(CNN) –When Bali bomber Amrozi was sentenced to death by firing squad this month, he turned around, smiled broadly and turned his two thumbs up in the air.
“It’s a martyr’s death I am looking for,” Amrozi said during his trial in Denpasar, following the October Bali nightclub blasts.
The 40-year-old mechanic from a village in East Java was happy because he had a chance of joining a growing horde of Muslims from Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan willing to die as heroes in the name of Islam.
While there are many reasons young Muslims sacrifice their lives — including the honor and money bestowed onto their families after their death — it is the martyr’s afterlife that captures the imagination.
In the late 1990s, Pakistani journalist Nasra Hassan interviewed nearly 250 prospective bombers, their families, as well as their trainers, from within militant Palestinian camps.
In remarkable accounts, members of the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas described how potential bombers came to believe that paradise was on the “other side of the detonator.”
Candidates for martyrdom were told the first drop of blood shed by a martyr washes away their sins. They could select 70 of their nearest and dearest to enter Heaven; and they would have at their disposal 72 houris, the beautiful virgins of paradise, Hassan recounted in the New Yorker.
Indeed many of the statements written by suicide bombers before they died spoke of a painless death that offered the shortest path to such a Heaven.
But Islamic law prohibits suicide and the killing of innocents, and many bodies, such as Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Clerics, have said terror acts have no “religious grounds.” (Saudi clerics condemn terrorists)
A sacred pillar of Islam is the jihad, or struggle. The greater part of the jihad is the struggle within the soul to fight the devil inside, experts say, while the lesser jihad is the fight against those who try to subjugate Muslims.
In 1998 Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden took the lesser struggle and declared a jihad on America, claiming Muslims were under attack.
U.S. troops were occupying sacred Saudi soil, the Americans were supporting Israel and Islam needed to be defended, he said.
Suicide attacks were seen as the deadliest arsenal for this “Holy War”, a weapon that could not only penetrate “enemy territory” and kill, but also instill fear, horror and revulsion.
Fundamentalist Islamic leaders justified such acts by saying those who were strapping bombs on their bellies, or flying planes into buildings were not committing suicide, but were chosen by Allah to commit “sacred explosions” and become shahids, or martyrs.
In a bid to meet a growing call to arms, charismatic, but extremist, Islamic leaders began upping their recruitment efforts, very often honing in on religious schools, such as the madrassahs in Pakistan and pesantrens in Indonesia. (Terror group goes to school)
In these jihad factories, poor and impressionable children learnt the Koran and were kept largely ignorant of the world and anything but one interpretation of Islam, Jeffrey Goldberg reported in the New York Times, after spending some time at a madrassah in Pakistan.
Students came to see the world divided in two domains: the peaceful worldwide community of Muslims (“the abode of peace”) and everywhere else (“the abode of war”), Goldberg found.
The United States was viewed as a spiritually corrupt nation hostile to Islam, particularly after Washington declared a “War on Terrorism” following the September 11 attacks.
While not all were recruited in this manner — indeed many potential martyrs in Southeast Asia were educated with jobs — a fringe of Muslims became united in their belief they were being persecuted in a time of war, and the best way to change this was to die.
Following the arrests of 31 members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror network in Singapore, the government released a paper detailing just how such groups cultivated these mindsets.
Leaders from JI, an al Qaeda-linked group seeking to set up a pan-Islamic state spanning Southeast Asia, eyed captivated students at mass gatherings. They then indoctrinated those deemed suitable into the clandestine group over 18 months.
During that time they were taught “JI-speak.” Those who believed in the “truth” of JI doctrine became closer to Allah. They learned the “true” JI knowledge of jihad — that innocents, both Muslim and non-Muslim, could be sacrificed.
They were promised martyrdom if they died in the cause of jihad. And anyone who left the group was called an infidel.
Not only did these teachings foster a sense of superiority over outsiders and a strong group mentality that made it difficult to quit, the Singapore report said, but the psychologists interviewing the detainees said many JI members turned to the leaders to find a “no-fuss” path to Heaven.
They wanted to be convinced that they had found “true Islam” and free themselves from the endless searching. Especially since they believed they could not go wrong, as the JI leaders had quoted from holy texts. None of them was found to have suicidal tendencies.
Research showed the recruits became so committed to the cause they become perfect jihad machines, looking for an opportunity to sacrifice their lives and avenge the suffering of Muslims in the ultimate devotion in a “defensive” holy war.