The use of suicide car bombs, or Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs) by non-state actors has seen quite a dramatic increase in recent years. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been an especially prolific user of this powerful mobile weapon. The group has used thousands of up-armoured SVBIEDs. This began during their initial expansion and later as part of a continuous attempt to stave off efforts by opposing forces to capture their ever-shrinking territory.

As part of my extensive research into the group’s use of this SVBIED weapon, I’ve documented countless different design iterations. Different vehicle types, armour makeups, payload compositions, and so on. No matter how rigid and intricate they may have looked, these overhauled vehicles of death have naturally always projected a cold and menacing feeling. That is, until you see the rare ISIS SVBIEDs that were decorated with flowers...

ISIS SVBIEDs, with and without flowers

An ISIS photo report released in mid-October 2016 showcased some of their fighting against Iraqi forces in the Shirqat area of Iraq’s Salah Al-Din province. One photo showed the staging area of the ISIS contingent, with a desert-coloured up-armoured SVBIED. It wasn’t the vehicle itself that drew the viewers eye though, it was the exceptional nature in which it was decorated. The frontal slat armour of the SVBIED had been decorated with an assortment of different brightly coloured flowers.

At first glance, the floral mount seemed absurd. Why would someone eagerly racing towards imminent death in a rolling bomb take the time to arrange such an ornate display? It turns out there's a twisted logic to this floral effort, but it has more to do with the suicide bomber himself than the chosen vessel used in the attack. In order to understand it, it’s important to realise that regardless of how wrong and murderous ISIS ideology may be, there are actually a multitude of religious customs and traditions that surround their execution of suicide attacks.

First we must understand that the jihadists themselves don’t refer to suicide bombings as "suicide bombings". Instead, they’re referred to as "Martyrdom Operations" (or "Amiliyat Istishhadiya")—a euphemism that shows just how pious the group considers these attacks to be. In the minds of ISIS fighters, sacrificing themselves for the “the cause” is one of the most noble deeds one could perform. It's also considered a sure-fire way of reaching heaven (or "Jannah"). Jannah, the Arabic for garden, is supposedly a lush paradise where scores of the purest virgin angels (known as "Houris") await the arrival of those who’ve managed to please God. But what does that have to do with flowers?

When used by jihadists, flowers typically represent both martyrdom and paradise. For example, yellow flowers often represent a sense of living, or, paradoxically, inevitable martyrdom and the reward of everlasting paradise. A white rose acts as a symbol of purity and martyrdom. Red roses, another symbol of martyrdom, signifies violent jihadist struggle more broadly. Other kinds of red flowers can also be used synonymously with the red rose.

Captured floral SVBIEDs

Seeing as most flower-adorned examples of ISIS up-armoured SVBIEDs were documented in the period of 2016 - 2017, one could assume that it’s a fairly recent and emerging phenomenon. But that isn’t quite the case. In actuality, the direct ISIS predecessor group, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), had a thing for the floral imagery almost a decade prior to the recent documented examples. 

In the fourth iteration of their "Knights of Martyrdom" (or "Fursan al-Shahada") propaganda video series released in September 2008, two fighters are seen messing around while preparing a covert SVBIED, before finally adorning it with a red flower.

From the Knights of Martyrdom propaganda video

The Knights of Martyrdom series is full of floral imagery. The animated introductory graphic of some of the videos even shows a poorly rendered 3D tanker SVBIED in a lush garden, with bird calls in the background. As the camera zooms out, fields of yellow flowers can be seen reaching to the driver’s seat. The reference to the promised paradise is clear, and the colour of the flowers reinforces the intended message.

From the Knights of Martyrdom intro graphic

According to Thomas Hegghammer, author of "Jihadi Culture" and Senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), suicide attacks are seen as a kind of wedding celebration for jihadists. This is also why many prospective suicide bombers groom their bodies in anticipation of meeting the virgins in heaven. In this context, it might make sense to bring flowers as a gift for them.

Adorning an up-armoured SVBIED with flowers as both a wedding gift to the virgins of the everlasting paradise, as well as an intra-jihadi signal of piety may sound bizarre, but in a sense, if you think about it, it's poetic in a very grim sense. 

Floral SVBIEDs

Religiously referencing the outcome of their actions and connecting it to past Muslim battles, even to the Prophet Muhammad himself, is a common trope among fervent jihadists. This all ties into SVBIED operations as whole.

For example ancient stories from the Quran repeatedly detail how the bodies of martyrs, as well as paradise itself, emanate a sweet smell of musk. This sweet perfume is repeatedly invoked in jihad and martyrdom literature. Occasionally the sweet smell even emanates from the person prior to his martyrdom, in order to indicate that this person is about to go to heaven. In an attempt to emulate these stories, some present day suicide bombers actually apply perfume to their bodies before executing their mission. 

An ISIS suicide bomber putting on perfume before his attack

In the eighth Knights of Martyrdom video by the ISI, one such instance was showcased. The driver of one SVBIED was offered perfume, and used it before driving off towards his target. He dabbed it onto his cheeks with the back of his hand.

There is also an effort to portray the SVBIEDs as the modern equivalent of the horses that the Prophet Muhammad and his followers used to ride into their battles on. As such, SVBIEDs are often referred to as "steeds" by some jihadists. While giving his martyrdom speech from the cab of his SVBIED, one suicide bomber in a 2012 ISI video proclaimed: “This martyrdom car is the horse of these times!”

So it's clear that the flowers adorning the "steeds"—the ISIS SVBIEDs—are not just for show, but a deeply symbolic gesture that, for the jihadists at least, speaks to the pious nature of their suicide operations. 

Follow Hugo Kaaman on Twitter: @HKaaman