Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 11/2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Logic of Foreign Fighters as Suicide Bombers

October 2014

The Soufan Group


• While there is understandable concern that an unknown percentage of foreign fighters fighting for the so-called Islamic State (IS) might return to their home countries intent on continuing the fight, IS appears intent on using them in suicide attacks in both Iraq and Syria

• IS goes to great length to publicize the foreign fighters who die in suicide attacks, which greatly enhances the group in the eyes of unstable people looking for martyrdom, creating a feedback loop of death

• A recent statement by IS showed that 80% of the suicide attacks in Iraq between September and early October were committed by foreign fighters; this continues a trend of IS using their foreign fighters in suicide attacks while Iraqi fighters take on the role of traditional soldiers

• Along with Saudi nationals, who conducted 60% of the suicide attacks referenced above, fighters from North Africa consistently feature prominently in IS suicide attacks, which closely matches the suicide bombing statistics from the 2003 Iraq war, though now there are more suicide operatives from western Europe than during the earlier conflict.


For foreign fighters seeking death, the Islamic State (IS) delivers. The group continues to use its foreign fighters in the majority of its suicide attacks in Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Syria. This contradicts the common notion that foreign fighters are prized commodities and those with ‘valuable passports' would be trained and sent back home to conduct attacks. This notion fails to take into account the motivations and capabilities of some foreign fighters as well as the recruiting, operational, and governing needs of IS. Simply put, there is a subset of foreign fighters who join for the opportunity for martyrdom, as they see it. That is what they want-it is why they joined-and IS profits in three important ways by providing them the opportunity.

1) There is a huge military benefit for IS to use foreign fighters in suicide attacks. By definition, these attacks defeat defensive measures aimed at rational actors. Most military and government targets are relatively well-protected by this stage in Iraq, leaving vulnerable convoys and the always vulnerable and targeted Shi'a civilian populations. The recent wave of suicide bombings across Iraq are stunning in their scope, with two and three attacks per day across the country. These attacks damage the Iraqi government in the eyes of the people it fails to protect, and it pushes the country closer to the sectarian fight IS wants above all else.

A statement by IS last week listed 21 suicide bombings in Iraq between September and early October, and showed that 80% (17) were conducted by foreign fighters. 60% of the operatives were Saudi: only two were Iraqi, two more from Syria, and then one each from Turkey, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Libya, and Indonesia. These attacks targeted Iraqi Army units as well as Sunni tribal opposition, and of course Shi'a civilians in Baghdad.

2) There is tremendous recruitment value in having foreign fighters conduct suicide attacks. It meets the expectations of the desperate and damaged who seek such a death, and by publicizing these deaths as IS does, it shows potential future recruits that IS delivers what for them would be considered an honorable death. This creates a feedback loop of death, in which each suicide bombing-and the subsequent publicity and glorification-light the fuse for a future suicide bomber.

Foreign fighters from Denmark to Chechnya have traveled to Iraq and Syria to die for IS, a global phenomenon that has become a hallmark of IS propaganda. While the wording and images may vary, the message is the same: Our supporters travel across the globe to die for our cause. It is a powerful message. The group's legion of social media supporters and members ensure the broadest distribution of the names and nationalities of foreign fighters dying for IS, and again this both creates huge publicity for the group among disaffected or just bored youth but also highlights a credible path for martyrdom for the small subset looking for it.

3) Lastly, using foreign fighters in suicide attacks is good management for a group intending to rule over Iraq and Syria. The local fighters, with their ties to the community, are somewhat important, as they all will be future subjects of IS rule-assuming they don't run afoul of the draconian rules set down by the barbaric regime. Foreign fighters aren't part of the local social fabric; quite the opposite, they are designed to rip that fabric and allow IS to reshape it to their liking.

Iraqi and Syrian IS fighters certainly undertake suicide operations-more so in Syria-but IS can't build a standing army and a ruling government replete with badly needed technocrats and bureaucrats from suicide candidates. That role is relegated to foreign fighters whenever possible and tactically sound. This continues a decade-long trend of non-Iraqis conducting suicide attacks in Iraq. A 2007 study on suicide attacks in Iraq conducted by Mohammed Hafez, a professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, identified 124 of the bombers: a mere 18 were Iraqis, with 53 (the largest percent) once again coming from Saudi Arabia, and the rest spread between northern Africa, Kuwait, Jordan, and some European countries. The goals and players of the conflict might have changed over the decade, but the pattern of exploiting foreign fighters as suicide bombers persists.