The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom
USIP Press Books
July 2007
285 pp.
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“Brilliantly considered, crisply written, unsparing in its conclusions, Suicide Bombers in Iraq is an absolutely essential contribution to understanding the factions that are warring over the future of that shattered country, the region, and Islam.”

—Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy. Instead it has delivered the message that Islamic resistance and martyrdom can defeat the only remaining superpower, just as jihadists drove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan during the 1980s. Now a haven for jihadists, Iraq has entered a civil war whose duration, scope, and magnitude have yet to be determined.

The overwhelming majority of suicide attacks in Iraq have targeted Iraqi security forces and Shia civilians, not coalition forces. The perpetrators appear to be largely non-Iraqi volunteers. Many are from Saudi Arabia, but substantial numbers have come from Europe, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan and North Africa. They are foiling U.S. plans to stabilize the country and turn it into a democratic regime and an ally in a region of religious radicalism, entrenched authoritarianism, and hostile states with nuclear ambitions.

Understanding the phenomenon of suicide bombing in Iraq is therefore vitally important for U.S. national security, foreign policy in the Muslim world, and the war on terrorism. This study, the first of its kind on the Iraqi insurgency, draws extensively on open-source intelligence and papers of record, primary sources from insurgent groups including online documents and videos, and interviews with U.S. servicemen who have served in Iraq. It examines the history of suicide bombing in Iraq and many other countries, theoretical perspectives on suicide bombing, the varied factions that comprise the insurgency, the ideology and theology of martyrdom supporting suicide bombers, their national origins and characteristics, and the prospects for a “third generation” of transnational jihadists forged in the crucible of Iraq.

Mohammed Hafez is a visiting professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. A grantee of the United States Institute of Peace and a former Guggenheim Foundation fellow and USIA fellow, his previous publications include Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World (2003).


  • Foreword
  • Introduction: Suicide Bombers in Historical and Theoretical Perspective
  • Nationalists and Baathists
  • The Jihadi Salafis
  • Suicide Terrorism in the Iraqi Insurgency
  • The Ideology and Theology of Martyrdom
  • Martyrdom Mythology in Iraq
  • Arab Fighters in Iraq
  • European Muslims in Iraq
  • Implications for Theory and Policy

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