse to accept the religious justifiability of such operations and thus have negative reactions to the videos. Advocate/scholars promote a wider anti-martyrdom operation and desire to get their message out using the same media as the terrorists.[27] Some people who oppose martyrdom videos have begun making their own videos on YouTube in protest.[28]

Negative community reaction example[edit]

Martyrdom videos can have an adverse effect on their community as well. Mohammed Kahn, a shop keeper in Islamabad, responded to a Taliban martyrdom video by saying, “I always had a soft corner of my heart for the Taliban because I thought that they were good Muslims and they were fighting against injustice. But when I saw men being slaughtered like beasts in executions, and boys going to kill themselves, I was shocked.”[13]


Islamists who seek to become martyrs find motivation and courage to carry out actions from martyrdom videos.[29] Suicide bombings have high symbolic value, which is represented in their martyrdom videos, and serve as symbols of a just struggle, galvanize popular support, generate financial support for the organization and become a source of new recruits for future suicide missions.[30] Some scholars believe the whole of suicide bombing is to gain acceptance by the community, thus the movies aide in gaining the sought after recognition.[31] If unsuccessful, suicide bombers will likely be open to trying again even after seeing footage of the people they would have killed.[32]

Positive community reaction example[edit]

Mahmoud al-Obeid attacked a Jewish settlement in June 2002. His mother, Naima, appeared in her son’s martyrdom video and proclaimed, “God willing, you will succeed. May every bullet hit its target, and may God give you martyrdom. This is the best day of my life.” [33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo, “Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and Ideas.” RFE.RL Special Report by Radio Liberty, June 2007, 13
  2. ^ a b c "Multimedia Content Coding and Analysis : Unraveling the Content of Jihadi Extremeist Groups'" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  3. ^ Robert Pape, Dying to Win. New York: Random House (2005): 259.
  4. ^ a b c "Understanding suicide attacks". openDemocracy. 2007-06-21. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  5. ^ a b Adam Gartrell, “Terror Threat in Video,” The Courier Mail (Australia), September 30, 2009.
  6. ^ Shmuel Bar, Warrant for Terror: The Fatwas of Radical Islam and the Duty to Jihad. New York: Rowman and Littlefield (2006): 14
  7. ^ Adrian Shaw, “I am Over the Moon that I’ll be a Terrorist; Jet Blast Plot Accused’s Chilling Video Boast Terror Trial 1” The Mirror. April 15, 2008.
  8. ^ Michael Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2006).
  9. ^ Gabriel Weimann, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, The New Challenges. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace (2006): 62.
  10. ^ ""Birds of Paradise" – Martyrdom Recruitment as Children's Entertainment :: The Investigative Project on Terrorism". Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  11. ^ a b Pape, 82.
  12. ^ Pape, 133.
  13. ^ a b c d e Nick Meo, “Video Diaries of Taliban’s Boy Suicide Bombers,” The Sunday Telegraph (London), May 31, 2009.
  14. ^ Pape, 204-205.
  15. ^ Paul Harris (2010-01-09). "CIA bomber's 'martyrdom' video urges more US attacks | World news | The Observer". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  16. ^ Pape, 138-139.
  17. ^ a b c Gabriel Weimann, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, The New Challenges. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace (2006): 43.
  18. ^ Joby Warrick, The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA. New York: Doubleday (2011): 160.
  19. ^ "5-yr-olds enact suicide bombing in video - Times Of India". 2011-03-07. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  20. ^ Kimmage, 27.
  21. ^ Pape, 227.
  22. ^ a b Kimmage, 26.
  23. ^ a b Paul Harris, “World: CIA Bomber made “Martyrdom” Video: Killer of US Drone Agents Warned of More Attacks,” The Observer (England), January 10, 2010.
  24. ^ a b Warren Richey, “Underwear Bomber gets Life,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 16, 2012.
  25. ^ Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda in Iraq are known to produce high quality martyrdom videos. (Kimmage 26)
  26. ^ Joby Warrick, The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA. New York: Doubleday (2011).
  27. ^ "Suicide Bombers: The Psychological, Religious and Other Imperatives (NATO Science for Peace and Security Series E: Human and Societal Dynamics): M. Sharpe: 9781586038861: Books". 2008-07-15. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  28. ^ "Suicide Bombing in Nigeria - Reaction of Africans in New York". YouTube. 2011-06-17. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  29. ^ "Psychological profile of Mohammed Merah, the Beast of Toulouse". Amir Mizroch. 2012-03-22. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  30. ^ Riaz Hassan. "What Motivates The Suicide Bombers?". Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  31. ^ Harvey Gordon (2001-09-11). "The ‘suicide’ bomber: is it a psychiatric phenomenon?". Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  32. ^ "Watch Gaza Terrorist React to Video of Her Failed Suicide Bombing Attempt to Kill Israelis - Yahoo News". 2011-12-21. Retrieved 2013-10-02. 
  33. ^ Robert Pape, 233

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