On Wednesday, Tehran witnessed its first major terrorist attack in 4 decades. Six attackers opened fire at the parliament and at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. The standoff lasted over 4 hours during which at least some of the attackers activated suicide vests. ISIS has claimed responsibility but Tehran also suspects the hand of Saudi Arabia and indirectly, the US.
Death of Samson
Suicide attacks are ancient and recorded even in the old testament of the Bible when Samson brought a roof down killing himself and the Philistines. But it is not a part of traditional Islamic war. Islam forbids suicide in any form. It further forbids the killing of other Muslims.
How these ideas were overturned is a strange story. Many radical Jihadist groups justify the killing of innocents by quoting a medieval edict which allowed such actions under duress. But the context of this edict was completely different. It was originally issued in response to a tactic used by the Mongol Hordes of Genghis Khan.
In the early 13th century, the Mongols devastated the hitherto flourishing Islamic civilization in the Middle East and Central Asia. One of their favourite tactics was to take a large number of the civilian population from a captured city and forcibly march them to the next city they were going to lay siege to.
The Mongol horsemen would then whip these unfortunate people (which included women and children) and force them to move ahead of the army as arrow fodder. The city defenders forbidden from killing Muslims were in a dilemma whether or not to shoot them. Under these conditions, Muslim scholars and legal experts were consulted and they allowed the killing of other Muslims for the sake of defence.
Shah of Iran
The idea of an Islamist terrorist suicide bomber is also a relatively recent one. Before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Shah of Iran vetted every military officer above the rank of Colonel. Thus when he was overthrown, almost all these officers were sent into exile or retirement.
When Iraq invaded in September 1980, the Iranian army was ill prepared. Analysis showed that during the initial engagements, the Iranian military failed to fight effectively at any level above that of individual battalions. Iran also suffered from a shortage of heavy weapons. What they had were a large number of inexperienced but eager volunteers.
Iranian child soldier during the Iran-Iraq war
The tactics they resorted to have been dubbed “human wave attacks”. Large numbers of lightly armed civilians threw themselves at Iraqi forces en masse, sometimes bodily clearing minefields ahead of the more experienced Revolutionary Guard troops. Tens of thousands of troops died, but by March 1981 the Iraqi advance was stalled.
To justify the slaughter and encourage volunteers, the Ayatollahs declared that this was not suicide but martyrdom. The tactic was soon copied by Hezbollah, the militant Shia organization in Lebanon. From 1982 to 1986, Hezbollah is believed to have killed 659 people in 36 suicide attacks mainly targeting American, French and Israeli forces.
The number of suicide attacks grew from less than 5 per year I the 1980s to 81 in 2001 and 460 in 2005. The tactic had spread among Palestinian militant organisations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP and the Al-Asqa Martyrs Brigade. Music videos and announcements promising eternal rewards for suicide bombers became more popular on Palestinian television than any other Muslim population.