May 8, 2017 Abdul Haqq

13 Reasons Why: The (un)acceptable face of suicide

The Netflix series, ‘13 Reasons Why’ has been criticised for romanticising suicide.[1] The story of a teenager recording a prelude to her suicide has attracted large audiences worldwide with more than 11 million tweets since the series began in March 2017.[2] Legitimate concerns regarding the storyline, graphic scenes and intended target audience continue to evoke debate and will do so for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, what is not included in these discussions is tantamount to the elephant in the room – the other type of suicide – that of supposed ‘martyrdom.’ In fact, the description of the type of suicide depicted in the Netflix series is almost indistinguishable from the other:

‘It’s a revenge…so it portrays suicide as an act that will achieve something. It’s aimed at a young audience, who are particularly susceptible to contagion… It normalises and legitimises the act. It goes into too much and too graphic detail about the suicide itself… because, however horrible it is to watch, this can still be read as a how-to…

 The series depicts suicide as a reasonable response to a set of challenges that anybody might experience, and lays it at the feet of other people…’[3]

The difference in this instance is the dramatisation of one in contrast to the demonisation of the other; one is more ‘palatable’ and receives empathy while the other is indigestible and evokes fear or hatred. It must be made clear at this juncture that suicide bombings or so-called martyrdom operations are insupportable and have no authentic religious pretext in Islam. They should therefore continue to be addressed from the perspective of terrorism due to the societal threat they pose. They are also incomparable in scale to individuals taking their life as a result of mental health issues. That said; both require further exploration in order to better understand the complexities underlying why someone would choose such a destructive course of action.

Motives behind suicide terror attacks and ‘martyrdom’

What follows are 13 purported claims by extremists as to why they committed or attempted to commit acts of terrorism. The aim here is to highlight a trend and similarity between the grievances aired without providing or supporting any justification. However, before referring to them, an important observation should be made:

Many motives are cited for suicide bombings, from religious sanctification to revenge for Western foreign policy to hatred of Israel, but one thing ties them together: the boast that Muslims love death, whereas their enemies love life. From killing the infidel enemy through suicide attacks, to allowing the subordinate female to participate in suicide attacks, a pattern emerges. And just as honor killings are a perversion of the most basic of human ties, so love for martyrdom takes societies into a direct relationship with the darkest side of human nature.[4] 

  1. Osama bin Laden’s declaration of Jihad against America for ‘occupying’ Saudi Arabia (the land of the Two Sacred Places), August 1996. This declaration contained a litany of grievances regarding the West’s – America in particular – perceived oppression against Muslim societies.[5]
  2. Richard Reid – the ‘Shoebomber’ – who attempted to bring down a transatlantic flight on 26th December 2001:

‘I further admit my allegiance to Osama bin Laden, to Islam, and to the religion of Allah. With regards to what you said about killing innocent people, I will say one thing. Your government has killed 2 million children in Iraq. If you want to think about something, against 2 million, I don’t see no comparison.

Your government has sponsored the rape and torture of Muslims in the prisons of Egypt and Turkey and Syria and Jordan with their money and with their weapons. I don’t know, see what I done as being equal to rape and to torture, or to the deaths of the two million children in Iraq.

So, for this reason, I think I ought not apologize for my actions. I am at war with your country. I’m at war with them not for personal reasons but because they have murdered more than, so many children and they have oppressed my religion and they have oppressed people for no reason except that they say we believe in Allah.’[6]

  1. Mohammed Siddique Khan – 7/7 bomber – who, with accomplices, killed 52 people and injured 700 in 2005:

‘…our words have no impact upon you, therefore I’m going to talk to you in a language that you understand…Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood.

Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war…’[7]

  1. Moscow Theatre Siege, 24th October 2002. Chechnya separatists, identifying themselves as ‘…the 29th Division of the Chechen army’ demanded the resolution of ‘…the situation in the Chechen Republic, specifically pulling out Russian troops…’ They stated their preparedness to die for their cause.[8]
  2. Beslan Massacre, Russia, 1st September 2004. The deadliest terror attack in modern day Russian history witnessed the death of 334 hostages, over half of whom were children. Terrorist demands were primarily for the recognition of an independent Chechnya.[9]
  3. Anwar Al-Awlaki – First US citizen to be officially targeted for assassination:[10]

‘We the Muslims do not have an inherent animosity towards any racial group or ethnicity.

We are not against Americans for just being American. We are against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil. What we see from America is the invasion of two Muslim countries, we see Abu Ghuraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay.

We see cruise missiles and cluster bombs, and we have just seen in Yemen the death of twenty-three children and seventeen women.

We cannot stand idly in the face of such aggression, and we will fight back and incite others to do the same.’[11]

  1. Major Nidal Malik Hasan – Fort Hood Shootings, 5th November 2009. A relative and colleagues of Hasan attributed his murderous attack, in which 13 people were killed and a further 30 injured, to two main factors: harassment due to his middle eastern ethnicity and anger at US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.[12]
  2. Roshanara Choudhry attempted to murder MP Stephen Timms, 14th May 2010. Choudhry, like Major Nidal Hasan, had been influenced by Al-Awlaki propaganda to ‘…get revenge for the people of Iraq.[13]
  3. Michael Adebolajo – One of Fussilier Lee Rigby’s killers, 22nd May 2013:

The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone…’[14]

  1. Charlie Hebdo attack, 7th January 2015. Gunmen attacked the satirical magazine’s offices killing 12 people.[15] Witnesses heard the gunmen claim to ‘…have avenged the Prophet Muhammad’ while chanting ‘Allah is Great’ and calling the names of particular journalists.[16] Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed the attacks as acts vengeance following the magazine’s depictions of Prophet Muhammad. Nasr Al-Ansi, a senior commander in AQAP stated:

Today, the mujahideen avenge their revered prophet, and send the clearest message to everyone who would dare to attack Islamic sanctities…’

Referencing a previous speech by Bin Laden, he continued:

‘If the freedom of your speech is not restrained, then you should accept the freedom of our actions.’[17]

  1. Aaron Driver, Pro-ISIL terror suspect killed before imminent attack, Ontario, 11th August 2016. Following a video posted by Driver, in which he pledged to carry out a terrorist attack, authorities began what they claimed to be a race against time to locate, apprehend and prevent him from this act.[18] In the video, Driver’s address included the following:

‘Oh Canada, you received many warnings. You were told many times what will become of those who fight against the Islamic State. You watched as your allies in Europe and America had their bullets and bombs returned back to them… You still have Muslim blood on your hands, and for this we are thirsty for your blood… You will pay for everything you ever brought against us…’ [19]

  1. Mohammed Emwazi – ‘Jihadi John’ – a former British national, came to the world’s attention via gruesome publicised beheadings through which he addressed the West:

Your evil alliance with America, which continues to strike the Muslims of Iraq and most recently bombed the Haditha Dam, will only accelerate your destruction, and playing the role of the obedient lapdog, Cameron, will only drag you and your people into another bloody and unwinnable war.[20]

  1. Thomas Mair – killer of MP Jo Cox. On 16th June 2016, he stabbed Jo Cox 15 times, shouting ‘This is for Britain’ – one week before the EU referendum.[21] (Un)surprisingly, his case was prosecuted according to criminal, as opposed to terrorism, laws despite the prosecution’s acknowledgement that he had committed a terrorist offence.[22]

Common Grievances

Closer examination of many extremist protagonist causes highlight the tangibility of their grievances above that of the sacredness they espouse. Evidence to support this assertion follows:

What 95 percent of all suicide attacks have in common, since 1980, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention, often specifically a military occupation, of territory that terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon to the West Bank in the 80s and 90s, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and up [to] the Paris suicide attacks we’ve just experienced…military intervention – and specifically when military intervention is occupying territory – that’s what prompts suicide terrorism more than anything else.’[23]

Unfortunately, it is often the foot soldiers – impressionable, idealistic adherents of the faith – that possess the type of misplaced religious fervour, which serves as the catalyst towards the path of violent radicalisation and ultimately, their deaths.[24]

Conclusion: ‘Revenge Fantasy’ and the risk of further sensationalising suicide

The resounding conclusion that echoes across the cases cited is that they lack acceptable, ethical or religious justification for the terrorist acts perpetrated. The severity of criminality is undeniable. That said, extremist propaganda continues to romanticise distorted perspectives of jihad, enticing the young, impressionable and often, vulnerable. Has society also inadvertently created an allure towards fatalism? ‘Revenge fantasy’ has become a worrying reality for a minority, resulting in a significant few travelling thousands of miles to become part of a dystopian nightmare. The issue here is not suicide in and of itself but rather, the almost idealistic premise upon which it is discussed as a justifiable and therefore palatable option. The age-old adage rings hauntingly true at this stage; Hurt people, hurt people.





[1] Williams, Z: ‘Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and the trouble with dramatizing suicide’, The Guardian, 26th April 2017:

[2] Wagmeister, E: ‘Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’ Is Most Tweeted About Show of 2017 (Exclusive)’, Variety, 21st April 2017:

[3] Williams, Z: ‘Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and the trouble with dramatizing suicide’, The Guardian, 26th April 2017:

[4] MacEoin, D: ‘Suicide Bombing as Worship: Dimensions of Jihad’, The Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2009, pp. 15-24:

[5] Combating Terrorism Center: ‘Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites’ August 1996:

[6] Center: ‘Reid: ‘I am at war with your country’, CNN, 31st January 2003:

[7] BBC News: ‘London Bomber: Text in full’, BBC News, 1st September 2005;

[8] ‘Chechen gunmen seize Moscow theater’, CNN, 24th October 2002:

[9] Korzhov, N & Kovalenko, A: ‘In Pictures: The Beslan massacre, 10 years on’, Aljazeera, 1st September 2014:

[10] Ackerman, S: ‘US cited controversial law in decision to kill American citizen by drone’, The Guardian, 23rd June 2014:

[11] Archive: ‘Message to the American People By Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki’, Published 2010:

[12] CBS News: ‘What was Fort Hood Shooter’s Motive?’ 5th Novermber 2009:

[13] BBC News: ‘MP Timms stabbed ‘in revenge for Iraq war’, 1st November 2010:

[14] Telegraph: ‘Woolwich attack: the terrorist’s rant’, 23rd May 2013:

[15] CNN Library: ‘2015 Charlie Hebdo Attacks Fast Facts’,, 22nd December 2016:

[16] BBC News: ‘Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror’, 14th January 2015:

[17] Aljazeera: ‘Al-Qaeda in Yemen claims Charlie Hebdo attack’, 14th January 2015:

[18] Bell, S, Smith MD & Bieman, J: ‘Pro-ISIL video sparked investigation that ended with death of extremist Aaron Driver in London, Ont.’, 11th August 2016:

[19] National Post, Canada: ‘Watch Aaron Driver pledge allegiance to ISIL in martyrdom video: ‘We are thirsty for your blood’, Canadian Press, 11th August 2016:

[20] Haberman, Z: ‘David Haines video: Full transcript of ISIS footage that allegedly depicts beheading of British aid worker’, Daily News, 13th September 2014:

[21] BBC News: ‘Labour MP Jo Cox murdered for political reasons’, 14th November 2016:

[22] Cobain, I & Taylor, M: ‘Far-right terrorist Thomas Mair jailed for life for Jo Cox murder’, The Guardian, 23rd November 2016:


[23] Holland, J: ‘Here’s What a Man Who Studied Every Suicide Attack in the World Says About ISIS’ Motives’, The Nation, 2nd December 2015:

[24] Baker, A H: ‘Extremists in Our Midst: Confronting Terror’, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 & 2015

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